Friday, October 26, 2018

#13: West Tower

Departing Shadfeld, we travel for the better part of a day under reasonable weather towards Westtower.  We estimate the trip will take 3-4 days of cautious travel, for caution—being far enough away now from Carrock that an expeditious return isn’t possible—is now our primary goal.

Several mountain passes lie between us and our goal, making travel treacherous at times, and at times the road, such that it is, leads us far away from the guidance of the River Mirar.  Bonie, on her trip from Westtower to Shadfeld, encountered no trouble with Larimo—we hope to share their luck on this return leg of the journey.  At the end of our first day, we find a place to camp and go about the routine of breaking down the wagons and preparing for first watch.  Fortunately, the night passes uneventfully.

Our routine continues through the next morning, though near the end of morning we hear a very large crack towards the rear of the train. Perhaps even more ominous than any threat from goblins or cultists, we witness the shattered wheel of one of our wagons, having struck a large rock in the road.  A decision point has been reached—abandon the wagon, or come up with a more creative, constructive plan.  Erathmar seems unhappy about the prospect of abandoning the wagon, so we scavenge to see what tools we have at our disposal.

Ultimately, the decision is made to try and salvage the wagon.  Weight is redistributed to reduce the burden on the broken wagon, some of Erathmar’s men consent to walking as opposed to riding full time, and we try to move one of the good front wheels to the rear, hoping that three will be enough to carry the lightened load.  Selben, for the short term, will abandon his daily studies to make room available on the remaining good wagon so that everyone can rotate in as a rider.  We lose half a day dealing with the fallout of the broken wheel, but the repair seems reasonable, and our pace is only slightly slowed.

Another night passes uneventfully, and the wagons fortunately seem to be holding up.  Travel continues such throughout our fifth day since departing Carrock, and upon reassessing our goods, we recognize that the slowed pace has taken its toll upon our rations.  We believe this to be our last day upon the road, and prepare for Westtower.

Westtower itself is small—perhaps a dozen structures in total, guarded by a tall watchpost.  The rest are small huts and dwellings, and one of these serves as an unnamed inn.  Several dozen died in the attack by Carcerus and his men, perhaps as many as a third of the total population, so we’re not sure what kind of welcome to expect or what hospitality we’ll find.  Westtower’s leader is a militant type, a half-elf named Falinor Daggercross, and upon questioning Bonie about the town and its inhabitants, she reveals that we should seek out the resident cleric, named Shandar Evensbane, a priest of the Morninglord Lathander, who we learn was friendly with Larimo.

Falinor was installed by Mirabar to head the remote outpost, having been the founder and operator of a mercenary group called the Free Company.  He bears a wicked scar on his face, the source of which is not spoken about by those in town.

As dusk approaches, we see the beacon of Westtower’s watchpost in the distance.  We cautiously light torches and lanterns so that our approach will be noticed, not wanting to test Westtower’s defenses after so recent a devastating attack.  We can see townsfolk in the distance, which is a welcome relief.  At a quarter mile distance, we hear a horn call, and we see Falinor approach us, surprisingly unaccompanied by other guards.“We sent two men out to follow your departure,” Falinor tells Bonie, “and none returned.  What news?”  We share our story, of finding the two men, and of the creatures that killed them in Shadfeld.  He claims that he has goblinkin problems of his own, and after a brief exchange of news and corroboration of timelines, Falinor invites us to stay in the village.

As we get closer, we can see burn marks, decimated structures, and other reminders of what happened here.  He takes us to one of the largest structures, which resembles a large kitchen, taproom, and hunting lodge.  Perhaps a dozen villagers frequent the establishment, and added to those we see in the streets, we estimate the current population to be less than a hundred.  In a quiet moment, I return the purse of coin harvested from Westtower’s men, letting Falinor know that they were found slain, and that he and his town are certainly in more desperate need of it than us.

