Monday, November 6, 2017

The Quick Primer: remembering what you know

Tonight, I reread the Quick Primer for Old School Gaming (also linked on the right-hand side of the blog) for the first time in a while, a matter of reflection on the TPK suffered by the party this weekend. At this point, the PDF's "zen moments" are about as engrained as they can be into the way I try to run my games, but it's sometimes nice to revisit things you already know, to usher them back to the forefront of your mind.

Not sure if all the players have read this before; if so, it may have been a while for them, too. The PDF isn't long and though I recommend reading it in its entirety, Zen Moments #2 and #4 (along with some of the "Tips for Players") stood out to me as particularly relevant to many of the sessions we played, including the last.

For my part, it's tough not to fall into the trap of issuing repetitive "miss/miss/hit/miss" responses to attack rolls in combat. Sometimes, when there's a lot going on, you need to devolve to the most basic descriptions to keep things moving. But, even then, spicing up the combat scene here and there is critical not only in providing flavor and excitement for the participants, but also in reminding them that their options are infinitesimally more varied than swinging a morningstar or firing a bow.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

FR #17: Beyond Death's Door

The party is expected to win every time. The bad guys only have to win once.

4 Flamerule

Having arrived in Mirabar under cover of darkness with Aranos still incapacitated, the party sought refuge at an inn whose placard had long since faded. The next day, while Aranos rested and Riwyn tended her scrolls, Wren and Arendeth made contact with a lanky, buoyant man named Drunfeldt, who bid the party to sup with him that eve at a nearby residence where they might find suitable employment.

They agreed, and subsequently visited the cottage of Agloroth and Reticence, a husband-and-wife duo nearing sixty winters who brokered specialist work for the city. The couple explained that, in early spring, rich veins of silver were struck in a previously unworked area of the lower peaks of the Spine of the World. Regrettably, the mine bearing the silver collapsed, killing a score of men and dwarves, the tunnel rendered completely impassable.

More recently, additional teams dispatched to the area located a second cave, harboring a catacomb which led toward the vicinity where the silver was found. Thirteen miners delved deeply within, but only three returned. Of these three, all were seriously injured, one having already died, the others left in the care of a cleric of Moradin in the Undercity. The survivors bore accounts of miners ripped limb-from-limb by a massive creature that neither could identify. Prior to this, the miners had been set upon by chitines: ruthless, four-armed humanoids with an affinity for traps and deception. While the miners stayed off the chitines to some success, the emergence of the larger enemy brought about their doom. Moreover, the miners spoke of other oddities in the tunnel that impeded them in battle: a solid stone wall that softened into mud, and errant, spell-like effects.

In light of these events, further exploration of the area was abandoned until a properly-equipped band could ensure the safety of future expeditions. Agloroth and Reticence offered a bounty of 5,000 gold pieces for proof that any threats to miners had been eliminated.

The PCs accepted the job, passed a day making preparations and locating one of the survivors in the Undercity, and departed north, with Drunfeldt escorting them to the base of the lower peaks. A family of perytons, airborne predators with the bodies of eagles and the antlered heads of stags, had recently been sighted near their destination, and as such the party traveled at night to avoid the creatures' daytime activity cycle.

At the landmark denoting the farthest reach of Mirabar's protection, Drunfeldt rode back for the city, and the party made camp under tree cover at dawn, spotting the perytons during their watches but avoiding any unwanted attention. When darkness again came, they trekked to the plateau that harbored the cave entrance, looking down upon a valley to the north where a spattering of fires suggested an encampment of unknown inhabitants, more than a mile off.

Deciding against an investigation, they entered the cave as the sun began to rise. Inside, the air was cool and damp, and they penetrated the tunnel with caution, prodding at the natural stone floor, wary of ambushes or traps.

As they descended, they found signs of the miners' deliverance: drained and consumed corpses, and a severed dwarf arm which bore a gleaming, pewter ring on one of its fingers. Leaving it, they advanced to an area of the tunnel where thick strands of webbing blocked a portion of the way forward, leading passers-by toward a deep hole burrowed into a section of softened stone. The party burned away the webs and circumvented the hazard, then came upon an impossibly thick barricade of webs, which they similarly vanquished.

