Wednesday, November 18, 2015

#MtgForLife

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

Monday, November 16, 2015

Magical rat swarms are NOT movable...

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

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

Sunday, November 1, 2015

FR #2: Delving the Mines

10 Tarsakh, highsun

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

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

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

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

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

DM's Commentary

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

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

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

Monday, October 5, 2015

FR #1: Luskan, City of Sails

EDIT: Session #2 is now rescheduled for Friday, October 30.

The inaugural session of our new campaign was played this weekend. The first hour was spent detailing the city of Luskan and surrounding lands, and meeting the PCs: Arendeth, a dwarf battle cleric (deity yet to be named); Riwyn, a female elven mage/thief; Berwyn, a haughty half-elven wizard from a nearby fiefdom; and Wren, a half-elven fighter/thief whose past has been spent sailing between ports aboard a trade ship known as the Painted Lady.


Before we began, Berwyn and Riwyn elected to cast find familiar; both succeeded, with Berwyn gaining the servitude of a black cat, and Riwyn an owl named Merlin.

To open the campaign, the PCs had each accepted a wage of five gold pieces per day to accompany an expedition to a struggling mining village in the western Crags. In addition to suffering goblin raids from the Neverwinter Wood, the miners had recently uncovered a passage into an existing catacomb that stymied their ability to proceed. The leader of the expedition, a Luskan merchant named Armandras, offered three days payment up front (to cover the initial journey), along with a potion of cure light wounds to each PC. Armandras' exact allegiance is unknown, but presumed to be somehow tied to the city.

The Year of the Bow (1354 DR)
7 Tarsakh

The PCs met their contingent before sunrise outside of Luskan's gates, with a charter to follow the southern banks of the River Mirar to the edge of the Neverwinter Wood before veering southeast toward the Crags. Besides the PCs, the company consisted of Armandras, four attendants, and three other adventurers: a greatsword-wielding warrior named Eyrior (previously known to have worked as a doorman at the Cutlass), a Mirabaran gnome named Pevrel (who wore a necklace bearing the symbol of Tymora), and a slinky, unarmored man named Segrim. A haul of mining tools and provisions were piled into a single, two-horse cart, driven by Armandras.

The first morning was damp and overcast, typical of Luskan weather in early spring. As they marched, Berwyn seated himself next to Armandras, who did well to swallow his contempt. Before long, a rustling was heard from the woods, and a hulking form emerged. The NPC warrior charged, bellowing "Owlbear!" and veritably cleaving the monster in half (rolling a natural 20 against a large-sized opponent with a two-handed sword); although the owlbear struck back, two masterful arrows from Riwyn's short bow impaled the creature's chest and neck, laying it low. Armandras nodded, impressed.

The rest of the journey proved uneventful (aside from some PC/NPC conversations during the night watches and a disturbance in the forest that Berwyn's cat helped the party avoid), and the company arrived in the village of Wolford at dusk on the third day. They were greeted at a guard post and taken to "Wolf Hall" where they met the village leader, a young, fiery-haired warrioress named Lady Sophia Ostengard. Wolford, the Lady explained, was named for Duke Daragos Wolfstar, a ruler of Illusk some centuries ago, and comprised of three main areas: Wolford; a smaller, adjacent forest-camp called Swordfall; and a cluster of tents near the mine entrance called Silkstone. Lady Sophia led the party to Swordfall, where little remained following a razing by a goblin warband. While the mining operation had been active for most of the previous year, it wasn't until winter broke that the goblin threat began to surface.

The adventurers were offered three tents in Wolford, while Armandras and his laborers unloaded provisions. It was decided that the party would rest overnight and determine their course in the morning.

After the sun set, Berwyn, Riwyn, and Wren milled about the camp, accompanied by a semi-reluctant Pevrel, while Arendeth slept. Berwyn attempted to enter Wolf Hall, but the glaive-bearing guard outside denied admittance. Wren attempted but failed to scale the back wall of the structure, though she succeeded in detecting a muffled conversation between Armandras and Lady Sophia inside (specifics could not be discerned, aside from a mention of "Luskan"). Next, the foursome meandered to the ruins of Swordfall, where they questioned the lone guard at a solitary, remaining outpost. The rest of the night passed without incident.

At sunrise, it was decided that the seven adventurers would visit the mines, on the condition from Armandras that at least half the company returned before nightfall, in the event of another raid. The party agreed, making the three-hour trek into the foothills led by the camp's mining chief, Daks. They arrived before highsun and delved into tunnels, exploring the safe areas known to the miners before examining the freshly-resealed passageway leading to the catacombs. As they began to move boulders to gain access to the opening, the smell of rotting flesh filled the chamber.

Map of Wolford


DM's Commentary

As first sessions go, this one went pretty well. Like with the Ravenloft campaign, one player is joining via Skype, and we didn't encounter any technical issues. For this game I decided to have everyone seated around a single, large table, which I think helped with dice rolling (players could easily see my rolls) and provided a good setup for Adam to see everyone, and vice versa.

This is the first campaign for which I'm planning to make use of random encounters on an ongoing basis. In the past, I've employed "wandering monster" tables sparsely at best, but this time around I want to approach it traditionally, and consistently. For this session, I used the tables from OSRIC, but they proved far too off-kilter, causing me to re-roll multiple times to avoid randomly pitting the party against a 15-HD purple worm, a half-day's journey outside Luskan. Suffice it to say that time will be spent finding more appropriate tables, or building my own, if needed.

