Escape From Camp Crazytown

When we last left our heroes, this site 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, ailment 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, buy more about 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, more about 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.

A Tough Decision #DragonAgeInquisition

Saturday evening I got to spend some time with Dragon Age: Inquisition for more than just an hour. I’ve moved the PS4 back to the computer room TV so I have all the time I want with the system, order except that the TV is mounted a bit too high for my comfort, symptoms and my neck and shoulders end up hurting if I play too long. That’s not the point of the post, buy I promise. It is spoileriffic, although only from a point “early” in the game.

When last I left, I was ready to head out to Orlais and start the Val Royeaux junk, but I made a detour in the Hinterlands (again) to finish some business there. I busted up the red lyrium smuggling ring to the south and ran into (SPOILERS!) darkspawn down in the caves where the syndicate was harvesting the stuff. The Alpha Hurlock is a pretty tough customer, but I plowed through them and somewhere along the line I took out the smuggler that I was supposed to and finished the mission.

The initial foray to Val Royeaux cracked me up* when the Templar’s arrived, and as I was laughing out loud my wife asked if everything was OK. I didn’t stick around in Orlais, though, because I had a tough decision to make.

As those who have gotten past this part — basically, everyone I assume — knows, we have to make a choice between checking in with the Templars, or the Mages in Redcliffe. The Templars seem uncharacteristically hostile and lame at the same time: they don’t want to work with the Inquisition, nor do they seem to want to do anything about the rift. Cassandra thinks that’s kind of weird, as she claims to have some previous dealings with the High Seeker, and his behavior seemed off. Of course, on the way out of Val Royeaux, we get stopped by the leader of the Mage rebellion who claims that she’ll listen to the Inquisition, if we want to visit her in Redcliffe. The group consensus is that the Mages aren’t organized well enough, and that could lead to “herding cats” or an unreliable alliance.

I went with the Templars mainly because I agreed with the assessment on the Mages. The Templars are organized, although erratic for some reason that bears investigation. The Mages — at least the rebel factions — might be together for convenience of fighting their former hunters and caretakers, the Templars, but not much else at this point in time.

I thought the Templar branch was kind of interesting. You have to “collect” some Orlesian nobles who act as your political battering ram to earn you an audience with the High Seeker. Unfortunately, as soon as you meet the High Seeker, he pulls you in the Fade, which was creepy as hell. The minutiae was pretty convoluted, but the idea was that an “envy demon” who had originally taken over the High Seeker opted to try and take you over instead. The trip to the Fade showed you vignettes of what the envy demon planned should it be able to masquerade as you and wield the power of the Inquisition. Not pretty. You’re helped by a spirit named Cole who just…shows up…and gives you the mental fortitude to escape from what is essentially your own mind.

Once back to your normal self, however, you find that the envy demon AKA High Seeker was feeding the high ranking Templars red lyrium in an effort to break down their defenses and allow them to become twisted puppets. With the help of a senior Templar who still had his wits about him, you gathered some of the remaining high ranking lieutenants and some red lyrium, held off a demon incursion, and eventually had to fight the envy demon in it’s true form in the real world.

Heavy stuff.

Between starting out and completing the Templar collection quest, I found Blackwall, the only remaining known grey warden around. No one knows where the rest of them went, so in the absence of any darkspawn, Blackwall joined my crusade. I stabled him. Cassandra is doing just fine at the moment. I also got the intro to talk to Iron Bull, but haven’t done so yet. I think that’ll be next on my agenda. I do really need to recruit some non-warriors though, especially rogues. Varric, despite being the most interesting companion, is limited by his love of his crossbow. Everyone else has geared up appropriately, but he’s lagging behind.

 

* Also, the plaques under the statues in the initial entrance to Val Royeaux made me laugh out loud as well.

Rewards Versus Goals and Level-Locked Content

On Wednesday @Stargrace posted about the frowny-face she makes when she sees that a game has level-locked content. Levels are the ages-old mechanism by which a game tells you that while your skill at playing the game might stay flat or only incrementally improve over time, malady your dedication to the game is rewarded with progression of a sort.

The idea of a level-based content drip is the game industry’s version of “time is nature’s way of preventing everything from happening at once”. If you got everything the game had to offer the moment you logged in, sick what’s the point in playing? Level based content comes in many forms: gear, zones, fluff features, dungeons, and raids.

