Saturday, December 31, 2016

Uncommon Heartbreaker in the Barrowmaze

Lately I've been running a very "old school" style of campaign wherein each session the characters enter and return from the Barrowmaze, a mega dungeon written by David Gillespie. I assembled the rules myself.

In recent years D&D players have been posting their house rules on the internet. Many have published their versions of D&D as “retro-clones”, games unto themselves. Among the most popular are Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Dungeon Crawl Classics, but there are now more than 300 various pdfs and books floating around, each offering some variation to taste of the d20 Dungeon's and Dragons experience. At some point the obsessive D&D fan, like a connoisseur of fine wine, must mix and match and blend his own vintage. Hence, Uncommon Dungeons.

My priorities with these rules were creating a very fast playing game that emphasizes exploration and emergent play over customization and tactical combat.

To minimize math at the table I decided to vary the type of dice rolled instead of applying modifiers (+’s and -’s). This brings about the least standard element, which is the use of the Dice Chain, adding d3s, d5’s, d7’s, d14’s, d16s, d24s and d30s to the standard polyhedral set. This can make for some searching at the table for the right die, and some searching the 'nets in order to purchase those dice in the first place, but weird dice are fun and they allow for the roll under mechanic. As we have been playing online via Google Hangouts, my friends have been using dice rolling apps.

A priority is to make direct use of the 3-18 ability scores. In most D&D games, scores are generated rolling a handful of d6s, those numbers are then converted to +/-4 modifiers and the scores themselves are hardly used again. This has bothered me for well nigh 25 years. When I played Basic D&D, long ago in the middle school days, “skill checks” were made by rolling under a score with a d20. This made use of the score, but it created a situation where-in a high score ability would nearly always guarantee success and there was no room to grow. Using d30s and d24s roll under mechanic for skills and saving throws makes success far less likely but allows a character to improve with time.

The combat rules also de-emphasize modifiers. The strength score does not improve chances to hit in melee, while dexterity does not increase damage with ranged attacks.

The extreme danger of arrows and spears is modeled with an “exploding dice” mechanic.

At the same time I have been enforcing stringent penalties for launching missiles into melee combat, the ease of which is a pet peeve of mine in D&D V.

Although simplification is a priority, I like spellcasters to have a bit of unpredictability and danger, so there are rules for risking blood and sanity to perform additional and more powerful magic. On the other hand, I have no interest in writing new spells, so the spell lists from from a variety of sources are available, mostly B/X and LotfP.

Finally, there are a number of niggly combat rules to encourage a quick and dangerous style of play based on choices rather than character options. This begins with weapons and armor.

Shields were historically the most crucial armor, so the defense bonus is higher than is usual, a +3!  Conversely, two-handed weapons do quite a bit more damage, so the trade-off is a decision based on desired fighting style.  Similarly, ranged weapons can be very effective, but become much less reliable when hand to hand battle is joined.

There is a balance between maintaining the possibility of serious consequences and over-doing it. For example, a character that is poisoned makes a Constitution saving throw to avoid death, a terrible consequence mitigated a bit by time.  The player is helpless and dying for d100 minutes.  If players can find an antidote in time, the poison may be counter acted.  Similarly, the touch of many undead monsters is often a death sentence. In these rules, the black touch is tied to fear and sanity as represented by the Wisdom Score.  Characters lose their grip on reality as they delve into the unknown.  This becomes another way to lose a character and makes the undead especially fearsome without level drain or extremely temporary hit point reduction.

In any case, I've been enjoying the home brew ruleset to go with the prefab dungeon module.

Star Wars: Destiny of the Jedi

Last year I got really excited about the Force Awakens so I picked up FFG's Star Wars: Force and Destiny RPG. It's a story-ish system that uses custom non-numbered polyhedrons with a dice pool mechanic. A couple friends and I played through a mini-campaign book called "Chronicle of the Gatekeeper". It was great!
A couple of young college dropouts discovered they have force powers as they travel the galaxy following in the footsteps of a Jedi Knight who fought in the Clone Wars all the while exploring various crazy planets, negotiating with gangsters, escaping storm troopers and battling rancor beasts.
There are pluses and minuses to the system and the adventure. It's really dense and tends to fall back on stuff like, "In this section, do what seems most dramatic" which isn't super inspiring, but the thing is, it that what I tend to do anyways and it worked great. The module was a bit of a trip down Clone Wars history, which could only be so compelling in a truly shared world like Star Wars.
The best part was actually the final battle where it all came together in spectacular fashion. The battle was more role play than combat, with the players basically reflecting on the entire arc of the story in order to make their point to the villain. And it still came down to a final, improbable die roll!
Really good times. I don't think I'll be a full time Star Wars GM, but I'll definitely come back to this game.

