Friday, November 9, 2018

Ravenloft, Buy-in, Style of Play, a Sort of Review, and Birthdays.

  As I have mentioned before, October is one heck of a month for my family because we have 4 birthdays and a Holy Day of Obligation in just 15 days. Toss in that I am teaching this year, the teenagers want lives (the jerks), and the fact that I am working on my own OSR clone and, well.

  I'm back.

  Another family tradition is the Annual Halloween Classic Module; I run the Clan through an old-school module. We've done Tamoachan, Ghost Tower, Castle Amber, and more. 
  This year?

  Ravenloft!

  
  The crew had never read the module in any of its forms, but knew about it (of course). Everyone was pumped and looking forward to a killer dungeon with a high body count.
  Each player (five people) made three 7th level characters using 3d6 in order, swap 2, and being equipped via the charts from the DMG on making instant characters and Magic Items for Everyman in Dragon #45. They divided into three teams; Scout, Strike, and Emergency, and we started play on Saturday evening, a bit late.

Spoilers for the module follow

  I had Ravenloft digital on two tablets and the maps printed out for notes and references. I had tweaked the module a bit (explained below) and had a modified deck of cards at hand. I had already run the Fortunes of Ravenloft as per the module. 

  The entire group of 15 PCs travelled together into Barovia after getting the call for help. They encountered the dead body that showed the call for help was fake, and continued. They had a random encounter with Barovian woodcutters and travelled with the men to the village, learning a great deal from them via high charisma and roleplay. They ignored damn near everything in the village and headed straight to the church, meeting the priest well before sunset.

        My modifications: The villagers explained that every few years more people, sometimes adventures and sometimes merchants. were lured into Barovia to ensure the village always had a certain minimum population and could still get clothing, food, etc. The gypsies also brought needed items. The priest at the chapel was convinced that God was protecting the people because there was always a cleric for the church in town, all through the ages.
  I also introduced Father Gabriel, the priest of the church in the village when the Curse of Strahd first struck. Inspired by the phantoms of dead adventurers and the 'helpful spirits' encounter I had Fr. Gabriel as a "mechanic"; his spirit was invisible and undetectable. He would travel with the party and if they failed report all that was seen, heard, and done to the survivors. Thus player knowledge after character death was explained.
  The party slept as the cleric prayed, and set out the next morning. Straight on target, the party headed directly for the castle. They hit the gypsy camp fairly directly and, after a lot of party discussion, went for the fortune telling. We played out the Fortunes of Ravenloft with the party taking careful notes, and then before too long they reached the entrance to the castle at nightfall (taking the carriage, after a wrangle).

  They entered and heard faint organ music. Focused on one of the fortunes (that of the Tome, which the Fortunes had placed in the tower) they decided up was best. They went straight, more organ music. Turned right, louder. They saw the double doors with the organ music obviously on the other side (I was playing Widor) and the spiral stairs up opposite the doors...
  ...and took the stairs. Jack said the organ music was 'over the top' and 'too obviously a trap, illusion, or something'.They went to the next floor, opened a door into the throne room, checked their notes, went to the throne, and recovered the Holy Symbol. Travelling to try to define the dimensions of the castle they found the chapel overlook, killed the zombies in a round, and descended with a Rope of Climbing, finding the Icon of Ravenloft. They uncovered the altar, left the Icon, and took the stairs up a tower.

        Let the Dice Roll as they May: I really strongly favor letting the dice roll and stand as they land. I don't fudge a number, re-roll, throw in five more monsters or have 2 run away, etc. Party curb stomps kobolds? Sure. Bunch of kobolds curb stomp the party? Sure. I have found that the results of this are far more dramatic than anything I can railroad.
  All this time I rolled zero random encounters. 

  At this point we broke it off for the day. All the talking and walking in Barovia ate up some time. We reconvened the next day with a large volume of snacks and drinks for a long session.

