Sunday, October 17, 2010

Roleplaying: Niches and cohorts

I have continued toying with the ideas from my last post, emailing with the members of my group, and here are some of my current ideas.

In our group, every character should have some kind of social skills. I've been talking about these skills being different from one another by using the GURPS social skill distinctions (e.g., carousing, fast talking, and diplomacy). Carousing is for a character that is lower class and works more effectively at an unstructured social situation like a bar/tavern or a party. A character with social skills of this type should not be sent to negotiate with the noble. Similarly, fast talking might be a good skill among merchants, in quick negotiations, or when trying to talk your way past a guard but might not be as useful at the aforementioned party or bar. Fast talking is more goal oriented and someone skilled at it may not know as much about "small talk". Now diplomacy is a much more complex affair, takes more time, is very formal because it is different dependent upon the social rank of those participating. Yet in my Fudge build, these would all be labeled the same "Prosocial skill".

My players responded pretty positively to the idea that each player could have their own social niche. From there, I refined the idea that even the method of interacting may be the same but by becoming aware of the "in group" even characters with similar social styles may be more suited to one interaction over another. For example, the Knight and the Cleric may both be skilled at diplomacy but if you want someone to talk with the Bishop, you send the Cleric.

I did get a little resistance to the idea of running a campaign where every character has a niche defined along either type of social skill of in group affiliation. One player commented that of course the Face is going to be better at social interactions than the gun bunny. To this I introduced two concepts; allies and cohorts.

First, the concept of allies from Savage Worlds. I'm a little tired of the concept that the group is 4-5 characters is the one and only perfectly balanced set of people for "saving the world". So, I'd like the players to rely more on allies and supporters. If you knew that you were going into a big fight in real life and knew that your fate and the fate of many others depended on it, wouldn't you bring as many people with you as you could? We're going to have to play test this to make sure that allies don't slow play down too much but I think it can work and keep specialized social roles plus "gun bunny" cohort members.

Second, I'm thinking of divided troupe play as one way of making the world more diverse and of sharing the lime light. The opening of the campaign that I'm considering asks every person to make a character that is present at a particular noble's home on a particular day. These will be the main characters of the players. Each one will have a special set of social skills and an in group. To allow players to violate the trite commandment, "Don't split the party" I want each main character to have a cohort of other people from their in group that can be played by the other players when that main character is in their unique element.

For example, the 4 main characters at the noble's house might be Ivan (Player #1) a bartender from the local tavern brought in for one night to serve drinks at a party, Giovanni (player #2) the thief in disguise as a server, Father Brunelli (Player #3) from the local church invited because he was newly ordained and is a topic of conversation, and Gregory (player #4) a leader of a local press gang hired for security. That night they all experience things that tie them together and give them a common purpose. But sometimes, it just doesn't make sense to go together. Gregory goes into a riot on the Feast of Fools to rescue a young nobleman who got in over his head while masked. Father Brunelli probably doesn't have any business being in that riot. Fortunately for us, Gregory has his second in command, Stephen (played by player #1) who is skilled with a sword, Brock (played by player #2) a former soldier with a bad attitude, and Ug (played by player #4) who carries a club the size of a small child but isn't the sharpest rock in the gravel pile. Gregory is in charge during the riot but the others, though their main characters are off stage are still part of the action. None of these troupe characters are quite as skilled (not as high level or as many points) as the main characters. Later, when Father Brunelli needs to talk with the bishop, he brings, an acolyte, a deacon, and a servant. Now we've got a fully developed world, with deep relationships, potential for complex interweaving stories, and potential for a variety types of conflict and combat.

So far, the players have liked both the these ideas well enough. Personally, I'm really excited. The main way that I know I'm excited about a campaign is that my mind starts conjuring adventures in it. Once I stepped into the combination of troupe play, those wheels started turning a mile a minute.

Models for Blending GM and Player Interests

As I mentioned in my last post, I am exploring the idea of whether or not it is possible for the players to play with one aspect of the game (e.g., numbers, min-maxing, or gadgets) while the GM plays with another (e.g., story, morality, or themes). I ended that last post by admitting that I have been GMing, to my own frustration as if the answer is "no". The reason that this has brought me frustration is that I have recognized the different play goals between my players and myself, recognized that my job is to bring them enjoyment, and prioritized their fun over mine. This is frustrating because A) I'm just planning for their enjoyment not as much for my own and B) because I just don't get what they enjoy. Case in point, I tried to give my gadget monkey what I thought was an awesome reward at the end of the last campaign, a pile of loot, and he became the new Lord of the Blades. It didn't trip his switch at all, he only accepted the title long enough to pass it off to an NPC. Let me reiterate too that this difference does not exist with all of my players, only some and to varying degrees. I keep using the player I've referred to as Alphonse as my example because, it is with him that the difference with my own style is most stark.

The following are some thought experiments to help me consider ways in my play as the GM and the play of the players might be able to be different. The thought experiments are only experiments. I tend to brain storm this way, generate a lot of ideas, no matter how absurd,

Anthropologist Model
In this approach instead of insisting that players interact with story the way that I would (investment in NPC motivations, backgrounds, and feelings) , I could just accept that the players will interact with the NPCs in the way that they want to. In other words, I change my questions about the play of the PCs from, "When they interrogate the captives what will they ask?" to questions like, "Will the PCs interrogate the captives?" Here instead of being attached to the PCs interacting with the NPCs, the way I would, I switch to finding out whether and how they will interact at all. My play here becomes more direct between me and the players instead of fully immersed between me as NPC and the players as PCs. So, if the players do not interrogate the captives, I might then ask, "What would encourage the PCs in interrogate the captives?" or "If the captives start talking amongst themselves will the the player's PCs become more interested in them?"

Benefit: The benefit of the anthropologist model is that I stop trying to get others to play the way I want and start trying to be interested with the way that they play naturally. I then use the player's natural responses as the source of my amusement. I can dangle new elements in front of the players to test different responses. Do they respond more directly if one of their captives was forced into fighting them? Are they more sympathetic if one of the NPCs was only trying to get enough money to feed his/her family? Do they only care about the back story of guard #4 if guard #4 can tell them about a treasure in the mountains or a magic item owned by the BBEG?

Drawbacks: I might enjoy the above approach more than I have enjoyed GMing this group so far but I don't know if it would scratch my story itch. I really like the fully immersed interaction of NPC to PC roleplay. If this approach does work to bring me joy, I still would need enough game advancement elements (XP, items, gadgets) to satisfy their play and those elements would be extraneous to the anthropologist model.

Risks: The real risk is that I could slip into the mindset I had at the beginning of my Eberron campaign. I kept asking the question, "How would a real person respond given this PC's actions." This went down hill very quickly because one or more PCs kept doing things that were inadvertently threatening or coercive. When the world responded in kind, Alphonse in particular, did not like that one bit. So, while I experimented with different story elements, I'd have to maintain a priority on their enjoyment, drop elements that aren't causing them joy and not get too excited with playing an NPC or faction in a "realistic" fashion. It would be much more like trying and discarding toys until the cat gets interested in one rather than pestering the cat with a toy that scares it (thinking that the cat will eventually figure out how to play with it).

Dual Elements Model
There is nothing that says that gadgets and story are mutually exclusive. No reason both can't exist in the same game world. I know that Alphonse is not only capable of role playing but sometimes really enjoys it too. Why not create a world and use a system that balances both elements? Give a little, get a little. Good old fashioned compromise.

Benefits: Everyone could end up happy even if it may not be ideal for anyone as time and energy are devoted to one or the other set of play priorities.

Drawbacks: There are some competing elements. For example, I'm really interested in a low-magic world. And though it is true that "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king" the span of magic items in a low-magic world will never be equal to what Alphonse is familiar with (e.g., swords from +1-+5 plus an additional set of enhancements like keen, bane, exploding, flaming, etc.). Finally, there is only so much time. Both at the table and in preparation, neither element would be experienced in its full glory.

Risks: I could try this and find myself on a slippery slope leading to more and more gadget focus, more and more numbers management, instead of world and story creation, because I'm a people person and I might try to satisfy continuing player interest in those elements. On the one hand knowing that risk may help me avoid it. On the other hand, the slide toward making the players happy is powerful and I may not be strong enough to avoid it even with knowledge of it.

The Competing Elements Model
As long as there are gadgets and powers to be had, the players will focus on them over story. But in the absence of gadgets, the story is the only thing to focus on so they will focus on it. In January 2010, we ended up short 2 players for a session of the Eberron campaign. I had 3 players at the table and no sense that we could just push through with Eberron. I pulled out my old GURPS "Caravan to Ein Arris" free adventure and we ran a few hours of that one shot adventure with almost no prep. The caravan never even left the city because we became so immersed. Though Alphonse was one of the 3 players, we rolled very few dice and the role playing was excellent. There was no time to min-max characters (I just gave them sheets), to vie for a particular magic item, or to advance a character. Everyone had a good time and this stands as one of my favorite sessions.