Postscript: I wrote this post a year ago, and although I enjoyed Rogue One, it didn't inspire me to dedicate more time to this game. I have played in it as a player recently, and hope to do so more often.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Storm King's Thunder Session #0: Rumblings Out of the Blue

Table Story

             Although I've been DMing since grade school, I almost always run published adventures.  I like to interpret modify and improvise more than to create from scratch.  I've found I really enjoy reading and getting ideas from different tables' stories of how they interpreted these same modules.  It's one of the best reasons to play them.  So, with the beginning of the new Storm King's Thunder mega campaign, I'm going to try to keep up with write ups and commentary in this old blog.   
We meet weekly in my living room.  We are a large group of mostly couples.  7 players.  This configuration has been steady for about a year.  We just finished Curse of Strahd (best campaign ever), and the players have decided to keep their characters, so this is a Storm King campaign starting with 8th and 9th level characters.  I will be adjusting accordingly and mixing in some bits of Rise of Tiamat and Out of the Abyss to present some high level challenges.  Anyways, here it goes: The florid prose I send to the players first, then commentary.

Session #0: Rumblings out of the Blue


The roc, falcon of the gods, swept out of clear skies.  Pale passengers blinked in the sunlight as the half-forgotten Sword Coast of Faerun spread out  below like an endless tapestry of forest field and stream, punctuated by the insignificant blemishes of human settlement.  The grand metropolis of Waterdeep awaited at the edge of the Sea of Swords to the West swathed in storm cloud, but the passengers were roth to return to such gloomy weather so quickly, for nightmare was still fresh in their minds, so they took heed of Ghale the Grey Wolf who pointed to a great golden circle of grains waving, “There is Goldenfields, the granary of the North.  I spent part of my youth there with my kinsman Strog, a guardsman.”  Broad wings like the sails of a ship obscured the sun to the boatmen fishing the broad waters of the Dessarin River as the grand avian dropped her precious cargo and flew away.  
    A happy Halloo! came from a nearby boat.  It was Ninder and Nip, gnomish friends of Lysander, out for a cast with their friend Althea the Elf Wizard, who also knew a member of the party, Saffron the Elf Druid.  The elf and gnome traded places on boat and bank, many pleasantries were exchanged and the returned companions set off for the gates of Goldenfields.  
    Many farmers, herdsmen and ragged folk lined the road before the gate, submitting to laborious inspection by a pair of halberdiers overseen by a bored and foppish luftenant, who Apollo realized was a scion of the House of Tarm, a local noble family.  After some a bit of back and forth involving the unlooked for comfort of a rank armpit to the horrified noble, he waved them inside.
    Captain Strog Thunderblade had put on some weight over the years.  His jowls hung heavy and his outthrust jaw drooped in dismay as he was poked in the belly by a severe lady, “Have you not heard these herdsmans’ stories?  There are aggressors about who do not abide by the glory of the Morninglord, the Mother and All-Father.  This place is threatened and you do nothing but roast pigs!”   “My dear young lass,” stammered the hulking orc-faced old warrior, “May I say you know nothing warfare.  We are protected by 60ft walls.  Not even the giants of the sea could reach over our parapets.  Tonight’s watch is set, but I promise lass, I’ll double the watch tomorrow, when I get around to it.”  Zi the Acolyte was unimpressed, “Warfare?  The village of Nightstone was razed to the foundations!  What if it happens here?”
The old orc was relieved to greet his long lost nephew, desiring to hear of his adventures and promising to join him in the evening at the Northfurrow’s End Inn.  So the companions walked up the road, surveying the vast fields of wheat barley and squash, the pig pastures, the stone grain towers, the far-off smokestack and spire of the Goldengulp Brewery, the industrious men women and other gentlefolk tilling the land, tending livestock, bringing forth the earth’s bounty, protected from the chaos horror and lawlessness of the Sword Coast.
In the central square of the village a crowd of children sat on a grassy hill listening to a tree!  Tell a long tale of how the Dawn Titan of Fire was locked within the great forge of the lost dwarven fortress Gauntlgrym.  “And now those smithy's have been reopened to once again forge tools of great excellence.  Let none say that ALLLLLLL the news of Faerun is dire,” said Lieferlas the Treant.
The Inn boasted a large taproom lit by antler chandeliers and two roaring hearths.  The bartender was a Yakman named Miros who brought out Ghale’s old mug and filled in with a mixture of honey mead and Goldengulp Amber.  A bard struck up a ballad of the fall of the flying cities of Netheril in ancient times.  Food was brought forth, suckling pork, turkey legs, steaming bread loafs and squash soups.  
Althea befriended a serious academic trying to study the pre-historic Empire of Ostoria when giants ruled the realm in a strict caste system, importance and power assigned according to height: Hill Giant peasants, Stone Giant artisans, Fire Giant technicians, Frost Giant warriors, Cloud Giant courtiers, and Storm Giant royalty “The ancient texts whisper that old Ostoria was toppled by a flight of dragonkind!”
Apollo became drunk and performed miracles for local farmers.  The Druid looked on less than amused.
      Late at night the party continued until the bard burst into the room as the earth shook.  “Fire foes fear and flame!   Run and hide!”
The central square was under attack by goblins in spiked armor.  Homes were aflame.  Neanderthals three times the height of a man strode about sweeping pigs, pumpkins and more into their crudely sewn sacks, bellowing, “FEE FIE FO FOOD FOOD for QUEEN GUH!  MORE FOOD for MORE of QUEEN GUH!”   Goblins menaced the village children huddled around Lieferlas the Living Tree, “Hordervs!”  
     The druid quickly cast a pair of spells to douse the flames and protect the children with the plant growth while her companions went to battle.            
      Wizardly fire made short work of the goblins, but the giants the size of hills swung their clubs with abandon and were slain with some trouble.  
      As the night wore on it became apparent that this was a major raid.  The gate was broken, the wall torn down in sections, many people killed, and much food stolen, but the giants and their vermin companions were eventually routed.  The people of Goldenfields were shook to their core.  Many looked angrily at Captain Strog, but others cried that never before have giant kind been so aggressive or organized.  If this continues, what fate is in store for civilization in the North?  Strog bowed his head in shame.  Ghale looked away uncomfortably.
     The people of Goldenfields were thankful to the returned companions.  Lieferlas gave to Saffron the elf a crown of holly and called her a friend of the Emerald Enclave.  He urged her to visit his old friend Aerglas the Elf, a druid deep in the High Forest, at a place called Shadowtop Cathedral.  Perhaps he would know how to fight these giants.  The Acolyte Zi gave impressed upon Apollo a large black pearl, “Take this to House Thann in Waterdeep.  Give it to Caulder the Butler.  He will reward you.”  Nexena the Scholar Princess wrote a letter introduction for Althea consult the renowned dragon expert, Chaz Yardhorn.  Luftenant Hantanus Tarm told Ghale he was welcome any time to the ancestral home in the nearby bedroom community of Amphail to defend the Tarms against giants and all other monstrosities.
So ends the first rumble of the Storm King’s Thunder.

