Escape From Camp Crazytown

When we last left our heroes, they had been captured by the vile Dragon Cult and were chained alongside other prisoners such as Leosin the half-elf, Unnamed Character Who Will Factor In Later, Doug, Trisha, Larry and Biff the Unfortunately Slow Gnome.

The cleric had been able to free himself from his shackles and was left wondering how he, a cleric with no personal security skills what-so-ever, could hope to free his comrades. Also, should he just make a run for it. Much to his companion’s relief, he managed to assist the monk to freedom, and those two friends helped two more friends, and those friends helped more friends, and soon the Important People In This Story had been freed.

This was not without incident, however. The first attempt at freedom was to Charm Person one of the two guards that were holding occasional and distracted vigil nearby. The bard “faked” a panic about how the bloodthirsty elves were out to get her, and that she needed to be taken somewhere safe. Three times the cleric attempted his Charm Person, but he had a piece of parsley stuck in his teeth, which rendered him anything but charming. The guard merely went away with a headache and a rational hatred for gnome bards.

Once the monk was freed, however, his well-maintained dental work was able to Charm Person a guard who identified where their gear was being held. The party was able to convince their new friend that he and his other guard friend should go get their gear for them. Problem: the tent that held their stuff was guarded by Olaf The Humorless, supposedly a mountain of a man who hadn’t laughed since the year 823 (he’s also very good at ice dancing, but Olaf the Ice Dancer was already registered, oddly enough). Ned, the charmed guard, convinced Kors, the charmless guard, to distract Olaf while he rummaged through the tent. Kors apparently had a beef to settle with Olaf, and agreed without actually wondering or possibly caring about why Ned wanted the prisoner’s gear after having talked with the prisoners for a good fifteen minutes. That’s why he’s know as Kors The Isn’t Really All That Bright.

While Olaf and Kors engaged in noisy fisticuffs, the party packed up to leave, taking Unnamed Character Who Will Factor In Later, but leaving Leosin who refused to budge. He claimed that he had more to learn from the dragon cult, and asked the party to take a message to his paladin friend should he not meet up with them later in Greenest. Rather than waste time arguing (against the judgement of the bard), the party slapped Leosin on the back, bid him good luck, and made that “he’s crazy” gesture with the whirling finger at the temple when he wasn’t looking. They stealthed out, leaving Doug, Trisha, Larry and Biff the Unfortunately Slow Gnome utterly confused that their chain-mates had suddenly vanished into thin air.

On their way back to Greenest, the players stopped off in the canyon to check on the poor raider they had tied up and promised they’d return for. However, they found not trace of the guy. Good deed done for the year, the party felt liberated and ready to wreak havoc with a clean conscious from here on in.

The Governor and Escobert were eager to hear what the party had to say about the raider camp, and the young monk who asked them to find Leosin was sad that his friend hadn’t returned, but figured that he might have pulled some crap like that.

It was at this point that the party settled down for a Long Rest(tm), and enjoyed the benefit of reaching the end of the chapter which was a milestone granting them all another level.

*   *   *

Having looked ahead in the module, I had determined that this session would be short for a few reasons. The first was that it was the end of the chapter. The second was that because we’re using the “milestone method” for advancement (not tracking individual XP, but leveling at “checkpoints” in the story), the players needed time to examine their leveling options and discuss what would be best for them and for the party.

More importantly, however, is a lineup change. Our cleric-driver has bowed out of the game, leaving a gap in the five-person party. We were lucky to pick up @Sh4x0rZ as the party’s fifth person, Unnamed Character Who Will Factor In Later. He didn’t have a character ready, and needed to be brought up to speed on what’s transpired so far. A full party presence will be needed for the next chapter.

This was a kind of “crisis-lite” because as a DM, I’m not interested in killing the party, or in letting them get themselves killed unless it makes sense. I’m not a fan “dumb bad luck”, where an army just happened to be wandering by where the party is hiding, or necessarily that the players will become overwhelmed simply because they’re outnumbered on paper. That’s not to say that I’m interested in letting the party coast along in the interest of keeping the story going; there have already been several close calls, but they’ve been rational situations where the odds hadn’t come up in the party’s favor.

