Friday, November 25, 2011

Return to the Ruins of Adventure - Epilogue

So the party was all but wiped out in the hydra-dragon-vampire fight series with only the wizard fleeing the scene (after being revived by the fighter). "So What?" you might say. That's kind of what I said. I had even offered up the opportunity to take out some insurance against this kind of event by having the temple of Torm make a deal with the party: In return for services rendered, if the party left a lock of hair then the temple would raise them in the event of a catastrophe - at no cost. Since the party had already undertaken a mission in return for this, there was no further obligation. My thinking was that the team would return, take a short quest or two to rearm themselves against their known foes (perhaps there is a legendary weapon or two made to fight the lizard king and his undead legions) and then go set things right. That's not what happened.

First, Uthal's player decided to let him rest, as he was a pure Tempus follower and didn't sign on for this deal. Now there was enough gold available to have the ritual done if he had wanted to return, but he felt it was more in-character to go out in a big fight. No problems there.  Then, two other players decide that they don't want to bring their characters back either. Now my basic philosophy is that players should be allowed to play the characters they want to play, but I have tailored this campaign a bit to this party. Losing 3 out of the 5 players changes quite a bit of this and reconciling things is tricky. I have been explicit that they are by far the leading/toughest new band of heroes in town and no one else is even close. This helped explaining their growing role within the city and its various groups, but it's a real pit trap when having to bring in multiple new characters at a level similar to the two remainders. Plus we have the question of the consequences of not stopping the lizard king's looming attack on the city which adds a time element to things now. I had also sketched out the final level's worth of encounters to be a little more of a narrative thing than I normally run and this was going to wreak all kinds of havoc with that.

So I thought about it and decided that if we were changing out 60% of the party anyway that something drastic was required to explain the changes. So I proposed a timeline jump of about 2 years and a level jump to move all existing and new characters to 11th, the start of Paragon tier. This would reflect the time and experience spent fighting the Lizard King and repulsing his attack on Phlan, giving a reasonable explanation for the presence of new heroes, changing out some NPC's, and generally going with a "Season 2" or next movie in the series feel for it*. Working through this process had me fired up again about the campaign as I admit the lack of interest in rezzing the existing party had taken some of the wind out of my sails. Unfortunately my players decided that playing through a war sounded like a lot of fun and that they didn't want to skip levels. I pointed out that most of the new party would be skipping a whole bunch of levels unless they wanted to play firsties again but to no avail. After the down-up-down-up-down cycle I was losing my enthusiasm for trying to continue this campaign. I did not want to run a wartime game because I had spent no time planning or laying the groundwork for it and it's just not a direction I wanted to go, in part because I was planning on doing that for a big chunk of Paragon tier. I typically try to stay flexible, thinking that over-planning leads to a loss of flexibility and that a good idea for today's game is better than a great idea for the "next" campaign but I really didn't want to short-circuit a great Paragon concept for a short-term problem in Heroic that I didn't want to run anyway!

There was a last ditch idea where I was going to have the characters come back as 20th level versions of themselves passing through time and planes to deal with another problem deep beneath the keep and incidentally raising the lower-level versions of themselves along the way with some funny scripted dialog to explain it (like the old Star Wars d6 read-aloud opening scripts)  but it seemed to incorporate the worst elements of things such as forced raising of characters and forced playing of characters they didn't want to play anymore,and the more I thought about it I decided it was just too cute and too much DM fiat - I shouldn't be putting words in the mouths of their characters or forcing their actions to that degree, it's not nearly as cool as I thought it would be initially and I don't know how I would feel about it as a player. So instead of trying to shoehorn something into the game that both I and the players could stand I decided to just end it.

Epic Kordan?

Thirty sessions is a pretty good run and I enjoyed it a lot and learned a lot. I like 4th edition just fine. There are changes and differences of course, but it still feels like D&D when I run it. Fighters still run around with +1 swords and b*tch when they miss a saving throw. Players still try to get away with crap they shouldn't  -   "Daily" means once a day, not "as often as I can get away with it until the DM notices"**- and have to be reigned in. I'm still drawing up maps on graph paper and picking out monsters to inhabit them. There are still mage guilds, thieves' guilds, and temples to various deities. This version lends itself to traditional extended campaigns just as well as the earlier ones did.

