Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Homeguard: The Battle of Gideon's Fort

My kids and their grade school aged chums have been chopping away steadily at classic TSR module Horror on the Hill since the spring.  They've crossed swords with dozens of hobgoblins, tangled with their first troll, followed the clues found in a wizard's journal to navigate the dungeon below, rescued a dwarf and a thief held as thralls by the ruthless Hobgoblin King, struck a bargain with the mysterious wizard Leodin, solved a two-part puzzle to gain entry to a magic fountain hidden within the ruined monastery, discovered the red dragon (!) resting in the halls beneath the hill, and learned of an alliance between the goblin-folk and the Cult of the Dragon.

This weekend, by cover of night, the allied forces of chaos swarmed out of the eponymous Hill, crossed the river on rafts, and launched their assault upon Gideon's Fort, the modest bastion of law that has served as the base of operations for the characters thus far.

The session opened with each of the five players choosing where to place sharpened posts (intended to make it more difficult for the dragon to land inside the fort), pairing up spellcasters with plate armored bodyguards, and dispersing around the interior of the fort so that no single gout of dragon flame could incinerate all of them in one fell swoop.

Forewarned due to the daring reconnaissance of Mitchell the Robber, a determined force of defenders was assembled:

  • Aareck the Hero (that's a level 4 fighter for you young uns)
  • Jonathan the Swordmaster (level three) and his retainer
  • two veterans (level one fighters)
  • Fromo the halfling Swordmaster and two other halflings
  • fort Commandant Nighthill (a second level fighter)
  • a clerical adept (level two) and an acolyte
  • four elves
  • a dwarf
  • Leodin the Sorcerer and his pair of charmed lizardmen
  • Charlotte the Medium (first level magic-user)
  • 18 normal men (soldiers of the fort)

The attack opened abruptly as two squads of kobold sappers assaulted a poorly lit section along the southeastern face of the palisade wall.  A dozen or so lurked in the darkness using darts and javelins to thin the defenders while the rest dug, chopped and climbed in an effort to get past the wall.  Two small breaches were forced and soon defenders were streaming in from their posts to cut the kobolds down.

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Meanwhile, on the northeast side of the fort, Jonathan struggled to understand one of Leodin's lizardmen as it emerged into the light of a flare and rasped something up at him.  Soon the message became clear, however, as a squad of bugbear shock troops dashed silently out of the night.  They mounted the wall with ease, battering a cleric and several other defenders to their knees as they prepared to sweep their section of the wall.

Displaying IMG_20141123_161342.jpg  A web spell slowed the bugbears a bit, but despite the silent ferocity of their initial onslaught they abruptly lost momentum, allowing defenders to shift in order to contain them.  Perhaps a miscommunication among the enemy ranks had led the bugbears expecting to join up with another unit (or perhaps it was just two rounds worth of single-digit attack rolls -- sheesh).

Then a cry went up from the fort's western watchtower -- Sayana the elf spotted a pair of enemy rafts about to land!

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Here is the southern of the two rafts, dripping with hobgoblins!
As the forces of chaos began to disembark, torches flared within the grove south of the fort.  Flanked by a half-ogre bodyguard and a gaggle of evil clerics, the huge Hobgoblin King appeared.  Before him a row of hooded figures were made to kneel, arms behind their backs.  The wicked creature hailed the defenders, "Throw down your arms and surrender the fort to us or these captives will die!"  Blade, impetuous veteran of numerous battles, was immediately suspicious.  His player started asking questions about the captives -- what could be seen of them and what type of folk were they?  I allowed a roll and, sure enough, when one of the "captives"shifted position a bit it became clear that his hands weren't really bound behind him at all.  The defenders jeered at the apparent ruse and shot a few arrows to show the hobgoblin lord that his trick would not catch them off guard.  Their masquerade abruptly over, the figures stood and removed their hoods, revealing the cruel faces of a party of orcs.

The Hobgoblin King had a final card to play however.  He lifted a brazen horn to his fanged lips and blew three sharp blasts.