From this experience I wonder if I'm making too much out of the play interests of Alphonse, myself, and others [I probably am, even if this specific hypothesis is wrong]. Maybe, if I present the players with a game and characters without such numbers and gadgets to play with, they will just play with what is there. As one might if accustomed to playing PS3 but finding oneself at a friend's house without a PS3. So, instead of worrying about trying to separate my play from the player's play, or worrying that I need to satisfy their primary interest in gadgets, I could just pare down the system and the world so that the only elements to play with are those that interest me.

Benefits: I get out of this head trip, take the simple path, create a world and system that focus players on what interests me, everyone focuses on what is there, and off we ride into the sunset happily gaming ever after.

Drawbacks: If this hypothesis is true, there probably isn't any way to know except to test it out. To test it might reveal enjoyment in initial novelty but in long term we could find that it wouldn't scratch the itch for some players.

Risks: It probably isn't that simple even if there is an element of truth here. Alphonse will probably want gadgets, or continue to perceive the game in terms of points and powers. He and some other players may become bored or out right dissatisfied with the soap opera element of good dramatic role play over time. I could get very involved and relax into a story just as the novelty is wearing off for them.

Play to the Strengths Model
I've already stated that all the players in my game can role play and very well at that. The challenge is getting them to do so. I've been thinking a lot about my last post "How much are your characters like you?" I've come to the conclusion that the players, for example, Alphonse, are not averse to role playing. However, most of the role playing opportunities they have encountered have not been suited to their role playing potential.

For example, most of the role playing opportunities that I have given the players have been negotiation oriented. Alphonse isn't a good negotiator IRL. He is good at schmoozing. He makes people comfortable and feel welcome. In the Eberron campaign, his best role playing was a nonconfrontational meeting with warforged refugees from the Mournland. They asked him to help them. It was emotional, it was a meeting between friends. There was nothing to negotiate, no one to convince, and no need to fast talk. On the other hand, if there's a need for fast talking, I've got two players that can do that. I've got another that would be good at convincing people to ally, help, or befriend. I've got another that is really good at laying out a good logical argument.

In the "Play to the Strengths Model" I encourage players to create characters that would interact with people the way that the players interact with the world. Alphonse can be a fixture in the local taverns. He can chat people up, make them feel at ease. Another couple of players can have social contacts that are more complicated and require more negotiation. Each character has a social niche, a social activity that s/he can do better than any other character.

Benefits: Every character has something to do in social situations and the player can pull it off (not just the numbers on the sheet).

Drawbacks: May encourage violation of the RPG axiom, "Don't split the party." Actually I'm okay with this. We'd just split the spotlight, shifting among players in turn like we do at the table for different combat turns. Player stumped? Next player's turn for the spot light. GM stumped? Same thing. Otherwise, it could be difficult to get players to play characters that match their personalities, this may take some player buy-in at char gen.

Risks: This would definitely require complicated world development and a complex series of preparations to figure out how each player can continue to have RPG opportunities in a variety of situations. In a murder mystery what does the carousing character do? At a festival of fools what does the uptight cleric do?

. . . Actually this one is sounding pretty good.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

How much are your characters like you?

In the next couple of posts, I'm going to explore a couple of gaming ideas and questions that have been rolling around in my head. The questions in these posts are intended to help me go back to my GMing role at a later date with more enjoyment and continuing fun.

As I mentioned in my last post, my group started a new campaign just after I finished my Eberron campaign. The new system and world are Cyberpunk 2020. This is a gritty, nihilistic future where everyone is by my standards morally questionable, even the "good" guys if there are any. We were given character class choices across a wide range of options. To me there was no real choice, I had to play the fixer. A fast talking, slick, con artist who buys and sells for profit. All the other options would have started me down a path of gear inflation (bigger and better vehicles, medical supplies, or guns). I just couldn't care less about that stuff.

There is a player in my group, I'll call him Alfonse, who really gets into the stuff his character has. He describes his sniper rifle with a near mystical tone, amplifying his voice as he reaches the crescendo where he finally describes the 6d10 damage his .50 caliber slugs will do. Then he mimics the act of shooting and makes a whooshing sound mixed with harsh consonants. The noise and his gesticulations fall somewhere between those expected in ejaculation and those of gunshot recoil. He then laughs cathartically and pours over the book again to find add-ons and augmentations to said sniper rifle so that his character can shoot farther, more accurately, more powerfully, around corners, in the dark, upside down, underwater, through walls, without leaving a trace, or what ever. He is by profession a silicon valley engineer. Alfonse, narrates his latest computer or phone acquisition with the same spiritual rapture as that sniper rifle.

The parallels that I experience between his character and his person are not direct moral comparisons or comparisons of purpose. The parallels are more like comparisons of perception and world interpretation. That is, he continues to perceive the world through the same lenses. In his case, the quality and strength of gadgetry is a major source of excitement in both his pretend game world and in his real life. I could make less obvious connections between his real life frustrations with "fairness" and his in game perceptions of which NPCs are and are not "jerks" but this comparison would be less clear.

Now, in comparison, I am by nature, training, and profession interpersonally oriented. I focus on the quality and strength of interpersonal relationships. In games this leads me to being primarily interested in negotiation or interactions with PCs and NPCs. I am less oriented toward objects, technology, magic items etc. Even at the table, I pay a lot of attention (maybe too much) to the interactions between the players, their motivations and interests. This blogpost is a case in point.

I've had this conversation with a gamer friend and he argues for the opposite point. To him, his characters bear little reflection of himself. He points to their in-world actions, their in-world morality, roles, and professions. Though he and I consider the same characters and compare them to him, I again come back to the same thesis when I consider his characters. Though the characters differ from him in action and morality, their primary mode of interaction, status seeking, and purpose bears striking similarity to his own interpersonal style in real life. He, like his characters, is quick thinking, takes an interpersonal leadership role, and has the capacity to outwit just about anyone if verbally sparring.

This leads me to my main thesis. Though roleplaying games are fantasy worlds created in part for the relief of escapism, what we escape is the world we are in. We do not escape ourselves. Therefore, we are likely to enact (if not create) characters that continue to perceive the imaginary world in ways similar to the ways that we perceive our real world. In a sense, we will also recreate through our characters the same interpersonal experiences and relationships that we have as people. This may not be as clear in the interaction and relationship with the BBEG. How many of us, after all, work against an opponent or foe on a daily basis that we consider to be irredeemably evil? These tendencies will however be seen much more clearly in the character's relationship to PCs, NPCs, items, and to the player's general responses to the content of the game. Does the player ask for more detail about the magic ring on the finger of the mage or do you wonder more about why the mage is there and what he was trying to do?

If you accept this thesis, it leads to a major question about character creation. When creating a character should you acknowledge this limitation or try to use game mechanics to circumvent it? For example, if Alfonse, the gadget oriented player described above, wants to play a slick talking con artist, should he be allowed to? If allowed, what limitations do you place on or game mechanics do you use to supplement his lack of actual negotiation skill. At the table he might say to an adversary, "If you don't help us we'll hurt you financially" which lacks the finesse of a more positively oriented negotiation such as "If you help us we'll help you" or even a more veiled threat, "We need your help and you need us." If you point out to Alfonse that his negotiation is inelegant, he might say, "That's my limitation as a player, but the character phrases it better, what do you want me to roll?" Do you give him a penalty on the roll? Re-narrate his negotiation to coincide more closely with your perception of a skilled roll result?

Either way you compromise something. If you allow the character to be limited by the player's skill then you shoe horn the player into always playing a character that bears some interpersonal similarity to the player. If you don't then you move from roleplaying toward roll playing.

So, here is where I get on my soap box. I think that roleplaying games, like other forms of play, are a form of practice. The answer for the question of how to respond mechanically to the player's negotiation should be related not as much to some theoretical ideal for a GM or group. The answer to the mechanic used for negotiations should coincide with what the player is practicing while playing the game. So, when Alfonse creates the slick negotiator character, maybe the GM and the player have a conversation about the character to figure out what Alfonse the player is playing with in character creation.

GM: Alfonse, are you playing this character because you want to improve your negotiation skills or because you want to roll dice and make negotiations work?
[Note that this comment does not state the GM's opinion that Alfonse is poor at negotiation. The phrasing above could just as easily be used with a player that is already skilled at negotiation but wants to improve that skill further.]
Alfonse: I really want to roll dice and make it work.
GM: Okay, so let's imagine we're at the table, rpging an interaction, and your dice roll high but your words seem less skilled to me. Do you want me to ignore that disparity and just make the dice work miraculously, re-narrate your words to something that seems more consonant to me with the die roll, or something else.
Alfonse: What about modifying the die roll by the skill of my words?
GM: Well, that could work but it means that my opinion could really nerf a good roll. Would you want that?
Alfonse: Um, not really. But I don't much like the idea that you might re-narrate either.
GM: So, let's just go with the roll as is?
Alfonse: Yeah, that'll work.

