Friday, July 13, 2018

Two Weeks in Space: Playing Star Wars with 5th edition D&D

Dren Seeker [saurians & mining droid in back]
Fandalin System

This summer, for two weeks of Adventure Games Camp, we used 5th edition D&D to run Lost Mine of Phandelver in the Star Wars universe.  Here's our story ...


-------------------------Week One--------------------------------

Captain Attan and the crew of The Gambler locked horns with the Steel Jaw Reavers in an effort to rescue prospector Dren Seeker from their clutches.  Dren and his droid SL-DR had flown on ahead to Fandalin Station to stake his claim on a source of Fandrillium Carbide--The Empire was paying top-credit prices for the rare mineral--but the pair got bush-whacked by the Steel Jaws before they could make it out of the system's dense asteroid belt.

The fight with the Steel Jaws was short and sharp, but the pirates were able to escape on their short-range skiffs leaving the heroes to follow.  Soon, however, Attan and the crew of The Gambler ran afoul of the space mines that the reavers used to guard their line of retreat.  With their hyperdrive down, shields on the blink, and flight controls glitchy, they had to break off their pursuit and try to limp back to the orbiting Fandalin Station without having rescued Dren.

Once on the station, Krush the wookie got into a bit of trouble while Captain Attan gambled in an effort to raise enough credits to repair the ship.  Meanwhile, the ship's engineer and the merc learned that the crew of a freighter, The Redbrand, were throwing their weight around on the station and forcing locals to pay protection money.  After talking to the boy Carp at Alder's Aquaponics, the heroes found a way to slip aboard The Redbrand via a conduit and they made short work of the ruffians (though at one point Attan accidentally opened a cargo bay containing a Drexellian Slime Beast!).

Working out a deal with the station master, the adventurers towed The Red Brand (which had been badly damaged in the fighting) out into the asteroid belt to arrange a swap with the Steel Jaws: Dren Seeker for the ship!  It might have worked out too, but the pirates had already sent Dren to pirate captain "Boss Grol" to hand over to someone called "Archnos Black" at a place called the "Tsarlos Installation."  Still, Attan did arrange for SL-DR's release and the droid joined the group.

deck plan of The Gambler

Short on credits and without any solid leads on where to find the Tsarlos Installation, the group took on a number of minor jobs.  In a clash with some archaic droids on Fandalin's windy surface, SL-DR was accidentally blasted to bits.  On another job, however, the crew delivered supplies to a crazy old witch named "Agatha" who lived aboard an orbiting derelict.  She told them that Tsarlos Installation was located on Fandalin's gray moon and that the old hermit, Rei-Doth might be able to tell them how to find it.

Landing at the ruined settlement of Thundertree, the crew ran afoul of a massive, deranged mining droid who was guarding a cache of valuable ore (unfortunately not the fandrillium that everyone was after) and in the battle that followed, both the ship's engineer and the medic were slain. The battered survivors limped back to Fandalin Station to refit and try and hire on more crew.

The Crew

--------Week Two------------

The Crew of The Gambler
  • Captain Attan the eldar (rogue)
  • Krush the wookie (barbarian)
  • Citra the scout (ranger and secret rebel agent)
  • Balasar the cyborg (ranger)
  • Grigor the merc (fighter)
  • Aoth the medic (cleric)
  • Minerva the engineer (cleric)
  • Jeepers the Nilbog (former Steel Jaw Gang juve / comic relief -- NPC) 

