Friday, February 27, 2015

Snow Day!

Snow = role-playing

At least that was the case for me from about 5th grade until I graduated high school.  School would close, the guys from the neighborhood would gather for sledding in the powerline (the best hill in the area, even if it did end in a creek), and after we were cold and soaked we'd retire to the basement for six hours or so D&D, Star Frontiers, Dark Sun, Marvel Super Heroes, Robotech, Shadowrun, and Gamma World.

Those few years made a deep enough impression that even now, decades later, when school gets called off on account of snow (as it was all last week) my first thought is usually, "Great, we get to game!"

Fortunately I have a small cadre of hobbit gamers who live right under my own roof these days, and so we spent a chunk of time each day last week pounding through classic TSR module Rahasia.

Rahasia was penned by Tracy and Laura Hickman who supposedly were the harbingers of the end of D&D's "golden age" via "The Hickman Revolution," but setting that aside and just looking at the adventure itself ... it's a pretty sweet module with a 100+ room dungeon at its heart.  A few other features Rahasia serves up:

  • much more exploration and trying to work out how to manipulate weird magical effects found in the half-dozen levels than stabbing orcs
  • multiple ways to move between levels (though I tweaked a few teleporters to enhance this still further)  
  • a cruel magical maze
  • memorable enemies who have style but who are still slay-able (though you may not want to kill them) ... most of whom are lawful elves
  • if you port in from later editions the idea of at least some elves being immune to Sleep and Charm spells then there are some significant tactical challenges
  • at least one trap that has hints leading up to it, but will drop-kick the reckless explorer in a unique way
I won't say that it doesn't need any work, but this module has the makings of some seriously good times.  You can get it as a download for $5 from DriveThruRPG to thrill your own role-playing crowd.

Some content I tweaked included the pseudo-Arabian pastiche thing, which left me cold (and didn't suit my milieu), so I cut those bits out and instead made the titular princess so bewitchingly lovely that she could accidentally charm or even slay mortals who gazed upon her.

I liked the magical treasury guardian, but swapped him out for something else because I had a particular model that I wanted to plunk down on the table.  

Finally, the deepest few rooms were a bit of a railroad ride, with the Hickman's envisioning one possible way to solve things, but I broke that open a bit and was very pleased with the results ("What happens when you touch the Black Opal Eye to the dragon statue that imprisons the witch's soul?  Well it gives her the power to manifest as a wight!").

So Rahasia was good old school fun, but even more than that, it's really cool how things have come full-circle 30 years later, making snow days something pretty special indeed.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Phandalin Blues

Recently in my weekly 5th edition Lost Mines campaign the players were faced with a choice: continue to wage guerrilla war with the Redbrands -- a vicious gang who have taken over Tombstone ... er ... Phandalin, or strike out into the wilderness to seek their fortunes with only Ted the Goblin as their guide.

Bandits from F.A.T.A.L. by Steev
The vote came in 4 to 3 to stick it out and try and end the Redbrand menace.

I should mention too that I've added a new player -- a seventh grader who plays a human fighter / hireling, adding some much needed staying power to the party's otherwise squishy lineup of wizards and thieves.

Image result for d20I also hope that this will help grow some "bench strength" in our after school club so that when many of my current crop of players head off to high school next year there will still be a few students around who know how many sides a 20-sider has without counting.

Several social scenes followed in which the characters interviewed residents of the hamlet, looking for someone who could aid them in their cause, but they soon came to the realization that, apart from the brigands they were preparing to fight, they were the toughest hombres in town.

"I say we just burn it all down and leave town."

"But what about that little halfling boy?" [Carp]

"What?  [The halfling player's] son?  We should send him back to his mom first, then burn it all."

Eventually cooler heads prevailed and the party settled in to stake out the secret back entrance to Tressander Manor, the old ruin on the hill above town that served The Redbrands as a hideout.

Here I'll pull the curtain back on my GMing a bit ...

I said to myself, "Well, The Redbrands don't have any particular reason to be using the backdoor, but the players are taking initiative wit this plan so let's reward that with some action or progress."

I made a quick series of d20 rolls ...

First: "Which way would the backdoor be used?" odd = someone coming in, even =  going out.
Result: Odd.  Someone or something was headed in via the concealed door.

Second: "How long would the party wait to see this happen?"
Result: 15.  Pretty long.  Through the day and halfway through the night.  Hmm.  Who would need to use cover of night?  Maybe something that isn't human and doesn't like daylight.

"Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain ..."
Third: "How strong a force is entering the hideout?"
Result: 14.  Fairly strong compared to the party.

Okay, how about this ... from the earlier interrogation of a prisoner the adventurers had learned that the Redbrands, contrary to their "humans only" rhetoric, actually had some secret goblin allies that listened to gang leader "Glasstaff".  These could be a pair of bugbears headed in as messengers and to relieve from duty other goblinoids lurking in the hideout.

The party launched an ambush on the "large, hunched figures that they saw moving stealthily through the thickets" and a high Wisdom roll even let one of the elves get a whiff of goblin from the dimly seen creatures.  A volley of arrows failed to bring either creature down, however, and they darted into the partially-concealed tunnel mouth.