In this imaginary dialogue, Alfonse's play practice is similar to what Alfonse enjoys as a person; maximizing numbers, powers, toys, and tools. His orientation to the play is depicted in the discussion of a mechanic for the character's skill. The aspect that he is interested in is the capacity of the number on his sheet, earned by effort and dedicated consciously to that purpose, to change the game world.

The challenge for gaming groups is that GMs often chose to be GMs because they want to play with story, narrative, moral, or interactive elements. The GM may be dissatisfied with participating in someone else's number play (often referred to derogatorily as min-maxing) and prefer a more so called "pure" form of role playing. Now, if that difference is true in your group, as it is in mine, then next question becomes whether or not the GM needs to gain the participation of the other players to play with story elements above, Phrased another way, can the GM can play with one thing (e.g., story and morality) and the player another (numbers and gadgets). I don't have any idea about the answer to that yet. I'm sure that I've been GMing so far as if the answer is "no" leading me to frustration. In the next post, I'm going to consider that question further.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Campaign Conclusion


If you haven't read it, it will be helpful to read the cast of characters for this final battle.

The Final Battle seemed to go well. Everything seemed to happen pretty fast. The PCs buffed while Screw got the crowd riled up with a little political speech and announcing the execution of the rogue PC's mother. That roleplaying hook didn't seem to have much impact, the rogue simply said, "Don't same her, kill the Lord of the Blades." Screw's speech ended with by announcing the arrival of the Lord of the Blades to conduct the execution. The Lord of the Blades emerged onto the dais and killed the rogue's mother while the PCs took another round to buff themselves. The PCs entered the scene by using Dimension Door to jump directly to the top of the dais. They had been told that the Lord of the Blades and screw were up there. They dimension doored right on top of the bad guys. What I thought was going to be a wide open fight with a lot of flying and long distance movement, ended up being a toe-to toe slug fest.

The weather effects ended up being enjoyable and effective at frustrating the PCs a little. The background of the riot that broke out of the attendant warforged populace seemed to the PCs to be an interesting element but never really came to the forefront until the end of the battle.

Sequence of Events
One of the many buff spells that the mage and cleric cast on the PCs was Invisibilty Sphere. The PCs, used Dimension Door to bamf to the top of the dais sight unseen. Because they didn't know where they were going this led them to dimension door right on top of the Lord of the Blades, Screw, two level 8 Barbarian Warforged, and the 2 supercharged iron defenders that heel the Lord of the Blades. The mage was dimension doored on top of one of the iron defenders. I tried to use this an an excuse to put him out of harms way and also out of sight instead of within arms reach of the Lord of the Blades. I did this inelegantly by trying to make up an on the spot interpretation of the spell but he ended up using my words against me to confirm that he would like to be within 10 feet of the Lord of the Blades. I said, "Ok, I'm not going to argue over it". The bad guys used a Dispelling Screen (from the Spell Compendium) to protect them from the crowd of warforged they were addressing. So when the party dimension doored right on top of the bad guys, they split the party. Cleric, rogue, and mage (all invisible) were standing within reach of the Lord of the Blades on on the same side of the Dispelling Screen as the bad guys. That left the warforged fighter (not invisible) and the human ranger (invisible) on the opposite side of the dispelling screen.

The warforged fighter did a good job of calling out the Lord of the Blades and challenging him to fight for the control of the Lord of the Blades. Then the fighter did a funny thing. . . he backed up and moved further down the dais. . . away from the Lord of the Blades. He did this because the Dimension Door placed him right next to the Lord of the Blades but with the dispelling screen between them. I think he was trying to lure the Lord of the Blades through the dispelling screen. Well, that wasn't going to happen.

The Lord of the Blades in this world (Ranger 6-Blackguard 4-Spell warped) has a pretty good spot check. Despite the fact that so many in the party had Invisibility Sphere cast on them before using Ddoor, the Lord of the Blades, made the DC20 spot check to tell that there was something there in two of the squares next to him. Unfortunately, for the PCs, this was the rogue and the cleric. Since the Lord of the Blades had poison on each weapon, he divided the attacks between them. The 50% miss chance helped from invisibility helped them avoid the slaughter it could have been but both took one attack and required the fort saves v. poison. The rogue failed hers and took 4 points of strength damage. The cleric made his save.

The mage cast Resilient Sphere on Screw thinking that the spell's description, "Nothing can pass through the sphere, inside or out" meant that Screw could not use dimension door t get out of the sphere. This was a tough call for me. On the one hand, I know that he intended to isolate the artificer and reading the spell description it seems clear, "The sphere contains its subject for the spell’s duration." I took this decision slowly. I read the spell's descriptor (Evocation [Force]), the spell's level (4), and decided this is a level 4 version of the Wall of Force, and that it is not a dimensional anchor in addition to being a miniature wall of force. I let Screw out by using dimension door. The protest was minor signaling to me that this was at least a reasonable interpretation of the spell.

The Lord of the Blades did end up killing the mage who's invisibility had dropped upon casting the resilient sphere. The ranger, with a host of buff spells on himself and his bow, did 58 points of damage against the Lord of the Blades in a single attack! His arrows did not have their spells dispelled by the dispelling screen, and the criticals were not averted by the Lord of the Blades' 25% chance to negate a critical hit from being warforged. This caused ranger's invisibility to drop. The cleric stayed invisible through most of the battle. The rogue, with depleted strength use aid another and flanking to give the fighter +2 bonuses once the fighter had used a magic item for a quick dimension leap to the inside of the dispelling screen. From there it was pure slug fest. The fighter and the Lord of the Blades whacked away at one another. In the end, I think the only reason that the Lord of the Blades didn't kill the fighter was because of the 58 points of damage the ranger had done already. Plus, I think I forgot to use the Rending Gauntlets (Magic Item Compendium) when the Lord of the Blades hit with both weapons in one round. Considering that this was the only thing I think I missed in a very complex magic item filled combat, I'm feeling pretty good about myself. Anyway, the PCs killed the Lord of the Blades first. Once he was dead, Screw dimension doored again to the inside of the creation forge to try to take the schemas away then to live to fight another day.

The PCs went immediately into the forge. There they had to descend 80 feet to the bottom to get to the control panel from which Screw was trying to liberate the creation schemas. On their way down a well placed Vortex of Teeth (Spell Compendium) hit the fighter and the ranger. Then one of the funniest things I have ever seen in an RPG happened. The fighter jumped down 60 feet onto Screw. Screw avoided this aerial bombing with a reflex save and took 1/2 damage, the fighter took the full 6d6 damage and cracked the creation schema for the forge releasing a tremendous amount of arcane energy (5d4+5 to him, 4d4+4 to all within 5ft, 3d4+3 to all with 10 feet, etc.). This meant that Screw was pretty singed by the force bolts. The rest of the party retreated to the top of the forge to get above the vortex of teeth. Screw and the fighter battled more to get away from the sparks of force erupting from the control panel than with each other. However, once they were both far enough away, screw hit the fighter with an empowered lesser orb of acid dropping the fighter to exactly -9 hit points. I did not count that or plan for it, that was all luck. Reveling in his survival and thinking now only of escape, Screw prepared to use his wand of dimension door again. The ranger from 80 feet up fired a final volley of arrows. One of those arrows penetrated Screw's metallic skull and burst through his ball bearing cervical spine.

The rogue took the secondary damage from the poison just as the combat ended. She was reduced to 2 strength. The fighter was repaired and then the PCs emerged from the underground forge to find the warforged populace rioting had with those favorable to the PCs winning. The fighter was repaired but didn't really care for his new title, "Lord of the Blades". We finished up the campaign with a little negotiation with the siege army they didn't like that much either. The warforged fighter didn't like that he was supposed to surrender the the general or the fact that not surrendering re-moralized many of the warforged he had fought to rescue. Apparently, I just don't get what makes that player tick. The mage was resurrected the next day as the PCs were now 9th level.

In the end, everything seemed to go well. The PCs, definitely felt the situation was deadly and seemed to cheer each other for their successes. Every player had a pivotal role to play. Even the poisoned rogue used aid another to make the difference for the fighter's final round against the Lord of the Blades. What I can't figure out is why I kept feeling feeling that it was a little lack luster and every was just glad to be done with it. Poop!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Modular Preparation: In Action part 2

Almost 2 months between games. We played last at the beginning of June and then again at the end of July. In between sessions, the players interrogated a captive warforged by email and began exploring the acid trap (point B on the map described in this post). It took them two and a half hours to complete the acid trap at the beginning of the session. I'm definitely going to take note of the conversion from my primary play tester, my six year old, to my players. As I mentioned in my last post, my 6 year old got through the trap in 5 minutes. My players took 3.5 hours plus email time between sessions.