Highlights from Week Two:
  • Painfully low on credits, Captain Attan piloted The Gambler along with its full crew back to Fandalin and the ruins of Thundertree, in hopes of getting their hands on that ore guarded by the mining droid and finding Rei-Doth, the old hermit who might be able to help them locate Tsarlos, where Dren Seeker was being held.
  • Attan fumbled the landing, however, and a large rock concealed by the sand punched a hole through The Gambler's hull!  Trying to shift the ship off the rock sticking up into her main cargo bay, the intakes were clogged with sand and particulates--another failed attempt to blast them free left 15-meter-long ribbons of glass fouling the thrusters.  The Gambler would be grounded until Aoth could complete a lengthy tear-down and reassembly.
  • Scouting the ruins, the crew ran afoul of blue, tentacled, worm-like "rigariks" and starting blasting them ... only to attract the attention of the berserk mining droid!
  • Fleeing certain death at the hands of the droid's augers, Balasar was successful at leading the deranged droid downrange of The Gambler's lasers--the massive robot wouldn't go down easily, however, and it managed to damage the ship (destroying The Gambler's canopy and damaging flight control systems) before being blasted to bits.
  • While part of the crew loaded valuable ore, others continued to search the ruins for Rei-Doth ... could that be the old hermit there?  But the stranger didn't seem to see the rigarik slithering up behind him!  Attan fired a warning shot, but one fumble later, the rigarik was dead.  It turned out, however, that Rei-Doth herded the worm things ... the crew had been blasting his flock!
  • Imperial scouts on a pair of speeder bikes showed up to investigate Thundertree.  What could these guys be doing way out here?  Looking for a lead on fandrilium carbide no doubt.  The troopers forced Aoth to pull the memory core from the destroyed mining droid before departing.
  • Krush tripped an old booby trap left by some long-dead prospector, seering his fur completely off!
  • Meanwhile an apologetic Attan got a furious Rei-Doth to agree to share a few details about the Tsarlos installation (apparently located on Fandalin's grey moon), where he had been stationed before it was decommissioned and shut down by the Empire.     
  • The thruster reassembly complete and the hull temporarily patched, the crew welded plating over the ruined canopy and fitted The Gambler with a repurposed camera-eye from the mining droid.  Wearing pressure suits, Aoth and Grigor would pilot the ship nearly blind as they struggled to return to Fandalin Station.
  • Trading in their ore, the group negotiated for a variety of repairs, but they couldn't afford to get the hyperdrive or targeting systems fixed.
  • Attan noticed that a bounty had been posted for saurian raiders ... a modest 10 credits a head ... but feeling that the ship was not yet in any condition to try and approach the well-defended lunar installation, the crew voted to go hunting.  They traveled to Hill YV-N on the surface of Fandalin, spoiling for trouble.  Despite being ambushed, the crew handled themselves well, defeated the saurians, and soon were headed back to claim their bounty ... but what are Imperial stormtroopers doing at the station?  And who was that menacing figure with them?  Could that be Archnos Black?
    Archnos Black and friends
  • A dust-up with one of the surviving members of the crew of The Red Brand meant that Atton and company had to leave the station in hurry.  Not sure where else to head, and with the targeting systems on The Gambler still on the blink, they cruised back to Hill YV-N. Imagine their surprise when an Imperial shuttle touched down nearby and began unloading stormtroopers ... stormtroopers intent on searching their ship!  Somebody must have tipped off the Imperials, but whom?
  • Krush lost his cool (the wookie's stubble was still growing in and he was irritable) and, egged on by Citra, a battle began!  The crew managed to defeat the Imperials and seized their shuttlecraft in a wanton act of piracy.  They looted the defeated troopers for armor, weapons, and gear, but found themselves locked out of the flight-control of the shuttle ... eventually triggering lethal counter-measures!  Attan and Balasar barely escaped the shuttle alive. 
  • Realizing that they couldn't go back to Fandalin Station, the crew flew back out to the asteroid belt to call on the Steel Jaw Reavers in their hideout.  After a bit of negotiation, they managed to work out a deal with the pirates to swap a half dozen sets of (slightly worn) stormtrooper armor, blasters, and other miscellaneous gear scavenged from the imperial shuttle in exchange for a stripped-down short-range skiff ... a vehicle that the crew hoped would be able to dock at Fandalin Station without immediately resulting in their arrest.
  • Citra the scout piloted the skiff back to the station to haggle for the components that the ship's engineer needed to repair the targeting systems aboard The Gambler.  Short on credits, however, she decided to sell out the Steel Jaw gang, sharing footage of them from The Gambler's grainy, external camera, trying on battered stormtrooper armor and admiring their newly acquired imperial blasters.  When Barthen the mechanic wouldn't cut his price on the components, Citra doubled back to the waiting ship and brought Grigor the merc back with her, sneaking a complete set of stormtrooper armor back with him.  After a quick-change, Grigor helped her intimidate Barthen into selling the electronics they needed at a sharp discount, fueling local ill-will toward The Empire.
  • With The Gambler almost fully patched up (the hyperdrive was still off-line), it was finally time to try and tackle the Tsarlos Installation on Fandalin's grey moon.  Rei-Doth's (severely dated) intel indicated that the reinforced complex sported no less than four quad-laser turrets ... though it did mark a maintenance conduit on the north side that might be used for a stealthy entry.
  • The crew decided to split up: Attan would don a pressure suit and pilot the skiff, towing Citra along, to the maintenance conduit.  Meanwhile, The Gambler would act as a diversion, flying right up and trying to bluff their way into "Boss Grol's" new hideout.
  • Grigor's attempt to fast talk the surly pirates of Boss Grol's gang didn't go well, and The Gambler was ordered to land within range of the installation's quad-lasers.  Fortunately, however, it looked like the lunar base had seen much better days and much of the equipment was in poor repair or powered down.
  • Meanwhile, after a bit of searching, Crita literally stumbled into the corroded hatch of the maintenance conduit.  After a quick crawl, Attan and Crita were in the base undetected!  Now to find Dren and get away ...
  • Grigor doubled-down on his bluff and, donning a set of stormtrooper armor, he disembarked from The Gambler and ordered the pirates to turn over Dren by order of Archnos Black.  The pirates were suspicious and ordered the crew to enter via a sallyport, quickly surrounding them with blasters drawn.  The Gambler hailed the outpost and Jeepers, cloaked with a blanket, appeared on the vid-screen, pretending to be Archnos Black.  Grigor and friends played along, convincing the pirates that they were indeed Imperial agents. 
  • Attan and Crita snuck through the installation, dodging pirates and trying different hatches, until they happened across a bunk room.  There a big brute lounged in his berth, replaying a crackly old vid of his dear mum wishing him the best.  Beyond him a reinforced hatch was conspicuously barred from this side ... clearly keeping someone confined inside!  Attan tried to distract the pirate while Crita swung the bar back and opened the hatch, ignoring the pirates shout.  Through the hatch plunged a huge and hideous beast!  All three fled into the heart of the Tsarlos Installation.
  • At the same time, Boss Grol made his entrance, confronting Grigor and his comrades.  Though a virtual tower of muscle and fur, the crew gaped, then fought down laughter when they learned that Grol had a piping, squeaky voice!  Grigor, still pretending to be a trooper, repeated his demand that Grol release Dren Seeker to him at once.  Grol agreed, provided that Grigor was ready to pay in full.  "We'll pay you double later, but we need him now."  Grol wasn't having it, but a pirate stood on tiptoes and whispered in his ear, "Archnos Black is preparing to dock, sir."  Flanked by stormtroopers, the real Archnos Black swept into the room!
  • Just then the hatch behind Boss Grol flew open as Attan and Citra burst in, pursued by the huge beast they had unwittingly released! -- The monster tore into the pirates while the stormtroopers began blasting anything that moved.  Citra threw a smoke bomb, leaving everyone firing blind, and Boss Grol tried in vain to calm "Mr. Boots" while the beast flung pirates and troopers left and right.
Boss Grol and his beast, "Mr. Boots"

