Saturday, January 30, 2016

Rogue Trader: Baptism by Fire

Parenting holds many joys and introducing my kids to games from my younger days is pretty high on the list.

Thursday, as my wife took my youngest to ballet, I decided to introduce my older kid to Rogue Trader, a game I first met in college.

No, not THIS Rogue Trader ... not the Fantasy Flight RPG set in "the grim darkness of the 41st millennium."

THIS one ... a very campy, tongue-in-cheek, skirmish-level wargame from 1987!  Not even remotely self-conscious, Priestley alternates between shamelessly ripping off cool ideas from sources like Star Wars and lampooning those same sources.

The predecessor to Warhammer 40,000, Rogue Trader is more of a hobbyist's labor of love than a finished product (designed in turn to promote other products).  Basically it is a tool kit for building your own science fiction (or more accurately, futuristic fantasy) wargames with whatever ideas, models, and spare bits you happen to have.

I took on the role of an Imperial Guard lieutenant Terrell, tasked with holding a tiny, rustic, backwater fort against an incursion of dread Space Orks.  For her part, my daughter had two mobs of orks, out for conquest, mayhem, and bloodshed!

Orks of the Toe Cheez clan throw themselves against the stockade walls, blasting away at the human defenders.

Meanwhile, another mob of orks creep up through the nearby ruins of a forgotten civilization, intent on using their comically-oversized missile launcher to put the hapless guardsmen in a crossfire.

But what's this?!  A squad of Imperial Space Marines appears to the west and marches to relieve the fort.

Led by a caped and hooded Inquisitor (after the squad sergeant was vaporized by a lucky shot from an ork plasma gun), the armor-clad space marines arrive at the stockade walls and rout the surviving aliens.

My daughter enjoyed the clash as evidenced by the fact that she immediately wanted to reset the terrain and have another go.  We played four small battles over the next day, tinkering about with adding weapons, clarifying cover and reserve rules, and discussing a better way to resolve close combat.

Rogue Trader benefits from what it lacks: a canonical setting, official army lists, and any sense of gravitas.  Instead it invites customization and a DIY approach to building the game that you want to play.  In that regard it reminds me quite a bit of J. Eric Holmes 1977 Basic D&D.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Homeguard: The Ensemble Cast

One way that my players keep our long-running B/X campaign fresh is by maintaining an ensemble cast ... an entire Game of Thrones style stable of characters from whom to pick for various adventures.

My oldest doesn't only play Aareck the Fighting Man (who has now climbed to the lofty heights of 4th level); she also plays Blade the Reckless (level 2 fighter), Soren the Elf, Sister Kaylyn, Mitchell and Quarren (thieves), and a few others.

Likewise, her sister has about 8 characters of her own, all based out of the northern frontier town of Threshold.  This impacts how we play in several ways:

  • Players don't get bored with mechanically simple characters; unlike with later editions, the variety is found within the game, across multiple classes, not within the build of a specific character class.
  • When there are casualties, replacement characters are readily available and restoring a beloved character can trigger its own quest (e.g. we played Rahasia (B7) as part of a quest to bring a lowly 1st level character back to life).  And on the DM side of things, if the characters make a foolish choice, I don't have to hesitate over letting the dice fall where they may.
  • As DM, my job is to continually toss out LOTS of adventure leads ... more than the group could ever follow up on ... and let them choose which characters to send on which quest.  It enables player agency over simply having them ride the "plot train" of some adventure path that I've predetermined ... which keeps things more exciting for me too.
  • Because we are dividing play hours between about 24 characters (including NPCs and the characters of a half-dozen friends who join us sporadically), in groups of about 4 adventurers each, PCs advance in level very slowly.  After around five years of play, our most experienced character (a halfling) recently reached level 6.  However, rather than be a source of frustration for players, the slow advancement works well, because somebody among the two dozen or so characters is always about to level up.
  • The campaign world becomes more intimate, because we know who all the serious adventurers are.  The stories take on an almost Arthurian quality where the unnamed knight guarding the bridge is almost bound to be somebody's long-lost kinsman.  Inactive characters become the key sources for generating further quests.  This makes my job much easier, because it isn't some random baron or merchant (who the players couldn't care less about) asking for help, it's Sarah the Fighter, now commandant of the fort from Horror on the Hill (B5) or Amber the Halfling who has been kidnapped and is in need of rescue.

