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.

XP

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!