Monday, May 30, 2016

FR #9: The Underground Crypt, the Wraith, and the Scepter

19 Mirtul, sunrise

In the early morning, Rumolt surveyed the grounds, solemnly regarding the blackened skeletons that hung morbidly from their pikes while Berwyn and Riwyn pored over the scrolls. When all were ready, they returned to the earthen passageway beyond the secret door. They traversed it slowly, wary of traps, and the dwarves detected a slight downward grade. The sounds heard the previous night were absent, and when Lincoln tossed a continual light-imbued pebble into a wide cavern at the tunnel's end and crossed its threshold, he was pelted with rocks thrown by small, skittering humanoids: kobolds.

A trio of the creatures chased him back into the tunnel, leaping upon the dwarf and scratching at him with tiny claws. With the help of his allies, the attackers were slain, and as the party made its way forward, more kobolds could be seen fleeting into a similar passageway to the north. A makeshift throne of rocks, sticks, and earth adorned a far wall; Arendeth collapsed it with his morning star. A southward corridor was constructed of masonry walls, and led through a set of shattered and dilapidated double doors; the party followed it to a refuse pile which emanated an eye-watering stench.

Beyond the latrine was a narrow hallway ending in an intact, oaken door. After attempts to dislodge it failed and no locking mechanism could be discerned, Berwyn uttered knock from one of the scrolls. The door fell ajar and Arendeth heaved it open, striding into a square, fifty-foot chamber with a raised platform bearing a lidless, stone sarcophagus at its center. Inside was an ancient skeleton draped in decayed robes that were once fine, and a cobweb-covered helm. The glint of gold sparked Arendeth to reach beneath the skeleton's left arm and unearth a scepter encrusted with shimmering red rubies and deep, black opals.

Scepter in hand, Arendeth set his hand upon the helm; a searing pain coursed through the dwarf's body and he fell back. As he stood before the sarcophagus, the skeleton rose, assuming an incorporeal form with a veil of translucent skin stretched tightly over its rotting bones, and hollow eye sockets boring into the dwarf with absolute darkness. The helm rested atop it, and it stabbed fluidly at Arendeth, wielding a black, serrated blade from its coffin.

The party set upon the wraith, Wren attacking with the sword recovered from the orc leader, Rumolt with an ornate dagger from his belt, and Berwyn and Riwyn assailing it with mystic energy from the remaining scrolls. After parrying a handful of strikes, Arendeth fled to the door as Wren impaled the fiend on her magical blade as it began to charge in pursuit. The wraith crumbled to dust, and the serrated sword and helm fell to the stone floor, unmoving.

Arendeth and Riwyn made further attempts to handle the dark implements, suffering damage each time. Finally, Wren bundled the sword and helm in her cloak, binding it with a length of silken rope. The party retreated to the tower, where healing magic was expended.

Rumolt again expressed his approval of the party's efficiency in combat, remarking that such a valuable item as the scepter could not possibly be partitioned evenly. When challenged that the relic wasn't plundered from his dead companions, Rumolt rebutted that the dwarf who so recklessly claimed it did nothing to help fell the creature that would otherwise have taken his life. The tension was eased with a consensus to set the matter aside for now, and the party elected to sleep again in the second floor of the tower.

During Arendeth's watch, Aranos questioned the dwarf's flight from the wraith, doubtful that leaving one's allies to so dangerous a foe was Tempus' way. As they discussed the details, noises were heard from below: the clinking of metal, the grunting of guttural voices, and, finally, footfalls upon the staircase. The duo quickly woke the others, and Arendeth poured his bag of ball bearings down the steps, causing a pair of orc invaders to fall prone, a third creature behind them bellowing to its companions outside.

The tower's ground floor was soon littered with orcs, and as party members took defensive positions with bows drawn, the creatures ignited the thatch bed, piling on deadwood from the grounds. Smoke wafted up the staircase, ere Arendeth charged down, suffering wounds from orc cudgels and burns as he kicked the burgeoning fire to cinders. Lincoln and Aranos followed down the staircase while the elf-kin climbed out a window via a previously-secured rope. Riwyn and Wren circled the tower's perimeter, engaging a trio of guards at range, bolstered by Rumolt's arrows from above. Over several grueling minutes the orcs were defeated, the party left weakened and exhausted of resources.

