Friday, March 27, 2015

"Dragons are Jerks"

art by Dave Allsop
 At the end of our last session with my middle school crew, we wrapped up on a cliffhanger as the party's exploration of Thundertree led to an encounter with a dragon!

Confronted with so great a danger, I didn't know if the group would choose to run, negotiate, or fight ...


 ... turns out, at least initially, they chose not to do any of those things, and instead froze like rabbits.

For about three rounds they stared in terrified shock as the dragon, in no particular hurry, idly plucked up, chewed, and swallowed several giant spiders that were lurking nearby.  In proper comedic form, each time the dragon would shift positions or blink an eye the party would push each other and jostle a bit to avoid being the nearest one to it  (as if the distance of three or four feet would make any great difference).

"Should we try diplomacy first?"

"If we push the cleric forward, he'll just attack it and get us all killed."

"If you want me to talk to it, then you have to talk first!"

Finally, the greedy elven death-cleric (who was probably the most to blame for the current predicament) cast Sanctuary upon himself and dared to dash out of the ruined cottage where the explorers cowered.  Without the least pause for thought, like a multi-ton house cat, the dragon pounced ... and missed its saving throw!  The potent defensive spell forced it to waste time or shift its attention elsewhere and the elf scurried away as fast as his heavy armor and bag full of gold would allow, leaving his comrades to their own fates.

Even then, the remainder of the group clung to the scant protection offered by the crumbling walls where they crouched (even when a stray tail-swipe from the beast toppled half of the structure).

Finally, Lefty, the one-armed human fighter, dared to make a dash for freedom, and the dragon began a spirited pursuit -- everyone was sure that Lefty was a goner--  but amazingly the dragon missed on each of its attack rolls!

Perhaps inevitably, the dice finally caught up with Lefty, and the players seemed a bit shocked when the dragon snatched him up, tossed him skyward, and caught him in its mouth, biting the stout fighter neatly in two.

Seeing their friend being overtaken finally shook the group loose from their stupor and the remainder of the adventurers dashed in several different directions.

There was no time to mourn (or loot the body), however, for with a few powerful wing beats the dragon was aloft and ready to enjoy the sport of chasing them down one-by-one.  I handed off dice-rolling duties for the dragon to the fighter's player to keep him in the mix, and he seemed happy enough.

The elven thief used his "mask of the wild" and natural speed to make the most headway, while the halfling-turned-stick waddled in among the bushes and wisely chose to use camouflage rather than trusting his now-pitiful speed.  The wizards ran in opposite directions and I assigned a number to each fleeing character to see where the dragon would turn its attention next.

Sprinting out from behind another derelict house, the female wizard felt a shadow fall across her as the dragon began an attack run.  In an amazing show of pluck, she stood her ground and caught the creature squarely on the nose with a Thunderwave as it dove upon her!  The dragon again failed a saving throw and, given an odds-or-evens toss of the dice, I ruled that it was shaken off course and plowed directly into the nearby house with a thunderous crash!

I thought that the wizard would take to her heels at this point, but she instead stood her ground and hit the dragon with three Magic Missiles, bring the total damage inflicted to 26 hit points.  Enraged, the dragon used its breath weapon while still entangled in the wreck of the house, filling the twisting paths of Thundertree with a stinging toxic fog.  Eventually it was able to free itself, murder in its heart, and when the female wizard finally turned to run again it plunged upon her full of stomping, clawing fury and she met her end in an instant.

"Dragons are jerks."

Taking to the air once again, I allowed each of the surviving characters a reasonable chance of escaping the dragon's notice (75% +), taking stealth, armor type, speed and special abilities into consideration:

  • The surviving wizard went unnoticed.  
  • The wooden halfling wasn't spotted (though it was a very near thing).  
  • The stealthy elven archer was overlooked entirely.  
  • At last, however, a metallic flash caught the monster's eye and it spied the armored elven cleric, still jogging as fast as he could, bag of gold in hand, along the trail leading away from Thundertree.

A quick roll of the dice meant that the angry beast chose to unleash its recharged breath weapon on the fleeing form and 12D6 resulted in 40-some points of damage ... the black-hearted cleric choked out his last breath and dropped stone dead.

"Maybe we should have tried talking to it."

Curiously, none of the three survivors had been the ones so keen on gathering up gold last session -- in fact two of them didn't come away with so much as a single coin!  So it was that they returned to Phandalin not much richer, but certainly a good deal wiser for their trouble, and now with quite a tale to tell!