Mechanically, we're using the 2e initiative and combat system, employing the concept of round "segments" for casting times and movement. The combat this session was minimal, but the one encounter we had played out smoothly. While unfortunate that an NPC took center stage against the owlbear, the PCs had decided to hold their actions and the warrior rolled a natural 20 against an ideal opponent. Such is life.

Hopefully players are starting to get an initial feel for their characters. I think we have a great group, with versatile skill sets and interesting backgrounds. A couple PCs managed to shine for a moment, between Riwyn's bowmanship against the owlbear and Wren's roll of "02" against a 5% chance to hear noise. Berwyn's arrogant personality will no doubt prove both fruitful and dangerous as the campaign moves along, and I foresee Arendeth becoming an anchor of sorts, as the other three PCs already have shown a good deal of whimsy in their actions.

Fun fact: the starting hp totals of the party were 15, 15, 15, and 14.5.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Let there be tradition!

Tonight will be the first time I've played D&D with the friend who first introduced me to D&D in probably close to 20 years (not counting pbp, or maybe a random one-off at some point?). Pretty crazy to think about.

As is tradition when playing D&D with Adam, I give you... Snyder's hard pretzels and root beer!


Friday, October 2, 2015

AD&D in Forgotten Realms

The campaign we open tomorrow night will be set in the Forgotten Realms, a high fantasy setting with decades of history told through various product authors, novelists, storytellers, and DMs. The decision to use a published world is not one that I took lightly, but one that became more and more apparent to me over the course of my planning. Everything I wanted for the setting, the party, and the individual characters continually fell into place around a specific area of Faerûn.

In addition to its published history, I have a great deal of personal history with the setting. As a player, the Realms was home to my longest-lived PC, Cadazcar (of Mordenkainen's disjunction fame). As DM, my most successful in-person and play-by-post games were run in FR.

The Realms provides a richness that a homebrew setting would find difficult to match. While I have a desire to homebrew again in the future, FR will provide a deep and immersive game for our group that should keep everyone invested for as long as we care to play.

Below are the required core values for the setting that I outlined in a previous post, with brief notes on how FR satisfies each:

Value #1 - The setting must accommodate a player-driven campaign. As my planning came along, the adventuring options around the starting city felt endless. Every time the need for a hook or specific type of location arose, the region accommodated it. Nothing felt forced. The party will be free to explore frontier wilderness, political intrigue, and everything in between.

Value #2 - The setting must be able to feed the primary motivations of the starting characters. When Sara recounted her character's backstory to me, a series of checkboxes ticked in my mind as I considered how the details fit the starting region. The background elements and primary motivation words given by the players (discoveryexplorationriches, and vindication) all melded.

Value #3 - The setting must provide verisimilitude. There wasn't much to worry about here, as I'd not have considered a setting or region that didn't satisfy this value. None of the options I looked at involved anything gimmicky that would keep the campaign world from being believable.

Value #4 - The prep work needed to run the setting must be sustainable. Having historied "anchor points" to build around gives me some helpful mental guardrails. Combined with the simplicity of the AD&D mechanics, I don't expect prep time to be much of an issue.

Value #5 - The setting must "speak to me" and keep my interest as DM. My history of reading, playing in, and running the Realms gives me confidence that sustained interest won't be a problem once the party starts making the world their own through our games.

Value #6 - Preexisting player knowledge of the setting must not be exploitable. While this is always a risk with published material, none of my players are what I'd consider "Realms-savvy." Players that want to wiki every proper name I give will stumble upon pieces of high-level information, but I don't envision the campaign unfolding in a way that will make this very exploitable. Also, see below...

Inspiration vs. Canon

A few years ago, Keith Baker wrote a great blog post on the subject of homebrew vs. established RPG worlds. I ended up reading this a few times over the past several weeks, and it definitely helped solidify the direction I wanted to go for the campaign. One of the biggest takeaways is how it's important when using a published setting to draw from the inspiration it offers without feeling overburdened by its canon. It's very much what I was able to do with Falkovnia, but even more challenging with Forgotten Realms due to the vast amount of canon that exists. The goal is to benefit from the depth and breadth of the world while still creating something that's our own. While I don't have specific plans to overhaul canon or desecrate FR sacred cows, the reality is that the moment the PCs set foot in the setting, they have the ability to enact change and cause the world to deviate from anything that might already be written or published.

And that's the way it should be.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Rules to live by (or die trying)

As everyone continues to prepare for session #1, here are a couple good posts to reread (or just read, if you haven't read them before):

Players: What you need to know to play

The Importance of Finding Another Way (and AD&D Combat Math)

These are written more for new players, but if I did a decent job they really should benefit anyone. I also highly recommend A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming as a good AD&D mentality refresher.

On the topic of numbers and rules, one AD&D mechanic that always seems to get house-ruled is the critical hit. By the book, a natural 20 on an attack roll hits automatically. Many groups expand this to the attack automatically dealing double or max damage.

Over the years, I've developed a tendency to leave the critical hit rule alone. As unfun as it is for a player to roll a '1' for damage after scoring a natural 20 on the attack, the problem is that the mechanic tilts both ways. Player characters will generally be targeted by more attack rolls during a session than their enemies, and have much, much more to lose from erratic swings in damage. In the AD&D world, all lives are not created equal!

Hopefully, the frequency with which the players breathe a sigh of relief that we didn't change the critical hit rule will outweigh the times they bemoan it. Keep your tactics sound and the rolls will take care of themselves.