DM's Commentary

If Arendeth feels fortunate to be alive at this point, he should. His actions in the crypt were nothing short of foolhardy, though well-played and revealing much about the dwarf's character. Against the orcs, Arendeth's actions were treacherous once more, but executed out of necessity and potentially lifesaving to the party. Had the orcs established a bonfire at the base of the tower steps, the result could have been disastrous, as only the party's elves and half-elves were lithe enough to fit through the narrow windows. Arendeth showed true bravery in this instance, nearly falling to his wounds on multiple occasions.

I'm exceedingly glad in this campaign that the players are able to see my rolls. The wraith needed only a 9 on 1d20 to hit Arendeth with the serrated blade, and had those around the table not witnessed my rolls of 1, 4, 4, and 5 on its attacks, they may not have believed them. Each hit from the wraith would have drained one full experience level from its target, a vicious attack capable of negating months of in-game achievements at a time. Furthermore, energy drain in AD&D allows no saving throw and is nearly irreversible, making powerful undead some of most fearsome enemies to behold. It's not an ability that I employ lightly, but one that's paramount to the very real danger of AD&D games.

Another point worth mentioning is how much I rely on dice rolls to make determinations about how events unfold in the game. This is highly contrary to Ravenloft, where game events often have specific triggers to ensure that the plot unfolds in a predetermined way. Triggers of this nature can be written as "Such and such happens on the second night following this event," or "Whenever the PCs go to this location, such and such will happen." The problem with these is that they wrest control away from the party; the players find themselves riding along on the adventure, rather than creating it themselves.

In any case, in this campaign I've tried to ensure that randomness helps drive the game forward, eliminating a portion of my bias. For example, after the party routed the orcs in the previous session, I decided that, eventually, the surviving monsters would attempt to return to their lair. This made sense as it was an established and defensible location, and the orcs still had nearly half of their original numbers remaining.

What I didn't want to do, however, was choose the exact timing of the orcs' return. Knowing what the PCs were doing at any given moment, I wasn't in a position to make an unbiased decision (consciously or otherwise). I ended up rolling for how many nights the orcs would spend in the wilderness (one), and the time of day they'd make their way back (the last few hours before midnight).

Similar rolls were made at Brithem to determine how and when the dragons would attack the fiefdom. The mindset I've found myself adopting is to make reasonable decisions when far enough removed from the party, but involve random chance when I have immediate insight as to what will happen to the PCs if I make the choice myself. Of course, many creatures and NPCs have predetermined agendas that make rolling dice unnecessary, but it's still an interesting element in the game that helps keep everyone, including me, guessing.

Also of note, whenever it's not obvious which opponent an entity should attack in combat, I determine that randomly as well. This session, the wraith attacked Arendeth for obvious reasons, but for the majority of the battle against the orcs, melee opponents were determined randomly before attack rolls were made. I think this definitely heightened the tension as Arendeth hovered close to zero hit points while defending the stairwell.

Last point for this section: I've taken to running PCs extra conservatively when their players are absent. When Adam had to leave early, I chose not to attack or cast spells on his behalf, and had Berwyn perform actions that seemed most likely to keep him out of harm's way. I don't want any character to die under my control; while Berwyn might have been able to use summon swarm against the orcs (assuming he had it memorized, which I didn't know), that would have put him at undue risk. This is a good thing for everyone to keep in mind when a player needs to step out.

XP

I have a running tab of XP gained over the past two sessions; right now it's over 10,000 points to be divided among the group. That said, I'm not going to award anything until the party reaches safe harbor and makes a few decisions regarding the items it recovered. Also, since these few sessions have been one continuous adventure, any PC that dies won't receive a share of the allotment.

It's worth noting that the sword carried by Wren is a longsword +1. The only scroll remaining of the six found is levitate, though points will still be awarded for all of them.

