Sunday, August 21, 2016

FR #12: Cliffside Ambush

(Edit: Post title updated to better reflect the session content.)

26 Mirtul, middark

Following the interrogation of the bandit, the party weighed its options, lacking an obvious trail to the smith's wife and daughter. Finally, hitherto silent, Rumolt imparted that he possessed the means to locate Whisper's hideaway, and would do so in exchange for the jeweled scepter and an amicable parting of ways upon returning to the road. As he had no desire to risk the dangers of the forest alone, Rumolt furthermore offered to aid the party in an assault and rescue attempt against the bandits, after the camp was found. The PCs deliberated the arrangement at length, but ultimately agreed.

At dawn, Lincoln handed the captured highwayman a roll of fifty gold coins in exchange for his departure and a promise to live an honorable life upon returning to Luskan, or wherever he might go. The bandit consented eagerly, addressing the dwarf with many a "Yes, sir" and bow as he scattered into the trees to the west.

When all were ready, the party followed Rumolt's lead, the father, son, and uncle trailing closely behind. As they journeyed eastward through the forest, Arendeth inquired how Rumolt would locate the encampment, and Rumolt revealed from his tunic a compass rose made of cast iron, hanging by a thin chain around his neck. The compass, he explained, had come into his possession several years prior, and over time he had learned to utilize its magic, which enabled the wearer to know the direction of specific places or persons through intense mental focus - clearly the same method employed to find the orc ruins, days earlier.

Shortly after highsun, the company arrived at a fifty-foot ridge descending a two-hundred-foot wide canyon, at the bottom of which flowed a river that provided a ford. The opposite side of the canyon sloped gradually upward to a plateau ceilinged by a rocky overhang which began a near hundred-foot climb to the continuation of the forest. A winding trail led upward from the left side of the plateau: the only discernible path up for anyone lacking the ability to scale walls.

A few minutes of surveying the plateau from tree cover revealed bandit activity afoot, but no immediate signs of the captives. Unwilling to risk descending the canyon, the party made its way downriver a considerable distance after Merlin the owl scouted the terrain. A short time later, the party located a reasonable crossing and easier ascent to the opposite cliff. Once atop it, they formulated a plan while waiting for nightfall.

Wren approached the plateau area from the ridge above it at twilight, spotting a burgeoning fire underneath its overhang, which was surrounded by a cluster of highwaymen. Honoring their promise, Arendeth drew forth the magic scepter and handed it to Rumolt, who tucked it away securely in his pack. Together, the company moved in, thieves repelling down the ledge while Arendeth, Aranos, and Rumolt took to the trail.

As the latter group neared, arrows volleyed to and from the plateau, and Aranos was felled by magical sleep. Rumolt continued to fire while Arendeth closed and Wren, Lincoln, and Riwyn dropped in from above. Jhakine, the Calishite mage, could be seen spellcasting behind the bandits, and as Lincoln was pummeled by magic missiles, a flickering form thrust a blade into Wren from behind, laying her low in a single, deadly strike. The figure disappeared from sight again as a bloodbath ensued; the battle saw Lincoln fall to his injuries before Arendeth crushed the Calishite mage's neck with his morning star and the remaining bandits were slain.

As Wren's body clung to the last vestiges of life, Rumolt rushed forward, removing a potion flask from his belt and emptying its contents down her throat. Lincoln, unconscious but breathing, was revived, and a search of the cavern revealed the smith's wife and daughter - alive, though greatly battered and incoherent - and a dark tunnel leading from its depths.

DM's Commentary

situation
noun

1. a set of circumstances in which one finds oneself; a state of affairs.

I understand that Rumolt has been a point of frustration to the party for a handful of sessions now. In this campaign, my method has been to introduce places, and people within those places with their own histories, motives, and agendas, come what may. I'm not executing to an intricate grand design; I'm creating situations that intersect the party's path, and allowing the plots to weave themselves. In this way, the characters have a large degree of control over their own destinies.

It's always been five against one. Rumolt has always been a burden that the party, for all intents and purposes, has commanded the power to rid itself of. The question has always been the terms under which the sides would part ways, and the concern felt by the PCs in allowing a man with unclear motivations to knowingly leave the company in possession of a powerful magic item. But I've never tried to hold anyone's feet to the fire. If any of the group members feel that way, I'd want to explore the reasons why.

Have the events with Rumolt been fulfilling, or dispiriting? Enjoyable, or woeful? My hope, at least, is that they've been entertaining, and memorable.

I can't rightly end this section without a mention of how close Wren tarried to character death during the melee. At 18 hit points, Whisper rolled a critical hit for max damage on the attack roll for backstabbing, reducing Wren to -6. Three rounds elapsed with no healing or attempts to stabilize, taking her to -9. As the "death's door" points tick off at the end of each combat round, Rumolt fed her his potion during the last possible moments before she'd have descended to -10 and died. That's crazy close. I'm really glad I make my rolls publicly.

What's Next?

I don't consider the party to be at a suitable "safe point" for awarding XP, amid the Neverwinter Wood with Whisper still at large. The victimized family, while alive and intact, is in need of safe harbor. In the previous recap I made note of items for which XP would be awarded; we now have pending story awards as well, given the impactful achievements made by the party with respect to the campaign world.