I know it’s kind of a subtle difference, but level-locking content feels like the design is offering the content as a “reward” when in my opinion, it should be designed as more of a “goal”. Take housing in Wildstar. You don’t get access to it until level 14. Housing was a major selling point for people, and I’m sure many were disappointed that they had to “slog” through 14 levels of other stuff just to start with housing. As @Stargrace wisely indicates, Everquest II allows you to get housing from the get go, making it more attractive to those who are really interested in that system (and many people do play these games just for those kinds of systems…designers).

It’s true that knowing housing is a level locked feature makes working towards level 14 a “goal” of sorts, but consider the extent of what we get in other games, and how we get it. Notice how in some games you get a new ability every other level? That was a reward: You don’t have to wish for it, or plan for it, you just have to keep on playing.

One way to substitute level-locking is money-locking. In EQII, while you can get a house from the start, it’s pretty empty. You need to either build, buy, or earn furnishings for your house. Having more than one avenue for acquiring these aspects turns it into more of a “goal” game than a “reward” game. With so many money sinks, players need to prioritize their finances so they spend the money in respect to their goals. Buy one four poster bed now, or save up and buy a whole bedroom set? Buy furniture now, or save up a nest egg so you can also buy a mount and pay repair costs? You can also complete missions to give furnishings, or work on your crafting and unlock a whole range of building opportunities.

To me, the goal method is more engaging because it’s putting the player in the driver’s seat, whereas the reward method is simply holding back content until a player has played for a sufficient amount of time. It’s kind of sleazy in a way, since I’m sure that withholding perks based on levels is a tactic designed to keep players playing if they know something they really want is on the (eventual) horizon, but personally I’d stick with a game that starts me off with the initial bundle, and then allows me to prioritize other aspects of the game to get in line with what I want to achieve with my game time.

Fantasy Grounds Redux

In the past iterations of LC.com, and I’ve written a lot about virtual tabletop apps and how they can help you get past the “I’ve got no one to play tabletop RPGs with me where I live!” syndrome. My favorite VT, here Fantasy Grounds, has a new 5E update, but more even more interesting…er, it’s being re-written in Unity.

The 5E updates are, as anyone who’s familiar with WotC would expect, minimal. Wizards licenses Dungeons & Dragons to no man, woman, child, kobold, or virtual tabletop. In the past, FG had their own character sheet and their own NPC template designs that users could fill in with official D&D data, but unlike Pathfinder or Numenera, there’s no chance you’ll open FG and magically find that there’s D&D reference info in the Library section, or a replica D&D character sheet or monster stat block.

There’s a bit of a caveat. A hyper-intelligent and dedicated FG user has been working on parsers for D&D data for a few years now. He created a version which scraped the D&D Insider 4E website (subscription required) to build a library for personal use, and has created a stand-alone parser that will take data from the free PDF files that Wizards has created to build libraries for personal use. It’s a lot of work, though, involving cutting and pasting and reformatting, but it should be a “one and done” situation, barring any sudden head injury that makes the WotC lawyers forget their cast iron moratorium on licensing to third parties. That would be a godsend, considering the recent implosion of the deal WotC had with Trapdoor Technologies and the DungeonScape product.

But wait! It gets better! Fantasy Grounds has been posting occasional updates on social networking regarding their re-building of the product in Unity. UNITY! It looks pretty damn slick. This is a super-massive big deal because it will allow FG to go cross platform, for one. Last session we had a player who had to use WINE on his Mac to play with us, so it would have benefited him greatly to have had a version that ran native on the Mac. And not to get ahead of things or to put the FG team in a tight spot, but with Unity’s output options, they could bring the tool to iPads and Android tablets as well, with some concessions. If they really wanted to wow us, then they could announce some kind of cloud storage for modules, but we’ll see if there’s anything of the sort in the wind in the future.

Wrath of the Dragon Guy #AdventureCo #DND5E

When we last left the Adventure Co Brand Adventure Company, information pills they had silently dispatched a group of cultists and kobolds who had been trying to smoke out the refugees holed up in the temple of Chauntea. They had to move quickly as a massive force of cultists and kobolds and their attack drakes were encircling the building on a short timer, sickness and another force was attempting to break down the temple doors.

