Monday, January 29, 2018

Randomness vs. control

This post does well to articulate how I see D&D as a game, and particularly how I approach D&D as a player. Sean did a great job DMing his inaugural session on Saturday, wherein I found myself continually leaning on the familiar mindset of minimizing randomness to maximize control.

As a player, if I'm being asked to make a die roll, it's because I've already exhausted all other available options. I've attempted (or at least thought through) alternate solutions, formulated tactics, and considered the possible contingencies as best I can. The core mechanics of D&D dictate that certain outcomes will always be decided by luck of the dice; your primary job as a player, to ensure your character's survival, is to minimize the impact of luck by maximizing the strategic approach and management of resources at every turn.

This is why I had Kaldric cast flaming sphere on the round before Kai took the scrolls from atop the pedestal, in anticipation that an enemy might present itself in response. As a player, I determined that, given our situation, the expenditure of one of my two 2nd-level spells for the day was worth the possibility of gaining a free round of fire damage against an unknown threat. It worked: three skeletons emerged from the debris surrounding the dais, and one of them was destroyed single-handedly by my spell, without costing anyone a single action in combat.

It doesn't matter, in retrospect, that none of our lives likely hung in the balance of the flaming sphere. Nor would it have mattered if no enemy appeared at all and the spell had been used to no avail. Evaluation of risk and assertion of control led me to the chosen path, and the decision could only be made with the information available to us at the time. It was the right one.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Kaldric Avernus Trelorn

The character I just wrapped up for Sean's new game is an idea I've been kicking around literally since 2010. It took going through some old emails to pinpoint when Jason, Rich, and I had talked about doing a "descendants" play-by-post from our old campaign, and definitely shows how infrequently I get to be an AD&D player. My FR-specific concept is a battle mage/strategist patron of Red Knight, descended from my long-played Realmsian wizard, Cadazcar.

It's pretty sweet to finally be able to give this one a go. My character was actually named a year before our six-year-old daughter!

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The tarot reading (session #3)

The following is a transcript of the tarot reading performed by Kezia. You may find subtleties here that were otherwise missed.

"Two paths converged, leading you here."

"If we are to know your course, we must first know you."

"The Abjurer's importance, four, is twice that of the Missionary, two. Together, they number six. We reveal a hexad."

"A triumvirate of evil has befallen the land. Vanquish them, and know peace. 
Look within the Traitor to find the Beast. 
Look within the Artifact to find the Anarchist.
Look within the Donjon to find the Necromancer. 
No - this is not correct..." [Kezia transposes The Traitor and The Beast]

"Along your journey hence, beware this card."

"But above all else, fear this."

Friday, January 19, 2018

An example of player agency vs. DM narrative

Recently, Sean and I were talking about the difficulty of starting new campaigns, in light of his session #1 kicking off in a little over a week. Do you begin with a mundane assignment for the PCs? A plot-driven story arc that forces the party down a specific path to "introduce" them to the setting? How much narration is OK? How much predestination should be tolerated?

I've self-debated these many times, and learned from past experience on several occasions. We discussed a hook where the PCs begin the campaign as captives in an arbitrary dungeon cell, without their equipment. Is this a reasonable thing to do to a party?

My answer is that most scenarios, including this one, are fine to incorporate into your game, if executed properly. Specifically, the DM should ensure that the party retains a meaningful degree of control over the session's outcome. The PCs should be participants and protagonists, not audience and onlookers to the DM's prologue. To elaborate, I described two ways that a DM might have the PCs-as-prisoners scenario play out.

In the first variation, the PCs awaken in a cell, clothed but lacking any weapons, armor, spellbooks, or equipment. They pass a day in confinement, devoid of opportunities to escape, but learning (from guards, other prisoners, etc.) of their surroundings, why they were captured, perhaps the identity of the mastermind who rules the dungeon: critical information that can be used later in the campaign. Shortly thereafter, a band of rescuers breaks into the cells, leads the PCs to their plundered wares, and shows them the way out. The party battles off a guard or two, but the instruction and heavy lifting are provided by the rescuers.