At this point the group made a bit of a tactical mistake which could have proven deadly.  Rather than shift position after their initial attack, they decided to hunker down and keep watching the hidden backdoor ... which allowed the night-sighted bugbears time to gather a couple friends, slip out the front door, and flank the party in the woods.  Battle followed and only the clever use of a light spell (cast on an elven archer's arrow) allowed most of the party to eventually get some hits in.  The party's cleric was felled, but the bugbears retreated when two of their number took lethal arrow wounds.  The adventurers were happy enough at this point to pull back to the orchard at the edge of town and lick their wounds, having fought some pretty tough opponents to a draw.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Trouble with Carp

art by kwuteg
Our 5th edition Lost Mines campaign picked back up this week with the unemployed former henchmen of the late Sildar Hallwinter having bushwacked and captured one of the vicious Redbrand brigands plaguing the town of Phandalin.

Dragging the bandit back to their temporary HQ in the storeroom of the Stonehill Inn, the players began a series of clumsy attempts to interrogate the thug: "Tell us your gang's weakness!"  After the brigand broke lose and was subdued a second time the players eventually struck upon the idea of using a Charm Spell and voila!  Details about "Glasstaff" the gang's shadowy boss, their numbers, and their hideout under the ruined manor house at the far end of town began to emerge.

About the time that the adventurers began to wonder what to ask next, there came a rapid knocking upon the back door.  Carp, the young halfling son of Widow Alderleaf, whose farm the Redbrands had recently burned, was desperate to see the vile brigands put paid to.  So it was that Carp had "kicked the beehive" over at the Sleeping Giant Inn (a disreputable dive) and now, with six angry Redbrands in hot pursuit, he had purposefully led them here to arrange a showdown with the PCs!

Panic ensued as the party fled in at least four different directions.  Fortunately, enough of the characters could see by night that they were able to out maneuver the much tougher brigands and spells were cast to cover their retreat (this also featured the first occasion upon which I've ever seen the spell Dancing Lights used for any practical effect).  Rendezvousing in an orchard the session ended with a tough choice:  Will they continue to wage a hit and run campaign against these vicious bullies until Phandalin is liberated, or will the adventurers head back into the wilderness in hopes that their fortunes will improve? 

Monday, February 9, 2015

3 Short Session Reports; 1 Theme

This week I ran sessions for three ongoing campaigns:
  • The Lost Mines of Phandelver (5th edition D&D for middle school players)
  • Olde School Wizardry (all-wizard homebrew for adults)
  • Hoard of the Dragon Queen (modified to B/X D&D for grade school players)
First up, in our 5th edition Lost Mines campaign, the five players decided to postpone following any of the "quests" that the adventure writer had dangled via the various residents of the frontier town of Phandalin (in particular the recent bounty offered on orcs) and instead focus entirely on defeating the Redbrand briggand gang.  With the party composed of a wizard, a couple thieves, a cleric and their pet goblin, they knew that a straight showdown would be out of the question.  But what was the best way to open a guerilla conflict with the gang who had them both outnumbered and outgunned?  

By hiding a goblin down the privy of course!

So by dead of night, with the wizard readying a Sleep Spell and acting as lookout, and the others waiting nearby, Ted the goblin squirmed down the privy-hole and prepared to grab the first hapless briggand to stumble around behind the Sleeping Giant Inn (the gang's favorite watering hole) to use the "facilities".

Though a series of comic gaffs followed, resulting in a terrified barkeep with a strong suspicion that his outhouse was haunted and a barmaid with a concussion, the party eventually got their man and hauled the hog-tied briggand back to the storeroom of the Stonehill Inn for interrogation.  We ran out of time there, but several of the players voiced their opinion that this had been their very best session to-date.

Next, in Olde School Wizardry, the trio of student wizards, trapped in a cavern with a reanimated skeletal dragon, managed to use much of the magical oil that they were sent to recover to allow one wizard (T. Table) to channel his casting through the addled brain of Hydromancer Pronk, one of his peers.  Unlike the other wizards, Table knew the Ancient Rune of Restoration, but since a series of nasty traps had dissolved all the bones in his arm, he wasn't personally capable of working any magic at all!
Meanwhile, making good use of his time, Pronk had carefully studied the notes left behind by the deceased Brothers Vile, whose former hideout this was, allowing him to learn the rudiments of Bone Science.

Though all three wizards lacked the proper magical formula to employ the Restore Rune specifically to replace the missing parts of living creatures, the lads decided to give it the old college try anyway in an effort to get Table's arm (and spellcasting ability) back.  Tense hilarity followed as various properties of all the Bone in the target area of their spells were magically Restored.  In one particular horrible casting, Table's pelvis was Restored to the same size it had been at the time of his birth!  Eventually, however, Table both survived the process and regained the use of his arm.

With Table back in the game, his knowledge of Stone Science allowed the wizards to gradually scoop free the rock holding the dragon trapped in place, releasing into their campaign that world's very first dracolich, and she agreed to let the wizards depart unharmed (and even made an effort to recruit them to help recover her long lost hoard).