In practice, here's what our approach looks like:

Image result for rise of tiamatAareck, Kaylyn, Fromo, and Star, having recently freed the village of Greenest from the schemes of a black dragon in Against the Cult of the Reptile God (N1), have now pursued Lady Mondath and her cronies across the Rushmoors and to Castle Naerytar in a chapter lifted from the 5th edition Hoard of the Dragon Queen.  Atop the keep they've discovered an observatory and a strange magical apparatus that lets them see far beyond the horizon, setting the stage for more action in several other locations (including chapters from The Rise of Tiamat).

At the same time, having completed the Journey to the Rock (B8) and unlocked the hidden hall of Tuma, Sister Elizabeth, Charlotte, Jonathan, and Lilly-Bell have descended into The Lost City (B4) in search of the Great Library of Cynidicea.  Having defeated one of the factions found there, Sister Elizabeth has risen to lead the warrior women against the followers of Zargon.

Back in Threshold, Mary the Halfling is embroiled in the machinations of vengeful merchant Clifton Caldwell and The Veiled Society (B4) along with Mitchell, Soren, Quarren, and Sayana.  Their friend Amber has been kidnapped and they've been wrongly implicated in various misdeeds in the group's first real urban adventure.

Meanwhile, Amber has been sold by Veiled Society thugs to Iron Ring slavers, but managed to escape with the help of a pair of angry geese.  Foiling a marauding hill giant and becoming companions with Jemma the Gnome and a blind pig named Trotter, she has been slowly making her way back toward Threshold, but not without encountering a company of sprites who need her help and who may lead her into new adventure in Beyond the Crystal Cave (UK1).

Finally, Aareck's cousin Blade and his companion Rosie have trekked high into the eastern mountains in the company of a tall, youthful stranger calling himself "Jarl" in one of the short stand-alone adventures from the Bestiary Dragons and Giants (AC10).

In the end, it turned out that Jarl was actually the son of the Cloud Giant "Blagothkus," whose castle is a base of operations for none other than Lady Mondath and her Cult of the Dragon goons (linking back up to the final chapter of Hoard of the Dragon Queen), and by helping Jarl, Blade and Rosie were able to discover a hidden entrance to the formidable fortress.

So the expanded cast lets us romp around in five separate adventures at the same time.

I remember shuffling multiple characters when playing B/X and Star Frontiers back in 5th grade, but got out of the habit in the 90s while playing games like Vampire the Masquerade, GURPs, and Pendragon.

Do other people commonly use a larger cast in their games?

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Dwimmermount Party Pic

Making good use of his snow day, Dylan, one of the middle school players in our Dwimmermount campaign, photoshopped this picture of his party.

From left: Yang the Fighter, Ivor Opener of Doors, 
Vale the Gray (wizard), and Y'draneal the Dungeon Queen (elf).

Friday, January 22, 2016

Snow Day D&D

This year for Christmas my oldest received classic TSR module X4 Master of the Desert Nomads.  This is one of the adventures that I remember seeing back in the 1980s on the magazine rack in Juvenile Sales (the worst named toy store ever), but apart from reading the back cover, I never got a glance at the contents.

Today marked our first significant snow fall, and with school canceled, at my house that automatically means D&D.

So it was with great pleasure that I teamed up with my younger kid on the players' side of the screen and Barthel the halfling, Analise the elf, Quillan the thief and Jillian the cleric began their journey to thwart the eponymous "master.".