Inside, the players were met by the provincial priest (lower-case ‘p’) Gibberishfirstname Falconmoon, who was ecstatic to see them. The temple itself was holding firm, but was under obvious assault. Rocks had smashed the windows, torches had been thrown in hoping to set the place alight, and the refugees were on the verge of giving up hope as the cultists repeatedly smashed the reinforced doors with a massive battering ram.

The players first plan offered was to wait until the ram was approaching, open the door in surprise and once the momentum carried the cultists into the vestibule, slam the doors shut behind them, and attack. This would allow the party to deal with the most immediate threat to the temple and buy them time to figure out how to get the 32 people to safety.

Unfortunately, the battering ram was insistent, and it wasn’t long before the doors began to crack, and then to sag on their hinges. The Cleric attempted to Mend the doors as best he could, and while not fully repaired, he did manage to buy the team some time.

When they were sure that the drunken kobold procession had made a complete circuit around the temple, the team began launching refugees out the back door, through the smouldering fires, and into the forest behind the temple. One townsperson fell and cried out in pain and fear, but was quickly masked by the Bard’s Prestidigitation which muffled the shout as just another kobold bark.

The villagers made it out in time, but the procession was nearly back around to the rear of the temple at this point. The Ranger kept the villagers hidden in the forest, and the rest of the party took advantage of the lingering smoke and the cover of the temple itself to exit to the East, just as the procession was rounding the corner.

Since nothing is ever easy, their trip to the keep was interrupted by some last minute looters who intercepted the party, but who were dispatched with relative ease.

The villagers were relieved to be united with their families once inside the keep, but there was a new predicament. Something was happening outside the walls that was drawing everyone’s attention. Escobert and Nighthill and the players took the ramp to the parapets to find the invaders had assembled from around the village and were arrayed in front of the keep. Behind them sat the massive blue dragon who occasionally let out an ear splitting roar.

But it was the half-dragon champion that drew the attention. Backed by a retinue of 10 kobold guards, the champion called out for the keep to send out a champion of their own to meet him in one-on-one combat. To ensure compliance, he presented a woman and her three children as prisoners.

One of the guards on the wall recognized the woman has his sister, and rushed forth to face the half–dragon, but was restrained by the militia. Nighthill reluctantly asked the players if they would consider taking on this challenge, but understood if they were unwilling. Rather than send the Sergeant to his death, the Dwarven Fighter accepted the challenge and left the keep to face the half-dragon.

The enemy agreed to release the children immediately, but kept the woman hostage, vowing that any interference would result in her immediate death. With that, the battle began.

The Fighter charged the half-dragon, lobbing a throwing axe which only missed by a few inches. The half-dragon charged as well, replying with his spear that also missed. The two traded blows when they met, with the Fighter drawing first blood, but the half-dragon drew the last as the Dwarf fell beneath the half-dragon’s greatsword assault.

With the battle concluded, the half-dragon released the woman, the dragon took flight, and the invading forces dispersed, leaving the town of Greenest silent but ruined. The party and Escobert and his militia left the keep and were able to stabilize and resuscitate the Fighter, who earned a hero’s welcome within the fortification. The refugees relaxed; the invaders were leaving, and it was only a few hours until sunrise. The party was finally able to take their much needed rest, with further discussions to be had in the morning.

*   *   *

The “Sanctuary” mini-mission is supposedly the more difficult mission in the first episode of the module. The forces that the players have to deal with amount to a small army, and include a more advanced cultist overseeing the battering ram, and two attack drakes that are with the procession. While the module says that the players could take out the groups at both the front and back of the temple, this is really a situation that calls for patience and finesse.

The party debated a course of action for quite some time. The idea of opening the doors on an in-motion battering ram apparently came from The Seven Samurai, we were told, but the motion was shot down on the grounds that while the missing group at the rear of the temple was obscured by smoke, the procession would notice if the battering ram crew was absent, which might lead them to sober up and assault the temple.