Downsides? Well it does play better with mini's and maps and if I was going without those I would just play B/X D&D rather than trying to cope with gridless AOE's and the like. Combat does take more time than older versions but it is a lot more detailed and interactive, keeping players involved even when it's not their turn. We were lucky to get through 3 encounters in one night and two was our real average. Would you rather have 3-6 fairly simple fights in a 4 hour run like in Basic or 1-3 detailed crunchy fights with 4E? It's mainly a matter of taste and mood. Minions help quite a bit, and remembering that every "Encounter" doesn't have to be a combat encounter helps too. Skill challenges are nice new addition too, after the kinks were worked out. I don't like the attempt at tying the game to an online subscription model via DDI either, but that's more of a publishing issue than a problem with the game itself.

Process-wise the way I ran this one was a reaction against the way I ran most of my 3E campaigns from 2000-2009. Those were mostly published adventures (there were so many...) and I actually flowcharted out possible paths from levels 1-20. Depending on how Adventure A ended up, the party might be driven more towards Adventure B, C, or D. I didn't spend a lot of time preparing the individual adventures, instead I spent time trying to make connections between them via legends, rumors, maps, NPC's, and enemies. It worked well enough but I was never 100% happy with the adventures themselves. With 4E there was not the glut of published material and it was reputed to be easy to prepare so I wanted everything to be hand made by me. For the most part I stuck to that (I did use some material from Dungeon Delve) and it was very refreshing to know my material backwards and forwards and it also makes it incredibly easy to improv when neccessary as you know what makes sense and what doesn't because you wrote it! So despite the ending I still see it as a successful tour of (most of) Heroic Tier 4E.

I think this experience is also what is driving my interest in converting old material to the new version. Even this campaign started out as a conversion of "Ruins of Adventure" theoretically, although I never intended anything more than some thematic similarities - you fight humanoids, undead, and lizardmen and there is a sorcerer's pyramid, and that's about it. The best of the old material is incredibly familiar in a general sense because I've been looking at it for 25-30 years. Things like White Plume Mountain and Against the Giants are part of the lore of D&D. Converting them to another edition forces me to look at them again in extreme detail (is this room physically big enough to hold these creatures?) and to think about how to make them a better fit to a new mechanical system. This makes them mine, all over again, almost as much as if I wrote them from scratch. Yet they also have the benefit of tying in to the legend - it's a pretty good sandwich for an evening of dice-busting.

So what's next? I'm not sure. I still have my 4E game with the Apprentices that we play when we can, and the other games too. I've run the main game on Friday nights for the past 2 years and schedule wise Saturday nights make more sense for us now so that's going to have to change and may cost me some players. I'd like to keep a "grown-up" 4E game going but I'd like to get back to Savage Worlds (Deadlands?) too and I'd like to give Star Wars and Mutants and Masterminds a real shot as well but I'm not sure I can juggle all of those at once. I have to see what my players are up for, now that they (and I) have had time to get over the end of RTROA.

*Yes this was somewhat inspired by the BSG "one year later" thing in the middle of that series. I thought that was brilliant and if I could get some mileage out of it here then great.

** It's funny that encounter powers are rarely over-used in an encounter but the limit on dailies are "forgotten" somewhat often.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Thankslisting

I'll keep this short:

1) I'm thankful for having a decent steady job this holiday season, unlike some in recent years. I don't think of myself as particularly materialistic (then again who does?) but money in the bank sure does make things run more smoothly.

2) I'm thankful for having kids that are pretty good and pretty smart and are not embarrassed about liking some of the same things that their dad likes too. It's easy to pull off when they're 5 or 6, trickier when they're 12 or 15.

3) I'm thankful for having a wife that at a minimum tolerates (without venom) and quite a bit of the time shares or joins in my interests and hobbies. It's a huge win to go through life with a partner that doesn't require you to lock away a part of yourself to keep them happy, and that's what I have. I've had it the other way too, so this is the voice of experience: that experience sucked, it's much better this way.