Regarding the Tao XP system that I've been talking about for awhile, as much as I like the idea, the damage tracking proved difficult this session as the game wore on. The spreadsheet I'm using is helpful, but it's too easy to forget to mark damage dealt by the PCs (as opposed to damage taken, which I have to mark against their hit point totals anyway). Experimenting with the system has provided insight to how it works and how much XP it awards (once again, Arendeth stood to gain a good deal more than any other character due to the damage he sustained), but I plan to stick with traditional XP tracking for the foreseeable future.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

FR #8: Plundering the Orc-infested Ruins

16 Mirtul, darkmorning

The party elected to accompany Rumolt into the forest; as such, the PCs quickly bolstered their equipment in Port Llast before reconvening at dawn on a trampled field at the east edge of town, where Rumolt meandered among a spattering of horse-drawn supply carts and caravaners. Terms with the adventurer were set (a hundred gold and an equal share of treasure gained to each party member upon completion of the quest, with Rumolt retaining rights to anything belonging to his former companions), and a leather-wrapped coin roll was handed to Wren upon request as a gesture of legitimacy. Ere, the cluster of travelers departed the mustering grounds in unison (as was typical during the trade season); despite the onset of rain which dampened their march, the journey was uneventful and the party arrived at the hunting lodge near sunset.

The Slumbering Manticore was a three-story, timber frame cottage with a billowing stone chimney, surrounded by semi-permanent campsites sheltering various woodsmen and suppliers (even a dog breeder). Upon entry, they were registered by the inn's proprietor, a burly, brown-skinned man named Corbulet (one gold piece per head for nightly board and meals, tendered for all by Rumolt), and proffered food and flagon by his alewife. Once seated, the party was approached by a tall, wiry young man bearing a facial scar: Rictus, constable within the surrounds. They took their rest shortly thereafter, and in the morning, the party departed the Manticore, led by Rumolt east along the game trails.

Several hours of treading in isolation through the forest brought them to depths where the beaten path dwindled, and the party set camp with no fire. During the night, the snapping of a large branch (or possibly the trunk of a small tree) echoed from the north; no clear evidence of the noise's source could be determined at sunrise.

As the party delved deeper into Neverwinter Wood, the forest became difficult to navigate. Hourly or thereabouts, Rumolt took to halting for extended periods, reaching inside his tunic and lowering his eyes in repose, presumably the effect of a previously-mentioned wound suffered during the orc ambush. Notably, after these brief stoppages, Rumolt frequently adjusted the party's direction, though never drastically. As latefeast approached, the companions arrived at a shallow stream. Rumolt indicated that the orc lair, set in a defensible valley amid abandoned ruins, was near, and followed the stream's roll to the northeast.

Smoke lingering in the air preceded the sight of a bonfire as the adventurers crested a hill; scouting ahead, Wren counted a dozen humanoid forms around it; as she signaled to the others, two of the outlines jogged up from below, raising javelins and cudgels. Wren, Riwyn, and Rumolt fanned out with bows drawn, laying the things low as the rest of the party advanced to the sightline. A second band of a half-dozen orcs charged up the hill and the archers pushed eastward as they spotted more bodies scrambling out from behind fragments of structures that littered the low dale.

Arrows cut the dense, evening air with deadly accuracy, and a brutish orc waving a longsword and directing its fellows was struck by Wren's bowshot, and felled. The creatures on the hill clashed with Arendeth, who suffered a vicious hack from a cudgel while wielding a Tempus-endowed flame blade. Simultaneously, a rat swarm conjured by Berwyn engulfed the melee, assailing ally and enemy alike. The battle ended quickly: orcs were decimated in waves, and those that managed to avoid the party's slaughter fled to the north as the party descended on the valley and began to scour the ruins.

Five charred skeletons, held together by melted tendons, stared blankly from pikes near the bonfire. Swallowing his anguish, Rumolt noted that the longsword next to the impaled orc leader had belonged to one of his former allies; he bade the party to keep it, thrusting its blade squarely into the earth as he surveyed his companions' lethal work.

Most of the ruins amounted to crumbled walls and portions of roofless buildings, with the exception of a cylindrical fieldstone tower. Its topmost reaches collapsed, it harbored three intact levels: a ground floor, adorned with a bed of leaves and thatch along with piles of mostly-consumed bones, an upstairs, and a basement. While the upper floor was empty save for a caved-in stairwell, the underground level was stocked with crude provisions and treasure: a weathered, lidless chest filled with electrum and silver, a suit of human chain mail, and a bundle of vellum sheets protruding from a leather case. Rumolt indicated that the scrolls and mail were owned by his companions, but that the chest was not. Furthermore, he imparted that the party was free to utilize the scrolls as needed, but that he would assume possession at the completion of their journey. Identifying them as wizard scrolls, Berwyn tucked them into his pack.

