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?


  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!