  They continued up, up, up, then found the bridge to the other tower. Midnight and Strahd sent 40+ bats. The party locked themselves away in a room, waited 10 minutes, then came out with a Potion of Fire Breath, wiping out the bored stragglers. They crossed to the other tower, it animated, the party used a Wand of Lightning Bolts, the tower's heart shattered, and the party inexplicably (to me; they insist it made sense) abandoned their plan to find the knowledge in the tall place and headed straight back to the Chapel. They finally had a random encounter, a group of 4 gypsies. The gypsies were cut down in 4 rounds, the party healed minor damage, and they kept on to the chapel. 
  Just at the Chapel they had another random encounter. Roll, cascade, roll, and - Strahd himself! He leapt out, struck the toughest fighter, and drained two levels while the party was surprised!
  He won initiative and struck the fighter again, effectively crippling him, as the cleric fumbled in her bag. The rest of the party was trying to get to where they could fight. Third round the fighter, who was weakened where any blow would kill him, missed - and the Cleric activated the Holy Symbol....

   ...and rolled a 10 on a d10.

  Sunlight blazed from the Holy Symbol, instantly rendering Strahd immobile and helpless. In short order the party staked him, cut off his head and stuffed his mouth with holy wafers, and let the 10 rounds of sunlight annihilate him, hitting the combo that kills a vampire the first time every time.

  The storms broke, the mist cleared, the sun rose shining and bright, and the party headed to the chapel with only 3 of 15 characters taking any damage. The party cleric read a scroll with Restorations on it and the drained fighter was good as new.

  The session ended so fast the pizzas weren't done.

My History with the Ravenloft Module
  When Ravenloft came out there was a fair amount of buzz. My friend Brice, who had his own D&D group, invited me to guest DM it in return for food and my own copy of the module. I did, we had a ton of fun over a 4 day weekend, and lots of characters died before Strahd went down.
  A month later I ran it for my own group. George's group asked me to run it for them, etc. The year after it came out I ran it at least 5 times. I ran it at the Presidio of Monterey in '86 and at Bragg in '88, twice in '89, and at an airbase in '90. So this was at least the 10th time I have run the module making it the classic module I have run most often, very easily.

My Opinion of the Ravenloft Module
  ...I don't like it much. The setup is odd, the optional 'girl reincarnated, brother in love past the grave' is clumsy, the timeline of the curse versus the status of the village requires the DM to fix a ton of things, the 'mist' mechanic is lazy DMing of the first water, and I really, really dislike the maps. While iconic and eye catching, the maps are damn hard to use at times. And I think the 'assume an identity' motivation is ridiculous and possibly outside the rules.
  And the tone is so uneven! The big sell is 'Gothic Horror' yet the tombs are chock-a-block with terrible puns that would make Piers Anthony roll his eyes.
  I do like the Fortunes concept, although the assumption that modules will be played over and over is... odd, to me.

Tone, Buy In, and Style of Play
  I think that my most recent party was actually the one to finally match the Gothic Horror tone of the main module. My party is rather 'murder hobo avoidant' - they slam through dungeons with a time limit because they seem to have time-suck radar, they often start with parley, and avoid all combat they think is a waste.
  When they were in Ravenloft they got the Fortunes, which are direct clues that are meant to lead the party to the tools they need to defeat Strahd. The party focused on the Fortunes and they basically led them straight to the tool they used to defeat Strahd on the very first night in the castle. I believe this is more 'true' to the idea of the party being a force for good versus evil rather than looters searching for high-value swag.
  Looking at the module after the 'cleared Ravenloft with a dead Strahd in 270 real-world minutes' sessions and I realized the castle is a murder hobo graveyard. Don't open every tomb in the vault? Suddenly a huge number of undead aren't to be encountered. Carefully follow the clues and get the sword, holy symbol, etc? You have multiple tools that can kill Strahd quickly in the group. 
  Again, the style of play of my party (heroes opposing evil rather than bandits looking for loot) plus the tone of the module may have very well allowed them to skip a lot of death.