The PCs also took an extra day to heal the rogue of her disease and ability drain from the previous session.

After the acid trap, my players moved on to room D, one sorceror and 2 warforged titans. This room was a McGuffin. If you've read Ender's Game then you know that the enemy's gate is down. The players approached this room through a 5 ft. wide hallway and the exit to the room was 5 ft. wide as well. The Warforged Titans on the other hand are 15x15 ft. huge creatures. The easiest way through this combat was to focus combat attacks against the artificer while using superior mobility to get to the exit and avoid the titans entirely (win by getting to the enemy gate). Instead of taking this approach, the rogue snuck up once to scan the room and got away with it. She reported back to the party and tried to scout again but the second time she spotted and was spotted by the artificer. The artificer then set up one of the titans close enough to the door to be in striking range if the PCs approached the door way again. The rogue then stealthily approached the doorway a third time and got whacked pretty hard (titans do 2d8+9 damage) plus she drew the artificer into casting a lightning bolt down the hallway. While the PCs rearranged themselves in the hallway, the artificer cast a second lightning bolt into the hallway. Each bolt hit every one of the PCs to devastating effect. They didn't leave him alive long after that.

The PC warforged took up front position in the hallway and was trying to attack the titans but instead set himself up for taking full attacks and one charge. The charge was deadly because titans have the Powerful Charge feat (+3d6 damage on a successful attack). Slowly, the PCs ratcheted up the warforge's AC with buff spells from the cleric and combat expertise. Meanwhile, the wizard kept casting fireballs from the back ranks. The PCs defeated the titans eventually but had spent themselves through most of their magical resources. They took a day to rest after this combat which could have just been a passing bit of scenery.

The next encounter after the warforged was originally encounter F, a skull watch spell from the Spell Compendium. When the enemy warforged rogue escaped, last session, he notified the defenders of the tunnels that the PCs were approaching from that direction. So, the warforged necromancer ambush at point E switched to point F. In the tunnel, the PCs were walking by piles of dead bodies at random intervals along tunnel path. The rogue began doing her job, searching every pile. I had fun making up descriptions of the piles to the macabre enjoyment of all. I was just about the push the GM-fast-forward button to get the to pile where the rogue would find the ambush. Unfortunately, the other players began telling her to stop searching every pile. Her next comment was hilarious, "But don't you know that the first pile I don't search will be the one with undead in it?" It wasn't but it felt like it to the PCs because I did fast forward then. They walked along the tunnel ignoring the piles of bodies. I had them show me their marching order and roll spot checks. The only one who spotted the first pile with undead in it was the cleric, in the middle of the line up. He saw the eyes of the zombie ogre on top of the pile move to track him. But then, to my shock, he decided to keep walking! He didn't alert the party of the zombie until the next turn which put them right inside the jaws of the ambush. The necromancer shouted "Now!" and we rolled initiative.

Long story short, the necromancer, blinded two members of the party, they escaped from the ambush, killed the necromancer, destroyed the undead, and took a lot of damage from a gray render zombie. They scurried down the tunnels together, away from an small band of reinforcements and into the safety of Chiron's secret tunnels. They got pretty excited because now they know that the final battle is all the remains.

My Reactions to the Session
First. the good side. I think that all the time I spent to consider all the elements of every encounter in these tunnels really paid off. Because of all the details, I knew how PC actions in one part would affect the encounter in another part. This led to an easy flow in my own mind about what to narrate and how the combatants might fight.

Another thing that was a strong point in this session was that every character had something to do. The rogue did a lot of sneaking and scouting which balances the fact that since they're fighting warforged, she isn't as effective in combat. The cleric was imbued with the power of his god a couple of times and able to convert spells to conjuration [healing] despite being in the Mournlands. He played this up and tried to commune with his god during one of the rest periods to learn more about when he could expect this. The ranger, though blind, kept firing his arrows guided by the wizard and ended up stealing a kill from the PC fighter. He reported later this was one of his favorite parts. The wizard had plenty of opportunity to do some blasting and continued his role in the group as kill-stealing vulture, repeatedly killing high hit point targets with magic missile. The warforged tank was the only one who could go toe to toe with either the titans or the gray render zombie and both encounters encouraged him to do just that.

Second, on the bad side, The encounters in this session were very challenging. In itself this would be fine and appropriate for the approach to a campaign end. One thing that I'm a little dissatisfied with though was that the encounters required healing despite the PCs being in the Mournlands. For example, during the combat with the titans, the warforged PC was reduced to something like 11 hit points, given the damage the titans were dishing per round, that was easily death in one round. At that point I told the cleric that as promised by his god, the cleric's healing powers were with him now when he really needed it. I allowed one opportunity to convert a spell before that effect dissipated but still it felt a bit too Deus Ex Machina for my tastes. After the encounter with the necromancer, the two blinded PCs required Remove Blindness/Deafness. The only way they are going to get that is through the power of the cleric's God again, miraculously granting the cleric two of those spells before preparing his spells for the final battle. I had considered making Chiron level 5 instead of level 4 (therefore able to cast 3rd level spells) when the PCs encountered him and giving his this ability. However, that would violate the GM rule to not let an NPC outshine a PC. Still it left a bad taste in my mouth to use this Dues Ex Machina effect not once but twice to make sure they have the combat capacities they need for the final combat.

Next Session
Before we ended the session, I showed the PCs the dais upon which the final battle will take place because Chiron described it to them. This was an awesome moment and showing them the scene created a great cliff hanger. They oohed and ahed appropriately as I put the pieces together but when I put the quarters in for the stairs and showed them how the leads balance on the quarters, they were dumbfounded. That was an awesome GM moment. They also started asking questions about the Lord of the Blades and his combat abilities. A few truths and a few red herrings later and they were really scared. This campaign will be finished in the next session. Then I get a little break.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Modular Preparation: In Action

To follow up on the last post I'd like to share what happened when my players encountered my plan.

Of course, they chose the entry that I considered less likely (point A on the map, below the maintenance shaft). I knew this was possible. I decided in advance that this would be a slightly easier path, provided that they are stealthy and clever in their approach. They were slightly less than successful at the stealthy part of that contingency.

They spent much of the beginning of the session talking about letting the warforged PC sink to the bottom of the river to find where the water uptake location is. I was eventually able to explain that a trip to the bottom of the river was not necessary and that the river actually seems to dry up. Humorously, they chose to never pursue that after all. They decided correctly that it would be guarded and alarmed. They asked to look at the maintenance shaft to the sewer entrance instead. I thought that they would look at it then check out the river entrance. However, they got caught in the puzzle of how to go down the maintenance shaft instead.

To my amusement, they only barely contemplated actually going down the elevator of the maintenance shaft. Instead they decided to remove the elevator and the entire housing for the elevator from the top of the shaft and to lower the rogue down on their own. This was one of those moments where as a GM, you are happy for the players to have avoided a trap and also sad that they didn't even see it. I appeased my creative ego by allowing some engineers with the siege army (pleased to have something to do) remove the casing for the PCs over night using silenced tools. In the morning the engineers showed the PCs the trap I had created on the elevator. The trap was a cleverly covered break in the chain that would lower the PCs down the shaft for 10 feet and then drop them for 7d6 damage. It wasn't only my creative ego that caused this disclosure because the trap was also there to notify the PCs that the entrance was guarded after all. This countered previous intelligence they had received and alerted them that they would be expected.

The party cast invisibility on the rogue and had the warforged lower her down the elevator shaft. She did a great job searching and found a safe path but then she kept searching the shaft. . . including along the back wall of the elevator shaft. . . where I had a defending wizard cast explosive runes. This took the 7th level rogue to 13 hit points. With the trap triggered, the defenders swarmed into the bottom of the shaft. A rogue and a ranger started firing arrows randomly into the shaft at first missing her every time, then hearing her climbing efforts helped them figure out which 1/4 of the shaft she was in, they still faced the 50% miss chance because she was invisible. The wizard then cast Contagious Fog (Spell Compendium p. 52) at the top of the shaft. Since it descends 10ft/round there was a good chance she would fail her save at some time or another. When she failed her fort save on the first opportunity, I tried to pause long enough to allow her to use an Action Point but it didn't seem to be on her mind. She failed her save on the first round in the fog. She took 4 Dex damage, contracted the shakes, and lost her hold of the rope though her harness caught her. The players continued pulling her up and eventually worked out an escape plan for her. They cast Fly on a soldier standing nearby, got his consent, and then cast Baleful Transposition on the rogue and the soldier putting the soldier into the fog and giving him the shakes disease as well.

