Sunday, February 28, 2016

FR #5: The Black Wyrm's Revenge, and Fall

Life is short; game together.

29 Tarsakh, midmorning

The day following the discovery of the fallen dragon in the hills, a solitary dwarf lumbered in from the east, making his way to the castle gates. He introduced himself as Lincoln, a wayward locksmith escaped from a band of highwaymen operating near the crossroads. Hired on for his vocation, Lincoln fled the group when he learned the true nature of their activity, and was now hiding.

The PCs rightly assumed the thieves to be the same group that robbed them several days ago, though Lincoln wasn't party to the incident. The dwarf revealed what he knew about the band, mainly that they numbered less than two dozen; that they recently had captured a hill giant after plundering its cave in the forest; and that they were led by a rogue called Whisper and a Calishite wizard named Jhakine.

The party spent the better part of two days debating its course, having agreed to allow Lincoln to accompany them on whatever path they chose; the locksmith was discernibly good-natured, and his skillset admirable. In convening with Deidre, the Lady of Brithem expressed a desire to cede control of the fiefdom in the coming years to someone more capable of seeing to its needs. If not for the return of Berwyn with his allies, the castle and its outlands would likely already be forfeit.

In the early morning hours, two nights following the dwarf's arrival, a horn-call sounded from the north. Soldiers and PCs took to the towers, readying themselves for battle, but no enemy arrived. Some time later, Riwyn's owl and the two dwarves set out from the castle to investigate, learning that the northernmost of Brithem's farms had been decimated; there were no survivors. The ensuing hours were laden with debate on how to react. The day that would otherwise be recognized as the spring holiday of Greengrass instead was consumed by frustration and despair.

A battle horn sounded again the following night, this time from the northwest. Its low droning echoed a handful of times over several minutes, but the soldiers that rode out to meet its calls were too late: a second farm and its inhabitants had been destroyed by the surviving dragon.

The constituents of Brithem's remaining farms were bade to sleep within the castle walls until the menace could be dealt with.

2 Mirtul

Two days after the loss of the second farm, the party committed to a plan that depended on correctly guessing the next location to be attacked. The PCs staged themselves, four soldiers, and one of the castle's two remaining ballistae behind cover and hidden under piles of straw at the fiefdom's northeasternmost farm, now closest to the Witherwood. Merlin was instructed to keep watch at the border of the marshlands, and at fulldark the owl alerted Riwyn to an approaching threat. Soon after, the PCs spotted the winged, black form speeding toward them amid the darkness.

Their assault came quickly and without warning. The first ballista arrow missed its mark, but the second struck home. Two castings of magical light blinded the enemy once more, and volleys of bowshots hurtled across the sky.

This was the dragon's worst nightmare. Pilfering the outlying farms had proven fruitful and effortless following the death of the wyrm's mate. Vengeful and arrogant in its lust to destroy, it underestimated its adversaries' ability to execute such an ambush. In an instant, its mind was returned to the failed assault against the castle. It felt its eyes blinded, felt the impalement of the ballista missile in its breast, the piercing sting of arrows throughout its hide. There was no possibility for escape, this time. There could be only death...
The dragon attempted to spew its breath weapon at the half-concealed siege, but the acid mostly sprayed out the side of its maw. Its neck reeled back, ere an arrow from Riwyn's bow cut its throat. The beast fell from flight and plummeted to the ground, meeting Wren's blade when it arrived.

DM's Commentary

And so it was ended. The PCs struggled to find a course early, losing two of the fiefdom's farms in the process, but once a plan was determined, its timing proved to be perfect. Initiative rolls again were key, with the party winning every round. I've no dismay for their success; good fortune will always be an impermanent thing, so best to relish in it while it persists. Lincoln's player was a surprise guest for this session, though if Jason can make the scheduling work for any future games, his attendance will surely be welcomed!

XP

A decent bit of XP earned for this adventure:
  • Black dragon - 756 XP
  • Story award - 1,000 XP
The story award here is more tempered, since a number of lives were lost before the party managed to prevail. That's 439 XP each, before bonuses. New totals (Berwyn was not present for this game):
  • Arendeth - 8,020
  • Riwyn - 4,010/4,010
  • Wren - 3,645/4,010
  • Lincoln - 5,983
I elected to start Lincoln at 5,500 XP, the minimum necessary for his starting level plus incorporating the 10% prime requisite bonus. No new levels gained at this time.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

FR #4: Boldly Fly the Doomed

This session was awesome for a number of reasons. First off, the party achieved a pretty major victory and I finally have a chance to award some much-deserved XP. More than that though, it's hard to play D&D with someone you don't have any kind of personal connection with. And it's hard to have any kind of personal connection with someone you've never met in person. With one player living in Oregon and the rest of us in Ohio, to get everyone together in person to meet and accomplish something big in-game isn't an opportunity that comes around often. We had it happen once with Jason in the three years we played Ravenloft. I'm truly thankful that the scheduling worked out, no one came down with the flu, and everyone was able to help make it happen. The personal interaction the players got to have will surely pay dividends down the road.

