Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Mounted Combat

We hadn't dealt with using weapons and spells from horseback thus far in the campaign, and I was ill-prepared to adjudicate this during the skirmish with the wargs. The 2e DMG discusses mounted combat in detail; below are some of the key points. From p. 76:

Mounts trained for combat (a heavy warhorse, for example) present few problems. These can be used in mounted combat with no penalties. However, steeds not trained for combat are easily frightened by the noise and confusion.

Those fighting from the back of untrained creatures suffer a -2 on their chance to hit, since much of their time is spent simply trying to keep the mount under control.
The horses purchased in Luskan are riding horses only, so going forward this -2 penalty will apply. With regards to melee combat:
In mounted fighting, a character gets a +1 bonus to his chance to hit creatures smaller than his mount. Thus, a man on horseback gains a +1 bonus to his attack rolls against all medium-sized creatures such as other men, but would not gain this bonus against another rider or a giant. Those on foot who fight against a mounted rider, have a -1 penalty; this not applied to attacks against the mount, however.
This would have reduced the first penalty to -1, since the wargs were medium-sized creatures. The wargs wouldn't have incurred a penalty, since they were attacking mounts or dismounted PCs. Missile combat, understandably, is more difficult:
Missile fire from the back of a moving horse is possible only if the rider is proficient in horsemanship. Even then, only short bows, composite short bows, and light crossbows can be fired from horseback by normally proficient characters.

Long bows can be used by those with specialization (if this is used). Heavy crossbows can be fired once, but cannot be reloaded by a mounted man since the bracing and pull is inadequate.
There are details beyond this, including penalties if trying to fire while the mount is moving, but let's leave it here until that situation arises. We don't use proficiencies, but I'll allow short bows and light crossbows to be fired by PCs succeeding a Dexterity check, with failure meaning that the round is lost trying to control the mount (with no ammunition expended). Spellcasting can work similarly. Fair?

I also was too liberal in causing characters to fall from their horses in combat, some of which I corrected during the session. Even Aranos' fall, however, shouldn't have happened, by the book. Here are the relevant excerpts:
Killing the Mount: This is the grim and efficient method. Once the horse (often an easier target) is dead, the rider is certainly dismounted. The steed automatically falls to the ground.

If the rider has the Riding proficiency, he can attempt to land safely on his feet on a successful check. Otherwise, the character also falls to the ground and suffers 1d3 points of damage. The character cannot take any action that round and must spend another entire round gathering himself back up and getting to his feet.
Again in the absence of proficiencies, a Dexterity check should suffice to avoid taking damage from a fall. Aside from killing the steed, an attack roll of 20 will dismount a rider, but a "normal" hit against either party will not:
Weapon Impact: Riders also can be knocked off by solid blows from a variety of weapons. Any time a rider hits another mounted character or creature with a melee weapon 3' or longer and scores a natural 20 on the roll, the other character is knocked from the saddle, suffering 1d3 points of damage (if from the back of a normal horse).
There's a lot here to digest, and more in the actual rulebook. I turned out to be a bit harsh in my rulings, but should be better equipped to deal with this next time.

FR #16: The Road to Mirabar

18 Kythorn

Recovery from the catacomb was long and arduous, absent Arendeth's magical healing for several days while the dwarf regained his strength. Though the fallen were tended to graciously, the party was otherwise left to deliberate its course, and the decision made was for Luskan. Before their departure, the PCs were solicited by the missionaries, Lucido and Winifred, that adventuring work in the name of Tyr could be found under the employ of their benefactor, Elidar Highborn, in Leolin. The offer was considered, but declined.

They reached Luskan two days hence, having encountered a trio of armored riders and a small contingent of wagoners en route. As the sunlight faded over the Sea of Swords, Luskan's gate-guards demanded a steep tariff for entry, taking advantage of the late hour and of the city's inherent prejudice toward non-humans. With a sour taste for the place already, the party made its way to the piers and procured lodging at the Shadowatch Inn.

Inside, they were met by an old acquaintance, Pevrel the gnome, who admitted to following the PCs since their episode at the gate. The gnome, who concealed a trained ferret underneath his tunic, mentioned that a local ranger was seeking arms-for-hire to combat goblin uprisings to the east, in addition to hearsay that an unnamed man was bartering in high coin with magistrates of Luskan's "prisoners' carnival" for its captives, effectively thwarting a number of (gruesome) public executions.