Next session, though, will be a test. Without giving away spoilers to those who don’t know the module, the players will return to the roots of D&D. This is going to require a more structured adherence to the character sheet than everyone’s been dealing with now. The players will need to be conscious of using their skills and abilities to navigate the chapter, or else they’ll end up suffering for it. The module is very specific in this regard, with DC checks in almost every other paragraph. It’ll be a bit jarring, as up to this point we’ve played this less as a “game” and more as a loosely bound RP experiment, but I’m looking forward to the next chapter to see if the players have really hit their stride and become comfortable with the 5E rules and the use thereof.

Into The Dragon’s Den #AdventureCo #DND5E

Not the literal dragon’s den; we haven’t gotten quite that far, although you know in a module entitled “Hoard of the Dragon Queen” that there’ll be a showdown with dragons at some point.

We’d been on hiatus from our campaign for quite some time due to the holiday schedule and erratic results of adulthood, so it was quite a chore to remember where the party had left off last time. They had picked themselves up after what bards are already calling the “Siege of Greenest” and didn’t skip a beat when Governor Nighthill and his sidekick Escobert the Red asked them to track the departing raiders and find out what their ultimate plans were about. As a side-quest, a frantic monk asked them to keep an eye out for his teacher who went missing during the siege. Supposedly this guy was obsessed with studying the dragon cult, and may have gotten swept up in his zeal as his body had not been found within the town the morning after.

The raiders weren’t difficult to track, as scores of mercenaries and kobolds carrying sacks full of loot are bound to make an impression on the landscape they travel through. This brought the party to a rocky ravine where they encountered some laggards who thought it was a good idea to take their breakfast in the seclusion of some boulders. Unfortunately for them, they didn’t even get to taste the bacon before the party dispatched all but two: one died of his wounds very shortly, but the other lived long enough to spill  his guts (!) about the rear guard the raiders had left further along the ravine.

Despite knowing this, the party wasn’t able to use the knowledge to their advantage. From their perch above the ravine floor, the rear guard was able to get the jump on the players, harassing them from both sides of the canyon. Careful use of the blocking power of boulders allowed the players to drive the cultists and mercenaries into advantageous positions, and soon they had whittled the enemy down to a lone mercenary. Seeing as how mercenaries are a self-absorbed lot, this one traded his (relative) safety for some information on the raiders camp, and how the players could gain access, although it wasn’t at all glamorous. He suggested they could just…walk in.

Last night, walk in they did. Amidst the confusion of returning raiders from other avenues, the players were able to simply merge with the throng of cultist, mercenaries, and kobolds and found no one was any wiser as to their presence. The mercenaries were enjoying their adrenaline high with some drinking, gambling, and brawling, while the cultists limited themselves to their enclaves and gave thanks to Tiamat for being allowed to do her work.

Recon was in order. The players integrated themselves into several crowds, listening in on several conversations and being careful not to ask questions that might out them as new additions to the camp. In a rather brazen moment of debauchery, the bard of the party set up her hurdy-gurdy case close to the largest — and most heavily guarded — tent in the camp and played her own account of the Siege of Greenest, earning 17 silver for her performance.

The tent was an enigma: surrounded by four guards and four guard drakes, it exuded an aura of fear and command. There was something — or someone — important in there. Adding to the mystery was a cave beyond the tent where raiders could be seen dragging heavy sacks that the party assumed contained the spoils from Greenest.

One of their tasks was to locate the missing monk. Using subterfuge, they found nine prisoners chained to posts along the south wall of the canyon, but were warned to steer clear of the elf. Mondath’s orders were that he not receive any food or water. The ranger of the party managed to slither his way through nearby shrubs to get close to said elf, and managed to identify him as the monk they had been asked to find.