EDIT: Oops, I was wrong on this one. Sean pointed out to me that we did enforce max damage on natural 20s in Ravenloft, despite its potential to be detrimental to the party over the course of many battles. I'm OK with continuing that, in the name of the players' fun superseding the statistics. Anyway, it's far less swingy than extra dice or multipliers.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Decisions and Values

A little more than a week before our official start date, I have the campaign options narrowed down to two that I actually like. Both are developed at a high level in my mind; both will require more fleshing out over the next several days before we play the first session. Until recently, I had only one option that I felt good about, and a handful of other, disjointed paths that weren't coming together. I'm happy with both options I'm considering now; either should result in a good game.

The choice is a classic debate of homebrew vs. published, and it mostly boils down to whether or not to favor the prevalence of powerful governments and organizations in the world. A secondary consideration is the value of having locked-in anchor points with prewritten details and histories, along with overarching histories of races, kingdoms, and a select number of high-profile NPCs.

I'll spend the next week figuring all this out; in the meantime, below is the set of core values to which the chosen setting must adhere. These line items represent to me the most critical elements that the campaign world needs to provide:

Value #1 - The setting must accommodate a player-driven campaign. By this, I mean that the goals and desires of the PCs should be the main determinants of the campaign's path, not sidelined while the party goes along for the ride in my haunted house. The common term for this is "sandbox"; the setting must provide a large variety of adventuring paths to explore at (mostly) the whims of the PCs.

Value #2 - The setting must be able to feed the primary motivations of the starting characters. This value adds more specificity to value #1. Not only must the setting provide many adventuring options to the PCs, it must also provide the means to satiate the high-level goals of the starting characters as detailed to me by the players. The primary motivations given are "discovery," "exploration," "riches," and "vindication."

Value #3 - The setting must provide verisimilitude. Of course no fantasy world is going to seem real in the way our actual lives do; what's important is that the setting is believable within the context it defines. For me, realism within the fantasy world is a golden rule. It stands upon a pedestal. One of the reasons I stay away from the newer D&D editions is that I find them to be "gamey" in ways that distract from the sense of believability more than I would like. The rules system cannot do this, and neither can the setting.

Value #4 - The prep work needed to run the setting must be sustainable. We are a group of adults (technically speaking) with busy lives. I have a family, a career, and other hobbies and commitments outside of D&D. I have some time to prepare and run a D&D game, but that time is not unlimited. Many RPG campaigns start strong but sputter out after a handful of sessions due to the DM not being able to meet the time commitments to maintain the game. Running a D&D campaign is a marathon, not a sprint. The amount of prep work required of me must be something I can sustain.

Value #5 - The setting must "speak to me" and keep my interest as DM. If lack of time is the biggest reason for campaigns falling apart early, loss of interest by the DM is second. Campaign worlds built around bizarre or gimmicky premises tend to lose their novelty once the honeymoon period is over. The setting for our game must be robust and multi-faceted enough to hold my interest (and the interest of the players) through many sessions and levels over multiple years.

Value #6 - Preexisting player knowledge of the setting must not be exploitable. I would likely not run a Ravenloft game for a group of players whose Ravenloft knowledge eclipsed my own. Such a situation puts too much pressure on me to abide by perceived canon material for fear of being called out on differences, and carries too much risk of certain plot lines being spoiled by players who already know the books. Running a setting that doesn't present the PCs with a sense of trepidation for the unknown would be unfair to both me and the players.

Will be good to get our first game in so I can finally stop thinking about this stuff. :)

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Revisiting T1, four years later

As I'm gearing up to kick off a new campaign (and as I've been bogged down with a cold all week), I've been reading, a lot. AD&D blogs, Realms stuff, DMing books, you name it. One thing I did was revisit my posts from running T1 for high school buddies a few years back. We played four sessions, sorely needing one more, but due to scheduling and life, we never got it in. It'd have been nice to wrap that one up.

In any case, what really stood out to me in those games was how they practically ran themselves. The village and NPCs, everything simply reacted to what the characters did, and the successes and failures they found. There was an overarching plot to the moat house, but it mostly lurked in the dark, away from the spotlight. It was all about the PCs.

The Ravenloft game we just ended was pretty railroad-y, most of the way. Ravenloft's atmosphere demands that, to some extent. But I really want this next campaign to reclaim the "sandbox" element and freedom of direction that we had with Hommlet. It's D&D in its rawest form. Plot is like a good spice: a little goes a long way; much more than that can ruin the dish.

T1: The Village of Hommlet (part 1)

T1, part 2: a mixed bag

T1, part 3: A Feasting of Ghouls

T1, part 4: In the Arms of the Enemy (literally)

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Final Ravenloft XP totals

As I'll soon be removing these from the sidebar, I'm posting them here as a formal archive:

  • Leilana - 8,224
  • Aginot - 7,904
  • Carmen - 7,550
  • Gaertorin - 3,900/3,940

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Ravenloft, Farewell

All good things must come to an end, and so it is that we've chosen to set our Ravenloft game aside, indefinitely, to begin a new campaign. This decision is more a result of real-life changes and availability than anything else, but Falkovnia and Drakov's Talons will surely be missed. We had a solid run of 21 sessions over the course of three years, with six characters between four players. Until we meet again...

...

In any event, something I'd like to try with the next game (aside from running a more traditional setting) is making the DM screen more transparent, as per some advice I recently picked up on. That doesn't mean players become privy to enemy stat blocks and unexplored map areas, but it would involve making most (if not all) DM dice rolls public. It seems like an interesting and worthwhile challenge - it definitely forces me to up my game, in terms of getting my rolls right and not pulling any punches for the PCs. I think we'll give it a go.