It's pretty stock stuff so far ... a bad guy magic-user on wyvern back (we nailed him with a Silence spell, blinded his mount, and had him hog-tied for interrogation before he knew what hit him) and a gang of trolls (cleric doused in flaming oil + Fire Resistance + hugs = fleeing trolls), but with the snow falling outside and Cheetos dust on everybody's fingers, this module really became a time machine, carrying me back to the best parts of my early teens.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Dwimmermount with Middle Schoolers -- XIV

We began Dwimmermount session 14 with Vale the wizard, Y'draneal the elven thief, and fighting men Ivor and Curteff standing before the Red Gates of the ancient, mountain fortress.

Working from a spreadsheet, I gave a quick recap of the various "quests" that had been dangled in front of "The Fabulous Five," including mention of those objectives completed by rival adventuring companies.  For example, The Seekers had finally discovered the lost Dwimmerling cemetery, destroyed the degenerate dwarves guarding it, and clashed with evil spider-things.  I think that this may have been one of the first times that it really began to sink in for my players that rival parties really can steal some of their thunder if they don't act swiftly and decisively to exploit every opportunity the megadungeon offers.

Not all of this news was bad, however.  At least some of the talk from another group of explorers revealed that a previously sealed chamber was enchanted to transport its occupants to other levels of Dwimmermount, if only the proper key can be found.

Thus updated, the four adventurers made their way to the stairs leading down to level two (The Reliquary) and the Thulian shrines below.

They paused for a time to rip up some orichalcum plates, never discovering their purpose, but fortunately the noise attracted no wandering monsters.

Heading below they chose a fresh hallway more or less at random and soon came to a sealed door beyond which sighs, groans, and strange muttering could be heard.  The notion of turning back never seemed to arise as blades, boots, and eventually magical fire were all employed until the door finally gave way.

Empty eye sockets flaring with hatred and the cold of the Abyss beyond the stars, two shriveled dead things lunged through the shattered portal, springing upon the hapless Ivor!

As they tore at Ivor, their blows wracked his very soul, and it was time for me to make a call again:

To level drain, or not to level drain?

As I've noted before, one of primary problems with level draining undead ISN'T that getting nailed by them sucks -- I like that quite a bit! -- it's that losing a level mid-scene breaks immersion while players reduce hit points, adjust saves, reduce attack bonuses, reduce spell slots, and groan over how many xp just vanished ... and with multiple undead in the mix, odds are pretty good that it will just happen again next round.  Ugh.

Instead I just ruled that all damage dealt by draining undead resulted in permanent hit point reduction.
Bingo!  No extra mechanics like "negative levels" added and no down time for recalculation ... just instant fear!

Slash and hew as they might, the party's mortal weapons were powerless to harm the evil dead; only Vale's Magic Missiles and Ray of Frost seemed to accomplish anything.  As Ivor's once-impressive 30 hit point total dipped down to a mere 14, Curteff made a bold move: he grappled with the undead, pinning one against a wall and trusting his plate armor to ward off its deadly blows.  The gambit worked and Vale was able to dispatch the creatures back to the Void before they could do more harm.

Spells depleted and Ivor a gibbering wreck, the party looted the once-sealed room that had held the undead, finding a cache of azoth-infused arrows and as much coin as they could easily carry.

At this point a wandering monster check signaled the approach of a pair of shadows.  I chose to interpret this result as meaning that, though the evil wights were destroyed, a lingering miasma of malign shadow had seeped through into the world as they were banished.

Rather than delve any deeper, the party chose to run the gauntlet, racing past the shadows and back up to the Path of Mavors.

Since they were running headlong, I gathered up the dungeon map and had each player describe their route by turns.  Aided by his elven eyes, Y'draneal, dashed ahead and escaped with unerring precision.  Curteff made a wrong turn at the statue of Mavors and felt the chill bite of the pursuing shadows while Vale and Ivor fled the other direction.

By the session's end, the group was able to limp back to Muntburg; wealthier, but weakened from their harrowing experience.