Uncertain from the lack of a clear threat, they continued on, setting a makeshift camp near the edge of a partially-webbed segment of tunnel, and passing a few restless hours before a skittering noise betrayed a fleeting, shadowy form ascending the wall, amid the strands.

Concerned, they drew weapons and advanced, cutting at the webs ere being descended upon by several four-armed creatures who assaulted them viciously with claws and blades. Only Riwyn drew back, the others wading into combat, outnumbered and suffering from the chitines' multitude of attacks. Upon casting glitterdust and exposing a dozen more creatures lurking near the ceiling, Riwyn attempted to invoke a powerful spell from one of the scrolls plundered underneath Brithem, but failed.

The spell, chain lightning, had a failure chance of 45% due to being nine caster levels higher than Riwyn could normally use. This was an epic roll, as it almost certainly would have saved the party from its recklessness and felled the chitines, to the one, had it worked.
Aranos succumbed to his many wounds, and Arendeth was set upon in full as the glitterdust faded, vying to utter hold person against the four chitines that surrounded him.
This chance, too, failed by a hair. Sean executed his spell, rolling a "4" for the number of enemies affected, on the same initiative count that Arendeth was assailed, before realizing that he'd misstated the spell's casting time. The chitines' attacks subsequently disrupted his casting, thwarting the spell.
Wren and Arendeth were laid low. Riwyn, still uninjured, bolted from the melee, but the chitines doubled the elf's speed. Lighting a torch amid the cavern, she struck and killed one of the vile creatures before they took her life.

The party fell on the eighth day of Flamerule, Year of the Bow (1354 DR). Their story, for now, is at its end.

Post-mortem

AD&D is a difficult game. This is easy to forget when surviving, time and again, whether by luck of the dice, sound strategy, or favorable circumstance. Laughing and joking around the table, it often feels like participation is enough, that the greatest challenge is in making the time in our busy schedules to get together enough to keep the game going. That a high-level character is the eventual reward for a steady dose of regular attendance over time.

Not so. A high-level AD&D character is truly something to be treasured, the culmination of years of emotional investment and consistent execution. Creating a high-level PC from scratch is one of the least fulfilling RPG experiences I've known, which is why I enforce that any new PC joining an existing game, for any reason, must start at the initial XP total set for all characters when the campaign begins. If this results in a 1st-level mage signing on with a party of established, 9th-level adventurers, so be it. The mage will make his place soon enough, or die trying. From the starting point onward, every new level and ability must be earned.

Last night, there was no lone decision that cost the PCs their lives. There were avenues of escape, dice that might have fallen the other way, and choices to be looked back upon and questioned. We talked about how the party could have sought hirelings in Mirabar, could have proceeded differently in the tunnel, could have managed the combat with the chitines more judiciously. I need not rehash it all here. This session was a grim reminder of the dangers of adventuring, and hopefully comes with lessons to be remembered during the players' next AD&D foray.

What Next?

I have no specific plans yet for how to move forward from here. We've breathed life into this setting through our play, and that could be something I choose to leverage in developing a new campaign. A higher-level party may have possessed retainers, heirs, or next of kin to take over the reins as new PCs, but this group is effectively ended with the deaths of Arendeth, Aranos, Riwyn, and Wren. Might a new party emerge somewhere nearby and experience the world anew? There's much to be considered and discussed in the coming days, balancing the availability, schedules, and interest levels of everyone involved.

Final XP Totals

No experience is gained from a session in which every character dies. Berwyn and Lincoln were not present and technically are still alive. For archive purposes, here are the sidebar XP totals as they stand today:
  • Berwyn - 11,169
  • Arendeth - 15,472
  • Riwyn - 7,736/7,736
  • Wren - 7,033/7,736
  • Lincoln - 10,852
  • Aranos (h) - 2,128
I don't have much more to offer. The party threw caution to the wind one time too many, and ultimately paid the price. There wasn't much I could do to save them, in the end. Until next time...