But for Mitchell's daring spycraft, things would probably have gone much, much worse for the defenders, but as it was the players met eyes across the table, "The dragon is coming -- get ready!"  Sure enough, with a rush like the sound of wind through pine trees, a fierce red dragon dove and wheeled above the embattled fort before coming to land atop the main watchtower!

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The response, carefully planned ahead of time, was immediate.  Dragons are so terrible, in part, because of their nearly-impenetrable scales (a red dragon's AC -1 means that most defenders would need to roll a 20 to hit the beast), but blood had been spilled and lives lost in order to keep the elves and other magic-users out of the fight until this point.  With their enemy clearly in sight, Magic Missiles streaked unerringly from six separate locations to strike the creature!  Shocked by this abrupt turn-about, the dragon suddenly found itself seriously injured, half-blind, and confronting a half dozen spellcasters of unknown capability rather than simply roasting a handful of panicked men-at-arms.

Enraged, and suspecting treachery on the part of its hobgoblin allies ("They lured me into this fight hoping that I'd be slain so they could take my gold for themselves -- the filth!"), the dragon blasted the top of the tower and directed a few more gouts of flame at most dense clusters of troops (at this point with no regard for which side suffered more) before smashing the landing rafts and winging off into the night, stung by more arrows as it went.

The hobgoblins watched in dismay as their "secret weapon" left them stranded on the enemy shore and began a desperate fight to the finish.  A half dozen defenders sallied to strike against the Hobgoblin King and his bodyguard (both statted as max-hit point ogres), and though half of them fell, Huey the Elf was finally able to drop the enemy leader.  The battle for Gideon's Fort was over.

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Huey the Elf finally slays the implacable Hobgoblin King

  • All dice rolls were made in the open.
  • All models could move up to 6" and attack, or run 12".  Walls and buildings halted movement.
  • I checked morale when a unit had suffered 50% casualties -- as luck would have it, the kobolds turned fanatic and fought to the bitter end while the hobgoblins routed once their king fell.
  • To keep the battle running quickly, I ruled that every attacker and all of the rank-and-file defenders had an Armor Class 6 unless specifically noted otherwise.
  • We didn't use hit points for most troops (or rather, we did, but in the same way that proto-D&D wargames did).  All attackers smaller than man-sized and all regular human defenders were killed with one hit.  Man-sized attackers (hobgoblins) required two hits to kill and bugbears had to be hit three times to be eliminated.  Leaders, elites, and player characters used standard Basic D&D rules for tracking hit points of injury.
  • 14 defenders were killed, including Sayana the Elf who blasted the dragon directly in the eye and tried to push a zero-level NPC to safety before being engulfed by dragonfire.
  • Players who lost characters were given small squads of defenders to command.
  • Around 70 attackers were slain before the enemy units collapsed.
  • Experience points were divided among all surviving defenders (about 24), yielding a couple hundred xp each.  Maybe some of those zero-level scrubs will rise to the rank of "veteran" ... a.k.a. first level fighter.
  • Actual play ran about three hours (significant recess in the middle) -- about a dozen total turns (not too bad with a hundred models on the table).
Adventure hooks?  Yes please!

  • There is now an angry, badly injured dragon waiting up the Hill, plotting revenge upon Gideon's Fort and its defenders.  Oh, and it has a great scarfing mound of treasure too!
  • Nothing short of a wish can bring Sayana and others reduced to ash by dragonfire back from death.  It is said that such magic may be found in the elven stronghold far in the east, beyond the Realm of Man.
  • The Hobgoblin King's treasury must now be only lightly guarded, but it won't remain unlooted for long -- can the characters get there first?
  • Who is going to mop up the stray enemies, remnants of broken units, now wandering the land around Gideon's Fort?
  • What about the Cult of the Dragon?  They had some role in all of this -- what are they up to?
Does anybody have an opinion on how rapidly a dragon should recover lost hit points?  The Homeguard gang is thinking about trying to finish the beast off before it can regain its strength.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Phandelver: a Wrinkle in the Plot

Last week my middle school crew (now sans crazy halfling cleric / wolf-lord) continued with their 5th edition D&D game while elsewhere in the school library the usual Strategy Games Club goodness continued.  Notable among these other games were two separate tabletop role-playing games each created by 8th grade girls and each featuring player character monsters, PvP combat, super powers, and maze-running smack downs!