The priest mentioned that there were catacombs beneath the temple, but that there was no other way out, and no way to secure the door from the crypt side (who would want to lock themselves in a crypt?). The only decision, the party decided, was to usher the people out the back and into the forest as quickly as possible (which is technically not the only option, but was by far the best option)

According to the module, the battering ram was supposed to hit anywhere between 15 and 30 seconds in order to keep pressure on the players to find a solution. Unfortunately, this group hasn’t quite reached the point of snap-decision making, so their leeway was lengthened to a whole three minutes per bang. They still “yelped” when the ram hit the door, though, several times exclaiming “we need to move!” The door has 30 HP, and each hit did 1d6 of damage; technically, the door could come down in that three minutes if the interval was 30 seconds. It could have increased the pressure, but it could also have caused a bloodbath that would have certainly gone bad for the players.

Once they decided to move the refugees out the back, I technically sent them out in groups of five, despite the fact that the players wanted them to move out in a continuous stream. The procession was moving at a speed of two minutes per side of the building, so game-wise, the refugees did stream out continuously, but moving 32 people anywhere, especially if they’re terrified, men, women, children, babies, and elderly, there’s a good chance someone might screw things up. Each group of 5 got a d20 roll, and on 10 or less, the group made it to the tree line without issue. 11 or greater and something happened. Thankfully, only one villager stumbled and cried out, but quick thinking masked the shout as just another crazed kobold yelp among many.

The half-dragon champion is the last mini mission in the episode, and is specifically designed to kill someone. If the players are reluctant to face the champion, then the Sergeant will go, as it’s his sister who is being held captive. If he were to go, he’d be dead-dead. If a player goes, the module actually expects that player to get stomped as well. Surprisingly, the Fighter managed to bring the champion down to exactly half his HP before he dealt the down-to-0-HP blow.

Nighthill offered the players 100gp each, a safe place to rest, and access to the town’s remaining resources for repair and replenishment. The cleric took it upon himself to haggle with Nighthill for more money, and despite initial protest that their town had just been ransacked for it’s valuables, agreed to take up a collection from the town to supplement their payment. The Cleric suggested they be granted some property in town, but I’m not sure whether he was serious or not.

We’re using the “level by episode” method rather than the individual XP tracking method because it’s cleaner; we don’t need to constantly update the character sheets (which gets messy when people aren’t paying attention that they’ve just earned the points) and because XP needed to level depends on XP granted which depends on the number of encounters and such, it’s possible that a lower number of encounters could put the players in a position where they’re not level appropriate for the content when they encounter it. Leveling by episode seems the better option for a published module where the design favors certain progression.

The A-Team

We had our weekly Dungeons & Dragons night last night, medicine and I will admit that was concerned in the run-up. My plan had been to retcon the previous session’s disaster, find returning the monk to life and converting the failed mercenary sub-plot to the resolution of “The Prisoner” section from the first chapter of the Hoard of the Dragon Queen. We’ve been in this chapter for several weeks now, and personally I was looking for a way to just end it. I had planned on running the final scenario, but things took an exciting turn.

First off, I reiterated what happened before the things that happened last: the players had “saved” half the mill, and had taken a prisoner back to the keep for interrogation. They took a short rest, and that’s where things needed the change. This time, Escobert and Nighthill approached the players camp to keep with information, to them in the loop.

Nighthill expressed his appreciation to the players, telling them that he knows that they got caught up in this dreadful situation, and have been awesome by putting their lives on the line to help out. Most importantly, he assured them that they’d be compensated for their time and effort.

Escobert relayed the tactical situation. The prisoner revealed that the cult’s plan was essentially to drive all the people from their homes to the keep through a “shock and awe” campaign of numbers and terror, which would allow them to ransack the village for all valuables they could carry. The soldier didn’t know why, exactly, the cult needed these valuables, except that it had something to do with a ritual they were planning. Escobert expressed his discomfort with this, because the cult had a camp only a day’s march away, and if this ritual needed an entire town’s worth of valuables to complete, chances are it wasn’t going to be limited to a local tea party. It could have dire ramifications for the whole region. On the bright side, they all learned that the cult would be moving on once they collected as much as they could, which could be anywhere from an hour to eight hours from that point. There was a light on the horizon, so they had a few options at this point. They could sit tight in the keep, wait it out, and hope that any villagers who weren’t inside the keep had found safety, or they could continue to attempt search and rescue missions in the town to bring people back to the fortress.

The players opted to keep fighting the good fight. Escobert mentioned that villagers might be holed up in basements, barns, or the temple to the southeast, since it’s the second largest building and also the second strongest building in town. I was super excited that the players picked the temple to go to out of other potential sorties because the temple is actually one of the missions in the first chapter! It’s also the most difficult mission in the first chapter.