The gnome left after drinking his fill, and the next morning the PCs visited a moneychanger to unburden themselves of the copper, silver, and electrum plundered from the catacomb. While Arendeth and Aranos tended the coins, Wren and Riwyn were quietly approached by a hooded man in the marketplace in search of crew for a southbound merchant caravel; at an offer of a hundred gold pieces per head but requiring immediate service, Wren displayed interest but neglected to commit. Upon reuniting, the party agreed to move on from the likes of Luskan and spent the remainder of the day purchasing and outfitting riding horses before departing the city's north gate with an eye for Mirabar.

The lightly-beaten road rolled over vast stretches of hills and plains, the River Mirar flowing ever at the edge of their view to the south. For three days they traveled without incident, but that eve the tranquility was broken by the howling of wolves, far in the distance. On the fourth night, after Arendeth scribed a protective glyph of warding around those who slept, the howls were usurped by a crescendo of marching, singing, and rolling wagon wheels as a caravan crested loudly toward the party. Its lead rider drew close, hailing the PCs and imparting that a pack of dire wargs lurked dangerously near - enough so that the caravan, a camaraderie of men and dwarves journeying from Mirabar to Luskan, broke camp in the dead of night to distance themselves from the threat.

Denying an offer to return with the company to Luskan, the party continued watches into the early morn, finally being set upon by a pair of the fell creatures as they rode on. Aranos was bucked from his horse and mauled to unconsciousness before the wargs were slain, ere the party pressed on wearily, arriving at Mirabar's gates after middark on Flamerule the Fourth.

DM's Commentary

Overland travel is no picnic, and the PCs are lucky to have completed a 240-mile journey with no unrecoverable losses. Merchants caravan in large numbers for a reason, and while adventurers oft possess skills and defenses that commoners do not, a full pack of wargs had a sizable chance of annihilating the party outright; as it was, though they ventured on in spite of warnings from the company from Mirabar, fortune saw them meet only two of the creatures along the road. Had they been set upon at night, when the entirety of the pack was afoot, the outcome may have proved disastrous (although Arendeth's glyph of warding was a superb proactive measure, to be sure).

Luskan and Brithem feel far removed as the salty breezes from the Sea of Swords have given way to rolling pastures and silhouettes of mountain peaks on the northern horizon. For now, marshes and catacombs, gnolls, gate-guards, and banditry seem little more than distant memories.

(My initial draft included a section here for mounted combat, but it ended up being long enough that I'm making it a separate post for easier future reference.)

Riding Horse Attributes

It bears mentioning the attributes of the riding horses procured in Brithem, whether or not they're needed again soon:

  • Hit dice: 3 (i.e., 3d8 hit points each, rolled randomly)
  • Hit points: 17 (Riwyn's mount), 12 (Wren's mount), 17 (Arendeth's mount), 9 (Aranos' mount)
  • Armor class: 7
  • Movement: 24 (240 yards)
  • THAC0: 17
  • # of attacks: 2 (per round)
  • Damage/attack: 1d2/1d2
PCs can succeed a Wisdom check to control the attacks of their mounts, provided that no morale checks have been failed (in which case a steed is likely to bolt).


Since the party has landed at a (presumed) safe point, I do want to award XP for the wargs, even though the amount is small enough to warrant rounding up to simplify my math (we'll call the total 100 XP per PC and 50 XP for Aranos).

I've discussed at various points previously (most recently here) the Tao of D&D XP system, which awards experience primarily based on damage dealt to and by combatants and spellcasters. I still don't feel that the entirety of this system is appropriate for our game, however I am going to begin issuing individual awards of 20 XP per point of damage sustained by PCs and henchmen, effective this session. In short, this helps bolster the party's XP in a fair and realistic way, while not significantly affecting my bookkeeping. I may continue to refine the XP system later on, but for now I see this as a "quick win."

As a result, Aranos (the only combatant damaged against the wargs after I retracted falling damage from Riwyn and Wren) sustained a total of 15 points, and therefore receives an additional award of 300 XP for the session. Accounting for this and for prime requisite bonuses, the party totals now stand as:
  • Arendeth - 15,472
  • Riwyn - 7,736/7,736
  • Wren - 7,033/7,736
  • Aranos - 2,128
Sean will be happy to see that Aranos has attained second level and may roll for hit points and adjust stats accordingly the next time we play.