After a while, a robed man who we presume to be Shandar approaches, and we share introductions.  We tell him of our dealings with Carcerus, and of all the events surrounding Carrock.  He shares troubles of his own—that the stream that feeds Westtower has unseasonably dried up, heralding trouble for the winter.  He also tells us of a trio of scouts that were dispatched within the past few days.  Only one returned, and at a site named Rolling Death Falls two of the scouts were killed by goblins, after discovering the demise of a treant—Oakenbramble, a protector of the area.  Since the attack on Westtower, everything seems to be turning for the worse.  No one has yet been sent to Mirabar to relay the news, though one last supply caravan is expected from Mirabar with supplies for the winter.

He is not able to cast light upon any of our questions regarding the goblinoid creatures of the night we encountered several times, the strange symbols upon them or the cavern walls we found, nor does he seem surprised when I reveal that the treant’s death seems to align with similar attacks on Damyca in Shadfeld or Maglarosh in Carrock.  The events of the past few weeks, coupled with the mostly dire news we bring, seems to take a toll on the priest’s optimism.

Erathmar returns with news that resupply and repairs should take no more than a day or two, leaving us with time to explore the area should we wish.  After a brief discussion, Audric & I agree to approach Falinor regarding a potential exploration of Rolling Death Falls, and to learn what more he may know about the goblins.  Falinor reveals that the area doesn’t have any recent history with orcs or goblins but has heard that a goblin tribe named the “Spawn of Kreeth” led by a champion named Bolregs has been active around the Spine of the World, and that there may be some relation to the attack on his scouts.  The tribe likely numbers in the hundreds—Falinor doesn’t know if it is this tribe, an offshoot of it, or perhaps an unrelated band, but it seems likely that the Spawn of Kreeth may be rooted in what’s going on around Westtower.

He seems amenable to us exploring the falls and agrees to assign us a guide.  I tell Shandar a little bit about Selben’s history, giving few details but relating the young man’s history of violence and death, and Shandar agrees to watch over him while Audric and I explore the falls.  Bonie agrees to accompany us as well, and we welcome her company.

In the morning, we are met by Falinor and another man, this one bearing a blade, light armor and a bow.  The guide is named Jent, and that he knows the area well.  I let Jent know that I hope he won’t need to rely on his blade or bow—our intent is for a quick and hopefully quiet exploration of the area surrounding Rolling Death Falls.  On the way we share a basic overview of our experiences, lending some credence to our desire to investigate. 

We make our way upstream, navigating the dense surrounding foliage and rocky areas.  When we finally catch sight of Rolling Death Falls, we are somewhat underwhelmed.  Though it’s perhaps 50 feet high, the water flow is poor, and the riverbed is not nearly as deep as it should be at the foot of such a waterfall.  We approach the fall itself—it’s not an easy passage, but it’s not treacherous either, and we are able to traverse the climb fairly easily.  Bonie seems quite nimble on the rocks and offers to ascend first to see what she can find.  We agree, and she quickly returns with news that we should come see something she discovered in the river at the top of the falls.

We see that several trees and logs have been piled to block the river.  The construction is crude, conceivably a construction of the goblins.  The full 20’ width of the river is obstructed, showing that some work was put into the placement of the blockage.  We take cover, hopeful that our approach was unnoticed should there be any guards, and we are rewarded by overhearing goblins nearby in the brush—and apparently, they are searching for us.

6% on Rotten Tomatoes!
Audric distracts one group with a swarm of summoned rats, while Jent, Bonie and I assault a pair of charging goblins with arrow and spell.  We retreat the way we came, leaving what we believe to be at least a half dozen goblins chasing us, though we believe our retreat to be successful.  After several hours, we arrive back in Westtower, a little bruised but intact.

We share news of our findings—the crudely-constructed dam, the goblins operating in the daylight to guard over it—with Falinor and Shandar.  When we retire for the evening, we are faced with a decision—extend our stay in Westtower to further investigate the goblins and their plan, or continue our journey to Mirabar.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

The art of preparing to run a session

As a disclaimer, this post is as much for my own future reference as it is for anyone who might be reading (but don't let that stop you...).