The temple is surrounded by a low fence which only demarcates the property, so the players approached from the southwest to find the temple surrounded. At the front, a contingent of cultists and kobolds were trying to use a battering ram to knock down the front door. At the back, another set of cultists and kobolds were trying to smoke the villagers out by burning the back of the building, but were only successful in creating a large, low lying cloud of dark smoke. The worst part, however, was the massive parade of kobolds and cultists that were circling the temple like some kind of Forgotten Realms Mardi Gras, barking and hollering and rough-housing in either celebration of intimidation. With them were two squat, muscular attack drakes on harnesses…really nasty.

Shit got real when the players opted to wait until the procession moved to the far side of the building, at which point the party quickly and silently moved in, one by one, using the smoke to conceal their presence. The rolls had never been hotter, as I think only a single attack missed, and the kobolds and cultists in the smoke were cut down before they could get their bearings to mount a counter-attack.

Unfortunately, we had lost one player due to fatigue and technical difficulties, and another player had to leave the fray early. I was exceedingly pleased with how everything went, from the organic progression of the plot, to the rolls, to the speed with which the encounter was resolved (we didn’t use tactical this time), to the decision making process the players went though to quickly and decisively start what is certainly the most difficult encounter in the first chapter. I was sad that we had to close up shop so early, but it’ll give me a week to think on the rest of this encounter, because now the players have to find a way to get the villagers OUT of the temple while avoiding the literally dozens of cult members that are mere moments from bashing down the front doors.

A Slow Bumpy Ride Into Hell #DnD

I’m feeling less than pleased with how our Thursday night D&D sessions are going.

I’m finding that I’m not nearly as mentally agile as I need to be in order to run a game. The first and most important rule of DMing is “be flexible”, link because the DM isn’t dictating a story to the players; he’s providing a framework for the players, more about and is then responding to the actions of the players. In order to do that, a DM has to be able to present the setting, take the input, and return the results in a consistent and interesting way. It’s one part mechanical: you pull the lever, the door closes, and one part artistic: you pull the rusty lever with all your might, and suddenly the steel door slams shut with a clang, darkening the room. I can do the first one, but the second one is just not coming to me.

I thought that with the Hoard of the Dragon Queen module that 90% of the work would be done, and I could focus my preparation time on the other 10% of “flavoring” the framework. It’s turning out to be not that way. It’s been something like four or five sessions and we’re still in Greenest. I need to watch some recorded play-throughs from other people, but I’m pretty certain we’re way behind. It feels that the game has been nothing but combat, which is what I had hoped we could avoid (not combat, just combat all the time). Last week, I tried to send the players on a non-combat side-mission that I had created, but the players opted to skip it entirely until I forced them back to that track, and it ended with disastrous results.

When I step back and assess the way things are going, I’m getting a strong sense of deja vu about how things are playing out. The game is playing and is being played almost like a CRPG, where the computer provides limited and predictable content that the players can easily adapt to in ways that save them from having to inject any meaningful thought or presence. In a way, I DO blame our decades of online gaming for this; I think it’s difficult for all of us to think outside the box, to react as characters instead of reacting as people PLAYING characters, and to provide a sense of place and ownership using just the imagination. We’re all so used to limiting our understanding to telegraphs and ability rotations that we’ve lost interest or the ability to act and react within a world that we’re making up as we go along.

I’m not sure that the players are really having fun. I’m not sure that I’m really having fun. Combat is too frequent, and takes too much time (we’ve already broken the first edict NOT to use tactical combat, and I think we’re suffering for it). The role playing opportunities are being bypassed either because they’re not recognized, not interesting, ill-prepared, or just because of standard meta-game thinking. At this point, I’m ready to conclude Episode One just to see if Episode Two is tighter and easier to focus on than the “choose your own adventure” potpourri that is Episode One.

Burning Down (Half) The House #DnD

Last night’s session saw the Adventure Co Brand Adventure Company watching the mill at Greenest (which sounds like a B&B, treat but is not). As usual, information pills spoilers ahead.