Also in the basement level, Rumolt discovered a moveable brick that opened a secret passageway into a low-ceilinged catacomb. Lincoln and others traversed it two hundred feet, at which point chittering sounds could be heard from beyond. They aborted the effort, doubling back and resealing the secret door. The party decided to take refuge in the tower's second floor; watches were set.

During the night, Merlin the owl reported to Riwyn that several orcs were rummaging in the forest a half-mile north - presumably those that had fled the lair earlier in the evening. Later, a hulking ogre wandered into the ruins, chewing on the body of a lifeless orc. Not having exposed a light source in the tower, the party kept silent, and after several turns the ogre departed the grounds.

The next session will begin at dawn on Mirtul the Nineteenth. Berwyn has already expended a casting of read magic to discern the contents of the scrolls, which were provided to him in private.

DM's Commentary

Rumolt has drawn much suspicion ever since he first approached the party in Port Llast. That the players haven't reached a consensus on him is probably a sign that I'm running him well. I wrote this in a previous post during the Ravenloft campaign. I think it holds true even more in this campaign, where the absolute nature of good vs. evil is mostly secondary to personal goals, ambitions, and the need to survive and thrive in the game world:

Not every person or creature you meet in the game will be cookie-cutter good or evil. Sometimes bad things result from good intentions, and vice versa. Sometimes what's good in one person's eyes is malevolent in the eyes of another. Sometimes motivations are conflicting and blurred. Subjectivity is a remarkable thing.
I'm not going to award XP now, seeing that we're mid-adventure, but it's safe to say, assuming her survival, that Wren should gain a fighter level when I do. The orc battle was lucrative enough regardless of the system used; interestingly, by the Tao system, Arendeth gained the most of any party member from the battle. Arendeth was the only PC to sustain damage and the only PC not to deal damage himself, and the Tao system advocates that this accounts for the greater learning and advancement among the participants. It makes a lot of sense, but I'm still not ready to adopt the rules. The spreadsheet I've devised to track the details has worked well for me so far, but I still like the idea of dividing XP evenly. It removes any kind of bias from the distribution and ultimately is easier to keep track of. We'll see.

Scrolls

It's probably a good idea here to write a few notes about scrolls. Wizard scrolls are created primarily for quick casting; they serve to supplement a wizard's available spell slots beyond what he or she has memorized.
  • When a spell on a scroll is cast, it is permanently expended. Spells on scrolls are one-time use.
  • In order to copy a spell on a scroll into a wizard's permanent spellbook, the spell must be cast; thus the scroll is expended.
  • Attempting to cast a spell from a scroll imposes a chance of failure if the spell is of a higher level than the wizard can normally cast. The failure chance is 5% per caster level difference.
  • In the event that failure occurs, there is a subsequent chance that the spell could backfire in a way that negatively affects the wizard or his/her allies. (This chance is small.)
  • Any wizard desiring to know the contents of or cast a spell from a scroll must first cast read magic to read the scroll. (While Riwyn knows that Berwyn handed her a scroll with magic missile which he previously read, Riwyn cannot actually use the scroll without casting read magic herself.)
  • Read magic enables a wizard to read two scroll pages per caster level. In this session, Berwyn, as a 3rd-level wizard, was able to read six pages, the exact amount he needed to read all six scrolls.
  • Specialist wizards cannot cast spells from scrolls that are from prohibited schools (please let me know if anyone finds a contrary ruling on this).
There was a bit of tension at the table when Berwyn pocketed the scrolls and kept his findings to himself. If this is a problem for the other players (or characters), the best first step is to address it in-game. As DM, I expect a reasonable level of trust within the party and require that PCs not subvert their companions. That said, Berwyn's conduct strikes me as leaving a sour taste in the other players' mouths as opposed to warranting adjudication from the DM. That's not to say that this kind of non-teamwork couldn't inhibit the party's success in the current adventure and beyond, but for now I'm leaving it in the PCs' hands.