Frankly I'm intrigued and if either of the young writers would care to comment with details about her design or the inspiration for her game I'd love to share.  Maybe I can get an interview together at some point as a way of capturing some of the unfettered creativity and fun they've got going on.

Meanwhile the player of our dwarf cleric announced to the group that he'd been doing some reading online and that he knew all the details of the dungeon that the group was about to enter.

That took me right back to my own middle school days when, part way through a session of hacking and slashing AD&D, Curtis Neff announced that A.) he had to leave early B.) he had read the module we were playing beforehand and knew how everything was going to go anyway, rattling off some choice details about key monsters and locations on his way out the door.  I think we were playing The Isle of Dread ... anyway, it felt like a big cheat and I had to scramble to recover the momentum of the session.

Fortunately, these days I couldn't begin to stay on a script if I wanted to, so it was child's play to throw in a wrinkle that would significantly alter the published encounters while maintaining the challenge level.  An ambush by giant frogs soon followed and as the adventurers probed deeper into the cave in an effort to find signs of the fate of their patron, Sildar Hallwinter.  Signs of battle revealed where goblin defenders had been overrun by spear-wielding bactrians!

We ended the session as the group scrambled up a side tunnel.  Throughout their brief crawl they had managed not to split up, avoided targeting party members with area effect spells, and exercised some basic discipline with both marching order and attacks (concentrating their fire).  It may just be a fluke, but I'm hoping that a few of the key tactical lessons are finally starting to sink in a bit.

It's also apparent to me how a dungeon setting is the perfect training ground for this sort of thinking -- dungeons, by their nature, limit and focus options and present challenges in very immediate and concrete ways.  I wonder how things might have gone differently with this group if we had started their first session at the entrance to a cave rather than on the road to Phandalin.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Frodo Wolf-Lord?

We got a solid start to my after school 5th ed D&D middle school game ... the five guys present at the table (two so stoked they showed up in cloaks / cowls) even recapped the main points of the tactical advice that I had shared two weeks prior without any prompting from me.

"Don't split the party."

"Concentration of fire."

"Make sure you have an escape route if you don't know how many monsters you are up against."

"Put the armored guys up front and the squishy ones in the back."

I slapped on a somewhat ham-handed back story to explain why this third group of adventurers were making the trek along the Triboar Trail to Phandalin:

"You are bondsmen and men-at-arms in the service of Sildar Hallwinter.  In a flurry of excitement your master rode for Phandalin a week ago in the company of a dwarven prospector, but he has not sent for you as was planned.  Indeed, news from the latest travelers suggest that Hallwinter never arrived in the western hamlet at all and has instead gone missing!  You have set out along the Triboar Trail to find him."

I decided that Hallwinter's dead horses, first encountered by middle school party version 1.0, would have been pretty thoroughly scavenged over the past week, but still tossed a few (basically harmless) wolves in and added some skittish crows to telegraph the encounter.

The guys went into fast forward at the prospect of a combat encounter -- some wanted to avoid what they perceived as potential danger, others were all for setting up a crossfire ... soon parts of several plans began to be implemented and we had one armored character up a tree while the leather-clad rogues advanced ahead of the stalled fighter who wouldn't budge an inch.  They could see things starting to unravel and started to move back into close formation when the halfling cleric, who could speak to animals, started taunting the largest wolf from his perch in the tree.

When considered alongside the multiple occasions when the group has been intentionally targeted by their own Sleep Spells, I think this is a significant data point suggesting that ALL SPELLCASTERS ARE CHAOTIC ... at least all the ones played by middle schoolers.