DND_Session3

At the end of the previous session, check the players crept around the mill and found themselves a secluded vantage point on the top of a hill overlooking the mill. From there, the Bard’s keen eye for performance noticed that the cultists they were sent to stop were just phoning it in; they were half-heartedly waving torches in the direction of the mill, but up close, it was obvious it was just for show.

Sensing that something was up, the Cleric asked around for a torch and a light, cast Disguise Self to appear as a cultist himself, and boldly walked down the hill to where one of the acolytes was pretending to set fire to things. Recognizing a brother (in the religious sense, not fraternal), the acolyte struck up a conversation with the Cleric, who managed to convince the acolyte that he was ordered over here to provide additional fakery for the…eh…why are we here, exactly?

The acolyte spilled the beans, thinking he was talking to another cultist: they were creating a diversion in the hopes that the late-arriving adventurers would be sent out here to “deal with them”, at which point the fake fire-starters would run away, and the adventurers would be ambushed by the small army of cultists and soldiers hiding inside the mill. The Cleric doubled down on the comradeship he was forging with the acolyte and cast Charm Person. He sent his newly acquired minion around to the others to tell them that cultist reinforcements had arrived to help out, and not to get trigger happy (or sword or spell happy).

Returning to the group, the Cleric was chastised by the Ranger for not having asked about the number of people inside the barn. Relying on the adage “If you want something done, right, do it your elf”, the Ranger (who is an elf…) had the Cleric introduce him as a raider, and the Ranger grilled the hell out of the acolyte before quietly introducing his sword to his internal organs.

Meanwhile, the Bard, still in full kobold regalia, slipped down the hill to the edge of light cast by the other cultists surrounding the mill. Her disguise worked well enough to allow her to approach the nearest cultist within Prestidigitation distance, and she snuffed out his torch. This immediately set the cultist off like a car alarm at 3 AM, and he and the remaining faux-firestarter fled shouting “They’re here! They’re here!”

At this point, the session turned into “Die Hard”, but only in that there were people holed up inside a building, and there were people outside the building trying to figure out a way to get said people out of the building without having to go in to the building.

The Bard — a 3′ tall gnome — opted to open the bottom half of the dwarven door (which we call a “dutch door” here IRL) and peek inside. It was too dark to see anything, so the Bard used Prestidigitation to light a nearby crate on fire. Unfortunately, the crate was isolated enough from everything else in the room that any unseen adversaries didn’t seem worried about it, and remained hidden.

While the bulk of the force held a committee at the front of the mill, the Cleric was hanging out with the dead body of his former acolyte friend, peering into one of the windows of the mill (being one of the only people who could reach the window, it made sense). Either because he was at is wit’s end, or simply because he wanted to get a better look inside as the only member of the party without Darkvision, the Cleric smashed the window and threw his lit torch into the flour mill.

In a move that no one saw coming, the torch bounced across the floor towards the grinding stone, and promptly ignited an unseen cloud of flour dust which blew out half of the mill building into the river.

Now the party could see the raiders inside. Three of them were charcoal briquettes, but the rest of them — seven assorted guards and cultists — were sufficiently convinced that the jig was up, and started leaping from the loft. Unfortunately, the dwarven door, only open half way, could not accommodate a party of bloodthirsty adventurers, and the Cleric — who lost his eyebrows in the explosion (not kidding — he only suffered 1 HP of damage in the luckiest roll ever) — was running back and forth between the flaming wreckage and the river, filling his water-skin and dumping it on the fire in one of the most comically pathetic sketches this side of The Benny Hill Show.

And of course this would be when the reinforcements show up from the keep. A bewildered captain interrogated the Ranger, who smoothly convinced the soldier that the raiders overplayed their hand and ignited the flour dust within while the party was totaly otherwise in control of the situation like the consummate professionals that they were. The captain, rubbing his face as if somehow trying to slough the incredulity of the situation away, told the Ranger that they had to see if they couldn’t capture one of the fleeing raiders. Escobert wants to interrogate someone, and although he’d prefer a higher-up in the raider organization, this might be a decent opportunity to get anyone into custody.

As luck would have it, the Bard’s earlier decision to open the gnome-part of the door paid off: one panicked cultist saw the light from the doorway and ran towards it at full speed, without realizing that it was only half the door that was opened, and that the half that was closed was where his face needed to pass through. The Fighter (a dwarf) ducked into the doorway and dragged the unconscious soldier out into the open air and turned him over to the keep militia.