  But at the same time, the players did not buy into the Gothic Horror part. At all. Empty house with the sound of a woman weeping drifting out in the village?
  "If I was trapped in a vampiretown I'd cry, too."
  And they walked on by.
  Learned that the daughter of the burgomeister was adopted when she was found wandering the forest as a very young child?
  "A reincarnated woman from the vampires past, obviously. Who has bets on mother, fiancĂ©e, or unrequited love?"
  The players weren't in a Wuthering Heights mood.

  Don't get me wrong, they emotionally invest into adventures. I have had them actually panic for real and have been told that my description of a subterranean lake with the sound of someone singing in the distance over the water gave players nightmares.
  Just not Ravenloft.

  But they played like it. 

  I think I need to write more about this!

Monday, September 10, 2018

Play Report: 5e

  I got to play, which is nice. We had done a single session once before, this time we did a two-day-in-real-life game.

Party
Me - Human Cleric (Tempest domain)
Jen - Halfling Rogue
Alex - Half-elf Warlock
Sam - Human Fighter
Nick - Human Mage

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Chaos, Them!, Baba Yaga's Hut, Food Storage, Matchmaking, and More....

  Now that the map of the Briars is done the Company of the Dark Moon (i.e., 85% of PCs in the campaign) gave one to master bard Llewellyn the Black, sold a copy to the King, and made 3 copies. Clarence (unbeknownst to the rest)  also sent one to the Grandfather of Assassins earning himself a reprieve from doing a mission for the Black Guild.

Impassable Plants and Giant Ants
  Seeker used his broom of flying to scout out the largest spinneys (these are the impassable thickets of briars up to a mile across that dot the Briars region). He had noted the the largest spinneys have a clearing inside, always in the exact middle. He found that each one has a large stone in the center inscribed with the same strange rune as the Gate of the Old Road and the various 'key stones' of the Old Road. He realized that the Old Road is only washed out or overgrown in the sections where the glyph stones are missing.
  The party also realized that the largest spinneys all cover the lairs of giant ants - 200-400 per spinney.

Clearing Out
  In Skull Mountain the hirelings, henchmen, and PCs worked hard to secure provisions (20 man-weeks of iron rations in the Cupboard on level one and 400 lbs of beef in the Meat Locker on level three) and supplies (240 arrow, 120 bolts, 200 candles, and 12 bedrolls on level one; the long boat on level three) and then met the mule train from Esber to get everyone and everything else out. The PCs stayed behind to Wizard Lock, secure, and Glyph key doors.

Maid Service for a Maiden
  Since the Beginner of the Third Way (i.e. the master monk of the Briars) had asked them to and because she had helped them so the party next followed the Three Riders to Baba Yaga's hut, deep in the High Briars (it had moved, of course) to help Vasilisa accomplish the three tasks for her 16th birthday. The party helped her: stir a 50 gallon cauldron of stew constantly for 36 hours allowing only Vasilisa's hands to touch the stirring paddle; sort a 12 bushel sack of mixed maize and wheat into two separate bags, one with only maize, the other with only wheat; sweep, wash, dry, and wax the floor of Baba Yaga's hut (just the first room). The party caught a glimpse or three of the vast maze of rooms off the 'hut' but did no snooping.
  They pulled it all off while being very conscientious and extremely polite. Brigid also made sure Vasilisa had clean clothes, was well-scrubbed, and that her hair was perfect.
  Baba Yaga arrived early and the entire party ended up having to stay for cake to avoid being impolite. The cake was delicious and Baba Yaga admitted that Vasilisa,
  "..never shirked, never lied, never complained, was never rude, never lazy, and never impertinent. She was always kind, always polite, always prompt, and had always accomplished her tasks..."
  So Baba Yaga informed the party that if they presented Vasilisa to the King of Seaward 'before the first snow of the year' Baba Yaga would owe them a favor. They are very polite, bid Baba Yaga farewell, and took Vasilisa with them.