  • While Grigor and his friends dashed back to The Gambler, Attan, Citra, and Aoth used the cover and chaos to dart deeper into the station.  Behind a locked door they discovered Dren Seeker at last!
  • Once the crew was aboard, Minerva swung The Gambler around to blast Archnos Black's shuttle before piloting the ship out of the bay doors (though not without mishap and damage to the ship).  Citra and Dren slipped back out the maintenance conduit and signalled for pick-up, but what was this?  Some of the installation's quad-laser turrets came online and began lining up on The Gambler.  Aoth sprang up an access ladder and blasted a pirate at the battery's controls before turning the guns against another turret.  They slipped out of the back and, with the help of the skiff, soon were back aboard.
  • As The Gambler soared free of the moon, amid the crew's cheers, Archnos Black's damaged shuttle hailed them, "I shall not soon forget you!"   
-----------------------------------------------The End--------------------------------------

Well, that was a crazy, cinematic romp through a far corner of the Star Wars universe.

I found that 5e adapted very easily to the swashbuckling, space-opera play-style ... indeed, I'd say that the rules supported it BETTER than the gritty, high-risk dungeon crawls which marked the first decades of Dungeons & Dragons.

Cleric and ranger spell lists adapted and reskinned quite easily to the Star Wars universe, and as the PCs reached level three their sheets became laden with stunners, scanners, tool kits, and micro-medipacks.

Because this story was set after Episode IV A New Hope, I didn't have to worry about Jedi / Sith and the Force ... I figured that would be a puzzle I'd leave for another time, but I'm pretty sure that bard and sorcerer spell lists would give you most of what you needed there.

I was leery about the 3d6 damage of blasters (I didn't have Dex bonus added to damage, though I might for a weapon that wasn't as clumsy or random as a blaster), but with 5e's generous Death Checks and high starting hit points it turns out that I needn't have worried.

I also thought that armor might be a problem.  I figured, why wouldn't everybody go around in the very best armor they could afford?  That didn't feel very Star Wars to me.  In the end, the solution to this was pretty simple: 

  • I interpreted flak jackets, dusters, and similar gear very liberally and ruled them as "reinforced," granting +2 to A.C.  
  • I *strongly* advised each PC to make Dex their highest stat (we used 4d6, drop the lowest and choose order), meaning that everyone had between a +1 and a +5 to A.C.
  • I didn't offer heavier armor for sale at places like the Fandalin Miner's Exchange
  • I dissuaded the use of Imperial armor (Imperials would recognize you as an impostor and start shooting, non-Imperials would not recognize you as an impostor and start shooting), though you can see that one player made use of it (but in the end it really didn't affect his plan and made him seem less credible).
  • I awarded up to +4 for heavier armor, but capped Dex bonuses at +2, meaning that PCs with a Dex of 18+ would do just as well with lighter vests 

I really appreciated having Lost Mines of Phandelver to fall back upon for setting details.  It's dusty, frontier town vibe fit perfectly, and filled in the gaps that might have appeared when I intentionally went off the map of any established Star Wars systems.  Reskinning became very simple:

Phandalin = Fandalin Station
Gundren Rockseeker = Dren Seeker
Lost Mines maguffin = Fandrillium Carbide
Stonehill Inn = Stonehill Canteena
Cragmaw Castle = Tsarlos Installation
Cragmaw bandits = Steel Jaw Reavers

Rather than over-think things and try to develop stats and monster profiles, I just reskinned those without changing any mechanics.