In the interest of attaining safe harbor and setting a firm direction for the next session, I encourage the players to post comments to this thread to help determine the party's next course of action. Depending on what's decided, I may be able to advance the game forward. This blog is here for you; feel free to use it.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

I Really Don't Want to Know (DM Transparency in D&D)

Quick story: Last night I played in a session of Sean's 5th Edition D&D game, which he documents here. During the game, our group encountered a wraith, which with some powerful dice rolls struck my character to unconsciousness from nearly full hit points in a single attack. In fact, my character was one failed save away from being effectively slain.

This wasn't my least favorite part of the session. It actually didn't bother me at all. I was happy with the decisions I'd made for Nefresil to that point, both from tactical and role-playing standpoints. Untimely things happen in D&D. When making choices, it's important to weigh the odds and understand the impacts of randomness and dice. As a player, you control what you can control and learn to live with the results. If that means your character dies a hero, so be it.

My least favorite part of the session was picking through treasure after the combat and being told, without the aid of any spell, that we had found a short sword +1 and a wand of lightning bolts with seven charges remaining.

(I should pause here briefly as I realize I've used the words "least favorite" two times now, and I don't want to give the impression that I don't enjoy playing in this game or that Sean isn't doing a good job as DM. Sean is extremely new to DMing and running from a module, so all this discussion is intended to be instructional and expressive of the way I like to play D&D, nothing more.)

This brings us to the topic of transparency. Not to engage in edition wars per se, but citing the 2e PH description for the spell identify:

The item never reveals its exact attack or damage bonuses, although the fact that it has few or many bonuses can be determined. If it has charges, only a general indication of the number of charges remaining is learned: powerful (81%-100% of the total possible charges), strong (61%-80%), moderate (41%-60%), weak (6%-40%), or faint (five charges or less). The faint result takes precedence, so a fully charged ring of three wishes always appears to be only faintly charged.
Note, specifically, how the AD&D version of the spell stops short of providing the caster with concrete mechanical information about the item. D&D characters don't understand game mechanics, they understand the nature of magical items in abstract terms. Leaving the mechanical details shrouded keeps the players more interested, and less certain. It helps create tension.

Tension, in D&D, is everything.

To Sean's credit, in his game, the short sword came with a tale behind it that our characters were familiar with from lore. The blade was visibly identifiable as one of a pair that was previously wielded by a renowned historical NPC. The two weapons were never known to have been separated, so the fact that we found this one here, in isolation, was exceptional. Whether this flavor was added by Sean or part of the module he's running, it provides an interesting hook that we could potentially become involved with later on. This is good stuff.

Setting that aside, however, we have an issue of transparency. How do our characters know that the short sword is endowed with a +1 bonus? How do we know that the wand casts lightning bolt? How do we know that it has seven charges remaining? Short of casting a spell that yields specifically this information, our characters shouldn't know these things. Being told the mechanical details outright, in addition to breaking believability in the fantasy world, has deprived us, as players, of discovering the properties on our own. Imagine our characters experiencing the horror of unexpectedly running out of wand charges at exactly the wrong time! Because this information was handed to us freely, this can never happen. We need never plan for it. This in turn makes the game less interesting for us overall and reduces our immersion level.

Similarly, as DM, there's a fine line between telling the players what their characters observe and dictating the conclusions that the characters derive from what they observe. It's OK to tell the players "The orc shifts uneasily as you step into the room," but the DM shouldn't go so far as, "You know that the orc will attack you if you advance any further." We do? How could the PCs possibly know this without trying? Players need to be allowed to draw their own conclusions about the information provided to them, and being overly transparent as DM waters down the game for players who want to feel immersed. They're being shortcut through the nuances, which often end up being the most fun and rewarding elements of role-playing and decision-making.

In the end, I don't want the DM to let me in on the truth. I want to uncover the truth for myself by interacting with the fantasy world. Don't tell me things that my character should not rightly know.

It's important to note that the kind of transparency I'm describing here is different from the kind that the DM employs to show that he's playing by the rules and to instill trust around the table. When every DM die roll is hidden behind a screen, it's too easy for the players to feel (rightly or not) that they're being lied to when unlikely things happen. Transparency with dice rolls to remove doubt that the game is being adjudicated fairly is different from transparency with information. The DM at all times needs to be exceedingly delicate with exactly which details are presented to the PCs. Information and spoilers cannot be retracted.

Now, at some point, spell or no spell, a player needs to know, mechanically, that his or her character is wielding a short sword +1. The intent of this post is not to say that a player should never be privy to this information at all, simply that it should not be handed over without in-game justification. I'm generally not going to silently add a +1 modifier to a player's attack rolls for months on end; it's reasonable to assume that, over a short duration of using a magic weapon, the PC will get the gist of it enough that the bonus can be conveyed and written down on the character's record sheet. We just don't want to deprive the player of learning the nature of the weapon on his own.

It's a poorly-kept secret of DMs that we sorely want, at times, to tell the players everything, to let them in on every minute detail that we've been plotting and preparing over the course of a campaign. But a good DM need always remember that the time for revealing this kind of information is after its in-game relevance has unequivocally passed.

And not a moment sooner.