With the mill in partial flames, the militia captain tasked the players with taking the captive back to Escobert for questioning while he and his men held down the fort (what was left of it).

Next Week: The players escort a captive back to the keep.

*   *   *

This is why tabletop RPGs are so awesome. You send the party out to protect a building, and it’s them who end up blowing it up.

The first phase of the session went well. The Cleric’s Disguise Self ruse went off without a hitch (there was no reason for it to fail, as he specifically said he wanted to appear as any cultist they ran into earlier for potential familiarity purposes), but he didn’t ask enough questions for a full picture, which brought the Ranger into the conversation to get the rest of the intel.

The second phase  was rather difficult. The players successfully short-circuited the raider’s plans, but the raiders were counting on the player’s reticence to actually burn down the mill. After all, their plan counted on the players wanting to save the mill, and then jumping them when they entered the building. The players were wary of putting themselves into harms way, knowing that there were 10 unseen enemies in strategic positions inside the mill, so a standoff ensued. I really had no idea how to move this forward. The raiders were technically safe in the mill, knowing the players weren’t going to do anything stupid (on purpose), so they could have stayed in there all night. They had no idea about the reinforcements on the way, though, so I guess it would have ended badly for them eventually.

I actually didn’t come up with the idea of blowing the thing up until maybe 10 minutes or so into this standoff. The image I had for the mill showed a pile of flour sacks in the lower right corner of the building. Then the Bard wanted to “set something on fire”. I was hoping she’d opt to try and set the flour stock on fire, but because she didn’t want to venture too far onto the mill floor, that wasn’t going to happen. The raiders certainly weren’t going to set the mill on fire with themselves inside, and they weren’t going to leave with the party camping the only viable exit.

Enter the Cleric, the only guy without Darkvision. I think his intent was merely to smash the window, shout something inside, and throw the torch in as a threat, but that was really all that was needed to put the flour plan into action.

When the reinforcements showed up, the Captain had no idea whether or not the players were telling the truth about the raiders having done the deed. Hell, they’re cultists; they’re supposed to be all about the martyrdom, so why wouldn’t they blow up the building in an otherwise un-winnable situation? At least half the building was left standing, and they had scored a captive for interrogation.

The night was ended with a discussion over appointing a leader for the group. Up to this point, there hasn’t been a lot of need for a leader, as the encounters have been relatively straight-forward, but during this session, the party was divided as the Cleric and Ranger were interrogating the acolyte, the Bard was attempting to shut down the two other cultists outside, and the Fighter and the Monk (the party has a Monk, remember) were holding down the fort on the hill overlooking the mill without opportunity to take meaningful action for most of the night.

Essentially, it was as the Bard said during the discussion: everyone is so used to being responsible for themselves through years of online gaming that the concept of reaching a consensus in a free-form environment has atrophied. While everyone was working towards “the goal”, the party has relied on individual strengths, individually, rather than coming up with ideas on how they can work together towards a single strategy. Part of it has to do with years of online gaming, but I think part of it also has to do with no one wanting to diminish anyone else’s potential contributions or ideas. Everyone is really respectful of each other’s approaches, but almost to a fault. We talked a bit about how Episode 1 could be considered to be the “tutorial” chapter, and going forward things are going to get messier and more difficult, and will require greater team work and communication.

In the end, the Ranger accepted the mantle of leadership (which is a good choice, as he’s also DM’s his own 5E sessions, which provides a useful perspective). It was suggested that maybe in between this session and the next that the party get together OOC and discuss how they can work together, either via Roll20 or via the forums on Anook. Of course, once the party starts to organize, that means I’m going to have to work much harder to ensure that they’re challenged.

Session 2 – It’s Not A Sewer

Session two of Hoard of the Dragon Queen went swimmingly. As usual, information pills There Will Be Spoilers.

The players had just arrived in the keep, and were immediately asked by Escobert the Red to help out with their efforts. Being significantly more capable than the rank and file garrison soldier (even at level one), the adventurers were asked to head out and harass the raiders and/or bring back as many townspeople as they could to the (relative safety) of the keep.

Before they got their gear on, however, a scout reported to Escobert that the town mill was under assault. Being the slaves to carbohydrates that they are, this would strike a devastating blow for Greenest’s nascent toast industry, so Escobert re-routed the players to go save the mill (and bring back some bagels).