Owlbear = Mr. Boots
orcs = saurians
goblins = nilbogs
hobgoblins = stormtroopers
zombies = archaic combat droids
Black Spider = Archnos Black
Venomfang the dragon = mining droid 

I had been concerned that piloting and ship-to-ship combat might prove problematic too.  I don't feel like that's an area where I have much play experience and I'm not skilled in techno-jargon babble either.  Whether because my players were forgiving or because it isn't actually as hard as I thought, this ended up going quite smoothly.  I decided that The Gambler had the following:

  • shields (figured that these could handle a couple hits before going down)
  • engines
  • cockpit
  • galley
  • berths
  • secondary thrusters
  • communications
  • main cargo hold
  • engineering
  • laser battery
  • med bay
  • life support
  • flight control 
  • hyperdrive
  • targeting systems
I just figured that when The Gambler took an unshielded hit, I'd check the side-view of the ship plan and consider the appropriate area damaged / significantly damaged / destroyed.  It was fast, very loose, and worked out just fine.

I'm curious about other ways in which people have used D&D 5e rulesin settings other than high fantasy.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Poster-Sized Maps: A Bit Lost

Image result for dragon mountainI own Dragon Mountain, the Waterdeep City System, and the Night Below boxed set among others.  I remember ooh-ing and ah-ing over the bright, poster-sized maps that accompany the books in each set as I explored the contents (10 in the case of the City System!).  Even the much more recent Tales of the Shudder Mountains comes with a modest poster-sized area map (though not the extravagent 2' by 3' size that started showing up quite a bit after Undermountain).
The maps are really quite lovely, but I've yet to work out any real USE for them at the table!

Consider the choices:

1. spread out the map on the table ... the WHOLE table, mind you. Now players can see the dungeon laid out before them ... and that's precisely the problem.  "Should we take that secret door over there or just keep going straight?"  Getting lost isn't possible and at one stroke you've removed both the exploration and resource management aspects of the game.  The boundaries of the dungeon are now safe and known, even if the actual contents of each room remain unrevealed.

2. the DM tries to place the map behind a screen ... a really, really big screen.  Remember, these maps are from the TSR days ... there were only two DM screens printed, each with three panels and big enough to screen about one and a half sheets of paper ... just a bit too small for an open module.  They were also thin as could be and would topple easily if a die was cast too vigorously.  Add dice, a pencil, let alone any minis ... nope, just not room back there!

Image result for city system forgotten realms
I can only assume that Wayne (from the excellent sits on ALL the collectables that he sells ... perhaps for scale, but since he's probably a hobbit, it's still pretty confusing. 

3. place the map on the floor at the DM's feet / a side table ... now I'm craning my neck to peek at a room number and layout several feet from the text that describes the room (vs, let's say, on a module cover 6" away).  Even if the orientation is the same, I'm much more likely to either make a mistake or require more time to avoid one.
Image result for undermountainHere's a prime culprit in Ruins of Undermountain.  The complexity IS the challenge ... but if I let the players see the map, then I've removed that challenge.

4. oragami.  I can try to predict where the PCs will roam and do some speed oragami to get the map positioned properly ... but good luck!  The appeal of these settings IS their grandeur and vastness.  Racing from one end of Waterdeep to the other, peering in shops and dodging enemies is exactly what the scale encourages, but if I'm folding and fiddling with sixty square feet of city map, the flow of play is spoiled and the sense of expansiveness is gone ("Oh look, he just knocked his screen over again.").

We can solve things now digitally of course ... but that wasn't an option when these strange and striking gaming tools were published and sold.  Laptops were just beginning to show up at the table, and touch screen tech wasn't in the home yet.

Dwimmermount's separate map book and Stonehell's stacked one-page dungeon quadrant system (though not without their own limitations) are attempts to invoke depthless grandeur without losing functionality.  I don't know how Barrowmaze approaches the same problem, but I bet the solution is similar.

So, apart from today's work-arounds, did anyone back in the day ever figure out how to actually USE these huge, magnificent, unique, and apprently impractical tools?  

Image result for dinosaur