Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Maps, motivations, and accounting

This post covers a hodgepodge of relatively brief topics. First, here are Wren's map of Grimmantle and an overland map section for the game.

Sword Coast map
This isn't the same map that we've used on paper, but it's easier to read since there's less clutter. I've also reduced the scope in terms of the geographical area pictured; the paper map is a bit overwhelming and denotes many locations that are very far away. Above, Brithem sits along the coast, one-quarter of the way from Luskan to Neverwinter; Port Llast sits on the same path, three-quarters of the way between cities.

It's important to note that the overland map is a metagame aid for the players - that is, the characters don't have access to the map, nor are they necessarily aware of every location it depicts. This is intended as a player resource only, to better understand the relative placement of the locations discussed in-game. It's OK to assume that the characters are aware of nearby towns and renowned cities like Waterdeep. Beyond that, players can ask me what their characters should reasonably know.

Wren's map
The "Grimmantle" map, on the other hand, is intended as an in-game resource that's physically in Wren's possession. Characters may study and form opinions on its nuances to their hearts' content. Wren has had this since the beginning of the campaign, but I didn't want to post it publicly until the other PCs were privy to its existence.

PC Motivations

Sean mentioned at the end of last session that he felt a need for the players to take some time speaking to their characters' individual motivations for adventuring, and I agree. We did an exercise in defining initial motivations before we started, but that feels extremely antiquated at this point. I do think it's important to know what each PC is in the campaign for, both to help the party set its course and also understand why the characters are together in the first place.

Let's plan to take some time at or before the start of the next session to have a brief discussion around this.

Monetary Accounting

Finally, I've created a spreadsheet that I'd like to try using to track the approximate wealth of each PC. I'll start by recording the current gold piece value of the coins and other valuables carried, and record debits and credits as accurately as I can. This should make it easier to track how treasure is split, who's in possession of what, and how much wealth the party has at its disposal at a given time. I still want players to mark their gains and expenditures individually, but I know those details can get muddy over the course of multiple sessions.

Monday, April 25, 2016

FR #7: A Brief Foray in Neverwinter

9 Mirtul, latefeast

As the daylight began to wane over Port Llast, the party made its way to the gates. Thirty-five miles north of Neverwinter, the small town of 700 was known mainly for its skilled stonecutters and excellent harbor - a small bay sheltered by a high, rocky spit, with a fine beach and inlet. The port was overlooked by cliffs upon which boulder-hurling siege engines could be spotted from the road below.

Passing the gate-guards with few questions asked, Lincoln had become notably white and feverish, having broken into a cold sweat. As such, the party secured rooms at the Drunken Mermaid, a waterside inn and tavern, at two gold pieces per night each. Lincoln took his leave, and in the taproom the remaining PCs caught rumor that an inbound caravel had recently encountered a naga while traversing the inlet. Though no one aboard the ship was injured, water nagas, usually only found upriver or in freshwater lakes, were considered dangerous enough that a five-hundred gold piece bounty was placed on the creature by the First Captain (Port Llast's highest-ranking official).

As the evening drew on, the party was approached by a cloaked man with long, dark hair. He carried a scimitar visible at his belt and wore a pair of forged bracers, though he appeared otherwise unarmored. After flipping a gold coin onto the table (which Wren quickly pocketed, before stepping away), he sat, introducing himself as "Rumolt the Wanderer."

Rumolt explained that he was looking for adventurers to accompany him into the Neverwinter Wood to enact vengeance against the orcs of the Yellow Eye, a malicious tribe that had ambushed and slain his previous companions during a recent hunting expedition. Rumolt alone escaped, trailing the orcs to their forest lair before returning to Port Llast only a handful of days ago. To further substantiate his claim, he rolled up the sleeve of his right arm, revealing a jagged, clotted gash. Rumolt sought to recover what he could of his allies, and was willing to pay handsomely for capable assistance.