Thursday, July 6, 2017


I've added a "favorites" label to the site and tagged a few otherwise-unrelated posts that I like to refer back to often. I'd like to tag recaps from some of our most memorable game sessions as well, but it's hard to choose without giving it more thought (there have been so many!). Definitely open to suggestions.

Monday, June 12, 2017

FR #15: Underneath the Castle

17 Kythorn, middark

Having spent several days recovering and deliberating their course, the party was awakened late at night by castle guards headed for the basement in response to a handmaid's distress. The PCs followed, and reaching her learned that a second maid had been set upon by a dark form in a storage room where the pair had been gathering wheat. Located near the end of a seldom-used corridor, the party entered the chamber to the sight of a large, centipede-like creature feasting on a humanoid body.

They attacked, drawing its ire, and it struck back with tentacles protruding from its mouth, oozing a poisonous secretion on Wren and Riwyn which numbed their arms and legs. Aranos and Arendeth slew the creature grimly, ere the dead handmaid was identified and Wren and Riwyn carried to their barracks, where they recovered over the course of an hour.

In the wake of the night's events, a search of the basement revealed a partially-collapsed stone wall below the tower previously felled by the black dragons. The wall had been in place for generations, sealing a path to a stairwell that led to an underground catacomb. The catacomb, Mara explained, had been used to operate a mine in the years before the castle was constructed, when men vied against orcs for control of the region north of Port Llast. The last known resident of the dungeon was a wizard of centuries past; when the wizard was eventually routed from the site, the catacomb was sealed, and Brithem was built atop it.

The opening in the wall was high and narrow, but undoubtedly the means by which the carrion crawler had entered. At daybreak, the party ventured beyond the wall and descended the stairwell, emerging in a cavern that forked into deeper darkness. Taking the rightward path, they discovered stonehewn walls of construction unlike the castle proper; traversing a narrow hall, Arendeth sprung a mechanical trap and suffered an impaling blow before the rest of the party ventured through unharmed. Stone steps ascended to a deteriorated wooden door, and beyond it Wren spotted the remains of a human, long since passed.

As she investigated the room, a score of disembodied, clawed hands scuttled from the recesses around her and attacked. Raking and pummeling and grasping at her neck, Wren sliced them as she ran for the next room, seeking shelter. Her companions followed, barricading themselves in an otherwise exitless bedchamber with a dozen of the wretched things while others attempted to reopen the door from outside.

The melee that ensued turned grave when one of the claws seized Arendeth's throat and strangled him to unconsciousness. For several rounds, Riwyn and Aranos worked to sever the creature's grip as they fended back others and Wren pressed her weight against the door. By the time Riwyn had taken the last claw within the chamber, both Arendeth and Aranos were swooned.

Long minutes elapsed as Riwyn scoured the room. A casting of detect magic revealed a secret compartment in one of the chamber's walls; hidden inside she recovered a chest of coins and gems, a hand-painted portrait of a man in embroidered robes, a half-completed letter negotiating a slave trade, and a large bundle of scrolls. Her friend's strength waning, the elf maneuvered the straw bed against the door and heaved her two comatose allies atop it. The pair guarded the door intensely for many hours before Riwyn rested to memorize spells, the disembodied hands unyielding in their attempts to gain entry all the while.

Knowing that the stalemate would eventually be broken, Wren coated her fishing net in oil and fastened two of its corners to the door. She pulled the door ajar, holding the net taught, ere Riwyn set it aflame as the claws leapt in, withdrew, and cast two magic missile spells in succession. The fire, bolts, and cuts from Wren's blade finally silenced the horrific scene, a full day after it unfolded. Over the course of several hours, Wren and Riwyn carefully returned their injured companions to the stairwell and summoned the castle guards.

DM's Commentary

Crazy session, and third in our recent games where at least one PC strayed dangerously close to death. This time, the rolls trended strongly in the enemies' favor, though there were a few instances where the dice spared Arendeth from dropping below -7. It takes a long time (several days) for a character to recover from that weak a point through rest alone; losing the party's cleric was a fearful event, indeed.