4) I'm thankful for having friends that are low-maintenance, long-term, and solid. We can go for months without talking, caught up in the routines of life, and have a brief chat out of the blue and be caught up just like that.

5) I'm thankful for this whole internet RP community thing. When I started playing these things the "community" was pretty much the few other kids at school that played and the letters section of Dragon. Now we have so many, many, ways to run into each other, swap stories, gang up on each other, bore each other, and generally get in each other's hair - it's awesome! See a game you like or hear about it from someone,  look up the company, find a discussion board, download a podcast, find some local players ... these are remarkable things! Can't find one you like on a subject you like then make your own!  Then publish it online and see if anyone else likes it! When I stop and think about this whole thing it's just amazing how it all works now. I still prefer to play in person with local friends but the level of support out there now is just amazing and something I almost take for granted now, but it's still incredible when I think back to how we did things in prior decades.

So let's all party like the pilgrims ... violent, occultist-hunting pilgrims ...

... or maybe we could just watch football.

... and let's not forget the fuzzies.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Return to the Ruins of Adventure - Session 30: The End

We begin in the ruined Star Keep, with our heroes standing amidst the shattered undead forms of the knights who once ran and defended the keep. Somewhere along the way the Lizard King animated the long dead knights and used them as guardians. Dispatched by the party, it is hoped they have now found whatever rest awaits them.

Now however, a booming crash echoes from the large double doors leading to the inner section of the keep. At the same time, Uthal notices and points out to his companions that the tower behind them is frosting over, ice creeping down from the top to cover the sides of the half-ruined round tower that adjoins the gate. The party makes a choice and decides to worry about the booming first, as the planks sag outward under repeated impacts. Kordan takes up sword and shield at the bottom of the wide stairs that lead to the rapidly failing doors. The rest of the team spreads out behind him, readying their powers to aid him and stop whatever danger lurks within.

(The next part is best read in the style of a 1920's radio boxing announcer - too much Boardwalk Empire lately...)

With a final shriek the doors are ripped asunder and a 4-headed monstrosity smashes through them, trailing a length of chain. The huge hydra shuffles forth, blinking in the light. Now it focuses on the puny shiny thing directly in front of it and charges, only to be tripped up by a quickly spoken phrase from the bard - Blunder! The hydra trips, staggers, and Kordan strikes with his blazing sunblade - first blood to the bard and the fighter! Althea joins in with Grasp of the Grave and hundreds of skeletal arms burst forth form the ground, tearing into the hydra and holding it in place. Kordan takes another swing! The beast strikes back with all 4 heads tearing at the fighter but the Invulnerable Coat of Arn(ol)d protects him from the worst of the damage! Uthal charges in and unloads a vicious set of stabs with his spear, ripping off one head...

...then two more spring up in its place! Kordan takes another shot! Jovanni ramps it up again with a Stirring Shout!  The wizard summons a Flaming Sphere at the foot of the beast, and pinned in place by Grasp of the Grave it cannot escape! Mikal lands a strike with his Force Grip, squeezing the pinned opponent! The beast replies with vicious multi-headed attacks against Kordan and Uthal who strike, tearing off one more head and again two more spring up! In a burst of energy the beast lashes out in a hurricane of snapping jaws, bloodying the mighty fighter and seriously wounding the goliath barbarian!

Staggering, Uthal hits back hard with the Black Spear of Thar! Kordan joins in with a Brazen Assault! Althea blasts away with Magic Missile! Mikal unleashes the Phlames of Phlegamegathos, immolating the screaming beast with purple flames! Enraged and hurting badly, the hydra strikes out with all of its heads focusing on the fighter - and even with his mighty magical armor it's too much and down goes Kordan! Down goes Kordan!