For the second variation, the PCs awaken in the same situation as the first. Early on, however, they're presented with a potential means of escape: a key slipped to them by a thief in an adjacent cell. The players deliberate on how to proceed; the more time that passes in the cell, the more information they garner from their surrounds. The session revolves around the party crafting and executing an escape plan, recovering their equipment, and making it out alive.

In variation #1, the DM likely ends up doing most of the talking throughout the session - mainly, telling the players what happens as the PCs tag along for the ride. In the second variation, however, the players control the pace, for their planning requires questioning the DM about the subtle details of the cell area, mannerisms of the guards, and demeanor of the other captives. They might spend time (even days) learning about the daily routines within the prison, when mealtimes and watch rotations occur, to figure out the optimal circumstances for breaking free. Do they try to get anyone else out with them? What about the thief who gave them the key?

At the end of variation #1, the players have bore witness to a grand escape, and feel relieved; at the end of variation #2, the players have orchestrated the escape itself, and feel accomplished.

In both variations, the DM starts with the same hook and progresses the campaign from the same point A to point B, but the player experience between the two varies greatly. As a player, I'd find myself disengaged at being an object of the DM's narrative in variation #1, whereas variation #2 would give me a sense of purpose from the beginning (despite the initial forced capture) and a substantial measure of fulfillment (not to mention camaraderie with the other players) upon executing a successful breakout. Variation #1 would leave me doubting whether I'd want to play in the DM's game again; variation #2 would leave me itching to find out what evil plans the party might foil next.

It all boils down to player agency, and enabling the players in your campaign to actually be players in your campaign, as opposed to merely observers. This is largely the stigma behind "railroading" in RPGs: it's not the presence of plot lines or story arcs that causes issues for most players, but the feeling that they, the players, were only invited to the table to consume the DM's narrative.

At the end of the day, AD&D characters are created to play the part of heroes. Let them.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Session #3, Zeb's Notes

1/17/2018, Session #3

Ashes cold, we search the ruined buildings of Shadfeld.  It appears as if some time—hours, perhaps days—has passed since the conflict with Korvich.  The town is empty, the bodies of those slain in the attack taken or otherwise mysteriously disappeared.  Tussugar and Rould do not take the news of my acquaintance with Korvich and the beast Carcerus well; reasonable, and to be expected.

We part ways with Tussugar in anger, each to search the ruins of the town on our own.  Audric & I notice a plume of smoke in the distance, coming from a battered cottage.  We see shadows and a hearthfire within, and when we enter, Audric is held at knife-point.  The occupant is revealed to be Kezia, and after announcing ourselves and our intentions, she bids us enter.

Kezia is a young woman, perhaps in her late teens, in tattered clothing with a red scarf; she bears blood upon her face and knife, though whether it is hers or that of the attackers, we are unable to tell.  She looks exhausted and unkempt.  She indicates that she encountered Shadfeld’s attackers and cut one of them, so the latter is most likely.  She appears to be a wise woman, perhaps a shaman, though of what tribe or people I cannot tell.  She offers a reading, taking blood from both of our palms with her knife.  I have seen similar rituals in Icewind Dale conducted with clotted blood, organs and bone.  Kezia uses a deck of painted cards.

Her cards reveal the Trader and the Druid; the former perhaps a reference to Erathmar, the latter certainly Damyca, which are overlapped by the Missionary and the Abjurer—almost certainly Audric and myself.  She indicates that it forms a “hexad”, a term I have not before encountered.

She reveals six more cards.  She tells that a triumvirate of evil has befallen the land.  The Traitor and the Beast—the latter likely Carcerus.  The Artifact—perhaps the ring Audric carries—and the Anarchist.  The Donjon and the Necromancer—perhaps Korvich, but I did not know my mentor to possess such dark arts.  Kezia announces that we look to the former to find the latter, later reversing her placement of the Traitor and the Beast.  