Despite their adversity, the PCs succeeded in returning to the castle intact. What's less certain is where the party chooses to go from here, assuming a handful more days of rest for the fallen: back into the catacomb for continued exploration; back to the Witherwood in search of the source of disease; north to Luskan as tentatively decided earlier; or somewhere else entirely? I'll get with the group on their options before the next time we play.

Residual Effects

The fiefdom of Brithem has surely known a run of bad luck lately: dragons assaulting the castle, gnolls attacking its soldiers, and carrion crawlers invading the basement? One could definitely make the case that I'm coming up with anything I can think of to throw against the PCs while they're here. There's of course a bit of truth in that, but it's not the spin I'm going for.

As explained in various posts and sessions, Brithem and its surrounds comprise an ecosystem anchored by the marshlands, the Witherwood, the fiefdom, and the road. Wetland creatures keep within the marshes and create a barrier against the forest gnolls and their ilk; the heavily-traveled road between Luskan and Port Llast deters monsters from the Neverwinter Wood; and while the jagged, perilous shoreline stymies Brithem's ability to trade by sea, equally does it protect the fiefdom from pirates.

When the pair of black dragons claimed residence in the Witherwood for reasons unknown to the party, this ecosystem was disrupted, and Brithem and its populace have been feeling the ripple effects ever since. Most recently, a sealed-off corridor beneath the castle failed under the strain of the collapsed stone tower above it.

No settlement, however large or small, can subsist indefinitely in a constant state of threat and instability. What the characters have witnessed since arriving in Brithem doesn't represent the relative peace endured in decades past; rather, the fiefdom's ecosystem is being tested, the forces within it affecting boundaries not penetrated for centuries or longer.

Will they break, or merely bend?

Initiative in Action

As talked about earlier this week, we tried individual initiative for this session using the spreadsheet I created, and while I haven't had a chance to poll the players on it yet, from my standpoint it worked fantastically. Aside from the fact that the crawling claws always seemed to go first at the worst possible times, the initiative process was quick, easy, and allowed for a better distribution of actions in combat. Barring any negative feedback from the group, I plan to keep using it for now.

On a side note, when I set up the sheet, I elected not to have Dexterity-based reaction adjustments affect PC initiative rolls on the basis that it's not mentioned in the AD&D rules and would create pressure to account similarly for enemies. After running the two encounters last night, I'm changing position on that - for one, over the course of a campaign, the players need all the help they can get, and secondly, monster physiology is often so divergent that trying to normalize Wren and an army of crawling claws in terms of initiative seems like a futile effort entirely.

What that means is that characters with high Dexterity will have reaction adjustments applied favorably to their initiative when I roll. We have too many occasions where initiative is a critical factor in determining life or death to not err on the side of the party.


A decent amount of experience gained for the foray underneath the castle; as the PCs have returned to safety, I'm free to award these now:

  • Carrion crawler - 270 XP
  • Crawling claws, 19 - 227 XP
  • Wizard scrolls, 6 - 2,300 XP
  • Coinage, gems, and artwork - 1,635 XP
  • Story award - 2,000 XP
That's 6,432 points, which divides into full shares of 1,837 XP for each PC, and a half-share of 919 XP for Aranos. Dead characters aren't eligible for experience awards, but unconscious ones definitely still are. Accounting for bonuses, here are the party's updated totals:
  • Arendeth - 15,362
  • Riwyn - 7,681/7,681
  • Wren - 6,983/7,681
  • Aranos - 1,778
No levels gained at this point, though a couple milestones draw nearer. Multi-class characters, particularly, have a slow going of things.

Scroll Contents

The contents of the wizard scrolls were conveyed to the party in-game under the assumption of multiple castings of read magic by Riwyn; to reiterate:
  • 1st-level: hold portal
  • 2nd: locate object
  • 4th: enervation
  • 5th: sending, shadow magic
  • 6th: chain lightning
Please check the spell descriptions in the Player's Handbook and review the tail end of this post for detailed rules regarding scrolls.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

AD&D initiative technology

Oy - quite a lull between posts, but as mentioned it's a busy year. Sean and I were talking about initiative in D&D this week, and the merits/detriments of different approaches. I don't think any initiative system I've seen is perfect, but I do enjoy the unpredictability of the AD&D systems that require new rolls for every round.