Sean and I talk about this topic quite a bit, particularly since he's still relatively new to DMing. How to prepare for a D&D session is something you learn and refine through practice and experience over years of running campaigns. There's no magic formula, and what works for one person may not work for anybody else. It's like studying for an exam in that everyone's brain processes and retains information differently, so you have to figure out through experimentation what works best for you. That said, while there aren't any empirical rules, I can still share and document my approach.

Two axes: geographical and temporal

As the prospective DM, whether you're kicking off the inaugural session of a new campaign or continuing to run a party with many notches in its belt, the idea of being accountable to an entire fantasy world can feel extremely daunting. Where do you begin? Do you start by fleshing out local governments, agencies, or dungeons that exist across the countryside, or notable NPCs throughout the region? If you're running a homebrew world, the climb can seem particularly steep, but even in an established setting with a wealth of published material like Forgotten Realms, you may feel like the game world holds you to an impossible standard. (In that case, the first thing to realize is that using a published world should never hurt you more than it helps, and if that's happening you may do well to reconsider your choice. Further musings on that here.)

To the question of where to begin your prep work, my unequivocal answer is "Here and now." The first thing I need to do when faced with a massive decision tree is prune away as many branches as possible to get to what I care about. No one realistically has time to detail every last person, building, and statistic in a game world, so focus on those that carry the most imminent importance. To wit: I don't need to know what will happen in the party's current location six months from now; I also don't need to know what will happen a hundred miles away tomorrow.

These simple assertions drastically reduce the complexity of the problem. I'm not running a campaign where the long-term outcome is already determined, so events unrelated to the party's current time frame or location are of little concern to my next several hours of DMing. This doesn't mean that I completely eschew what may be happening in other areas, but that I need only have a vague notion of those details, and shouldn't make them the focus of my attention since they're unlikely to impact the party over the short term. Having the PCs overhear in a crowded taproom that trolls have begun encroaching on the north border and nearby villages are petitioning for aid is likely to be enough. It's conceivable that the party could take interest in this hook, so I definitely need to be able to convey anything else the local citizenry might know, in addition to accommodating an initiative by the party to set out for the border. That said, I shouldn't prioritize fleshing out this region unless I fully expect the players to take the lead and arrive at the destination. More likely, I'll end up doing this planning several sessions down the road, if ever.

Rather than dive into rabbit holes that may consume hours of planning that I won't use, I want to concern myself most with happenings around the party in an immediate sense, geographically and temporally. If the session is set to open in a town, castle, or dungeon, I need to be well-versed in the ecology of the site: what individuals or populations reside there, how they interact, what sustains/motivates them, and any pressing urgencies to which they're attending. Ecology feels like a greatly undervalued concept in preparing a game; often, too much focus is given to drawing up specific scenes or encounters envisioned in the mind of the DM. While there are instances where this is useful or appropriate, if I truly understand the ecology of the actors in the game world, I should be reasonably well-equipped to adjudicate any situation that arises during the session, even if I need to ad-lib a few names or stop to roll an NPC's hit points or ability scores. If there are individuals for which I suspect these numbers will be needed, I'll roll them up ahead of time.

The further you look down the party's intended path, the fewer details you need to know. If the PCs are embarking on a journey that leads them through a series of towns and villages, I should know the ecology of each settlement at least at a macro level, but I definitely need to more thoroughly immerse myself in the locations the party will spend time in first. Any substantial event, encounter, or distraction has the possibility, based on decisions by the players and whims of the dice, to sidetrack or significantly delay the party's course. I might put a great deal of work into readying myself to run the first village along the road, but the further out I look, the hazier my view becomes. While I might be able to make a confident assumption that the party will arrive in the first village and take part in its dealings, my confidence wanes considerably with each subsequent hop along the journey. The foggier my take on the party's future, the fewer specifics I prepare. This approach serves me in multiple ways: first, I avoid putting time and effort into preparation that has a higher chance of not being needed, and second, because I haven't invested this effort, I feel less compelled, consciously or otherwise, to force the PCs down a path I prepared, giving them more freedom of choice and control over their destiny. When it comes to actually running the game, I want to be the unbiased referee, not the puppet master pulling the strings. Had I spent hours writing up details on the north border region with the trolls, I'd be more likely to artificially steer to party toward taking the hook, when they may not have any real interest in pursuing.