Matchmakers and Maps
  The party promptly traveled to the capitol to present the map to the King, taking Vasilisa with them. During the audience the King gave them their payment for the map as well as the bounties for Ol' One Fang and Ol' Knobby. Vasilisa was presented and was quickly able to prove she was the daughter of Count Zotov whose entire family was believe wiped out in the Civil War in High Morath. Vasilisa explained she, the youngest, had survived with her oldest brother and a few guards as they fled over the Exile's Trail into the Briars and had fled (as ordered by her brother, who held them off so she could flee) when a pack of trolls attacked thereafter being taken in as a "ward" of Baba Yaga the next day.
  The Crown Prince was obviously smitten with the young Countess.

More later....

Saturday, August 11, 2018

New Spell: Mordenkainen's Mediocre Motel Room

From the Lads-
Mordenkainen's Mediocre Motel Room (Summoning, Alteration)
Level: 2                                                      Components: V, S, M
Range: 0                                                     Casting Time: 1 round
Duration: 1 hour/level (see description)    Saving Throw: None
Area of Effect: 7'x7'x7' cube

Explanation/Description: When cast the magic-user summons a Mediocre Motel Room, a wooden shelter that is roughly 7' wide, 7' deep, and has a very slightly pitched roof that reaches 7' at its highest. The Motel Room is of average-to-poor construction (the roof and each wall have only 2 Defensive Points each when resisting siege damage) and is usually painted in a distinctive, even garish, manner (such as teal walls and an orange roof, or pale beige walls and a bright, cherry red roof).
  The Motel Room has a single door (1 defensive point) that has a simple lock (+15% on lock picking attempts) and an interior bolt. Next to the door is the front window, a 2' x 2' opening with shutters (1 defensive point when shuttered and barred). The window is not glazed and has no screen or curtain, allowing free passage when unshuttered.
  The interior has a worn wooden floor throughout. There is a simple bed (rope suspension, straw-filled, lumpy mattress, no linens), a very small table with an oil lamp by the bed, a small closet (2' wide, 2' deep, no door) a small room for a chamber pot (2' wide, 2' deep, no door, no chamber pot, has a small grill for ventilation, 3 inches by 3 inches, near the ceiling) and a built in desk between the closet and privy with a wooden stool by it.
  The Motel Room provides the same protection from the weather as a poorly-made, small, wooden building. It is drafty and in heavy rain the roof leaks in a place or two. There is no fireplace or hearth, but a brazier or field stove could potentially be placed on the floor. The Motel room is as subject to fire, lightning, earthquakes, etc. as any other poorly-made, small, wooden building.
  The bed is sufficient for 1 human, although it can just barely fit 2 humans in a pinch. There is enough floor space for another human and a gnome or halfling could potentially curl up under the desk. If someone is sleeping on the floor you cannot enter or exit the bed without stepping on them unless you fly or levitate.
  There is a vague, pervasive odor to the Motel Room that cannot be identified or removed. This odor makes animals uneasy so that only familiars or highly trained creatures (such as war dogs) will sleep within.
  The oil lamp burns dim and smokes a lot. While it sheds enough light to navigate the room it is too dim for reading. By command the caster can cause a light to shine from the ceiling over the bed (another command turns it off). This ceiling light is bright enough for reading, but it flickers off and on briefly at irregular intervals; studying spell books to memorize spells takes 30% longer than normal if reading by this light.
  When anyone is within the Motel Room roll encounters as normal with the exception that if two or more creatures are encountered at once there is a 50% chance that they begin to fiercely argue within earshot of the Motel Room. If this occurs the creatures will scream at each other, pound weapons on shields, roar, etc., making as much noise as possible for 2d4 turns, after which they depart for the closest tavern. Such a fight will automatically wake anyone sleeping in the Motel Room and prevent them from returning to sleep until the argument is over.
  When the spell ends the Motel Room and its furnishing vanish, unceremoniously dumping anyone and anything within on the ground.
  Despite the listed duration of the spell, no matter how much time has passed since it was cast every Motel Room vanishes at 10 am local, on the dot.
  The material component is a small key with an attached horn disk inscribed with runes and a number (costs 5 s.p.), a tiny bell (costs 1 g.p.), and 1 gold piece. To cast the spell the caster rings the bell, stands still while tapping his foot and whistling for 1 round, then tosses the gold piece in the air, where it vanishes. The key and tag vanish when the spell ends. The bell can be reused.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Major Arc Completed: The Briars Are Now Mapped

  For those of you who don't know/care my players have been doing a massive arc of mapping some of the wildest, toughest terrain in my campaign setting. The arc started in May of 2017 and finished this weekend, about 15 months of gaming real world, with a few breaks and other sessions. In-universe the adventure spanned about 500 days of travel, mapping, and fighting.