That said, rolling and collecting initiative every round can be burdensome, let alone accounting for combatants individually. In our game, we make a single roll for each side, adjust for casting times, and that's it. The approach works reasonably well, but can lead to polarized situations where one full side acts twice in a row. I told Sean that I'd be willing to try individual initiative per round, IF I could distill it down to a single click.

Achieving that managed to not be too difficult after all; I created a spreadsheet that calculates and sorts the data I need quickly and easily enough that I'd like to give it a go on Saturday and see how the party fares.

Instead of asking anyone to roll initiative, what my spreadsheet allows me to do is:

  1. Gather intended actions from each player, as I do today.
  2. Determine actions for each DM-controlled participant, as I do today.
  3. Type a single keystroke to get full initiative results for the round.

The sheet will include individual modifiers, and durations can be entered to calculate the "end segment" for a particular action (completion of a spell, end of a long movement, etc.). It enables me to use a more robust initiative system while streamlining the initiative process for everyone - hopefully leading to a smoother combat experience overall.

This is what the results look like after issuing a click to make the rolls and accounting for casting times:

Not many drawbacks to at least trying it out. I don't intend to show initiative results to the group regularly - not for any desire to hide them, but simply to avoid putting up a second monitor and distracting everyone with the numbers (not to mention that it could spoil any secret participants in the combat). While this does take initiative rolls out of the hands of the players and is a step away from the transparency I've been shooting for as DM, in this case I think the streamlining of initiative may be worth the exchange. Moreover, since any edit to the initiative roll column on the sheet forces a re-roll of the entire round, it would be difficult for me to "fix" anything as long as I'm willing to show the results when needed.

All for now!

Sunday, February 5, 2017

FR #14: Marshland Horrors

First post of the new year; I see the game moving along at a slower clip in 2017 due to upcoming real-life events, but let's see what we can do...

12 Kythorn

A brief deliberation set the party's direction north, through the marshland, to see what else they might uncover in the forest. The morning fog gave way to a dark, looming canopy overhead as they entered the Witherwood, a subtle rain barely permeating its thick boughs. The trees, brush, and fauna all seemed normal, and the party observed no signs of disease.

When finally they began to set a fireless camp after hours of roving through dense and uneven terrain, Merlin alerted the group to a lifeless, bloodstained gnoll slumped against the trunk of a think oak. In the dim twilight the party noted the same pockmarks and boils that infested the stag they'd encountered with Roth-grim, two days hence. They dared not draw near, ensuring that their campsite was kept at a suitable distance.

During the night, sounds of creatures traipsing through the wood prompted Wren and Riwyn to ascend into the low branches of nearby trees while Arendeth and Aranos took guarded positions on the ground, blind but for the dwarf's infravision. When the movement slowed and veered toward them, the PCs readied themselves for battle, ere a pair of dog-faced gnolls attacked, wounding Aranos before knowing their demise.

The next day, the party meandered east, then turned south, successfully avoiding more gnolls spotted by Merlin, and discovering a copse of corroded trees, likely damaged by something resembling acid. At dusk, they neared the edge of the marsh and again set their camp.

Upon waking and reentering the marsh, disaster struck: quite suddenly, as the PCs made their way through the tedious wetlands, they became aware of hulking, frog-like forms situated around them on all sides. Exchanging wary glances, the companions ran back toward the wood, but the frog-creatures pounced, driving crude metal implements at the party with severe force and outpacing their quarry effortlessly. Aranos was impaled and fell face-first into the murky ground; the remaining party members stood fast, swinging and slashing with all the deftness they could muster at the half-dozen bullywugs assailing them, but the numbers favored their enemies and Riwyn fell, then Wren, with only a single frog-man laid low in return.

In a rare instance of good fortune, Arendeth evaded the attackers long enough to cast hold person, magically paralyzing two of the remaining five. As the melee wore on, the dwarf splattered two more bullywugs amid the marsh, ere the final mobile enemy took flight. Racing against time, Arendeth cast cure light wounds on Aranos, then Riwyn, then Wren, mere moments each from breathing their last. The dwarf urged his companions to flee while slaying the first paralyzed frog-man before hold person expired. The last bullywug, free of its magical bindings but finding itself face-to-face with the dwarf whose morning star had crushed four of its allies, leapt backward and disappeared into the swamp.