Predetermined vs. triggered events

In addition to interactions between people and locations, I make sure to plan through any predetermined events that I've "scheduled" to occur irrespective of the party's actions. Ideally, these events have been logically derived from the ecology of the area. For example, if I know that orcs are plotting an assault against a local village, I should determine, before the session begins, when the attack will occur, how many orcs are invading, what the attackers' entry points and strategy will be, and so forth. The date and time can be chosen outright or be assigned a degree of variance (e.g., 1d4 nights after the next full moon, when the orc chieftain gathers his forces on the mountainside). Wherever the PCs happen to be at this time, the raid will be executed, unless they do something in the interim to subvert the orcs. Preparing for events and allowing them to play out regardless of the party's actions helps create realism in the campaign world. Not everything needs to specifically revolve around the characters, even though I might only plan in detail the events in their vicinity.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are "triggered" events, which are common in published modules, especially in manipulative settings like Ravenloft. Triggered events should be used sparingly in any game that doesn't want to predestine the characters' path; examples are akin to "The innkeeper is kidnapped the night after the PCs investigate the cemetery," or "Whenever the PCs walk past the town constable, they overhear him negotiating the assassination of the mayor." These types of events can be exciting, but they also make assumptions about how the characters must act in order to fulfill the DM's narrative. This approach to running a game isn't strictly right or wrong, but comes with strings attached that steer the campaign toward an outcome largely not determined by the players, and this isn't something that's desirable for every group.

Not exactly "points of light"

Finally, trimming decision tree branches and preparing in less detail the further out you go is similar to, but not the same as, the idea of "points of light" (formalized as a setting concept in D&D 4e), which asserts that there exists a collection of known, civilized areas and that everything in between is mostly uncharted or "dark." While the planning approach I've outlined tends to evoke the feel that the party's immediate surroundings are a "point of light" amid the darkness, this is only necessarily true in terms of your own planning as DM. The regions and timelines outside your short-term scope of interest may be extremely well defined in source material or to the inhabitants of the game world. It's only that you, the DM, don't need to concern yourself with details beyond what's relevant to the party given its present course.

I think I'll end here for now, as this post is lengthening and mostly a result of stream of consciousness writing. Happy to read anyone's comments.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

#12: The Road from Carrock

After nearly a week of waiting, we finally get a chance to meet with both Bonie and Larimo to discuss plans for the future.  He has been long in recovery, and it is our hope to persuade them both to accompany us back to Mirabar.  Larimo expresses thanks to Audric for aiding in his healing, but eventually confides that he feels too old to make the trip, though he hopes that we’ll take care of Bonie.  We learn that he is a cleric of Garl Glittergold.

Bonie seems as surprised as we are at first, though quickly conceals it behind her typical stoicism.  Despite her attempts to persuade him, he stands resolute in his decision to remain in Carrock.  Bonie lets us know of her desire to head first to Westtower to reestablish contact with her employer there, then eventually back to Mirabar.

We all—Erathmar and his men, Bonie and her pony Elseba, Audric, Selben and I—are eager to depart Carrock, and plans are put into motion to leave within the next couple days.

On the eighth day since the defeat of Carcerus, we are seen off by Drachus and those few other early risers of Carrock, most still abed, sleeping off the lingering effects of the previous evening’s festivities.  We settle upon a leisurely pace, Selben studying within one of the wagons, the rest of us taking turns on point.  Travel is uneventful through the first day, and we arrange for a three-part watch, splitting it among us and Erathmar’s men.