Edition-wise, I'm fairly sure we'll remain on AD&D 2e for the players, and for simplicity I'll likely follow suit, rather than having to deal with conflicting class and spell details in OSRIC. While 1e/2e/OSRIC are all nearly interchangeable at their cores, 2e still provides the best class options for wizards and priests, and remains the AD&D system I know best.

Look for more information on the new game in the coming weeks. Players can start bouncing around character ideas - in that vein, I leave you with this.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Gaertorin: Reflection and Musings

As Gaertorin is laying by the fountain trying to sleep he begins to think about the day's events...

And Aginot was not worried about the dead. It is something evil and unnatural that is doing this, and it must be stopped. I lost my father to the undead already, I will not lose anyone else to them. What to do though? Is it wise to attempt to cross the desert during the day? We barely made it to the town, and had it not been for Carmen's decanter, I fear we may not have made it. If we go out at night we run the risk of encountering Anhktepot if we are to believe Isu, and encountering him could mean a swift death. It is not death I fear though, but undeath. I do not believe that Habbakuk would allow that for one of his faithful servants, but I have seen many things recently that I did not believe were possible before seeing them.

Valana's foretelling tonight was cryptic. I have never been good at deciphering prophecy and foretelling, but this seemed to me to be saying that we need to slay Anhktepot along with his undead minions. This is not a task that I relish, but I will undertake it if that is what is required of me. Perhaps I should discuss it further with Aginot, Leilana, and Carmen. Maybe they can make sense of this where I can see none.

This place that the mists have brought me to is more and more troubling each day. I wish Carmen and I could make our way home. However, I do not know where we are, so I cannot even begin to think of a way to get back. With each day, I become more certain that it will not be as simple as walking home.

As he rolls onto his side Gaertorin concentrates on his ring and begins to slow his breathing in an attempt to sleep. It is a gold ring, and on the top is a sapphire in the shape of a phoenix . As he is concentrating on the ring and slipping off to sleep it briefly flashes as if glowing from the inside. Gaertorin is left wondering if it was moonlight that caused that or something else as he drifts off to sleep.

RL #21: The Touch of Death

Safely removed from Gorgi, the party began to set up camp. As they did, a trio of lantern-lights passed along the road, though at too far a distance for their nature to be discerned. The companions took their sleep in turn, though Leilana was startled during her watch when she turned to see Valana suddenly awake and staring at her intently. "One of your company possesses something of great significance to my people," the gypsy uttered. "You."

Valana reminded the druid of the scroll she carried, stating that it was penned by a Dukkar, a rare male Vistani gifted with Sight, many generations ago. The author, Hyskosa, recorded six verses, prophecies that together foretold the unraveling of the mists, rulers, and of the world itself. One of these verses had already come to pass. Leilana pressed for more details, but Valana answered her cryptically, then fell silent.

In the morning, a low haze covered the ground, and Valana explained that she could lead the PCs through the mists to find her family. The party followed the gypsy into a thick fog, walking until the sun shone high and hot overhead, and the ground was covered with sand. The mists burned away to reveal a vast desert, with endlessly rolling dunes in three directions and a steep cliff face in the fourth. They were standing near a road that led to a small village.

Valana was distressed and unable to say where the party was, or why. With little other recourse to escape the oppressive heat, they walked along the road until they came upon a brown, withered hand emerging from sand along their path. They uncovered a corpse, a dried-out husk dressed in a tattered garment. Unsettled, they proceeded on to the village, arriving at a spring in its center as lithe, brown-skinned villagers outfitted in flowing white robes and headdresses looked on. Standing next to the spring was a woman wearing a gold-trimmed gown, a snake's head circlet, a gold medallion, and several pieces of ornate jewelry.

The woman introduced herself as Isu Rehkotep, servant of Osiris, god of the dead. She welcomed the party to the village of Mudar in the land of Har'Akir, and explained plaintively that the villagers were wary due to a series of recent kidnappings. When the PCs mentioned the corpse they discovered along the road, Isu bid them to take her to it, and they did. Upon returning with the body, a female villager rushed to it in hysterics. Gaertorin attempted to comfort her, but the woman shrieked at the intrusion and several men surrounded her and the weathered corpse, finally carrying it away from the spring. Isu invited the PCs into her temple to help answer their questions.

The temple itself was a whitewashed, sandstone building of elaborate architecture, with two great statues guarding its entry. The first, a powerful male figure with the head of a hawk, depicted Ra, the sun god; the second depicted Anhktepot, the last pharaoh of Har'Akir. While Ra's statue appeared to be immaculately maintained, Anhktepot's was damaged and worn.

Inside, Isu led the party through a grand hall adorned with columns, prayer mats and tapestries before passing through a curtain into the priestess's public antechamber. Isu's exotic pet cat, Bashet, paced the room (showing a particular distaste for Aginot) as the priestess told the legend of Anhktepot:

The pharaoh Anhktepot ruled centuries ago in the land of Har’Akir. This nation encompassed the entire Abal river valley in the great Akir desert. According to our beliefs, the pharaoh is the link between man and the gods. The pharaoh is himself a god of this land. The pharaohs ruled by the divine grace of Ra, the sun god.