Two final cards are revealed: the Myrmidon, of which we are to beware, and the Marionette, which we are to fear above all else.  The meaning of both are a mystery.  I offer a reward in exchange for her gift of knowledge, but she declines.  We take our leave of Kezia, fearing for the safety of Tussugar and Rould.  The decision is made, after some gruff talk, to travel to Carrock, 30 miles to the east.  We depart the next morning in silence.

On the route to Carrock, Audric and I discuss the meaning of Kezia’s reading, and we are left with more questions than answers.  In the afternoon, we encounter a pair of riders, dragging behind them an unconscious man.

They respond to our hail, claiming they ride from Carrock to Shadfeld.  We share the news of Shadfeld’s destruction, which is not believed.  The men—Bartley and Emmet—believed their prisoner to be from Shadfeld.  Apparently he is a lunatic, having made claims of demons before attacking their sister.  This form of punishment does not sit well with me, however, and care is taken to revive the prisoner, who seems malnourished beyond the extent of his captivity.

In speaking with Tussugar of Shadfeld’s fall, they relinquish control of the prisoner—temporarily, perhaps—to me.  It is my hope that more can be learned of this man—and his visions—to determine whether he is indeed crazy, or whether he possesses some knowledge that we may need.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Malaran rites

Upon finding a few brief moments of reflection, Zeb considers the attack upon the village, the appearance of Carcerus, and Korvich, the priest under which he, Zeb, once served as an acolyte.

Carcerus, the "Black Devil"
The cultists have traveled far, hundreds of miles and more, in his pursuit, and as such Zeb concludes that Korvich has executed the Malaran rite of vorishnaad, the exorcism of oneself from the cult to form a separate sect. Vorishnaad is typically carried out under circumstances surrounding aclupar, or "reason for being." Aclupar serves as the driving force behind the new sect, guiding its actions and motivations until fulfillment is achieved.

Zeb fully believes that he is the new cult's aclupar, and that Korvich will not rest until Zeb's blood is spilled before his former master in dramatic fashion. A trivial slaying will not suffice, and the presence of Carcerus amid the group is a fearsome indicator of the magnitude of the high priest's will.

Session #2, Zeb's Notes

1/8/2018, Session #2

After constructing a hasty bier for Damyca, we rest upon a nearby hilltop, our minds full of doubts and questions.  In the morning, we prepare what spells we have at our disposal to discover the nature of the runes.  The runes are not etched, but rather applied seemingly by magic to the cave walls.  The spell is revealed to be dimension door; potent, but focused and limited teleportation magic.

Discussion occurs regarding the findings, as well as potential plans.  With little to go on, the decision is made to return to Shadfeld with Damyca’s corpse.  Tussagar believes Tyoness might be able to discern more about Damyca’s demise.

Precious time is taken during our return for me to skin the bear felled by Tussagar the previous night.  Though our travel is unobstructed, the time proves a dear expense; Shadfeld is aflame upon our return.  My first thoughts turn towards Erathmar and the merchant’s safety.

“Carcerus, the Black Devil”: A pitch black, bipedal wolf creature associated to the Beast Cults; a shapechanger.  Carcerus leads (presumably) the band currently setting flame to Shadfeld.  

Alerting Tussagar and Audric to the danger, we rush to the church, where we find Tyoness being held captive by Korvich, my mentor in the Beast Cults.

I roar a challenge to Carcerus, but the beast-kin does not respond, instead mauling the magically held form of Tyoness.  Korvich assaults me with magic, attempting to force me to bow to his will, but I struggle to resist the spell.  While Carcerus and Tussugar trade blows, Korvich casts again, stealing my will to fight, and planting the seed of doubt that leaving the cult was a mistake, and that rejoining is the proper course of action.