After some deliberation, the party declined Rumolt's offer, opting to continue on its original path to Neverwinter while Lincoln recuperated in Port Llast. They set out the following morning, breaking at dusk amid an encampment of caravans halfway along the two-day journey between cities. As they prepared for the night, a raucous bonfire erupted across the encampment, surrounded by a dozen surly caravaners, bellowing and drinking heartily.

Seeing opportunity, Wren and Riwyn approached the men and seated themselves on either side of a particularly intoxicated specimen, and while Wren teased the caravaner with innuendo, Riwyn pickpocketed his coin purse. Though the man tried to physically detain the women when they rose to leave, Arendeth's advance curtailed any possibility of an escalation. The caravaner passed out some time later, still oblivious to the theft. The following morning, the party ended its watches early and departed at sunrise, reaching its destination before dark.

The PCs passed two days in Neverwinter, a city of more than 20,000 inhabitants (and one much richer in culture and diversity than Luskan), seeking information about Grimmantle and hoping to discern its approximate location. Arendeth procured shelter for Aranos and himself at the Sword and Shield, a Tempuran temple, while the others roved between inns (the Silver Harp, one gold piece per night), libraries, bookstores, the office of a local cartographer (Arphon, a middle-aged balding man), and the House of Knowledge, a renowned temple to Oghma. The aggregate yields of the party's research were that Grimmantle was built into the southern face of mountains, constructed partially above and partially below ground (similar to neighboring Mirabar), and would likely only be located with substantial magical aid. At the House of Knowledge, Berwyn was given the name and residence of a local diviner (Naerinth), though attempts to locate the wizard proved fruitless.

Before setting out north again, Arandeth bartered the bloodstone from Lady Deidre to various traders, finally settling on a "best price" of 800 gold pieces.

The return journey to Port Llast was uneventful. Rumolt was still present at the Drunken Mermaid when they arrived, and made a final offer of 100 gold pieces each, along with an equal share of treasure found, for the party's aid in the forest. The proposal would stand for one night only, as he otherwise meant to depart for Neverwinter at sunrise, hoping to have better luck finding help in a larger city.

XP

The last two sessions have been mostly barren of XP, though I do want to award points for the sale of the bloodstone. It's 200 XP to each participating character, bringing their totals to:
  • Berwyn - 7,756
  • Arendeth - 8,240
  • Riwyn - 4,120/4,120
  • Wren - 3,745/4,120
Wren inches ever closer to her third fighter level; unfortunately, being a multi-class PC without a prime requisite bonus makes it slow-going. She'll get there.

Party totals are updated on the right side of the blog as well. Of note, the cost of Lincoln's week-long stay in town amounts to ten gold pieces. This covers all meals and lodging, and assumes that the dwarf found more affordable accommodations after the first night.

The Mystery Roll

As we approached sunrise on the morning following Riwyn's pickpocketing of the caravaner, I rolled a d20 simultaneously with 3d6 into the dice box. A player made a declaration that the roll was not meaningful (i.e., that I was rolling for suspense and not for any mechanical purpose), to which I replied that I would reveal the reason for the roll after the session. The roll was a Constitution check to see if the caravaner would wake up early after a night of drunkenness, or if his hangover would keep him passed out until stirred by his companions. In any case, I figured he'd have a chance to notice the coin purse missing upon waking, and if he did it seemed likely that some sort of incident would transpire. (As this was very much instant decision-making on my part, I can't say for sure exactly what the man's actions would have been.)

It didn't matter in end, because the check result (19) failed against the impromptu Constitution score (9) that I rolled for him. As a random caravaner, no pre-generated ability scores were on hand, so I decided to roll them on the fly. 3d6 seems appropriate for arbitrary scores for commoners, though for leveled NPCs I'd use 4d6-drop-lowest. Pretty much any time you see a set of d6 rolled alongside a d20, this is probably what I'm doing. A solitary d20 is often an ability check or a saving throw against a known, target value, d% (two d10s) is either a thieving check or a roll against a percentage chance to see if something happens. (d6s and d20s are also fairly common when checking for random encounters.)