Once the PC rogue was out of the way, the PC wizard cast a fireball down the shaft, and singed two defenders. The PCs heard warforged footsteps running away then and decided this was still the best time to storm the entrance. They did so. The warforged tank of the PCs took a lot of damage from going first including most of the arrows from two 6th level hasted rangers and an Orb of Acid to the face from a defending wizard. The PC ranger and PC warforged killed the previously ranger and wizard (previously damaged by the PC wizard's fireball) in short order. The one remaining defender dropped his bow, walked up to the warforged PC, and with a dejected look in his eye, removed a kerchief from his head revealing another explosive rune on his forehead, this detonated right in the face of the warforged PC. The look on the players faces was a moment of GM gold. I think they were genuinely stunned. Suicide bomber warforged. Unfortunately, the explosive runes did very little damage and the warforged ranger was not killed by it. The PCs took care of that for him.

I'm still debating having their consciences catch up to them for killing a now unarmed and untrapped warforged. . . but probably won't. This campaign and this group aren't ripe for that kind of dilemma. Plus, I think their reaction to kill him ASAP was very natural.

This brought them to the acid trap/gate described in the last post (point B on the North side of the sewer system). They spent an hour or so considering it and we called it a night. We're spending some time on email between sessions trying to figure it out.

The ramification of the failed sneak attempt is unfortunate. One of the defenders hit by the wizard's fireball escaped and sent a reinforcement to the entrance. Now, the defenders know which side the PCs are coming from and the necromancer that was on the other side of the outer sewer ring (location E on the map), will move his ambush to their side (point F on the map). The Skull Watch spell will switch to the other entrance to the sewers (point F). The encounter will be very difficult. They'll face a fully prepared level 9 necromancer warforged (buffed with Augmented Summoning and a host of Summon Undead spells prepared), 2 zombie ogres, and a gray render zombie are lying in wait for the PCs, plus a 7th level changeling sorcerer will Dimension Door into the combat with 2, 8th level warforged barbarians on round 3 or 4. If they deal with the necromancer quickly, they'll do alright. Otherwise, it could be very difficult.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Modular Preparation: The Path to the Final Battle

I’m blogging backwards a little bit. I recently posted a series on preparing for the Final Battle. Because that Final Battle was, in my mind, the most important thing to focus on, I spent more time preparing for it and did so first. For the players to get from where they are to that final battle I have had in mind a sewer crawl.

In the past couple of weeks I’ve been preparing that sewer crawl and trying to make sense of it. This post describes all the preparations. In subsequent posts, I'll describe what happened to these best laid plans once the PCs touched them.

The PCs are heading to Forge, the first city for warforged, in the Mournlands. The history of this location in my world is that prior to the Day of Mourning, a secret Cyrian creation forge was housed in an underground research facility disguised in part, as a bucolic farming village. On the day of mourning, the occupants of the village were decimated as was every living creature in the Mournland. The creation forge remained. I began this campaign with the standard modules for Eberron, beginning with the 1-st level adventure in the back of the campaign setting. I refigured all subsequent modules so that the PCs continued searching for schemas. The PCs, pissed off Lady Elaydren from the stock modules, so their noble contact for continued searches for the schemas became the mother on a Dragon Marker Heir PC. By the end of the Vampire’s Blade module, the PCs learned that the schemas were used to create warforged and that is the reason the Lord of the Blades and practically every other faction on the continent has been trying to get the schemas from the beginning. The PCs know that there is at least one functional creation forge in the warforged city Forge. They also know that the Lord of the Blades has tried to create a second creation forge in the city but they don’t know whether or not he has gotten it working yet. He hasn't, but unbeknownst to the PCs the creation forge is set to begin creating warforged on the day that the PCs arrive to attack the Lord of the Blades.

So, my whole idea from the beginning has been to get the PCs to get into the city through sewers. I don’t know why. I just wanted that. So, I concocted a reason for sewers to exist under a former "bucolic village". The former Cyrian village was built near a small river for a very specific purpose made up by me; forges require a vast amount of cooling. They essentially have to be ringed in flowing water to not overheat with arcane energy. Now, I’ve got an excuse for a series of secret tunnels under a formerly bucolic village to maintain the creation forge. The dungeon crawl I’ve designed has three entrances. First, a natural entrance from a larger series of underground limestone tunnels which the PCs could have used to get from a monastery in a previous session. Second, up river from Forge, where the Lord of Blades has had to divert even more of the water flow to the city in order to create the second forge, the small river now dries up. By exploring the location where the water levels seem to drop most, the PCs can find stone covered drains in the bed of the river. By entering the drains, they enter the sewer crawl. The first entrance to the sewers form the natural caverns mentioned earlier intersects this second entrance at one point. Third, on the outskirts of the village, in what is now outside the outer walls of Forge, there is a maintenance shaft to the exit of the diverted water flow just before it is supposed to rejoin the river. My idea here was that there was a need to monitor the exit of the water from the system as it rejoined the river.

Sewer layout:
I had to figure out how to create the sewer system between those entry points. The fastest way would be to create a single tunnel that followed the course of the diverted river straight under the city. I decided early that this would be too linear to be a good dungeon crawl. So I put two concentric circles (G and J on the map below) on the line to start. Pretty quickly these began to look like diversion lines in case of emergency so I felt I had a pretty reasonable ecological reason for creating the extra branches. I also created tunnels (gray on the map below) aligned at 45° from the main line connecting back toward the center. My argument for these tunnels is that they make it look like a “normal” sewer so that if anyone ever got suspicious about the original bucolic village, with a far too developed sewer system, they wouldn’t have reason to believe it was anything but a pipe dream (pun intended) for an increase in the size of the village some day.

A. Main Entrances: I set up defenders at the main entrances for scenario 2 and 3 and created a map so that the same floor plan would do for both entrances. By the time the May session ended, I knew the PCs wouldn’t use the cavern entrance.

B. Acid Trap/Gate: I placed an acid trap/gate that I dreamed up next. Literally I woke up in the morning with a dream with a fully engineered acid trap. The PCs might be able to muscle their way through the acid trap but if they spend some time to figure it out they won’t take any damage. I play tested this trap with my 6 year old and she got it in 5 minutes so I think my adult players will get it eventually.

From there, if approaching from up river (the bottom of the map below), the series of encounters are different.

C. A water purification room. This room is laced with pipes and the hum of a controlled water elemental removing large detritus from the incoming water. This room is guarded by a couple of opportunistic Fiendish Chokers that have taken up residence to eat the random organic matter filtered out of the water.

E. From there the PCs will find the sewers littered with the undecaying bodies of former Cyrians before they reach juncture F. At the juncture where the entrance tunnel leads to the emergency diversion lines, some of those bodies will be strategically arranged zombies (2 ogre zombies and 1 Gray Render Zombie) and their warforged necromancer master waiting to ambush the PCs. This was designed to be a very difficult encounter.

From down river, after the acid trap, the encounters are a little different. I considered this the least likely path the PCs would take.

D. Warforged Titans. They enter a room of the same dimensions as the water purification room in the up river path but here it is guarded by 2 warforged titans and an artificer.

F. The tunnel nexus from this direction will be guarded only by a Skull Watch spell (Spell Compendium p.191) set by the necromancer lying in wait nearly a ¼ mile away at the other entrance point E. This Skull Watch spell can be avoided if the PCs are using their bull’s eye lantern and succeed in a spot check instead of neck coins with everburning light cast on them (which they often use instead). Hopefully, the description of the tunnel reaching beyond their sight will prompt the lantern use.

G. The outer sewer ring (due to the curvature of the pipe, visibility is 80 ft.) is also patrolled by a sorcerer warforged and two barbarian warforged. They will dimension door to the Skull Watch trap after a couple rounds of buffing.

Last Prelude:
From there the two paths are essentially just mirrors of one another. If the PCs, bypassed the necromancer and the sorcerer patrol party but make a lot of noise, they may have to face those encounters anyway.

H. These intersections are locked grates (both the necromancer and the sorcerer have keys).

I. Here, is what I call "The Chained Man Dilemma". These are locked grates again though there are no keys within the crawl to these grates. In the intersection, undecaying Cyrian soldiers have been chained (with adamantine chain thank you very much) to the grates. The grates open away from the chained man so there is no immediate way to open the grates without pulling on the chained man. These undecaying bodies will cry out if moved. And above their heads, there is an open sewer grate which could alert the warforged above.
From within the four identical nexus points, the PCs can see the inner circle (marked J and colored red). And they can see the entrance to the smaller tunnels marked K. But all four of the tunnels (marked K) are closed off by a wall of compressed warforged bodies; the victims of the Lord of the Blades resolving an insurgency against him. Searches can reveal a hidden handmade entrance that the PCs can just barely squeeze through crawling. If this is a high tension moment, they may encounter an NPC emerging from one of these secret tunnels. This NPC is Chiron, the former cleric to the Lord of the Blades who survived the insurgency and created the secret passages through the Crushed warforged bodies.