The Weather- The party endured everything from a Summer high temp of 112 degrees (44 degrees to you non-Americans) to a Winter low of -3 (-19 Celsius). There was a gale where sustained winds were 70 mph with gusts to 90 mph (Beufort scale 11 with hurricane force gusts) and separately a tornado touched down 1 mile away and passed within 1/4 mile of the party. Flash floods were also a threat more than once and they hate hail pretty hard, now.

Encounters- They fought everything from a tribe of goblins allied with a giant to two separate kobold tribes. They encountered a full troll clan with a shaman, 3 holy hermits, 3 bandit groups, a full brigand band, and so many small groups of thieves, kobolds, highwaymen, goblins, wild boars, and lone trolls they lost count. Toward the end I stopped mentioning the routine encounters with venomous asps, venomous spiders, normal rats, brush wolves, brush cats, tortoises, etc.

Big Names- They killed Ol' One Fang and Ol' Knobby. They encountered the Red Maiden more than once (with no direct fighting) and lived. They met with Heruhoth, Champion of Kath and foe of the Red Maiden. They met Vasilissa, servant to Baba Yaga, a handful of times and met Baba Yaga herself once. They even saw her Dancing Hut twice. They met the Beginner of the Third Way ( a 14th level Monk of the Three-fold Path) and his disciples as well as one of his students who might be a ninja from Yashima. They dealt with the Man in Green, the Man in Red, and even the Man in Blue. They discovered the hidden Grove of the ranking druid in the region and learned that the druids and the monks don't get along.

Big Ideas- Two mountains nearby seem to be part of a weapon capable of  firing at spelljammers in space. The druids think the Briars are a natural part of the world but the monks think the Briars are the chaotic effects of the Contraption, deep in Skull Mountain. The Eldar (the Men in Colors) might be merchants who will sell anything to anyone, or they might be masters of deceit trying to gain control of the space weapon, or they might be something else. The Red Maiden is probably a rakshasa with a Wand of Polymorph sowing death and fear for Baron Samedhi - whoever he is. Skull Mountain, the Briars, and the Old Road may be older than the elves.

Next Missions- Vasilissa is about to turn 16; when she does she has three tasks to perform for Baba Yaga. If she succeeds she gains a reward. If she fails she is eaten. The party hopes to save her.
The Red Maiden must be destroyed.


The party will split the loot (they held off the entire time!) and gain all experience. I am removing the usual 'only one level at a time' restriction, if it comes up, to reflect the intense nature of the mission.

What's that?
Oh! The map!



Saturday, July 28, 2018

Worldbuilding and Seaward Overview: Steel, Ships, Schnapps

  D&D has led me to some interesting side hobbies, such as an intense interest in mining, metallurgy, and smithing as a teen. My goal was for an internal consistency to Seaward, a world that made sense inside its own context. My players seems to notice this (hooray!) but sometimes be confused, so here is my thinking.
Seaward as a whole is roughly the High Middle Ages, around 1200 AD, give or take. But that is just a touchpoint. Here is where it differs.

Metals-
In Real Life blast furnaces were only introduced to Europe in the 16th Century, but they were about 1,500 years old by that time, having been used in China that long before. Smelting is a LOT older, as in 6,000+ years.
Seaward has pretty advanced metallurgy with sophisticated blast furnaces (hot blast blast furnaces with water- or spell- powered forced air, distillatory venting, and the use of raw anthracite), a wide range of fluxes as well as ore washing, roasting, and reduction steps throughout. The dwarves are masters of this, although all races do at least base smelting.
This means 'full plate' armor, better tools, improved alloys, etc. are also "earlier". The humanoids are still in the 'age of mail' while the good guys have reached the 'age of plate'.