I don't really go out of my way to be misleading with the dice. It tends to not be necessary very often, and most of the time I'm too preoccupied with making actual rolls, looking up information, and trying to decide on NPC reactions to worry about psyching out the table.

On Thieving from Commoners

Wren and Riwyn's incident with the caravaner drew some in-character criticism from Arendeth, which I think was very fitting, given his persona. For my part, the PCs can do as they wish and I'll try to make sure that the reactions elicited are fair and unbiased. This is an area where the DM of a narrative-style game can find difficulty, especially when plot lines assume a party of noble-minded adventurers. Characters stealing from non-threatening NPCs can unravel fixed adventure paths quickly and create a sticky situation for the DM, who consequently feels pressure to step in and wave a finger at the players wreaking havoc on his story.

Fortunately, this game is not being run that way, so I can adjudicate these kinds of situations without a conflict of interest in terms of how I want the sessions to play out. I think the result of this is a much more organic environment, where any repercussions enacted on the PCs are based only on predetermined information (meaning that I won't hand-wave that the caravaner you're trying to pickpocket is actually a 10th-level wizard because I want to teach you a lesson) and untainted by any path that I'm trying to force. I don't doubt that, eventually, a thieving character's luck is likely to run out - but I won't go off the reservation trying to make it happen.

The biggest thing the players need to remain conscious of with these kinds of dealings is the overall cohesion and trust within the party. When that starts to break down, games can get derailed, characters can become ousted and players can leave the table with bad feelings. Something to keep in mind going forward, though I don't think we're anywhere close to that happening at present.

Monday, April 4, 2016

FR #6: From Brithem to Port Llast

Note: A bit of additional detail regarding Grimmantle is provided below, as I don't think I relayed Mara's findings completely during the game.

4 Mirtul

After its initial victory rush subsided, the fiefdom of Brithem began to pick up the pieces left from the destruction wrought by the dragons. The majority of the party helped where it could, transporting supply carts and fortifying the castle, while Wren sought Mara to learn more about her unattributed, weathered map. Through the tomes in her study, Mara imparted that "Grimmantle" (the name cryptically scrawled upon the parchment) was a kingdom in the eastern Crags founded by humans in 272 DR (curiously, the "Year of the Weeping Kingdom") to guard against orc attacks. The following passage was found pertaining to the year 306 DR (more curiously, the "Year of the Fanged Horde"), three decades later:

The kingdom of Grimmantle in the Mlembryn lands falls to the Thousand Fangs orc horde, which then assails Illusk and Neverwinter. The horde is eventually blunted and scattered by a mercenary army led by Grauth Mharabbath, "the Knight of Many Battles."
Armed with this information, the PCs set their eyes south to Neverwinter, in hopes that the resources of a larger city might reveal more detail still.

As they prepared to leave, they were approached by a blond-haired soldier, notably one of the ballista operators at the northeast farm. The man bowed, giving the name Aranos Dalebriar, and he humbly petitioned the party for employment. Aranos explained that he had first come to Brithem more than a decade earlier with a lone surviving family member, an older brother, who most recently was slain during the dragons' initial assault upon the castle, before the PCs arrived. Asking for nothing more than food, shelter, and the opportunity to learn (the party declined to offer a wage), an agreement was made.

The morning of their departure, Lady Deidre met the heroes inside the castle gates, gifting them a small, leather pouch containing a polished gray stone with inclusions of deep crimson: "bloodstone," she declared it, and an amount of which valued upwards of one thousand gold pieces, this far west.