L. Each circle here marks one of the creation forges. The one in the North (top of the map) is the new one being started on the day the PCs intend to confront the Lord of the Blades. It is creating a bridge to Dal Quor to create warforged bodies with Quori spirits. On the surface, the forges are marked by pyramids (indicated on the map by the square around the circle.

M. The secret passage brings the PCs to a small room beneath a sewer grate in the center of audience area for the amphitheater described in my Final Battle Encounter. Chiron will tell the PCs that the Lord of the Blades is expected to come out and address the crowd from the dais the next day. The Lord of the Blades has established a hierarchy based on might by which anyone can challenge a higher up to over rule that person. He proposes that you all challenge the Lord of the Blades and depose him. They’ll have a couple of choices then. They can rest for a day in this secret passage, dimension door or sneak to one of the towers near the dais and rest there, or dimension door or sneak to another location within the city walls after questioning Chiron. They could go into one of the creation forges where I created an alternate final battle terrain once I realized that would be a viable option. They could try to connect with other insurgent members in the city, or they could go some other crazy, unpredicted path which I can’t prepare for. I’m expecting one way or another for them to rest and regain spells.


Setting the final scene:
During the night they will hear the wind whip up. I'm now imaging the weird weather effects as the result of starting this second creation forge which is actually a way of creating Inspired warforged so the creation forge has been altered by making planar connections to Dal Quor. In the morning, the cleric will wake a little before the time for his prayers and realize he has been filled with the power of his deity and can heal and cast restoration spells as necessary. This will catch them up and allow the cleric and wizard to memorize new spells at the time of dawn. During this time, they will hear or see, a crowd gathering in audience before the amphitheater. Once they have cast their preparation spells, Screw, the inspired warforged and replacement cleric to the Lord of the Blade will emerge and pick a tower (not the one the PCs are in) to begin his public address. The mother of the rogue PC will be brought forward after Screw has whipped the crowd up a bit. Whipping the crowd up will describe how she (through hiring the PCs to secure creation schemas) had sought to deprive the warforged of their ability to reproduce. He will also announce that today the new forge will become active. Screw will then accuse her of crimes against the warforged for which the only penalty can be death:

“A death delivered by our leader, our champion, our ideal. The Lord of the Blades.”

The Lord of Blades will emerge then and with little ceremony move forward to kill the Rogue’s mother.

Roll initiative.

Saturday, May 22, 2010


This post is a diversion from my previous posts about my campaign ending or about the creation of a new campaign. Instead, I'm going to write about the fact that this evening, I played Quidditch from the Harry Potter books with my wife and daughter. My daughter (age 6) is currently having the Harry Potter books read to her. She is loving them. She has always enjoyed pretend and the recent requests to have us join her in playing Hogwarts-pretend have been incessant and the pace of our consent has not matched her desires. Last week she said, "Why don't you want to play pretend?" I responded, "Well, your pretend isn't very challenging for me". As the week went on, that answer gnawed at my brain. Really. I play RPGs for crying-out-loud what is that except pretend? So I looked up RPGs for kids and found a few fun links but the one that caught my daughter right away was Broomsticks. This evening, I downloaded the game, slapped together a quick revision of the rules in Fudge and created characters with my wife and daughter. I modified the Quidditch rules from the books in a few ways to keep things more manageable.

First, I reduced the team size to four. One seeker, one beater (down from two), one chaser (down from three), and one seeker per team. I also reduced the number of bludgers from two to one.

Second, I knew that I'd need to simplify the flying. I didn't do anything to track altitude. You could go over or under an opponent and at times I described players as dropping to the ground to pick up the quaffle but this was all flavor text and not in the mechanics. To track movement I created an arbitrary rule that Fair movement was 1/2 of the length of the table. Since I have an expanding table (with a beveled line separating the leaves) this made it easy to measure using string held and nocked in the bevel. For every step above fair I added 6 inches to the character's string. The strings were tied to each mini to show how far it could move each round. If I felt the maneuver was delicate like a sudden start and stop, a tight loop, or weaving through the goal posts, I made the character roll versus their flight skill. The table (round) also served as our pitch where I placed improvised Quidditch goal posts I made out of Tinker toys, pipe cleaner, and straws. A dime was the quaffle, a penny the snitch, and a tinker toy end cap the bludger.

Third, I decided what you could do in a turn. This was pretty simple, one move (up to your string length) and one action (search for the snitch, catch the snitch, catch the quaffle, steal the quaffle, throw the quaffle, block the quaffle, beat the bludger, or check an opponent). No double moves, no double actions.

Fourth, I just created a turn order that made intuitive sense. Bludger, snitch, seekers, chasers (if the quaffle was loose, I moved it on their turn too), keepers, and beaters. Each turn I just let our Ravenclaw team go first (if we wanted this to be more complicated we could have allowed for an opposed flying skill but I just kept it fast and simple). On the bludger's turn it could move toward the closest player(s). If it moved close enough to touch a player, it rolled its fair bludger skill against the difficulty of their athletics. I could have made it more complicated and made the roll opposed (or used the dodge skill in the rules) but this was fast and fun so we didn't worry about that. The Bludger could keep on moving after hitting one player to try to hit another character in line, or try to circle back and hit the same one with a fair or better roll. The snitch wasn't on the table until seen by the seekers. They spent most of the first two rounds trying to stay away from the bludger and chasing after one another. The chasers made opposed rolls to grab the quaffle, or to steal it from one another. If a chaser threw the quaffle at the goal, the keeper's turn came next who had to get close enough to attempt and then also try to block the quaffle. If the keeper missed, the chaser had scored a point. The beaters came next they attacked the bludger in turn trying to hit it and whack it toward the opponents or just away from their team. A greater beater roll v. the bludger's fair difficulty would send it flying (up to 1/4 its string length on a fair, 1/2 on a good, 3/4 on a great, etc.) closer to and possibly hitting an opponent. Then we started at the top the next round.

We had a blast. We played for about 45 minutes and about 5 turns before my daughter's character got the snitch (a little too easy compared the to description in the book but perfect for a 6 year old). Her character was aptly buffed by my newly minted powergamer with "Born to Fly" though it was a close call for her between that and "Allure". I might make some adjustments for the next time we play like quick game rules, long game rules, but these worked alright and they were fun. You'd be surprised how quickly the powergaming instinct set in. When I told her the best broom her family could afford was a Clean Sweep 5 (the Clean Sweep 7 gives a bonus to fly skill) she started pestering my just like my best powergamers from my last D&D sessions when I turned down uber powered items for them.

This was definitely the planar collision of gamer and papa nirvana.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Creating the Final Battle: Plot

Finishing this series of entries, I'm going to explain some of the plot elements in the final battle as they relate to each of the PCs. My thinking is that each character should have something on the line in the final battle so the player is really invested. I'll start with the least developed character.

The player of the wizard makes almost zero distinction between himself and his character. Beyond a vague physical description (which was essentially, "Me but taller") there was no character background for his character. He has said little ever about character goals. But he has been somewhat loot driven and responded a little to magic items placed specifically for his character directly. Here are the three elements that I included which I thought would appeal to his character. First, the loot on the "lackey behind the bad guy" is a pile of wands. This won't motivate him to get into the combat but will motivate him during the combat. Second, the characters have been offered a large sum of 200,000 GP (far above that expected for the level) if they kill the Lord of the Blades. The player's response was one of the few times that he was clearly in character, "Sweet, I'm gonna build a tower." Third, one path to the final combat or an epilogue following shortly after the combat is a trip to one of two creation forges created by the Lord of the Blades. In this forge, he will quickly discern that in addition to runes of artifice and creation, there are also planar runes. I'll describe the forge in something like the following terms, "It is a working marvel of arcane and planar knowledge that could expand your knowledge of both domains far beyond your current levels". These three hooks will hopefully give him something memorable for the end of the campaign.

The player running the cleric character is new to the group. He has done a reasonable job playing up the ethos and keeping others from performing unjust actions. His attendance is difficult to count on but I've planned a few elements to tie in for his character. Some will be larger if he is there and smaller if he isn't. Two sessions ago I gave the cleric a vision of his god while preparing his spells for the day. The major D'oh! moment that session was that the player wasn't there the session but I still played it up taking the spot light away from the PCs who were there. There will be a brief reprise of that vision and the sense of embodying his God during the final battle as he gains the ability to cast Conjuration [Healing] subtype spells even though they are in the Mournland. Second, presuming a victory, he will have converts to the Sovereign Host. Third, an NPC who guides the players to the final battle will also be a cleric and appeal to his sense of justice to expand on the explanation of the need for the Lord of the Blades to be killed.