Anhktepot greatly feared death. It was known that when a pharaoh dies, he becomes a servant of Ra in the underworld, exalted above all other servants. For some unknown reason, Anhktepot did not want to die. Maybe he feared the wrath of Ra should the sun god discover that Anhktepot had been a false pharaoh. Anhktepot commanded his priests to find a way for him to cheat death. Many slaves and prisoners died horribly as subjects in Anhktepot’s gruesome experiments in immortality.

Frustrated by his lack of success, the pharaoh had several temples burned and razed. He stalked into the Kharn temple, greatest in all of Har’Akir, and cursed the gods for not granting him his heart’s desire. Ra answered Anhktepot. He told the pharaoh that when he died, he would live, though he might wish otherwise. However, for cursing the gods, Anhktepot would suffer eternally. Ra did not say how this curse would be manifest.

Anhktepot left the temple elated but confused. He still did not know how to cheat death. That night, when he touched Nephyr, his wife, she died instantly. Everyone he touched that night died. His wife, several of his servants, and his eldest child all died by his hand. According to our customs, they were mummified and entombed in great buildings in the desert. The funerals took over a week.

Anhktepot soon understood that after the sun left the sky, his touch was death. So long as Ra shone upon him, he was safe. But once he was no longer under the sun’s watchful eye, whomever he touched died horribly.

Shortly after the final ceremony of his wife’s funeral, he was visited in the night. A mummy wrapped in funeral linens entered his chambers. By the vestments he knew it was Nephyr. Unable to speak, the mummy tried to embrace Anhktepot. Horrified, he screamed for her to leave him forever, which she did. Nephyr walked into the desert and was never seen again. Her tomb has remained open and empty through all these years.

Anhktepot was also visited by the mummified bodies of those he had killed. He came to understand that he controlled them utterly. They did his every bidding. He used their power and his own deadly touch to tighten the reigns of his evil power over Har’Akir.

He killed many priests, making them into his undead slaves. Occasionally he would find one of his mummies destroyed, burned from the inside out. Some scholars believe Nephyr was responsible for the destruction of Anhktepot’s mummies, but no one knows the true answer.

One day, the priests rebelled against Anhktepot and murdered him in his sleep. He was still the pharaoh-a god and blessed of the gods. The priests gave him a funereal befitting his station. Shortly after the funereal, the Walls of Ra appeared, cutting us off from the rest of Har’Akir. All that remains of the life we once knew is Mudar and the tomb of Anhktepot, which lies a short way through the desert. All of this happened many generations ago.

Occasionally the villagers say they have seen the mummified body of Anhktepot staggering across the sand dunes. They blame most of their ill luck on him and use his name to frighten small children. I don’t know what has happened to Har’Akir or if Anhktepot truly does walk the land as one of the living dead.

Isu offered the party a place to sleep outside, near the spring where they would be safe. Strangely, many travelers had come to Mudar in recent weeks, she explained, but most often, the heat of the desert claimed them. The spring's water was sacred to the village; all were welcome to drink it freely, but filling a decanter or taking water away from the spring was considered a serious crime.

Distraught by the day's events, Valana bade the PCs to participate in a fortune-telling near the outskirts of the village, away from the populace. The PCs agreed, and seated themselves in a small circle, out of sight of any villagers. Valana removed a deck of cards from a pouch around her waist. She asked each companion to shuffle the cards in turn, then entered a trance-like state and revealed the following:
Six of Hearts - "The card of the hex. A sign of mystery and events to come. Look for the sign of six. The king understands the hex as the knave does not. [The heart] is the symbol of loyalty betrayed." 
Queen of Clubs - "This card is the traitor queen. She who should serve has betrayed her lord." 
Four of Diamonds - "The sun shall set this many times before the king can be sought. This time is called the Night of Thoth." 
Four of Hearts - "A strengthening of the aspect of the Night of Thoth." 
Jack of Clubs - "This card represents evil personified. He attempts to overthrow the king. The queen now serves this knave." 
Four of Clubs - "A further strengthening of the sign of Thoth." 

Before revealing a final card, Valana asked each companion to shuffle the cards again.
Ace of Clubs - "A singular presence. A symbol of those who do not belong. They have a terrible task ahead of them. [The club] is the symbol of physical power. This card holds the power to destroy."

Upon finishing the last reading, Valana broke from her trance and collapsed, stating that she needed rest. The PCs helped her back to the spring, where they set watches for the night.

In the late evening hours, after all the villagers had retired to their houses, Gaertorin spotted a lone figured illuminated by the moonlight in the desert, stray ends of cloth fluttering in the breeze as it walked among the dunes. Shaken, the half-elf assured the safety of his companions; when he looked back again, the form was gone.

During the midnight watch, Leilana heard a rustling sound and turned to see a brown, withered corpse attacking her from behind. The druid screamed, awakening her companions as the creature raked across her neck and face with its claws. Injured nearly to unconsciousness, Leilana ran the creature through with her spear, and Gaertorin crushed its skull with his mace.

The party dragged the body to the nearby temple steps, and the final watch passed uneventfully. In the early morning hours, as the sun began to warm the village, Leilana turned her focus toward the spring and began to cast a spell...

DM's Commentary

I'd never have thought that Carmen's decanter of endless water would come in so handy when I arbitrarily gave it to her as an initial magic item. So awesome when things like that just work out.

The only other thing to mention is that these session recaps shouldn't dissuade players from taking in-game notes - names, maps, and especially specific events like the fortune-telling should be recorded in as much detail as you think you might need later on. This time, I did include the minutiae since Aginot already posted his notes as well, but please don't count on me to always provide this stuff later, otherwise I may start omitting them from my write-ups.