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Lost Mine: Just a Few Coppers More

Having survived their first excursion into the ruined village of Thundertree rather handily, the middle school players of my weekly D&D 5th edition group decided unanimously to plunge back into the maze of crumbling, overgrown cottages and dense briers.  The pair of wizards, wooden halfling, sneaky-elf and goblin (with chicken) were joined this time out by a grizzled, one-armed fighter-turned-trapper ("Lefty"), who added a little much-needed muscle to the group.

Having dealt with four shambling undead last session, I was curious to see how the explorers would fare when, after several minutes of meandering progress, ten more deadites staggered out of the brush -- this time coming at the group from ahead, behind, and their right flank!

Surrounded, would the group panic, splinter, and get picked off as they had in earlier sessions when faced by orcs, brigands, or loping ghouls?

Turns out, not-so-much.  The group kept up a steady rain of missile fire, concentrating shots on the nearest enemy until it dropped, before shifting to the next target.  The dice were kind too, and a few critical hits led to what we soon called "Daryl-ing."

Still, with over 20 hit points a piece, these undead could take quite a licking before going belly up and, perhaps inevitably, they eventually made it into melee.  Lefty was badly mauled when one of the deadites got between him and the shield he was using to bash them aside.  Ted the goblin, at the rear of the group, bested another foe with his shovel when a stray arrow caught him in the back.  Down to zero hit points, he hung on through five death checks before finally stabilizing.  Even with these set-backs, the adventurers still came out on top and vanquished the last of their undead enemies.

Seeking shelter in a tumbled cottage, one of them spied a heavy wooden coffer with broad iron nail-heads trapped under the roots of a tree.  While the wounded rested and a wizard kept watch, the others eventually hacked enough roots free that they were able to break the front of the box open.  Boo-yah!

Strange but true: since we started playing The Lost Mine of Phandelver back in September, my players have never scored a significant haul of treasure!  There have been opportunities, but time and time again the group would turn back when traversing one more chamber or breaching one more door would have revealed some cache of wealth.  But now, at long last, the gang got their hands on some serious cash ... however ...

... maybe it was the creepy elven cleric's flashy combat spells, or the sound of tools ringing off roots and stones while opening the box, or the scent of blood from the wounded, or perhaps it was the very smell of gold in the air ... but whatever the case, the adventurers had attracted attention and big trouble was about to arrive!

To be fair, I foreshadowed carefully with a cloaked figure watching the party from afar and a cold, growing sense of  dread falling across their hearts, but the lure of treasure was too strong and, to the man, they decided to stick around while the elven cleric jammed just one more handful of tarnished coins into his pack rather than escaping the blighted ruins while they could with the gold they were already carrying.

So it was that the terrible green dragon of Thundertree caught them there, squatting in amid the weeds and thorns, trapped as much by their greed as anything else!

Next time we play we'll see if any of them can figure out a way to get out of this mess alive, or if another Total-Party-Kill waits just around the corner!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Some Wisdom from the Mouths of Babes

Okay gang, here's some wisdom on how to handle dungeon encounters straight from the mouths of some of my elementary school players:

GM (me): "What do you do if you have an encounter with a creature down in the dungeon?"

R: "With what?"

GM: "You know, with a monster of some kind."

R: "I don't know ... you normally 
try to talk to it, run away, or fight."

GM: "And if you try to talk to it, what are your choices?"

R: "You um trick, or like act like you are better than them, or you try to bargain with them or something."

L: "You can either negotiate, trick, or intimidate it."

R: "I didn't know all the words for it but that's what I meant."

GM: "What are some basic tricks you can try to pull?"
No bluffing here

R: "If you are in the right situation you can pretend you are one of them, or you can pretend that there is something big and bad and scary that they are afraid of right behind them or something."

I thought that was a pretty decent way to sum up the basics of how to handle most types of encounters!

This left me reflecting a bit: in both my in-school Adventure Games class and my weekly after-school club, skilled and confident GMs are the most scarce resource.  For this reason, I'm always on the lookout for board games that can either help develop GMs or simulate the presence of a skilled GM at the table.

Most dungeon exploration board games seem to focus on movement and combat, but leave out the entire communication aspect of gaming (whether that be bluffing, intimidation, bribery, trading, or offering an alliance).