As the sun began to set, the camp began to wind down. Guard patrols formed once the influx of raiders slowed considerably. Cultists and mercenaries settled down beside their campfire and talked in low tones. The players set up a tent of their own, blending in and giving themselves shelter where they could discuss their next move.

As luck would have it, however, their tent was invaded by a patrolman who claimed to have received a tip from another raider that the party’s own monk had been recognized as having been in Greenest — on the opposing side. Quickly, the bard Charmed the guard, and though him learned that Rezmir, Mondath, and the half-dragon Cyanwrath occupied the large tent, and that the prisoners were sent into the cave to do some kind of work that he wasn’t privy to. The information extracted, the ranger delivered a swift blow to the back of the man’s head, which turned out to be a liability as his compatriot entered the tent in search of his wayward friend. When opportunity presented itself, this second guard was knocked unconscious.

With two raiders lying unconscious in the tent, the players were on the clock. They quickly moved to secure these two bodies when — wouldn’t you know it? — a third guard poked his head into the tent to see what was keeping the other two.

Seeing the party in the process of binding the guards, the third mercenary raised the alarm. Dozens of cultists, mercenaries, and, yes, even kobolds, emerged from their tents, torches held high, and ringed the player’s tent. The party attempted to slip out through the back, but their back was literally against the wall, and the raiders were able to close in on them, disarm them, and bind them.

In the worst case of wish fulfillment ever, they were brought to the clearing outside of the camp’s largest tent. Two figured emerged: a short-haired woman dressed in purple, and the half-dragon Cyanwrath. The woman was identified as Frulam Mondath, the one the mercenary from the rear guard had identified as the camp’s leader. Cyanwrath needed no introduction; indeed, he immediately recognized the party’s dwarf who had faced off against him in Greenest. He and the dwarf continued to stare one another down as Mondath interrogated the party about their identity and the reason for their presence, but none of them provided information that satisfied the cult leader. She ordered them to be chained with the other prisoners until morning.

Circumstances notwithstanding, the players now found themselves alongside the elven monk they were looking for. Try as they might, none of the party members could escape their chains — except for the cleric, who never told the rest of the party he was double jointed. Slipping from his manacles, he…

*   *   *

I knew this was going to be a difficult chapter, but it didn’t turn out bad at all. In fact, I think it’s been my favorite.

The raider camp is a kind of free-form scene. There’s some points of interest, like the division between kobold, mercenary, and cultist enclaves, the large command tent, and the mysterious cave, and of course the prisoners, but aside from that there’s no real gameplay guidance in the actual module for what’s going on here.

I think one of the reasons this session worked better than I’d anticipated was because the group is rather laid back, and without swords at anyone’s throat, and without a ticking clock, and without me feeling like checkboxes needed to be checked, the players were really in the driver’s seat. I had a whole table of conversation snippets that I used for overheard conversations, and the Charmed guard turned out to be the party’s new best friend. The bard’s impromptu performance wasn’t even out of the ordinary; with the camp operating in party mode, it made sense that no one would think it out of the ordinary.

The two problems were that the monk was recognized via an early roll when the player’s entered the camp. The module asked for all players to roll CHA to “blend in”, and unfortunately the monk failed, but it was a delayed roll, not to be used until the “worst possible time” according to the module. The second (IMO) was the overzealous beatdown that the players administered to the guards who appeared in response to the monk’s failed CHA roll. The first guard had been charmed and knocked unconscious, and the second guard was 75% of the way towards believing that his friend had just drank too much to complete his rounds. Had the players let the second guard take the first away, I was prepared to let the blow to the head give him amnesia about the whole Charm Person thing so he wouldn’t have remembered having been Charmed. Sorry guys!

But overall I think the pacing and flow went really well. It was a combat-less session, which I expected to be harder to run because most of it would have been “on the fly”, but a lot of the results were due to letting the players drive the scene and responding, and pre-loading some bystander stuff into Realm Works “for flavor”. My goal was to let the players mingle for as long as they wanted, assuming they weren’t making it obvious that they didn’t belong.