I really enjoyed gaming with everyone on Saturday and hope all the players had fun as well. It was great to finally have the full group together!

Monday, May 9, 2016

Player character information in Port Llast

Since a good deal of information was conveyed today over email in response to player questions, I wanted to consolidate my replies here such that they can be reviewed easily leading up to this week's session.

Rumolt and the Orcs of the Yellow Eye

As to Rumolt, he seems little known in Port Llast, but a few individuals are able to corroborate his story based on secondhand hearsay (no one seems to know him well personally - Port Llast clearly isn't his home). At the eastern edge of town, a series of game trails leads to a lodge (a day or so away) that serves as a base camp of sorts for local hunters and woodsmen. Presumably, any venture deep into Neverwinter Wood would travel there first. This information is given based on Lincoln's layover in Port Llast during the last session, and presumably shared with the rest of the group.

I'm not sure there's enough available evidence in Port Llast to definitively say that Rumolt is or is not being completely truthful. He doesn't seem to be known in town (again, not a local resident), having arrived about a tenday ago (shortly before the PCs) bearing wounds/scars and claiming that his band from Neverwinter had been decimated by orcs in the forest. He, Rumolt, was the sole escapee (I think this is mostly what raised the other players' suspicions, but I'm not certain) and claims to have trailed the orcs back to their lair prior to retreating to Port Llast, the nearest attainable safe harbor. Rumolt professes to seek both vengeance against the Yellow Eye tribe and reclamation of what he can of his fallen comrades (equipment, bodies...).

It's clear that the man has money, tossing gold around liberally and offering a large sum for aid (and likely knowing that acquiring truly capable help will demand serious payment). He stated his band to be game seekers, though when questioned further he elaborated that his experience went beyond hunting mere animals. If he's not in actuality a competent adventurer of some kind, he does a good job masquerading as one.

As to the orcs, Lincoln doesn't really learn anything. The forest is massive and littered with tribes of malicious denizens (remember that Wolford, at the beginning of the campaign and in the same forest, though several dozen miles away and in a different direction, was having problems with goblin tribes encroaching on the mining village). That Rumolt has knowledge of the "Orcs of the Yellow Eye" puts him in a higher circle, information-wise, than the commoners of Port Llast. Whether this knowledge is rooted in his experience with his former companions and/or other sources is unclear.

The Inlet and the Water Naga

As to the naga, there's not been an additional sighting during the time the party was away. Meaning, no one else has claimed the reward, but neither is the creature known to still be in the vicinity. It's a crapshoot, basically. (These kinds of things are decided by dice rolls, FYI, with me determining the chances based on my knowledge of the campaign world.)

Wren knows that water nagas, while not typically aggressive or malevolent, are creatures to be feared. Their bites are poisonous and they often have the ability to manifest wizard-like powers, making them a serious threat to seafaring vessels if provoked or for some reason intent on forcing an encounter. In real-world terms, the situation is similar to having a dangerous shark in frequently-traveled waters. The creature isn't necessarily out for blood, but its presence is considered a danger, thus the offered bounty. The fact that the inlet would be an atypical environment (water nagas are usually found in freshwater lakes and streams) could also result in it being agitated or behaving unpredictably.

Despite knowing the above, Wren has no firsthand experience with water nagas, given that her adventuring time has been spent at sea, where such creatures wouldn't be found.

The inlet connects Port Llast to the Sea of Swords. Investigating it, presumably, would involve securing a ship or boat of some kind, through purchase/rental/theft/etc. or petitioning a captain willing to help out for a share of the bounty (or some such). At that point, as mentioned earlier, it's a bit of a crapshoot. The creature was spotted... a tenday ago, or thereabouts? Is it still around? If so, would the party be able to find, let alone combat it? I'm not trying to deter this course, per se, but I think it's right of me to say that it may or may not prove lucrative, depending on rolls made, rolls yet to be made, and the party's choices.

Setting out with Rumolt would involve heading east, away from Port Llast and the inlet... so there's not really a way of "killing two birds with one stone" here. Presumably the efforts would need to be carried out in succession - though Rumolt has stated his intention to return to Neverwinter at dawn if he doesn't secure help in Port Llast before then.