The ranger is played by the player who usually excels at roleplaying and tends to be much less crunch driven than the others. He was absent a couple of sessions due to work commitments and I realized in planning the final battle that I hadn't included enough elements in the entire campaign that utilized the back story he wrote for his character. So, I read his back story again and have included a couple of guards near the final battle that are his first favored enemy type (which ties in with his back story). The character also has a distinguishing facial feature (CHA:6=uuuugly) and a world view that anyone who treats him badly about it is a bad person. So, the BBEG and lackey will definitely taunt him about this feature. In addition, a captive I'll describe in the next paragraph will respond positively to the character despite his ugliness if they free her and that character is still alive.

The rogue is played by the fiancee of the warforged member of the party. She is a member of House Orien and a dragon marked heir. Her mother has figured prominently in earlier sessions. About 5 or 6 sessions ago, I gave the party an opportunity to find out that the rogues' mother had been kidnapped by the Lord of the Blades and brought to the Mournland as a direct result of hiring the party for earlier missions. The players didn't get curious enough to find this out but I'll be giving them the information as they go through the dungeon crawl on their way to the final battle. If that doesn't intensify the conflict enough, I'm putting a public execution of said mother as the precipitating event for the final battle. The rogue will be invested at that point if not before.

I've saved the central character for last. The character is a warforged, fighter 6/ranger 1. He was at first very reluctant to fight against his own people on this mission until he learned what the Lord of the Blades was doing to his people. Now he is facing this mission as regrettable but necessary. The roleplaying scene between this character and warforged refugees who has escaped from the Lord of the Blades was some of the best roleplaying of the entire campaign. He even took a level of ranger so that he could get Favored Enemy: Warforged specifically for fighting against the Lord of the Blades. So, his investment is a little bit of a given. I've got a couple of scenes to characterize more concretely the cruelty of the Lord of the Blades even against warforged as the PCs get closer to the final battle. There will be some pre-encounter indications from NPCs that there is hope that cutting down the villainous leader will be liberating for the warforged who remain. And, if all goes well (and I hope it does, and I'm the GM so I can help it go well) he will be named the new Lord of the Blades when he and the party defeat the Lord of the Blades and he'll have the capacity to use negotiation to turn back the army sent to destroy Forge. This will, I think, be a surprising but also happy ending for him despite some of the tragic elements that will also come from their victory.

I hope that these 2-3 ties per character will help make the Final Battle thrilling and enjoyable for the players. The purpose of this series of posts is to expose all of the elements of the Final Battle. I'm posting them now to enhance the learning that I gain from this experience because when I do the postmortem after the last die roll, I can review which element(s) did and didn't work and consider how I can enhance my planning for future campaign endings.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Second to last session?

I'm putting the series about Creating the Final Battle on hold for this post as I discuss our gaming session from Saturday. This session was a lot of fun but it was also a reminder of the reasons that I am looking for some new gaming experiences in the near future.

The best thing about this session was that every player was able to attend. We caught those who were absent up on the events from the last session and they began exploring the monastery. Two of the players were convinced that there was "loot" in the well from the tentacle monster that had attacked them in the last session. I had forgotten about this conviction when planning for the session so while they discussed amongst themselves how to get down the well, I hunted for some magic items to put in a pile. As they explored I improvised a magic device that held a water elemental in place to pump water up from the water table up into the well shaft. They eventually decided not to pursue the contents of the well after encountering the water elemental's power (I'm not really sure why) but by the time they had gotten that far, I had already planned to have a water troll guarding the player created loot pile.

The players seemed to enjoy the search process. Which makes that part of the session a success in my mind. However, this is the kind of thing that doesn't really make GMing a lot of fun for me. Generating loot, figuring out how much to allow without unbalancing the party for their level, finding an encounter that they can tackle. Too many of these are calculations or looking up tables. D&D lends itself to this kind of thinking for the players and the GM. Because the balance of these elements is so precarious, you can't really tinker with them without risking major consequences to what would otherwise be some of the more useful aspects of that game like Encounter Level calculations.

Later in the session, the players successfully avoided being led into a trap. Some warforged scouts were set up near the monastery the players were hiding in. If the players had approached the scouting party straight on the scouts would have run and pursuing PCs would have been led into an encounter with a Cadaver Collector. This CR12 monster is far beyond the capabilities of the party so the marker for success for the encounter was escaping alive. The players were smart and looped around to approach the trap from the north instead. This meant their ranger who was scouting ahead spotted the Cadaver Collector first and had ample opportunity to warn the party (the wizard was able to identify it) and they swiftly used every means of running away they could. I debated having the party encounter the warforged scouts first even though the PCs came from the north. However, I decided to let them experience an easier encounter because they had planned well.

This was one experience where I felt that I had really done a good job of managing the game well. As the party split into 3 groups (Dimension Door and two people flying in opposite directions) to get away from the Cadaver Collector, plus managing where the Cadaver Collector was on the ground, where each of the warforged scouts was on the ground, and who might be able to see whom from where, I created a small excel spreadsheet which provided each group of characters an (x,y) grid with the point from which the PCs started being (0,0). Then I just marked for each set of moves how many squares north or south and how many east or west. It ended up being fairly easy.

These two encounters were the whole of the roleplaying (or is that rollplaying in this case?) for the evening and we spent the next 3 hours with the players leveling up their character to level seven and acquiring the magic items to complete the final mission. Though now that I think about it, I realize that at the group's regular pace, we may have more than one session left.

The process of acquiring magic items stunk for me. It required many metagame conversations with the players to explain things that I had given in game reasons for. I also had to repeat myself several times about why I was letting them acquire items now and how much they could acquire. I also had to say "no" several times which I tend not to enjoy as a GM. A couple of the players were asking for magic items that would be very unbalancing for every remaining encounter (like weapons with the bane versus warforged special ability). These metagame discussions bog me down. As I said to one of the players that gave me a ride home, "Those aren't the kind of conversations that I'm most interested in as a GM."

All that remains in the campaign is a short dungeon crawl through tunnels, an encounter with an NPC that I anticipate will be fun, and the Final Battle.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Creating the Final Battle: Terrain

Continuing the series on Creating the Final Battle, I'll now cover terrain. Some of the most memorable battles I've been in as a player involved some interesting terrain or sets. A massive battle in a church deep under water, a tower battle where the goal was to get to the top but the foe could jump off the walls at will, exploring an underwater cavern with time distortion bubbles located randomly here and there. So in preparing this final battle I tried to think of a set that might be memorable. Here are the elements that I have settled on.

The Ground

I have been really drooling over some of the scenery created by gaming companies like WorldWorksGames and Fat Dragon Games. But frankly, my budget doesn't allow for that kind of extravagance very often. Well, never for World Works Games. I have bought some things from Fat Dragon Games and have been very happy with their materials. But I decided to take a little DIY attitude to creating this scenery. I started by trying rough sketch pictures. The next step was to try a 3D model in 1/4 inch grid paper. I then created a larger pattern in 1 inch grid paper which I use for most of my campaign session maps.

I traced the pattern on foam board which I bought for $5.99 at Michael's. I made sure the model fit together then proceeded to use MSPaint to alter pictures of stone work ground and screen shots of a wall from a Fat Dragon Games module to fit the size requirements. You really don't need a fancy and expensive Photoshop program to do to most of what you need (no matter what others say). With a little Aileen's tacky glue, I glued the pictures to the foam board. Don't use too much glue because it will warp the larger pieces of the foam board a little.

Something was still missing. I found a High Elf Watchtower for free at One Monk Miniatures. This fits perfectly into the scene. The Lord of the Blades will start up top. His lackey will start in the tower shouting to the crowd. The PCs may enter from several different locations but I think the most likely is the side of the stage opposite the tower depicted in the picture below.

Now I'm also working on a second possible scene, if the players don't follow the trail of bread crumbs, I can imagine that they'll try to

Here is the final result:

The Weather

In addition to just the ground, I'm also working out some details for random low level weather spell effects as a sort of storm of living weather spells. For example, I may randomly roll for a direction and strength of the wind, plus spell effects like obscuring mist and fog cloud form the PHB and Breathe of the Jungle, Cloud Burst, and Binding Winds from the Spell Compendium. Note that none of these deal direct damage but only inhibit movement, vision, ranged attacks, or saves. That's the point, just to make things a little more challenging, complicated, and hopefully memorable. At this level I don't think any of these 1st and 2nd level spells will alter the course of the battle much but may cause some major annoyance. Plus these effects will apply equally to the bad guys and the good guys for what I hope will be a net zero effect on the combat.

NPCs as Terrain.

In addition to these elements, keep in mind that in front of the first tier, there is a large crowd of warforged citizens rooting the Lord of the Blades on. This set is really an amphitheater. If a PC fall off the first tier, they will be surrounded by warforged and some warforged by be throwing rocks (for minimal damage if any), shouting curses and epithets, and generally seeming to be unruly and threatening.