The alpha wolf was content to threaten and snarl rather than actually attack, so the cleric blasted him with a (absurdly overpowered?) Guiding Bolt for 4d6 hit points.  The wolf survived, but fled smouldering into the forest.  Elated and spouting megalomaniacal ravings, the halfling bullied the remaining wolves into submission ("I am the KING WOLF!  I am the WOLF GOD!  I will make a wolf army and we will take over everything!") then, over the protests of his fellows, he set out in pursuit of the wounded alpha with plans to kill, heal, or tame him (these "plans" varied moment-by-moment).

They split the party.

Then, frustrated over their inability to follow their own advice, they split the party again.

While some adventurers tramped along a small, branching trail, the halfling plowed headlong through the woods and eventually into the arms of a bemused but opportunistic orc hunting party.  5th ed orcs are tough ... and when wielding great axes they can drop even a 3rd level  character in a single hit.

In a burst of genius the halfling used Thaumaturgy to call the wolves he had cowed to his aid (criting a DC 18 Charisma check) and battle was joined.

As our session wound down, the remainder of the party (now reassembled) reached the end of the fork and discovered a cave from which a stream noisily splashed (... mm ... dungeon ... this looked promising ...) while the halfling saw his stalwart wolves cut down one-by-one.  A little more decisiveness, thoughtful deployment of spells (another Guiding Bolt perhaps?), or even deciding to retreat when things started to tip and he probably would have won out against the orcs, but as it was he squandered a turn or two hanging back and watching only to find himself overrun at the end.

As we packed up I suggested to the group that perhaps another lesson had been learned:

"A party of four adventurers may actually be stronger than a party of five when one of them is a bit unstable."  

Or to put it more bluntly: "Keep you eyes on the twitchy one or he'll get you killed."

Saturday, November 8, 2014

New Monster: Carnomites

Recently, in my all-wizards Olde School Wizardry campaign, the players ran across a colony of carnomites.  Nearly-microscopic, winged, soft-bodied social insects, carnomites move far too fast to be seen with normal vision.  Only in sleep do they slow enough to be spotted, glowing gently for the second or two that they need to slumber, as they drift toward the ground.

Carnomites prize bone above all else, for they build their intricate, city-like nests out of it, require it for breeding, and even store the colony's memories externally in delicate, lace-like networks made of bone.

  A worker carnomite's jaws are both large and strong in proportion to its size and are capable of shearing through flesh to snip off fragments of skin or tissue the size of a sand grain -- a feat it can accomplish hundreds of times in the space of a single minute!

Possessing an utterly alien intelligence and motives that are often inscrutable, carnomites may busily strip all the flesh from victim (depositing it in several neat piles), while leaving the victim's companions unharmed.  Though some victims are killed outright, others are carefully cultivated and their bones are taken a single joint at a time.

Though they are best avoided, there are many ways of combating carnomites and they are particularly susceptible to magic (-5 on saving throws).  When running an encounter with them, determine whether they intend to harvest bone (generally 20% chance, increasing by a cumulative 5% per round) and if they do, what percent of a victim's maximum hit points are reduced during the attack (1-100%).  Physical attacks and flaming oil aren't effective in reducing a swarm's effectiveness (they simply move too fast), though they may act aggressively in response to damage to one of their fragile nest structures.  Gas, sleep spells, and some other area-of-effect attacks can be very effective if they are positioned so as to catch the entire colony at once.

Carnomites were born from the thought: "What must trees think of us?

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Olde School Wizardry: Trying for the A+

In these posts, I've hardly mentioned my several-year-old men-with-beards role-playing campaign, but as much time as I throw at gaming with kids, I devote at least an equal amount of energy and effort to gaming with adults.  "Olde School Wizardry" is the name of both our campaign and our homebrew rules system.

In our latest episode of OSW, part of a Slave Lords / A-Series remix, the characters (all of whom are fifth-year students of the premier institution for wizardry) battled their way through guardian "Mants" and succeeded in rescuing prestigious Professor Funan Ris (Th.D. School of Air) from the tropical isle where he had been spirited away to labor out his days in the sugar cane fields.