But enough of my emotional pandering; on to the recap!

20 Tarsakh, midday

The air in Brithem was somber, to say the least. The fiefdom had lost more than half its soldiery and a number of innocents, and the looming threat of the dragons' return was imminent. Beacons burned from the castle towers each night the party spent readying its inhabitants for a coming attack, casting enough light into the blackness to give castlegoers a fighting chance to see their deadly, flying adversaries before they arrived.

The party set plans into place over a number of days, ordering the assembly of additional ballistae, setting up fire sources amid the courtyards and stationing soldier cots near the bases of the northeast and northwest towers, both equipped with lookouts and mounted siege weapons at their tops. Farms were provided with battle horns and instructed to keep watch throughout each night. Clothiers helped build and stage mannequins around non-functioning weaponry in hopes of drawing the attention of unwise attackers. Berwyn spent time in the castle library and was granted select access to Mara's available spells and spell-scrolls.

Finally, one night several days into the party's stay, after all preparations were solidly in place, a horn-call echoed from the north after middark. Soldiers rushed to the towers and the PCs to positions along the north wall, ere two black silhouettes were spotted against the moonlit clouds, closing on the castle at an incredible rate. One started to descend upon a cluster of mannequins until the other issued a piercing screech, calling it back. They sped forward, and ballistae fired from atop the two front towers, one missile striking the westernmost dragon, causing it to dip briefly in flight.

The statistics employed for the ballistae (adapted from the 1e DMG, p. 108) are detailed below.

Brithem Ballistae
Manned by...Load time (rounds)THAC0Damage (S-M)Damage (L)Max range
4 soldiers (trained)1162d63d6320 ft
2 soldiers (trained)3182d63d6320 ft
4 laborers (untrained)3202d63d6320 ft
2 laborers (untrained)5202d63d6320 ft

Thus, with four trained soldiers (i.e., any 1st-level or higher character or NPC), a ballista could be fired every other round with each operator effectively improving the weapon THAC0 by one. With only two such operators, or four 0-level operators, the ballista could fire every four rounds at best, and untrained operators would provide no benefit to hit. One good idea the players had was for soldiers to fire a ballista, then shift sideways to attack with preloaded crossbows while laborers worked to reload the siege. I really liked the thinking here, even though the opportunity to execute it never arose.
The dragons closed to the towers and reared back, readying their breath weapons while arrows and spells were slung from the castle wall. Multiple castings of light from Berwyn and Arendeth blinded both enemies, whose acid breath blasted the tops of the towers, annihilating the ballistae there. One soldier was smothered to ruin, but the rest scrambled to the two remaining ballistae in the courtyard.

By the time they arrived, the dragons had already turned tail for the Witherwood, badly damaged by missiles and magic. Even as they abandoned their attack, Arendeth used heat metal on the ballista arrow still lodged into the breast of the dragon that had weathered the first hit. Cheers resounded from the castle wall as the dragons disappeared into the night.

Yet better news came the next morning, when a farmhand from the north brought word that one dragon had been seen falling to the pastures from flight during its retreat. The party set out to investigate, finding the fallen creature with a charred, gaping hole where the arrow wound had been. Upon ensuring it was dead, Wren severed the head from its body, and scales were removed from its hide to be packed away or donned as ornaments.

DM's Commentary

If one of my characters was going to die, I'd want it to be fighting a dragon. This was about as prepared as I've ever been going into a session for one or more characters to meet their ends, knowing full well that a single hit from the acid breath of an uninjured dragon was likely to do the deed, to any PC. In the end, the party was well-prepared and had a few key rolls land in its favor. In order of importance, I'd put the first round initiative rolls (which had the PCs and the majority of their allies attacking before the dragons could breathe, once within range) at the top, followed by the ballista hit from the west tower and the dragons' failed saves against light. A very honorable mention to the efficiency with which the soldiers were able to assemble functioning ballistae, raising the castle's attack power from one ballista to four in only a few days. The flip-side is that two were destroyed by the dragons, and the lack of remaining parts means that any additional ballistae now require 3d6 days each to be built, regardless of the number of individuals put to the task.