The hard part, though, is for the only free player — the cleric — to figure out how to get the other players out of prison.

The One Thing I Want For 2015

I don’t do resolutions, because I try to go with the whole Zen approach to things, one day at a time. I have a retirement account, sure, but setting goals that can be thought up in a few hours means that they can be dropped and forgotten in half the time when they become inconvenient or when The Universe simply doesn’t want to make your life as easy as you’d hoped. I know that kind of sounds like a ready-made excuse for not having to try, but in the recent deluge of posts about New Years Resolutions, the one thread of advice that’s being repeated hasn’t been “go out and do it big”, but rather “make a habit of the little things”. When I think about the things that I regularly do (like blogging Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays), and think back on how I came to do them, this is the way they came to be: small tasks done with regularity until they became common practice in my life.

See, what I want out of 2015 is really the same thing I think everyone reading this wants: a better community. 2014 was probably the absolute low point in games and geekery for reasons we can all remember, and the only way 2015 can get any worse is if we continue to do things the way we did last year. There’s no “steady as she goes” about it: unless we all agree to make it a better year, things are going to continue to spiral deeper and deeper into Hell, and we’ll all be to blame.

That’s not a call to arms. This community is nothing if not over-dramatic. We’ve got a lot of templates to work from, not the least of which is “the hero’s journey” that makes up 98% of everything we consume around here. We’re a community of people who, until pretty recently, were outsiders who got a lot of shit for what we liked, how we looked, and what we did. Now that we’re a Big Deal around the world, we’ve gained a swagger: many folks around here believe that we’ve done time in the trenches, and now it’s time for reparations that are due us. It’s still a Wild West of sorts, with vacancies to be filled for the traditional roles of spokespeople, taste-makers, and influencers, and thanks to the egalitarian nature of our hobby and the Internet, every Tweet is an application, and every blog post is a campaign speech. See? Overly dramatic.

What we don’t need are people telling us all to “stop talking and start acting”. That just sounds to me like people are preaching a full-fledged riot as the only way to solve our ills. Instead, what we need are individuals who want to make this community a better place, because the only way that can happen is if we take care of our own, individual houses before we start trying to clean everyone else’s. Look at your own attitude in 2014 by thumbing back through your Tweets, Facebook posts and Likes, blog posts, and behavior in-game. Are you happy with how you appear to your fellow geeks? I suspect that most people will say yes, because why not, right? You’ve got nothing to prove to this wall of text, and your opinions are your own and form the foundation of your identity. Maybe there’s a few here and there that look cringe-worthy in hindsight, but by and large you spoke your mind and you stand by your public face in 2014.

Think on this, then: in 2014, how did you make the community better? I mean really better. I don’t mean how you think you made it better, with your rants in the name of truth, or all those times you called people out for their mistakes and shortcomings, or the pride you took in flinging sarcasm around as a weapon in an Internet battle. Those things don’t help build a better community. Those kinds of activities only allowed you to feel a bit more superior, and maybe to become a bit more noticed by the people we want to be noticed by: other community members.

See that link right there? We behave the way we do because we’re looking for appreciation from the people whose opinions matter to us. We want to be thought well of by a particular segment of the population, so we Tweet what we think will get re-Tweeted, or blog angry because we know people like reading and leaving their own angry comments, and we call that “interaction” and “community” based solely on traffic we generate in response to what we put out there.

Are you helping to build and repair the community through your actions and attitudes? Or are you subverting the community through negativity and snark in a bid to improve your own self-satisfaction?