Aginot: Disarmed

Before settling down for the night, Aginot takes a few moments to ruminate near the spring over previous events.


Trickles of sweat run down the priests neck onto his back beneath his robe.  His matted hair, damp from that same sweat, bothers him incessantly.  It takes a great effort not to jump into the spring and cleanse himself.

Though the ever-present heat of Mudar forced him to finally remove his heavy overcoat of chain, it was not the catalyst.  He has seen much violence of late, enough to unsettle him, and the priest has given long thought to his companions, as well as his own role in the group's actions.  He rolls his shoulders, finally free of the ever-present weight of his armor.  The skin of his shoulders shows bruising where the armor rested and chafed, a result of the weakness that has been a part of him since childhood.  Aginot has always bruised easily, and his bones would break as a child if stressed.  It was a condition he learned to live with, the constant pain and discomfort becoming a part of him, never relenting.

Finally removing the heavy chain, however, was both a physical and spiritual relief.  Separating himself from the group for a short time, he uses his hands to dig a small pit in the sand near the spring, placing the armor into it.  Settled on a course of action, Aginot removes his pouch and dumps the contents onto the sand.  18 gold coins glitter up at him.  He counts out 17 of the coins, one for each life he has taken with violence, and puts them into the pit along with his chain armor.  The fact that one gold coin remains bothers the priest in a way that he can't shake, but he returns the gold coin, along with his other small coinage to the pouch, and covers the armor again with sand.

"Our debts are settled," he mutters on the way back to the others, unable to forget the single gold coin that remains in his pouch.

Aginot: Valana's Second Reading

While the memory is still fresh in his head, Aginot records his notes and thoughts regarding Valana's second reading of the deck.

The Mists are fickle, and they have brought us to Mudar, a village built on an oasis in the middle of the desert.  How we came to be here, no one knows...not even Valana, the Vistani seer.  But here we are trapped, for the blistering heat of the "Walls of Ra" prevents our escape.  It seems we have been brought here for some purpose, and at the moment, it seems that purpose is to rid this land of the curse of Anhktepot.

At our bidding, Valana did a second reading of the cards.  Here are my notes--I know not the full meaning of the reading, or how it relates to Leilana's scroll, but I have thoughts.

  • The Six of Hearts: "The king understands the hex, while the knave does not.  This suit is the symbol of loyalty betrayed."  I can only believe that the "king" is Anhktepot, but I know nothing yet of the knave.
  • The Queen of Clubs: "The traitor queen."  I think this to be Nephyr, wife to Anhktepot, but I know not the significance.
  • A Trio of Fours: "The sun shall st this many times before the king be sought.  This shall be known as the Night of Thoth."  I have no idea what "Thoth" is, but it seems now that we have limited time to accomplish our task.
  • The Knave of Clubs: "The knave, evil personified. He attempts to overthrow the king, the queeen now serves this knave."  More mystery, but it reinforces my feelings that we must seek out the Temple to Nephyr.
  • The Ace of Clubs: "A singular presence.  This suit is the symbol of physical power, the power to destroy."  Yet another mystery, I cannot guess at its significance.
I shall have to review Leilana's scroll again, if she will let me.  There is much yet to learn, and time is short.  I wonder what conclusions the others may have drawn from this reading...

Thursday, January 8, 2015

AD&D 2e: Ranger's favored enemy ruling

From the AD&D 2e Player's Handbook (p. 29):

In their roles as protectors of good, rang-
ers tend to focus their efforts against some
particular creature, usually one that ma-
rauds their homeland. Before advancing to
2nd level, every ranger must select a species
enemy. Typical enemies include giants,
orcs, lizard men, trolls, or ghouls; your DM
has final approval on the choice. Thereafter,
whenever the ranger encounters that enemy,
he gains a +4 bonus to his attack rolls. This
enmity can be concealed only with great dif-
ficulty, so the ranger suffers a -4 penalty on
all encounter reactions with creatures of the
hated type. Furthermore, the ranger will ac-
tively seek out this enemy in combat in pref-
erence to all other foes unless someone else
presents a much greater danger.

As we've been using the 2e rules consistently for character creation and advancement, this applies to Gaertorin. Through a bit of research, though, I'm going to agree with what seems to be a large segment of DMs that restricting the favored enemy to a specific "species" is sometimes too narrow to be relevant in a given campaign. As such, for Gaertorin, the rule will apply to a broader "type" of enemy, which will allow him to appropriately favor "undead." This should be a nice benefit to the party and is very much on theme for the character.

Gaertorin: Growing Up and Finding a Place

As a young boy, I enjoyed playing in the woods. My father, a retired soldier, encouraged me and taught me to hunt at an early age. He wanted me to become a soldier just like him. He rarely spoke of his time during the Chaos War, other than it made him the person he was.

I always loved those hunting trips with my father. One day while tracking a deer we encountered a pair of skeletons. Paralyzed with fear, my father told me to run. The last image I have of my father is him fighting the skeletons. I returned to my mother broken up, and relayed the story. Several neighbors teamed up to dispatch the skeletons if they were still around, retrieve my father's body, and provide a proper burial. I even saw a couple of nobles and generals at his funeral. What had he done to cause them to show up at his funeral?

After the funeral, I could not bring myself to hunt again, and the thought of being in the army was too overwhelming. How could I possibly follow in his footsteps? I continued to live with my mother for the next few years helping around the house, and performing odd jobs for neighbors and friends.

