Monday, May 15, 2017

DM Report and DM Tips: Lighthouses, Swords, and Derailing Campaigns

Ran a quick session on Saturday, just 3 hours of gaming (we only expected 90 minutes but Son #5 fell asleep on the couch!). WE played in my AD&D 2e campaign, called Blackstone, and the lower level guys went to stop some bad guys from getting intelligence from a ruined abbey.



Adventure Backstory: In-game Whitedell Abbey was the HQ of all paladins in the continent and was its own small nation. The players once encountered Count Westergoth, the Lord of All Death Knights, on the borders of Whitedell in 2009, an encounter that ended when Doomsman broke Westergoth's replacement sword.
The 'replacement' bit is because Westergoth's preferred weapon, the two-hander named Gorgoroth the Shatterer, had been stolen from him and hidden.
I am lucky enough to have been involved in various writing projects, etc., with Scott Bennie for about 20 years. I based Gorgoroth on the sword used by Saint Kargoth in Dragon #79. It is +4 and any good creature struck with a natural 18+ must save or be Disintegrated).
A game-year after that encounter Whitedell Abbey was attacked by Westergoth and his retenue and, despite grave losses, Westergoth kill or drove off the paladins and captured a canopic jar of the Broken Man. The aftermath of that encounter was pretty serious (ignore the typos on an old, never-edited post, please!). Westergoth was killed at sea, the jars holding the Broken Man were scattered again, and Things Got Better.

What Happened This Game: The party learned that the death of Westergoth wasn't the end - someone was sending agents to the ruins of Whitedell to learn the hiding place of Gorgoroth. Which is odd, because most people assume it is in the Holy City. So the party saddled up and headed to Whitedell. They had a creepy encounter with a heucuva in an abandoned church on the way, then fought a group of bandits and their wererat leaders in the ruins of Whitedell. With planning, courage, and effort their prevailed and learned that the paladins had sent a heavily-guarded ship to the Holy City as a ruse while they hid Gorgoroth in an abandoned lighthouse just off the coast. They also learned that the orders came from someone in Doomsburg.

Back to the Campaign: Back in 2012 the players made new characters for Blackstone. One of their first adventures involved an abandoned lighthouse just off the coast. Remote, forbidding, and inherently dangerous they noted that there was a Wizard Locked door in a remote corner. To my complete surprise, the party decided to turn the lighthouse into a base of operations.  That group of characters has been there for, oh, 5-6 levels and many game years to the point there is a small thorp of NPCs on the shore! They eventually opened the outer door to find a small room and another Wizard Locked door, which they have essentially ignored since 2014.
Doomsburg is the village where the highest-level PCs have their domain.
In 2015 they made the characters they played this time.

Running a Campaign and Curveballs: I have some major plot arcs for the Blackstone campaign. The ones identified by the players are: The Shadow of the City; She Who Waits (which includes the Broken Man); The Undying Witch-King: The Red Caps, and; The Water Tiger.
They have learned a lot about the mythologies and backgrounds of most of these, but they have really thrown me the most curveballs around She Who Waits. They have repeatedly done things like, oh, defeat a dragon turtle at 3rd level (Scroll of Speak with Monsters and some talking), sneak through a trap-laden fortress with no casualties in record time, kill a super death knight at 6th level, etc. All throwing the plans of the villains (and my plots!) into disarray. I expect monster A to be a terrifying figure of dread from character creation until they are at domain level and they finally kill it - and they cut it down when they aren't yet capable of casting Fireball.
Here is another example. I intended the lighthouse to be a framing adventure - the party had never been to that portion of the world so I wanted them to see it so that when they came back they would remember their earlier visit. Instead - they live there, now.
Comment from Nick after the reveal,
"Hey, know that locked room in the attic we never looked into? Yeah. Turns out the most powerful evil sword in history is in there and, well, evil wants it back."
These things happen all the time, right? The players miss a clue, the villain gets away, the thing designed to be a foil for years dies on the first encounter - you name it.

Why I Have Never Had A Campaign 'Derailed': During the post-game discussion Jack said,
"You can't derail a campaign unless it is on rails."
Hmmmm.
Sounds right.
I remember back in about '83 I was running my 1e campaign, Seaward, and had developed a plotline where the Champion of the Slaughter God was going to come in, curb-stomp the best NPC warrior in front of the party, and then conquer half the kingdom as part of a big storyline I thought would take at least a year of real time. The the first encounter, outside a cathedral, the fighter/thief (played by my friend Brion, God rest his soul) was on a high perch and used a crowbar to drop a saint's statue on the Champion.
Killing him.
Saving the toughest fighter.
Meaning 'no invasion'.
My friend David, who was running his own campaign, and I spoke about our games a lot and he said,
"Wow! OK, I guess you'll have the new Champion take over and continue the invasion?"
"Nope."
"The senior officers?"
"No. The Champion was the motivator. He's dead, so no invasion. I'll make a new rc this weekend."
David stared at me,
"But this just derailed your campaign!"
"Not at all. The goal of this adventure arc was to defeat the Champion and save the kingdom. They did that. To continue with the story arc with a new guy is, in a real way, cheating the party of the victory they earned."
In a way, I think this is related to the Quantum Ogre discussion. The story arc went something like this:


What happened was the heroes defeated the invaders before the Champion could eliminate the hero. The arc wasn't derailed, the arc was completed. If I were to re-insert a new Champion, have him kill the hero, lead the invading armies, etc. I would be telling the same story over again. Westergoth got killed? This didn't derail the arc, it forced me to figure out what She Who Waits would do about it, which led to this adventure where the party won when I expected them to tie. etc.
I think the disconnect I see sometimes is about the GM's attitude. See, I am running a dynamic campaign, I am not writing a novel. When I plot things out, I am plotting from the viewpoint of what the NPCs want and plan for, not what I demand happen. I may have the NPCs make contingencies, if they are the sort to do so, but if their plans are thwarted by the players, mission accomplished, not let's restart until I get the actions and results I want.

I wanted the lighthouse to be a minor point to be almost forgotten/ The party turned it into a centerpoint of the campaign. What was ruined?
Nothing. After all, we all had fun.
I expected Westergoth to defeat the party and leave, forcing them into a race against the clock to save the world. Instead they killed him and reset the armageddon clock.
Was my campaign "derailed"? Nope. we all had fun and now new foes will try new things, driving new fun.
"But Rick!" you say, "What happens if, oh, an artifact or something gets loose!"
First, I wouldn't put it in the game. Second, I could just Summon Bigger Fish. An example - in about '84 I ran Expedition to the Barrier Peaks [spoilers] The party came out with a suit of power armor and a lot of batteries. They planned to use it to conquer the world. A single 9th level illusionist and his 7th level assassin henchman sorted that out rather quickly. [end spoilers]
Just like a killer DM can always wipe out a party, a railroading DM can always find some way to get the story he wants to tell but in my opinion, that isn't roleplaying.
So, my campaign can't be derailed because it isn't on rails.