What really gets me, then, is that games and geekery are ways of life devoted to enjoying things like video games, board games, cosplay, anime, science fiction and fantasy, books, comics, action figures, and stuff like that. No one joined this community because they have a burning hatred of what we’re about, so why, for the love of gawd, do so many people spend so many electrons being negative about it? And before you answer that — in the comments, or just in your own head — ask yourself this: who does your answer really serve? Are you going to say that negativity is a reflection of how fed up we are about the controversy du jour? Are you going to claim that you’re just “being honest” and insinuate that your rant is a universal truth? If you believe that you’re doing the community a favor by being negative or cranky all the time, then you’re not doing the community a favor; I submit that you’re profiteering off of the attention that negativity brings, or else you’re aligning yourself with a specific bandwagon for the anonymity being one among many provides.

No community or industry is perfect. There’s always a lot of work to be done to make things the best they can be, there’s always room for improvement, and often times that does mean identifying what’s wrong and bringing it to the attention of those who can fix it. We can and should identify the things that are broken, and work towards policies and practices that make this community better for everyone, be they consumer or be they the producer. But we have to do it in a such a way that we don’t feel that the only route from problem to solution is to mow down our fellow community members, or put our own desire for “Internet fame” ahead of the reason we claim is behind the “why” of our actions. In no line of business is progress made by being angry, foul-mouthed, sarcastic, and confrontational unless you’re easily fobbed off with any excuse given just to make you go away. As the saying goes, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

And yes, I am aware that there are times when we get frustrated and angry at something we can’t redirect or repair, and we often take to social media to vent to those who we know and trust, and who we believe can help us regain our composure. So in the offline world, so in the online world, but even constant venting has repercussions: on morale, on perception of you and of your subject, and since words written in the haste of irritation often miss the nuance necessary to let people know that you’re venting for the purpose of taking a time out, it’s easy to be seen as the blogger or followee who only has negative things to say about everything. Just as we can feed on the happiness and excitement exuded by people in the community, we can become infected with an ever-present buzz of negativity, no matter it’s reason.

I’ll just say it again in closing: I want 2015 to be the year we actually start working on making this a better community by focusing less on being angry, less on taking action for our own self-satisfied reasons, and more on finding enjoyment in our hobby and subsequently talking about the things we like. Every post and Tweet is our opportunity to evangelize the reasons why we love what we do and to help make the community better. Let’s spend our energy working to repair the damage we’ve done to one another in 2104, and build on that to make things stronger among people who all love the elements of gaming and geekery. I don’t think it’s a tall order, nor do I think it’s particularly difficult thing to accomplish. We as individuals just need to take it one post, one Tweet, one comment, one interaction at a time by asking if the next thing out of our keyboards or out of our mouths is going to help build this community or not. I truly believe we can make it happen.


Update: Thanks to Brian Green for bringing this Slate article to my attention, entitled “The year of outrage 2014: Everything you were angry about on social media this year”. This is exactly the type of article I like because it’s not so narrowly focused on one or just a handful of elements. Rather, it’s a retrospective that takes the whole year in review, analyzes it, and extrapolates the overarching trend.

While this is a games and geekery blog and the focus is on the games and geekery community, the Slate article shows us that this element of cyclical anger and sarcasm is by no means limited to this community. It seems to have become a way of being in this dependence on social media as the growing “correct way” to interact with one another. I would suggest we get back to the “old ways” of thinking about our interactions by simply not saying anything that would get us punched in the face, but I know that there’s a generation behind us that’ll never know life without the anonymous interactions that social media provides, and will never have to meter their responses to situations out of fear of getting their ass kicked in person.

But to that end, we are in control of ourselves, threats of reprisals or not, and can and should think of our “public faces” when we’re addressing the world. Our voices reflect the types of people we want others to know us as, and the sum of our voices within this community is the face we present to one another, and to the rest of the world.

One of my favorite quotes comes from the book/movie “Contact”, which I think sums it up perfectly for anyone who thinks that we can never get past the rising tide of outrage, anger, and snark:

David Drumlin: I know you must think this is all very unfair. Maybe that’s an understatement. What you don’t know is I agree. I wish the world was a place where fair was the bottom line, where the kind of idealism you showed at the hearing was rewarded, not taken advantage of. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world.

Ellie Arroway: Funny, I’ve always believed that the world is what we make of it.