Upon returning to the Collegium Mysterium each character / student is required to submit a detailed report on what transpired to the school administration.

Players will identify:

1. The one person who is most to blame for all this nasty business

2. The one person who deserves the most credit for resolving things in a way that preserves the gravity and decorum of the Collegium

3. The one person who wasn't at all helpful

4. The one detail that he wishes to omit mention of at all costs

5. The one plan of action he urges the administration to take

6. The one course of action he wishes to hint at without actually saying plainly

System: Players roll 1d20 + Charisma modifier. 

10-11 = the student wizard's report pretty much conveys his intent 
8-9 = one of his positions on the topics above is misconstrued
6-7 = two are misconstrued
4-5 = three are misconstrued
2-3 = four are misconstrued
0-1 = five of the wizard's points are ignored or misunderstood
< 0 = utter hilarity ensues

I haven't yet decided on the positive results, but suspect that a result of, let's say 14 (+2), trumps successes by other players, allowing a player to deflect blame and cast it on someone else.

Players who go to the trouble to actually write out their reports in-character will receive a substantial bonus on the dice.

Wizards are naturally a competitive lot and vying for prestige and class rank is the order of the day, so this little embedded mini-game will allow for ample intrigue and political backstabbing!

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Tale of a "Lowly" 1st Level MU

Today in my Homeguard BECMI D&D Campaign, where we are carving our way through classic module B5 Horror on the Hill, things moved forward in two short bursts.

Last time a brave thief with an invisibility potion learned that yes, there was indeed a red dragon under the eponymous hill, and second, the terrible beast had struck a bargain with the hobgoblin king who rules the halls below the ruined monastery.  The dragon would serve as the hobgoblins' secret weapon in their pending assault on Gideon's Fort (borderland bastion of the lawful Realm of Man), and in exchange the hobgoblins would help the creature relocate its precious hoard to a secret location.

Having reasoned that the hobgoblins massing beneath the hollow hill must be preparing some way to cross the broad river west of the fort, half of the party paddled across in small craft and succeeded in finding the sheltered cove where four large, crude rafts were being prepared.  They rescued the enslaved work crews, scattered the bugbear overseers, and slew the minotaur captain before stealing two of the rafts and making their escape.

Meanwhile the other half of the party crossed the river at a lower point in hopes of scaling the slopes of the hill unseen in order to find Leodin, the mysterious wizard-benefactor who had been urging them on in their quest.  Unfortunately their coracle was spotted, the alarm raised, and a squad of bugbears and hobgoblins were dispatched to deal with the adventurers.  The party's halflings prepared an ambush, but against the odds they were spotted and when an evil cleric was seen directing the monsters things began looking a bit grim.

It was then that Charlotte, the lowly first level magic-user (played by my eight-year-old), cast her only spell for the day: Charm Person on the cleric and things took an abrupt turn.

Failing his save, the cleric assumed that he recognized the neophyte spell-caster.

"Quickly, come with me while they deal with the intruders."

"No.  They are my friends."


"Yeah, they are only fighting because your hobgoblins surprised them.  You should tell them to stop."

Soon the party was escorted to the top of the hill to meet the cleric's master, a "Wearer of Purple" in the Cult of the Dragon.  Over the next twenty minutes or so of play the be-spelled bad guy spilled the beans on his group's nefarious plot to see the Dragon Queen rise from her slumber to rule the world, Leodin was located, and (courtesy of Charlotte's Sleep scroll) the group escaped back down the slopes of the hill unscathed and considerably wiser.

Next weekend I plan to dig out lots of minis along with some old MARX style cowboy playset props and run The Battle of Gideon's Fort!

I'm building plot connections so that we have the option to jump over to 5th edition module, Hoard of the Dragon Queen once we are done with Horror on the Hill, though I've introduced leads for N1 (Against the Cult of the Reptile God) and B7 (Rahasia) as well.  It will be up to the players to pick which direction to go of course.