Exchanging well wishes, the party took to the rolling trails leading back to the crossroads, which they reached before sunset that same day. No campsites were occupied, at present, though evidence showed that some were recent; fearing Whisper's bandits, they continued south along the High Road for an hour before sleeping, fireless and with watches kept. The next three days passed uneventfully, though Arendeth took the opportunity to converse frequently with Aranos and impress upon the warrior his values. Aranos spoke of having been raised in a small village far south of Neverwinter, many years ago; his father was a stonecutter.

On the fourth night of their journey, rain fell long into the evening, and the party was forced to scavenge for usable wood and set a fire for warmth with the aid of lamp oil and a casting of produce flame. The first watch heard skittering sounds emanating from the underbrush, though several minutes later the noises passed. The following day was dry again; late in the morning, a giant hawk attacked the party from behind, assailing Riwyn (possibly due to the presence of Merlin the owl on her person) multiple times before the bird could be driven off by volleys of arrows and a light spell directed at its eyes.

A few hours later, they crested a hill looking down upon a walled town, and arrived at the gates of Port Llast in the waning afternoon of the Ninth day of Mirtul, 1354 DR (the Year of the Bow).

On Hirelings and Henchmen

Aranos is formally a hireling (albeit an unpaid one, currently). The party's newfound prestige and the ex-soldier's situation brought the sides together, come what may. His actions will be mainly decided by the characters (within reason), and his morale and loyalty influenced heavily by the treatment he receives. This is far from a new concept in AD&D, though it's not one we've employed much in the past. I want to state clearly that Aranos is not intended as a "DMPC" and neither does he consume a share of the party's awarded experience.

Looking forward, depending on how their mutual relationship blossoms (or wilts), there may be an opportunity for Aranos to become something more. Henchmen are a resource we've dealt with even less over the years we've played, but an ally taking on such a status could prove a valuable asset, indeed.

On the Experience System

As posted earlier, I did record damage dealt and received according to the Tao-of-Dnd experience system (my spreadsheet worked quite well). This is only to serve as a proof of concept for the time being, and while I see a lot of merit in the approach, I think certain questions are likely to arise. In the case of the light spell cast by Arendeth against the hawk, that seems to fall under the paragraph quoted below:
"Finally, there are various spells that do not provide an x.p. bonus, though they affect the combatant's attack or defense. Partly this is because of the difficulties in tracking the damage done, but largely it must be understood that casting a spell is very often not a risky action for a spellcaster. This is especially true of spells that can be cast well ahead of a battle, such as bless, armor, phantom armor, barkskin or stoneskin, etc."
(I ended up having a quick email exchange with Alexis to confirm his intentions for spells like light. Casters can take solace in the fact that blinding an opponent still makes it easier to hit, which should lead to greater and easier XP for everyone in the party.)

Again, I'm only dabbling with this system for now; I'll make a formal announcement if I decide to move to it permanently.

A Final Word

I always try to be attentive to the players' interest levels and the varying degrees of distress or frustration around the table when we play. While joking and kidding around during D&D games are inevitable (I'll be the first to admit that I regularly partake), I want to make sure everyone understands that I put a good deal of work into preparing for (and recapping!) our sessions, and that players put a lot of thought and effort into creating and developing their characters, both in and out of game. I think we all need to remember that lines are easy to cross when having alcohol-supported fun, and make sure that our enjoyment never comes at the expense of others' or detracts from the game itself. I've seen some of that over the past couple sessions and kindly ask everyone to please keep these points in mind. I'll work to help set the right example as well.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

I'm prepped

About as much as I can be. Running on Saturdays is nice, as there's time to think during the day and get mentally immersed in the campaign details. Some stats, encounter tables, and fleshing out a few of the trails the party might follow will have to be enough. AD&D is very preparation-friendly to anyone comfortable with the rules.

For tonight, I do plan to track damage according to the Tao system discussed here, as an experiment. I wrote up a quick spreadsheet that help does all the math. I'm not planning to switch over to this way of doing XP yet, but I do want to see how the numbers compare to what I'd give out traditionally over the course of the next couple sessions.