My thinking/justification: The odd thing (to me, at least) in real life is that bits and pieces of smelting technology were scattered here and there but rarely combined until fairly recently. Water-powered forced air on southern Europe; blast furnaces in China; sophisticated fluxes in Spain, etc. My simple assumption is that long-lived dwarves with different cultural ties were more likely to share and combine these technologies leading to a slightly faster development of metallurgy so that Seaward is about 4 centuries 'ahead' of Europe in mining, smelting, etc.

Sailing-
In Real Life the Medieval Period by about 1200 AD saw the development of the cog, knarr, and hulk in the West and the very sophisticated Song Dynasty junk in the East.
Seaward lags far behind in ship technology. The only common boat is the simple fishing boat with a square sale. The only real military ships of Seaward and Eastford are a few trireme galleys. Trading vessels are simple flat-bottomed roundships with a single square sail. The most advanced ships are those of the Mariner Elves who have the equivalents of longships and simple knarrs.

My thinking/justification: In real life the fact that ancient humans got into boats and sailed out of the sight of land might be the boldest thing our species has ever done - and we did it a lot. The Medieval Period had more population, an improvement in other technologies, an increased need and desire for trade, and seaborne raiders. all of which led to rapid development of ship technology that had otherwise been stagnant since Hellenistic times.
Seaward is still stagnant, as is most of the world around it, for three reasons. One, the oceans of Seaward are much more deadly than the real oceans, which is a terrifying concept. Sea serpents, dragon turtles, weresharks, kraken, sahuagin, koalinth, scrags, etc., etc., etc. mean that there are areas of ocean that are impassible and the rest is much more lethal. There are very good reasons to not go to sea. Second, magic allows you to skip some of the ship technology. A spell here and there makes any ship more seaworthy, so if you must go to sea the simpler ship can do more in a pinch. Third, things like Teleport, Carpets of Flying, etc. mean that the powerful or wealthy can travel much faster and more safely, removing some of the impetus for development.

Alcoholic Spirits-
Archaeologists have evidence that the Babylonians were making simple distilled alcohol by 1200 BC and distillation of alcohol was spreading in both the East and West in the 1st Century, so liquor is fairly old. But it wasn't until about 1500 AD that distillation was more than a novelty or tool of alchemy.
Seaward is about 400 years ahead here, too, allowing for a very wide range of liquors. Pot still are the norm, but both fractional distillation and reflux are well-known and used improving quality and consistency.

My thinking/justification: Essentially the same as with metallurgy.

Impact-
Seaward has the alcohol, armor, and metals of the 16th Century and the ships of the 7th with a few elves carefully guarding their 11th Century ships and Liung Diguo having a few early junks far, far away. The lack of reliable sea travel makes the world effectively larger and forces more overland travel. It also makes magic items and spells with strategic travel capabilities much more valuable.

Monday, July 9, 2018

DM Report: Deeper into the Caverns

The party keeps exploring. Here is the setup and here is the previous report.

After a night's rest the party decamped from the goblin tunnels, set up the mercenaries and 10 of the henchmen on the hilltop and examined the eastern tunnel. Starfalcon (ranger) and Akio (henchman monk) rapidly determined it was the lair of jermlaine. Jermlaine that seemed to avoid the sunlight of the Cavern of Herds. The main party switched to the Trog Tunnels and, after driving back the tentamorts in the junction, went east, following that tunnel a long way until it opened up into a rocky cavern almost a mile long. Near the cavern, in the tunnels, they encountered a snyad and parleyed. The soon learned of the 'war in the walls'; a century long fight between the snyads of this area versus the jermlaine to the north. After discussions the party gave the snyads 8 daggers for their fight.

This led to jokes about being arms dealers