Wiping away the blood and stunned at the punishment inflicted on the toughest human he has ever seen, Uthal rams his mighty iron spear into the beast one more time as the rest of the party blasts forth in unison! Even that's not enough to finish off the huge thing and now the bell tolls for Uthal as 7-10 heads (explanation later) slam into the lightly armored and already wounded barbarian, ripping him asunder in a fountain blood and body parts! The Black Spear of Thar drops to the turf as Uthal's spirit goes to join his ancestors. Shocked but not giving up the wizard, warlock, and bard all unload their most potent remaining magic into the beast and it finally collapses, blasted into ruin over the shattered body of the goliath. The

DM Notes Part 1:

The Hydra encounter was a 4 round fight, which seemed (and seems) really short for an 8th level party against a 10th level solo. I saw some potential issues with the standard hydra so I did make some changes to it. One example - the Hydra sprouts new heads when it has taken certain amounts of damage. Unfortunately if it takes fire damage that round it does not sprout said heads. Considering how common fire damage is in even a low level party, this seems to me to rob the hydra of one of its signature features, and there was no way I was going to let that happen. Flaming Sphere is a 1st-level wizard daily power that hangs around the battlefield doing fire damage, as just one example, so once it's dropped on the beast the whole sprouting head thing is over. There are many other fiery powers for the wizard and warlock as well so it was a problem I wanted to mitigate. I called it a "Swamp Hydra" and gave it some fire resistance and a few other tweaks to make for what I thought would be a better fight. No problems there.

Once I got into the fight, though, I let some things get away from me in the heat of battle. Most significantly I was having a 4 headed hydra that had lost one head go to 6 heads when it regrew, instead of 5. This got really nasty near the end when instead of the 7 heads it should have had it ended up with 10. At 3-30 points of damage for each bite attack, that's noticably more potential damage. I also screwed up some of the timing as the heads are supposed to regrow with a bit of delay instead of instantly as I was having them do, and that made a difference on some of the opportunity attacks, but I think the 3 extra heads was more egregious overall. My original goal was to make the creature a little more able to hang in a fight, but with this screw up on my part he got a lot more offensively capable as well.

Remarkably, this was the first time I have actually killed a character in this campaign. Now I have had several drop and require medical attention, but none of them have been flat-out dead until now.  I think that's a pretty good record for 30 sessions. Now the hydra is a potentially nasty opponent and my head-miscounting made this nastier. I think the players take some of the credit for this one though as they locked down the hydra on round 1 but had their two melee fighters continue to attack it up close while the other three members of the party stayed at a distance. You might say that's the defender's job, but the hydra has no ranged attacks - once it's immobilized it can't hurt you from more than 2 squares away! So even with my head-math problem, some of that danger could have been avoided by backing off and acting as a firing squad for a few rounds - Range 1 = 10 head attacks, range 3 = 0 head attacks. As it turned out the hydra only broke free on the last round, but by that time Uthal and Kordan were so battered they couldn't take another round of that kind of punishment. Rolling 6, 8, or 10 attacks with a decent attack bonus is a lot of fun for the DM, but only having two targets to receive them magnified the impact greatly. Plus 8-10 rolls means you're get a crit for 30 points of damage about every other round. One good round of rolls at the end flat-out killed the barbarian, taking him to -70 or something from a non-bloodied state, because he was the only one in melee range - that's a bad place to be with a relatively low armor class, even with better hit points than most.

However, at the end of this encounter things were still alright - one glorious character death against a big bad monster isn't neccessarily bad for a climactic run to the swamp adventures. I didn't want Uthal's player sitting around bored for the rest of the session so I recruited him to run one of the main creatures in the next encounter. He digs into the mechanics of the game so I thought it was a good choice. The rest of the party seemed a little unsure of this move, confirming to me that it was a good idea. We continue:

Part 2:

As Jovanni revives Kordan, the rest of the party hears a strange sound from behind them. As they turn and look up at the tower, it turns out to be the mocking laughter of the Lizard King who now stands atop the structure, gazing down at them. Behind him a long, white-scaled, ice-rimed neck unfurls and leans down over the side of the tower, observing the remaining heroes.