I'm hoping the three elements of ground, weather, and NPCs will make fighting a combat in this final battle interesting and memorable.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Creating the final battle: Foes

The next three posts are about the build toward the final battle in my campaign. I'm writing them before the battle takes place and may offer comments on each after the battle to talk about the difference between what I anticipated and how it actually turned out. In this post, I'll discuss the foes. In subsequent posts, I'll discuss terrain and plot.

I've got the BBEG: The Lord of the Blades.

The character is significantly altered from source books. I started with the idea that the Lord of the Blades should wield two blades. I tested several different builds that would lead to a dual wielding Blackguard and eventually settled on Ranger 6, Blackguard 4. Did you know that of the standard classes, Ranger offers the fastest path to the prerequisites for Blackguard? I would have thought fallen Paladin but Hide prerequisite gets in the way. Anyway, I kept crunching the encounter with the Encounter Calculator and trying to weigh it against my PCs who are finding most encounters too easy. I decided to aim for an Overpowering encounter for the final battle. After factoring all of the other elements, I decided that adding the Spell Warped template would still work.

I've got the lackey behind the bad guy.

For this role, I created a wand wielding artificer with a secret or two up his sleeve. The players may dismiss him in the first few rounds of combat while he talks to the crowd for up in a tower otherwise removed from the battle. He'll be using his wands to protect himself during that time. If they all out assault, they'll have to fly to the tower and he has some antiflier defenses. This guy is inspired by Grima Wormtongue from the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. He has some power himself but was most dangerous for how he influenced the Lord of the Blades. . . but if the PCs fail to deal with him while he protects himself, he'll begin dishing out a lot of damage and battle influence around round 3 or 4.

I've got cannon fodder.

I have created two beefed up Iron Defenders as companions for the Lord of the Blades. I took a little creative license with them. The Eberron campaign setting says that they fight "for their creator". I interpreted that loosely by saying to myself that the creators of the iron defenders order the iron defenders to protect the Lord of the Blades. Their main purpose on the battle field is to flank anyone attacking the Lord of the Blades (allowing him to use his sneak attack) and or grapple a magic user or rogue still on the ground. I don't anticipate that they will affect the battle very much at all but they serve an important distraction role.

I've got witnesses.

The background for the combat is that the Lord of the Blades has formed a city named Forge in the Mournland. He then sent many small units to attack Breland (there's a good reason but not necessary for this explanation). Thrane, Zilargo, Breland, and Aundair are afraid of this show of force so joined together to stop the Lord of the Blades. The siege army is at the walls of the city. However, attacking a well fortified city is challenging. With human inhabitants they would wait a few weeks to weaken the defenders. But how do you weaken a city where the inhabitants don't eat, sleep, breathe, or eliminate waste? Moreover, how do you feed your army and keep up morale when living spells wander the terrain. So the PCs have been sent in as a last ditch effort to try to decapitate the leadership before the army will try to scale the walls. The Lord of the Blades knows about the party entering the city and has planned for them. He has gathered as many citizens as possible to a public address area where he intends to kill the PCs in a morale boosting show of warforged superiority. So, the third foe is the crowd watching the battle. In a way, they could have been described under terrain. If the PCs get too close to the crowd the crowd may try to grapple them. Of course the farther from the crowd the closer to the Lord of the Blades. A random spell caster or two may try to counterspell the wizard (to no effect other than the generation of fear in the PCs). And, the crowd will be cheering, booing, and throwing a few things randomly with very low damage. There will also be a few warforged who will be rooting for the PCs so a fireball aimed at the crowd would be morally questionable. The main purpose of the crowd is to add tension and stakes to the fight. Win and the warforged army looses morale or maybe even tears itself apart. Lose and they will be emboldened, the tempering few will lose heart.

I've got the heroes.

The PCs will all be 8th level at the final battle. They are as follows:
1. The main dramatic lead is a warforged fighter with Monkey Grip and a large battleaxe. He is hoping to save his people from becoming a feared reviled race.
2. I've got a dragon marked rogue. She doesn't know it because they didn't investigate some things earlier but her mother was captured by one of the warforged parties that entered Breland. Her level of investment will intensify once she learns this getting to the final battle.
3. An amoral wizard. The player doesn't care much about plot but he'll be very interested in how to stop the artificer and get his loot.
4. A cleric. This player has only been coming to every other session. I added a vision from his God in the last session to increase his investment in this conclusion. His God told him that the character would be able to cast healing "when he needs it most" which the players presume correctly will be the final battle.
5. An archery track ranger. This player has been gone for some sessions due to work commitments, the character is interested in just doing the right thing.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Another leg completed

Brief comment on being gone for 4 months. I studied for a licensing exam. I passed said exam.

After the tower mission described in the last post, my players' characters entered the Mournland. When I decided to run something in the Mournland, I decided not to adhere too closely to the source books. The very concept of the Mournland is like a GM-playground to me and I decided to keep it that way. I didn't want to read too much that might prevent me from enjoying the freedom of this broken place.

I started off by tossing a homemade "Wandering Hole" at the players. A single rope trick later and they were away from it. They peppered it with arrows and despite its DR10/slashing they killed it. Note to self: Never allow either Monkey Grip or Efficient Pull in a D&D campaign ever again.

They moved on to a particularly fiendish trap for the Mournland. It was a small bog of puddles that smelled strongly of almonds. The wizard tested the waters in the puddles with Spellcraft and found them to be healing potions. The wizard then dealt himself a single hit point wound and found that indeed the potion healed him. The players filled a host of empty vials with these potions and counted me a generous GM for providing them with, as they called it, "Healing that works in the Mournland". Now here is the trick. They do heal. . . sometimes. Every time a character uses one of these, I roll 2d6 with different colored dice. One is the healing die, the other the wound die. The healing die wins on a tie. They are going to be so pissed when they need that and it doesn't work. On they went with the new potions. They even used one in a later combat (it came up healing).

A little later a combat ensued between the players, a group of 20 Troglodytes , and one Troglodyte that had been transformed by the Mounrland. To create this transformation I used the Tauric template to create a half Troglodyte half Rhinocerous. I took a few liberties and gave the Troglycerous (or is it a Rhinolodyte?) spirited charge and a lance. Together with an opening round of trample that hit four out of five party members, this creature generated a lot of fear in a short period of time. Eventually, the players mopped up.

Thereafter, we had a bit of fun roleplaying their search of the location that had been the trog hang out. During the search they encountered another homemade creature. This one I left undeveloped to intentionally stretch my improvisation skills. On the premises occupied by the Trog band, there was a well. I knew that I wanted a creature in the well with tentacles and grapple checks. I had been thinking I'd use the fourth level Black Tentacles spell from the PHB but as I said, I intentionally hadn't looked it up until I was sitting at the table. When I looked it up it didin't have enough info. I turned to the Tendriculos but thought its CR was too high, plus the party had already faced one in the campaign and I didn't want the comparison to be too easy. I then flipped to the Dire Ape and found exactly what I was looking for. I decided that the creature in the well had four tentacles, could only use one per attack action and only two on a full attack. That made it pretty similar to the Dire Ape. Then I flung one tentacle out in the surprise round (the creature had to move up the well to get in range). That's when I also decided the creature had tremorsense. In the first round, the fighter managed to stave off being grappled by a second tentacle but then neglected to take a 5-foot step back out of reach so at the end of the round when the creature could attack again, out came two tentacles, both of which succeeded. Hey look, Dire Apes have rend. The fighter was not happy. As they were attacking the tentacles, I could see early that the Dire Ape's hit points would be insufficient. I decided to give the tentacles 20 hit points each (on a good hit, enough for the fighter to cut through in one blow). But that attacking a tentacle causes a maximum of 20 damage to the creature. As they cut the third tentacle in the second round, they were getting worried (not knowing there was only one left). I thought this was too much fun to simply end just as they are getting worried. So, I gave the creature regeneration/5. This allowed me to bring out tentacle #1 (severed in the first round) to terrorize again with tentacle #4. I did narrate to the players that, "This one doesn't look as thick as the others". Indeed, it had only 5 hit points. In round three, the rogue finally hit and rolled a crit threat. One player said, "don't even bother rolling the sneak damage." Then to me, "Its immune to crits right?" What else could I say, "Yes, yes it is". By round four, the players had cut all four tentacles and stepped out of the creature's reach. It went underground to heal.

I thought this would go no where until much later when they'd attack again from a position of strength. Then after about a half an hour of real time the fighter moved his lead casually back into range . He was livid (in a good way) when I told him to roll initiative.

Things I've learned from this session about running monsters:
1. If I create the monster I don't screw up its stats.
2. If I create a monster on the fly to increase dramatic tension it can work. Do this more often for small flavor combats.
3. It seems like a good idea to use a lower CR creature to improvise from because it gave me room to add abilities without overpowering the party.
4. I need to use something that can fly against this party.