Commentary with more SPOILERS

   BASICALLY, I focused on dropping a lot of hints and foreshadowing, started with Goldenfields, and am going to present to the Cloud Castle of Lyn Amaral next.

    We were missing some players, so at the last minute I changed the start to Goldenfields.  Using the "Guide to Goldenfields" from DMsguild, the group wandered into the farm town.  I included a lot of background and foreshadowing about giants, dragons, ancient wars etc.  The characters got drunk in the inn, then giants and goblins attacked.  After a lot of roleplaying it ended up being a one fight night and I narrated the aftermath because it was a late night.  Four characters ranging from 7th to 9th level took out three hill giants and a dozen goblins fairly easily, though I forgot giants get two swings, which would have made a huge difference.
    I dropped quest lines for the "Dragon Expert" in Waterdeep (which should send them out dragon hunting), the House Thann in Waterdeep (which should get them a decent introduction into noble society), and the mission to Shadowtop Cathedral (I'm thinking they can encounter Turlang the Elder Treant, and if they get him onside he can give them some helpful giant advice, possibly pointing them towards the Eye of the All Father, but he is less concerned with giant wars than he is with the impending Underdark wedding of the Aurumycos beneath the High Forest to the demon Zuggtmoy).
     When they get to Waterdeep the group will be invited to a vegas style party featuring a casino boat in a moat (manned by a purple viking and other Kraken-y types), rumor will fly, and later on a drunken wizard will notice the Cloud Castle above the city and drop a whole bag of magic beans to get up to it (idea stolen from Sean's Powerscore blog).
     Up in the castle Countess Sanrisa is torturing her new guest Fingalos, a Gold Dragon.  She wants to know what the dragons are planning? Where is Blagothus of Skyreach Castle? Was it the dragons who slew King Hekaton?  Where are the fugitives of the Maelstrom Court?  Where is Harshnag the Grey Handed?  He doesn’t know.
     At this point I don't know how or if I'll work in Zephyros.