Arendeth ushered his companions, feverish and barely able to move, into the forest, allowing them to rest. No creatures happened upon them for the remainder of the day or night, but in the early morning hours a larger platoon of bullywugs began milling about the location of the previous day's encounter. Arendeth led the party away, skirting the edge of the marshland but wading further into the tree cover. When no enemies followed, the dwarf was at liberty to regain spells, which he applied generously to his allies, restoring them to able statuses. Half the day already passed, they continued their trek south, arriving at the trail that led to the crossroads at nightfall.

They marched west, toward the fiefdom, spying a mounted rider. Hiding in the woods, Arendeth cast hold person at the steed's approach, but seeing that the rider was indeed a Brithem soldier, the dwarf released his spell and the party returned to Brithem in the dead of night.

The Skin of Their Teeth

I didn't really think, after the battle at Whisper's camp, that a closer call resulting in no character deaths would be possible, yet here we are. Here's a screenshot of my damage tracking for the session, in all its glory:

The numbers don't align exactly to the combat rounds (because that's not how I track damage), but the black 1s at the bottom mark the rounds of the hold person spell, and the red 1s in the character rows mark the "death's door" damage incurred in the rounds after falling unconscious. As it was, Aranos dropped to 0 and gradually fell to -9 before being healed during the last possible round by Arendeth. Riwyn and Wren each dropped to -1 and fell to -9 and -8, respectively, before being healed. The three consecutive castings of cure light wounds by Arendeth left the dwarf with only a single round to deal with the two magically-held bullywugs, during which he executed a coup de gras to slay one.

Up to this point in the campaign, I've probably applied the recovery rules to characters restored from negative hit points a little loosely. In this particular situation, it felt critical to apply them strictly, since the party was left in such a frail and volatile state following the encounter, especially with so many dangers lurking in their surrounds. From the "death's door" rules in the 2e DMG (p. 75):
If the only action is to bind the wounds, the injured character no longer loses one hit point each round, but neither does he gain any. He remains unconscious and vulnerable to damage from further attacks.

If a
cure spell of some type is cast upon him, the character is immediately restored to 1 hit point—no more. Further cures do the character no good until he has had at least one day of rest. Until such time, he is weak and feeble, unable to fight and barely able to move. He must stop and rest often, can't cast spells (the shock of near death has wiped them from his mind), and is generally confused and feverish. He is able to move and can hold somewhat disjointed conversations, and that's it.
For the sake of consistency, I'll adjudicate this more closely in the future. In previous games I may not have erased spells from a character's mind, etc. Going forward I'll try to stick to the book.

Planning vs. Luck
"Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity." —Seneca, Roman philosopher
I don't want to lose sight, in all the above, of how directionless the party was in rummaging through the forest. The players all knew this, so it's not like it was any kind of secret, but I think the end of the adventure drove home how treacherous their foray really was, lacking sufficient resources or a solid plan. It's certainly possible that they'd have found something more meaningful given a little luck, and I'll also add that Merlin goes a long way toward supplementing the absence of a tracker, having the ability to survey the group's surroundings at a wide radius. Those things said, in the end, the party's success or failure in investigating the Witherwood was left more to chance than anyone probably desired.

The luck of the dice will always play a role in any D&D session; such is the nature of the fantasy world when we play. But one of the core tenets of a successful D&D party should always be to minimize the luck factor as much as possible, through proper planning and the use of resources, be they items, information, hirelings, familiars, etc.


I wouldn't typically divvy out experience at this point since no major milestone was achieved, but given the party's uncertainty about continuing its present course, I think it best to do it now.
  • Gnolls, 7 - 350 XP
  • Bullywugs, 6 - 390 XP
Shares have been divided up and added to the totals on the site.

Forging Ahead

I'll need some idea of the party's plans before the next time we play, as there was much hesitation at the notion of returning again to the Witherwood, or even venturing elsewhere to gather more resources for Brithem. Feel free to discuss your options in the comments or separately offline. In any case, I'll want to know the group's intentions about a week or so out from the next session, once it's scheduled.