When I was older, I decided I needed to make a life for myself. I ventured off on my own with only a few belongings. While in the woods one night, I felt a presence unlike anything I knew. I packed up my belongings and started walking. I do not know why I went the direction I did, nor did I know where I was going. Early the next morning I found myself in a small town facing a temple to Habbakuk. Sure, I knew who the gods were, but I had never worshiped any of them.

However, I felt an urging to go inside, so I did. When I entered an older priest inquired if I needed any help. I told him my story of how I came to be here, and I saw understanding in his face. He explained that the presence and urging was Habbakuk directing me to the temple. We talked at length about Habbukuk and what he represents. I was intrigued, and asked to stay at the temple. I offered to work for my room and board. The priest warned me that the work would be hard. I was raised having to do many chores, so I told the priest that I could handle a little hard work. Little did I know that for the next three years my days would be filled with cleaning, serving, praying, and more cleaning. In that time I came to know Habbakuk better and even became a priest myself. During this time, I came to accept that death is a part of life, and that my father's death was natural. However, I came to abhor the undead that slaughtered my father, and they are certainly not a natural part of this world.

Many of the other priests would go out looking for new converts and believers, but I never did that. How could I convince someone to start worshiping Habbakuk, when it took his presence to convince me. Besides, I am the son of a soldier, who would listen to me talk the praises of a god that supports a natural cycle of life and death.

Two years later, the War of Souls came to our kingdom. The king implored all who were able-bodied to help. I offered my services as a healer and priest, nothing more. During this time, I provided rites and healing to many soldiers. I became friends with the scouts, as they all seemed to worship Habbakuk. After one particularly bad battle, the captain was short on scouts, and looking for anyone to help. One of the scouts must have mentioned my father's background to him, and my hunting trips. I refused at first pleading that I was a priest and not a soldier. The commander told me that he just wanted me to scout for him, not to fight for him. He badly needed a scouting report, and there was no one else with the skills.


I went on the scouting mission, and while I did not run into anything bad, I found that I could balance my priestly duties with the scouting. I spoke to my captain about going out more and more with the scouting parties. While I always attempt to avoid fighting it is not always possible. I had finally found my place. I spoke with the patriarch of Habbakuk about this and he told me that not all priests serve in a temple. I should serve in the manner that I was called.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Gaertorin: Thoughts on New Companions

This is a strange world that the mists brought me to. I am glad to be here and alive, rather than on the wrong end of a skeletons blade. I am also glad that Carmen was brought along with me. It is comforting to have a long time companion in Carmen at my side still. Unfortunately, we will not be able to bring word of my scouting to the Captain. I only hope that our disappearance does not lead the army astray.

I am not sure of my new companions. Leilana seems level-headed, and quiet. She is the only other elf/half-elf I have met here. It is nice that I am able to travel with another of my kind. She seems to know the way of the woods, and to be in communion with nature. Perhaps she would wish to learn more of Habbakuk. I will have to discuss this with her.

Aginot is brash at times, but I always tend to trust a holy man with good in his heart. I have not heard of this church of the coin in my travellings, but I confess to be a little ignorant of dieties other than Habbakuk. I will have to learn more about this church and why the coin hold such a place of honor.

Aginot: On Morality

Aginot takes some time to pen his thoughts on to a scrap of parchment, one of several that compose a makeshift journal of thoughts.

Alaric,

When you left us, you stole more than the mask.  I hope that the gods can forgive your transgressions, and that debts can be settled, but in my heart, I know it is more likely that you will fall to the darkness within you.  Should we meet again, and should you still bear the mask, it will be as enemies.

Despite your shaky moral foundation and questionable judgment, you brought a sense of balance to our group.  My own faith pays little regard to justice; a ridiculous term, subject to whims of the spirit and self-righteousness.  The Order, however, does concern itself with equity, and for all of your faults, you always tried to distribute your misguided justice equitably.  You would have made a good acolyte.

I fear, however, that our new companions Gaertorin and Carmen may not share this trait.  They are deadly, each in their own way, but they are seemingly indiscriminate in their lethality, and that makes me worry.

Consider the Talon soldiers, if you will.  The Talons as an organization are surely tyrannical in their motivations, that much is without dispute by anyone of a reasonable mind.  A single Talon soldier, however, is just a tool of his lord, and is not necessarily deserving of a knife to the back or killing blow while helpless.  There have been times where Talons have directly opposed us, and we fought with lethal intent, but it was to save our own lives.

In Gorgi, though I do not know the details of Carmen's assassination of the Talon she encountered, I witnessed Gaertorin crack the skull of a guard I had rendered helpless, killing him instantly.  Such actions create imbalance, and can only be answered with equal force, and I fear that we may not be up to the challenge should tides ever turn against us.

I cannot help but think that you would have handled the situation more responsibly, and it is for that, more than nearly anything else, that I regret your betrayal and desertion.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

RL #20: The Black Raven

Last night marked our twentieth Ravenloft session over the course of two and a half years, a pretty good track record in RPG terms. What's more is that the PCs are still fairly low level, so we have a long way to go before all is said and done.

In the Tally-ho Inn and Tavern, the party weighed its options at length. As they did, the pair of Talon guards from outside entered the taproom to the call of "The gypsy will curse us, you've doomed us all!" from a stumbling drunkard. One soldier approached the man, held him up with one arm and slugged him with a bladed gauntlet, laying him low. That quieted the patrons, but the whispers overheard from nearby tables were clear: the capture of a Vistani was a serious matter indeed, an order that would be given by no lesser than King Vlad Drakov himself. And why the carriage would be en route to the militant border-town of Stangengrad, no one knew.