Undoubtedly, the characters won the day; driving away both dragons (even killing one, thanks to Arendeth's masterful use of heat metal) while losing only a single soldier and pair of siege weapons is an accomplishment beyond what I believed would be possible. Again, the rolls were critical, but the good planning on the part of the players was paramount. The encounter was night-and-day compared to the doom wrought by the dragons' first assault on Brithem before the PCs arrived, and the story award issued for the session certainly reflects this result. The dragons were ill-prepared for the onslaught that met them on their return trip to the castle.

When we started this campaign, I made a big deal about the choice of setting, and in particular the decision between established and homebrew. Ultimately, I made a decision I felt would help me deliver the richest and most enjoyable game possible. That said, it isn't always easy. The benefit of a published world is that it provides a framework to work within; the downside is that the DM feels bound to its canon, and needs to tread carefully when incorporating new elements. Brithem is my own creation; it was conceived and developed when Adam started telling me about the background for Berwyn. It also fits within the world; based on the Realms novels and supplements I've read, there's precedent for settlements like this along the Sword Coast. Brithem's proximity to Luskan makes the geography of its coastline important, as the fiefdom couldn't otherwise subsist given the pirating that abounds in the area.

The point is, where an established setting makes it easier to tell the players what's where and why, it puts an added burden on the DM when it comes to incorporating the custom elements that it encourages me to add. I can't simply toss things in pell-mell. Doing so can trigger a butterfly effect that makes my control over the setting unravel. On the plus side, this holds me to a higher standard of world-crafting and makes me think long and hard about what I'm doing at every step. It isn't a bad thing to be pushed to up my game.

XP

XP awards for the first four sessions are as follows. For the Wolford expedition (seven-way split):
  • Owlbear - 425 XP
  • Lizard men, 26 (includes those driven off) - 1,040 XP
  • Grey oozes, 3 - 357 XP
  • Story award (PCs only) - 1,600 XP
This amounts to 660 XP each. For the events in Brithem:
  • Black dragon - 764 XP
  • Getting put to sleep and robbed along the road - 0 XP
  • Story award - 4,000 XP (!)
This amounts to 1,191 XP each, for a total of 1,851 XP per character (2,036 for those who qualify for the 10% bonus). The new party totals are:
  • Berwyn - 7,536
  • Arendeth - 7,536
  • Riwyn - 3,768/3,768
  • Wren - 3,425/3,768
Arendeth hereby attains level 4, and is presumed to spend downtime training while in Brithem.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Advice in Dungeoneering

This kind of stuff is brilliant, and exactly why it's worth contributing to The Tao of D&D. The perspective outlined in the linked post is oft-overlooked by players in campaigns I've been a part of, whether from a desire for the PCs to act as solitary heroes or due to a general detachment from real-world thinking while playing (the players are playing in a game, after all). The sort of player mentality Alexis describes is why games like AD&D encourage the DM to run with minimal bias for the characters' choice of actions or the overall power level of the party. Leveraging resources and adventuring strategy in this way is one of the funnest aspects of the game, in my opinion, but one that's regrettably been lost to the ages as D&D as a product line has evolved.

The post was also exceptionally well-timed, since one of the things I'm most looking forward to in this weekend's game is seeing how the players elect to manage and interact with the resources at their disposal as they prepare the fiefdom of Brithem for a potential second assault from a pair of black dragons residing in the area. More than just "Charge in, roll initiative, make my attack rolls/use my spells, and hope everything works out," the party has before them a chance to show their stuff on a much grander stage - and with many more lives at stake than merely their own. How this next session unfolds will surely have consequences for a long time to come.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

A Worthy Cause

I've expressed to most people I game with that they should read The Tao of D&D, and particularly the author's books How to Run and The Dungeon's Front Door. Alexis Smolensk's insight into the world of D&D and the art of DMing is nothing short of amazing.

Earlier this week, Alexis posted a crowdfunded proposal to help him complete the novel that he's working on presently, even going so far as to reach out to some of his blog commenters with a personal message. I don't doubt at all the quality of the rewards he's offering for donations, and am happily planning to contribute; I encourage others who see and appreciate the value of his work to do the same.

Good luck, Alexis!