Finally free, and the Arch Chancellor's missing robe in hand (the object of their quest), the trio headed back to the Collegium Mysterium, along the way tangling with some slavers, transporting a pair of mmung (transdimensional, vegetable cyclops-things), and magically augmenting the wood of their captured boat to speed them upriver.

Finally, in our Homeguard campaign, three fighters and a cleric, having escaped The Cult of the Dragon via The Great Escape scenario from Castle Caldwell and Beyond (B9) and navigated wilderness encounters with both pixies and a cockatrice, made their way to the border village of Greenest ... only to find it under attack by the cult's forces!

Rather than seeking refuge in the keep with the townsfolk, as the writers of the adventure had assumed, the party stuck to the hills around the community.  From hiding they made a count of their enemies and, perceiving that they were badly outnumbered, settled upon a plan to free the various drakes used by cultists to sow chaos among the ranks of their foes.
    Dressed in the gear of the cultists, they staged a series of strikes to disrupt the besiegers.  Though the freed drakes never rampaged as they had hoped, the party still managed to use surprise to their advantage and began driving a wedge between the human troops and their kobold allies.

So ... apart from the obvious ... (being completely awesome) ... all three of these sessions had a common theme running through them -- player agency.  Even when experienced, well-meaning professional game writers laid down a broad, well-scripted track, these three separate groups of players just weren't having it!  They had ideas all their own and were determined to crack open the challenges that I "set the table with" without any regard for the broadest or most obvious solutions.

As you've probably guessed ... I LOVE that kind of action -- it empowers the players, adding to their satisfaction, and creates as much excitement and anticipation for me as the GM as the players feel when the game is at its very best -- I don't know what will happen next any more than they do and so I get to experience the unfolding of an epic (or disastrous) story in real-time right along with them.

So if a session brimming with player agency is the creative and emotional sweet spot of tabletop role-playing, what can a GM do to get as many of his or her games there as possible?

I don't know for certain, but here are a few initial thoughts:

  • pack light -- if I generate stats for an NPC, the group will by-pass that NPC 9 times out of 10.  If I laboriously stock a multi-level dungeon, they'll spend exactly five minutes there before remembering something else they are more motivated to do.  In response, I've got to focus my pre-game prep-time on thinking more broadly about the campaign world.
  • random charts win -- magical effects, creatures encountered, rumors ... a handful of charts tailored to my campaign world can give me more mileage than any 60-page supplement.
  • sketch out the problems -- leave the solutions to the players.  If I don't try to anticipate how they'll solve the problems I toss out there then I'm much less likely to try and script their behavior.
  •  real consequences -- for every problem I introduce, I need to know in advance what will happen if the players decide to walk away and not accept the challenge.  After all, if there are no consequences then the players don't really have any agency at all.  This is one area where my cherished "classic TSR era" adventure modules almost always let me down ... they never provide much guidance of what happens if the characters don't ride out to rescue the princess, at most making some petulant jabs about them not being real adventurers if they don't happen to want to play along.
  • balance is for chumps -- if the challenges that I throw out match the ability level of the characters ... well then that really just encourages the players to take the most direct approach (which often boils down to combat).  That's just rock-paper-scissors with 20-sided dice, isn't it?  On the other hand, if my level-one noobs have to deal with ogres and owlbears ... well then they have to think asymmetrically, chicken out, or die like lemmings.  

How much better would The Keep on the Borderlands be if the "Caves of Chaos" contained a 15 Hit Dice purple worm?  Can you imagine all the goblins going quiet and scattering from combat when "the great one" started to surface?  How would players learn to adjust their tactics and thinking to use such an unstoppable opponent to their advantage?

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Student Created Dungeon: The Sapphire of Pandreda

How sweet is this student-created dungeon?

I directed my students to roll for (or select) a plot hook -- this kid went with "Rescue" -- but in an interesting twist, the "captive" is the Lost Sapphire of Pandreda!  You can see the gemstone (obviously magical) caged up in on the east side of area 5.
Again presented with a list of suggestions, this student opted for an island location and the corridors and chambers sprawl in an improbable but intriguing cluster among the waves (though I can't say whether this is a lake or the sea).

A linear, console gaming sensibilities are clear here: get the key to open the cage to get the other key to open the chest ... all leading toward the boss-fight, but notice that if explorers take the middle tunnel it appears that they can go directly to confront the albino apes and locate the sapphire in their first encounter!  Getting the locked cage containing the magic gem open may be another matter of course, and require some backtracking ... but who can say? 

I'm intrigued by the three mysterious objects hidden in room 2.  Why are they kept there and who placed them?  What, if anything, are they used for?  

Finally, what's the deal with bow and spear in area 5?  Are they wielded by extraordinarily intelligent apes?  Are they trophies, or do they just happen to be lying about?  Why do the apes tolerate a trough of fire and what waits inside the unlocked chest that rests so near the sapphire ... nothing good I'm betting!

This nine-weeks I plan to divide my kids up a bit, encouraging those with experience as players to try their hand at setting design and the GM role.  I'm excited to see what they'll produce!