Before long, the soldiers returned to the Black Raven with a gallon-sized tankard of mead for the dwarf. Not to be outdone, Aginot took it upon himself to purchase and offer up a five-gallon barrel in an attempt to win the men's trust. The effort proved fruitless, and the carriage was soon stabled for the night, along with the dwarf, the two Talons, and the two wolf-hounds. Carmen tailed the contingent, looking on as Valana was beaten to unconsciousness after she finally began to stir. A second pair of Talons helped secure the stable, then subsequently returned to the tavern.

The rest of the party took leave of the taproom, sneaking into a large, unlocked stable adjacent to the one that housed the Raven; Carmen, still invisible, lurked outside. The PCs plotted an ambush over the stable wall via the rafters, but as they did, their would-be victims detected the party's presence and took action: one Talon sighted Leilana through a hole in the stable wall with his crossbow, while the second led the dogs outside and into the party's stable, the dwarf lumbering drunkenly behind. Leilana was struck by twin crossbow bolts as the dogs rushed in, and melee ensued.

Carmen resisted the urge to call out a warning to her friends, knowing it would do little aside from exposing her position. Instead, she tactfully crept inside the Talon stable and stabbed the lone crossbowman from behind, canceling her invisibility but saving the party from additional fire. The soldier rose to his feet to assault the mage, but Carmen struck deftly again, laying the man low. A knock spell on the prisoner cage door and Carmen dragged the unconscious Vistani woman outside while her companions defeated the remaining enemies with sword and spell. Gaertorin cast cure light wounds on Valana and her eyes fluttered open, revealing her beauty.

The party made haste for the north gates, staying off the main road and bribing the gate-guards to exit the walls safely. Once outside, they fled into the night, finding sanctuary in a forest grove a half-mile from town, and in desperate need of healing.

DM's Commentary

This session ran pretty smoothly, with the party spending most of its time deliberating the optimal course against the Talons. There was a brief opportunity early on where Carmen (invisible) might have been able to steal the carriage while the first pair of guards were busy fetching ale for the dwarf, but the moment was fleeting and I'm not sure they'd have had time to execute the theft cleanly. I liked the direction the party was going when they snuck into the adjacent stable and plotted an attack from the rafters - unfortunately the stable walls were paper-thin and they just couldn't be quiet enough not to be heard with a Talon guard awake and on watch. If there's one mistake the group made this adventure, it was spending too long in the stable without action.

Mechanically, the party had some breaks, but made some sound decisions as well. Aginot's hold person spell was key, even though he unluckily rolled a '1' for the number of individuals he could target. Gaertorin reaped the statistical benefits of multiple attack rolls per round, and Carmen used good tactics to find advantage in melee combat, even as a lowly wizard. Leilana fell victim to some rather poor rolls - we had a critical moment where Aginot was at 2 hp and unable to escape one of the dogs, and Leilana needed any damage roll other than 1 (which she of course rolled) to kill it. Fortunately, the dog missed on its final attack and everyone survived, but it was close. On the plus side for the party, I made consistently bad initiative rolls for the enemies throughout the combat.

Someday I'm sure the numbers will get the best of the PCs and one of them will die horribly, but I'm glad it hasn't happened yet. You really have to play to your advantages, know when to fight and when to flee, and especially how and when to use your spells. AD&D doesn't offer much margin for error.

A Word About Morality

Ravenloft is very much centered around morality (or lack thereof), and frequently a situation arises that gives me a bit of pause. Last night, the party discussed the option of setting fire to the Talon stable. It could just be that the repercussions of such an approach were lost on the players at the time, but the party had witnessed a village fire spread quickly once before (in Chatain) and would do well to consider the potential loss of innocent lives and destruction of homes and property before heading far down so dangerous a path.

The other instance worth mentioning was Gaertorin's coup de grace against a magically held Talon soldier after the combat was effectively won. We talked briefly about how Alaric (a paladin) would never have allowed such an act, but a character not adhering to a specific class or code shouldn't constitute a free pass to look into a defenseless man's eyes and kill him without remorse. Now, in this specific case, I think the slaying was reasonably justified - it would be easy to argue that killing the soldier was in the best interest of not only the party, but the entire town as well. So it's not a matter of imposing any kind of penalty on the PCs - I just think these kinds of actions warrant enough in-game roleplaying to ensure that the moral aspect of the event isn't lost on anyone in the group. It's a delicate line to walk, and Ravenloft especially is known for acknowledging those that stray from a moral path - even in the heat of battle. Tread carefully...

XP

Some solid XP awards to hand out for this session:

  • Defeating the two Talon soldiers, dwarf guard, and two Falkovnian wolf-hounds - 500 XP
  • Rescuing Valana from the Black Raven and safely exiting the town gates - 1,500 XP
That's 500 XP each, and Carmen gets her 10% prime requisite bonus for Intelligence. Updated totals:

  • Leilana - 8,224
  • Aginot - 7,604
  • Carmen - 7,550
  • Gaertorin - 3,750/3,750
No new levels gained this time. I'll keep an eye on XP advancement over the next few sessions to make sure the story awards are sufficient based on the Ravenloft style of game (i.e., high roleplaying, relatively low combat and treasure acquisition). I can make adjustments if need be as time goes on.