Fortunately, Audric is there to talk sense into me, and suggests flight from the conflict.  We flee, but as we do the fires within town fade, as if by some mysterious magic, and except for fleeting shadows and far-off cries, it looks as if the battle has abated, the fires having run their course.

We follow cries back to the church, where we find Rould standing over the injured Tussugar, with Tyoness nearby, dead.  The ashes of nearby buildings are cold, as if hours or even days have passed.  Tussugar is rejuvenated, and we ponder the situation at hand.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Session #1, Zeb's Notes

Much of this was already elaborated upon in the recap of the session, but I'd like to include Zeb's notes as they were written during the actual session (corrections made for spelling and post-session clarifications).  I may eventually record some clue that our DM fails to include in his narrative.

Audric: Crusader of Mystra; seeks out rumors of magic or misuse of magic, investigates as part of his responsibilities to a loose order of like-minded individuals

Erathmar: Caravan leader, weathered and battle-hardened.  Not particularly wealthy.  We have a mutually beneficial arrangement to guard his wagons during his travels, in return he watches our backs.  Currently heading towards Mirabar from points west.  Our relationship is very much “don’t ask, don’t tell” about our pasts.

Shadfeld: Small village along the river, mostly farmers and such.  Has a small multi-denominational temple, run by Tyoness.  Insignia of a gauntlet on her blouse. 
Rould: Hunter, could be related to Tyoness.

Damyca: Druid that had a premonition of evil coming to Shadfeld; disappeared several days ago to seek out information at Moonglow Cave ~2 days to the north of Shadfeld.

Tussugar: Village leader, dwarf.  Founder of Shadfeld.  Unimpressive until he puts on his armor; he’s obviously a warrior of some significance.  In the past, made much of his career fighting goblin-kin in the Spine of the World.  Purchased a magical ring from the last traveling merchant that has unknown powers.

Barish: Friendly hunter, grizzled.  Gave us info about Moonglow Cave, and some confidence that Rould is an effective woodsman.

Korvich: Priest of Malar that was my introduction to the faith.  Spent several years together before leaving the beast cult.  Closest to Zeb, so also the most enraged and upset by his departure.

Typical camp procedure: Alarm spell affects a 20’ cube, I use that with the password “Fang” for my companions.  At four points each 20’ from the camp, I affix tiny bells to string on trees and brush (especially on any obvious approaches).  When there is a fire, always leave enough burning brands so that each person can grab one in case of an emergency.

Traveled with Rould and Tussugar to Moonglow Cave.  Along the way, was attacked by an enraged cave bear which nearly slaughtered Tussugar, until the dwarf changed into a bear himself.  Tussugar, in bear form, killed the enemy bear before reverting to his normal form, though fell into unconsciousness and would not awaken until the following morning.

Upon questioning him, he revealed that he purchased a mysterious ring from the last traveler in Shadfeld, who claimed it was looted from a fallen dwarf.  It’s worth questioning Tussugar more on the matter—who was this traveler?  Who was the dwarf from whom it was looted, and where exactly was it found?  What were the apparent circumstances of the dwarf’s death?

With no answers for now, at least, Audric took the ring and we continued to travel to Moonglow Cave.  Upon arrival, we discovered the withered corpse of Damyca, apparently drained of blood and life though no serious wounds were apparent.  There were scratch marks, as of those of a great cave bear, on the walls, as well as mysterious runes deeper into the cave.  Rould claims that it could possibly be stirges that drained her, but I have my doubts.  It’s conceivable, however, and will remain the most likely scenario until some other evidence is discovered.  I intend to search Damyca for anything useful—grim, but necessary—as well as for any other signs of what may have happened.  The scratch marks on the cave wall are also worth investigating—why?  Perhaps this was formerly the cave bear’s roost, and it used the wall to sharpen its claws?  If possible, I’d like to memorize or write down the runes (assuming there aren’t too many).  We’re going to rest on a nearby hill and attempt to read magic on the runes in the morning, and if no other clues are discovered, we intend to return to Shadfeld with the bitter news.