Problem: There’s a nasty hoard of cultists outside the front gates. Solution: The builders of the keep thoughtfully created a secret tunnel beneath the keep that runs south to the river. It was built to allow people inside the keep to get fresh water, should the keep be under siege. This seemed like one of those times, so Escobert gave the players two keys: one for the door in the basement on the keep-end, and one for the grate at the river end of the tunnel. He left them with one bit of advice: don’t let anyone see you using that tunnel, or everyone in the keep would be screwed.

What’s funnier than a party of five in which four members have Darkvision, but the drunken cleric doesn’t? Not much. The players leapfrogged through the single-file tunnel until they met up with a Swarm of Rats, who turned out to be nothing more than a speed bump on the way to the rusted grate at the end of the tunnel.

Someone decided that the dwarven fighter would be the one who had the best chance of using the delicate key in the rusted lock. Murphy, god of hilarious outcomes, was on duty that night, as the dwarf applied just a bit too much pressure and snapped the key in the lock. Cue the sad trombone.

In one of those moments that makes a DM proud, the Bard used Prestidigitation to remove the rust from the grate, and the Cleric used Mending to repair the key. This allowed the party to open the grate silently (no more rusty hinges!) and surprise a cultist party that was scouting the riverbanks.

Sadly, the distance between the party and the raiders was pretty large. The elven ranger managed to snipe a few kobolds as the monk — hitherto refered to as “some random guy who’s been following the party this whole time, but otherwise not really doing much” — was the second one out of the tunnel. Seeing an opportunity to show he was one of the guys, he Dashed into the fray, only to be the first semi-casualty of the campaign. The dwarven fighter took time out of her busy schedule of cutting humans in half with her battleaxe to stabilize him, and the Cleric eventually helped him get his groove back. The bard — know nicknamed “Pottymouth” — spent the night debuffing the enemies with Disadvantage through Vicious Mockery, calling into question everyone’s parentage, and generally harshing the cultist’s mellow.

The problem, though, is that after the battle the party realized that this wasn’t even their main mission. Spells were spent. Damage was taken. And they still needed to get to the mill and stop the raiders from burning it to the ground.

Quote of the night: After the Cleric announced his intention to use Blessing of the Trickster on the Ranger (which required a laying on of hands): “Show us on the character sheet where the Cleric touched you.”

*   *   *

This was a good session. I could see that folks were getting into the situation and contemplating the potential outcomes. The cleaning of the grate and the repairing of the key took me by surprise, but both were well within the parameters of ability and saved the party from noisily destroying the grate, which would have allowed the cultists in the river to gain Surprise to ambush the players. One bullet dodged!

Before the session, I was in Roll20 setting up some maps. Nothing fancy: I’ve started relying on R20’s drawing options to create the scene, which is totally 1/2 assed. It’s not optimal, but I realized that I didn’t have a tunnel map, nor did I have time to make one. I also spent time setting up the mill using the drawing tools, but with another week to prepare, I’ll revisit that and see if I can’t make something better looking.

Two things of concern from the DM side: The river encounter included 2 cultists and 6 kobolds. Ideally, we would have winged it like we did with the first kobold encounter, but there were too many enemies to keep track of. I placed them on the map intending to just use them for reference, but the encounter instantly morphed into tactical combat. It took a while to complete, leaving us no time to actually get to the mill scenario — the actual point of leaving the keep. The second issue is that of scale. I’ve been playing fast and loose with this, starting on the map of Greenest at 30′ per square, which makes sense for a town map. In actuality as I write this, I remember that in the settings for the map in Roll20, there’s actually a scale setting — and each square represents 5′ by default. This would have SIGNIFICANT effect on all kinds of things movement and distance related, and I’ve dropped the ball in keeping this consistent. I’ve built the mill map with the 5′ square standard, but I treated the river encounter squares are 30′, which is total BS on my part. Going forward, all encounter map squares will default to 5′. Larger overland maps will need to have their scale adjusted to simulate travel time.

And finally, I have to say, Realm Works paid for itself last night. Having the mission in bullet point form allowed me to skim quickly for information, and the hyperlinks to monster stats was a godsend. I’m totally sold on Realm Works as a gaming tool.