Does anybody know of a board game that simulates that aspect of adventuring along with tactical maneuvering and combat? 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Quick Thought: Raising the Dead

Exercises in fantasy demographics (e.g. "How would long lifespans impact the population of elves over the course of a millennium?"or "How many dragon-sized predators can a given region support?") range from the silly to the intriguing, but one serious wrinkle in any GM world-builder's scheme is the potential for characters to return from the dead.

In my Olde School Wizardry homebrew campaign it isn't a question I have to grapple with -- one of the distinctive features in that world is that "dead is dead" and no wizard, no matter his level of proficiency, has ever found a way to fully resuscitate the deceased.

However, in at least two of my other three fantasy role-playing campaigns there are ways to cheat death ... though generally at a very steep price (quests, donations of thousands of gold pieces, etc).

Still, if a high enough level cleric or magic-user has spells such as raise dead, resurrection, and limited wish in their daily lists ... it's a wonder that anybody stays dead long.  Can you imagine what havoc it must wreak on inheritance law and dynastic succession if over 300 people per year shrug off the grave for each high-level caster in the campaign world?

In any case, a while ago I got to thinking ... what if the level of a deceased character played a part in whether or not he or she could return to lands of the living?

Sure, this could be as simple as replacing AD&D's old "system shock" with a flat 10% chance for powerful magic to recall him or her per level of the deceased.  Right away this cuts the average man out of the equation: farmers, merchants, shopkeepers, and most men-at-arms would dutifully shuffle off to their ultimate destiny without a backward glance.  But would a failed check by, let's say a 3rd level fighter mean that she was gone for good?  Or could the spell be attempted again (with all the associated costs)?

One other method for handling a return from the grave that I'm toying with in my Homeguard B/X campaign is to rule that magics that resuscitate almost always work (no system shock or saving throw required), but that they require that an experience level must be expended.

  • The caster could donate this level ... but obviously that would put them out of the dead-raising game pretty quickly. 
  • Far more common would be for the beneficiary of the spell to be the one to lose the level.  Two benefits here: it forces the player to consider how attached to that old character they really are and it also filters out the "un-leveled" masses.  
  • Finally (and this may be the best part), evil spellcasters could perform these magics at the cost of someone else's level.  
"Remember ol' Von Whasname who you foiled in his attempt to assassinate the king?  Yeah, well the High Priest of Orcus who now has you chained up to that wall plans to use your life force to resurrect the that creep before doing you in and animating you as a zombie!"  

I'm always keen to find more reasons for those villains to take prisoners.

Does anybody out there have a clever or unique way of handling Raising the Dead in your own fantasy campaigns? 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

More DMing at Work

Over in my Adventure Games elective class, after students finished their reflective writing, one group ran a game of Settlers of Catan on one side of the room, while a knock-down, drag-out game of RISK moved into its fourth hour on the other side.

Meanwhile, as one of my veteran players ran a re-skinned, lite version of 5th Edition D&D, I GMed my latest group through their third session exploring The Great Library in the multi-dungeon complex of Shebberoth: The Cavern Endless.

pic by solidtom at
Two Bhatvian rogues, two Markland fighters, and a pair of Walvian wizards composed a wonderfully balanced party.  Last time I ran a session, the explorers penetrated a new section of the mysterious library, discovered a magical silver door which they couldn't pass, and tracked a trio of living glass mice before finding themselves cornered by a massive grayish ooze that shrugged off blows from their swords.

Flaming oil, hurled torches, Ray of Frost, and Thunderwave spells finally meant the horror's undoing, but not before it crushed one of the group's wizards with a massive, acid-weeping pseudo-pod.

Having bested a small flock of blood-drinking stirges and carrying the glass mice, some gems, and a bulky lectern with engraved ivory panels, the explorers wisely chose to retreat from the dungeon once their first level spells, second wind healing surges, the majority of their torches, their healing potions, and a fair number of their hit points had been exhausted.

Woe to them, however, when returning to the library foyer, they discovered a second, even larger ooze blocking the exit!  While the surviving wizard used a scroll to teleport to safety, the fighters hatched a plan to heave some of the heavy remnants of a living statue that they had defeated earlier into the ooze to make a series of crude stepping stones.  Some ridiculous dice luck saved the remainder of the group as they dashed to safety.

The cheers and shouts around the table as the last character leaped free of the library told me that these guys were clearly hooked and will be champing at the bit to explore further --

I can't imagine having a better job than this!