Despite the lingering fear of wolves attacking in the night, result of several weeks of stress anticipating an attack by Carcerus, the night passes uneventfully.  The next morning, we crest a hill and catch our first view of the ruins of Shadfeld since our flight weeks ago.  We decide that I, Audric and Bonie will scout ahead, make sure the road is clear for Erathmar’s wagons, and investigate the ruined village.

We make our approach, leaving the sounds of the rolling wagons behind us.  Only our own footsteps on the dirt trail break the eerie silence of the day.  Once we reach Shadfeld, perhaps it’s a trick of the mind, but it suddenly seems as if the sun is not as bright, the horizon darker than it was a moment or two ago.

The village appears much as we left it—abandoned.  Audric and Bonie head back to wave Erathmar through.  On a whim, I leave the road to investigate the house where we met Kezia, but before getting that far, I encounter a pair of corpses ahead on the road.  They appear to have been armed, but their throats and lower jaws have been ravaged and torn open—immediately, memories of the creatures that attacked in Carrock spring to mind.  The kills are recent…within the last 48 hours at most, with few other clues as to what happened.  As the men are in no need of worldly possessions, I cut a pair of belt purses from the corpses and considers my options.

I decide to continue towards Kezia’s house, but before I can take a step I see a fleeting shadow between two buildings.  Bringing up a ward against paralysis, should it indeed be one of those creatures, I foolishly decide to investigate.  In the distance, I hear the rolling approach of the wagons.

From the shadow of a nearby half-wall, one of the horrible creatures rakes its claws across my shoulder, then ferociously launches a flurry of attacks, clawing and biting, and it gets its hands around my neck.  Its intention—tearing out my throat—is apparent, and I raise my knife in defense, hoping that my friends heard my muffled scream.

Bonie rushes forward pell-mell but is nearly brought to a full stop when she witnesses the creature ravaging me.  Audric taps into untested depths of his powers and conjures forth a pair of snarling goblins.  Bonie and one of the goblins attack the creature as it continues to maul me, shattering Audric’s protective spells and ignoring the other defenders, intent on ending my life.

Unable to ward off the attacks, it sinks its maw into my throat, tearing out chunks of flesh.  Blood wells immediately fill the void, spurting onto the ground nearby.  The last things I see as my vision darkens, as numbness beings to take over, is Audric struggling against one of the creatures, bright blood flashing from several wounds, then Selben rushing forward, then collapsing suddenly by some unseen power.  Then, all is black.

When I awaken, I find myself once again within the confines of Carrock.  Audric is near, and I learn that he also fell during the attack—it was only by the bravery of Bonie, Erathmar, and Erathmar’s men that we were saved.  After the encounter with the creatures concluded, the company gathered our bodies and rushed back to Carrock; fortunately, Larimo was able to call upon the blessings of his deity to speed our recovery.

My mood is dark, and the atmosphere in Carrock seems grim once the news of the encounter spreads.  There is some talk of options, but both Bonie and Erathmar seem resolute in their description to accompany us, so we abandon any other option and quickly plan for a second attempt. Larimo, moved to action by the recounting of our encounter and subsequent fall at the claws of the unknown creatures, reveals plans to accompany our group.  It is determined, however, that such a plan would leave Carrock without the resources it needs would such an attack occur and is thus dissuaded.  We leave the following morning, and our return trip to grim Shadfeld is uneventful.

Going through Shadfeld a second time feels like a funeral march.  Bonie clings to Elseba, all of the men are eagle-eyed atop the wagons looking for any signs of movement, anything that would signal danger.  The corpses of the fiends that attacked us are where they were left on the road, heads removed, bodies bloated.  The procession pushes through, eventually reaching the opposite side.  We push on a little further, then decide to camp for the night.