Zarius, the undead lizard king, announces: "Fools! You have slain my guardians but you will not stop the plan I have set in motion! Soon the remaining tribes of the swamp will march on Phlan, aided by the undead legions of all the prior generations of lizardfolk slain by the Phlanites! We will swarm the city and slay the inhabitants! Sturmovax (gestures at dragon behind him) will freeze the defenders on the walls and then the gates of the city itself, allowing us to shatter them! We will pour in, an irresistable tide of vengeance for all the scaled folk ground under the heels of the humans! First, however (points at party), we will destroy you and the last hope of Phlan!"

Our heroes spend some time debating how to fight, whether to fight, and what their chances are with Uthal out of the picture. As they do this a swarm of lesser lizardman vampires emerges from the tower and hey move to engage the more lightly armored members of the party. Sturmovax the Blizzard Dragon drops down from the tower and blocks the gate leading out of the courtyard. Concerned, Mikal the Warlock unloads, blasting Zarius and some of his minions with fire. The sort-of retreating party is driven back towards the center as the lizard king drives into the middle of the party. As the lesser vampires drop, things look alright for the party.

Unfortunately this does not last. Kordan is torn between attacking the vampire lizard king with his sunblade versus attacking the blizzard dragon with his dragonslayer and switches targets a few times. Sturmovax flies about, switching positions nearly every round, and tends to time his swirling ice storm aura's peak with near-perfect positioning to inflict the most harm on the party. Zarius manages to stun multiple party members, blood drain them, and even manages to take control of the warlock at one point and cause him to take a shot at the wizard! Soon Mikal is down, Althea is down, and then Jovanni goes down, leaving only Kordan, bloodied and alone, to face off with both a vampire lizard king and a blizzard dragon. Desperate but not defeated he does manage to revive Jovanni and Mikal during the fight, but the warlock goes down agan soon after. Atop a crumbling wall (where the dragon had carried her body), Kordan revives the wizard with a healing potion and orders her to run as he prepares to make a last stand to give her time to get away and warn the town. As the dragon swoops back down, Althea teleports into the swamp and runs, until the sounds of battle die out behind her.

DM Notes Part 2:

In contrast to the earlier fight, this was a 10-round epic with several ups and downs and points where it looked like either side could win. It was a level 11 encounter which should be difficult but not deadly for an 8th level party, and despite the outcome I don't think that's inaccurate. Some points:

1) All of the monsters were from the Monster Vault or the MM3, some of the "new style" books for monster stats and I now agree that there is a substantial power boost for many creatures in comparison to earlier versions

2) This was the second half of a back-to-back encounter during which the party had burned many of their big-hitter daily powers

3) Having another brain to run a somewhat complicated monster while I ran the rest meant that I didn't forget any of the dragon's powers which can happen from time to time in multi-creature fights

4) The party was in no mind to retreat - it was discussed briefly and then never discussed again until the very end

Nastier monsters do make a difference, and having an assistant amplified that impact. It worked so well that if I ever run Champions again I might recruit a villain-runner just to help exercise the rich tactical options found in that game's mechanics. Knowing that they had expended many dailies already and knowing that Uthal was dead and knowing that the lizard king's rep is as one bad hombre, I think the team should have seriously considered a retreat rather than staying for the fight.  This has always been a problem with the parties I run for - they pretty much never consider a retreat. I have begun to wonder if it's something I am doing that encourages this kind of behavior but looking back I would say my games tend to DIScourage it - most of the fights where characters die tend to be when the party is at a low ebb, regardless of edition, and where there is a lot of room for an escape. I've been conscious of the need for options besides "frontal assault" for years and so I do try to ensure that at least one exists. I'm comfortable blaming the players of course  - : ) -  and my players often describe themselves as a "Plan A kind of group" but I can't help but wonder how I could make this option more obvious and more palatable.

As far as specific monsters let me say that vampires are quite a bit of fun in 4E combining mobility, a good melee attack, and the ability to dominate during combat and turn party members against each other into one fun package. The blizzard dragon is a dragon but it's not a solo, making it a nice "sidekick" for another strong monster type. He's also pretty mobile and does decent damage up close and has an aura type attack that grows in power each round until it peaks and starts over again.He also has no vulnerability to fire or anything else which is nice. With the vampire as a strong single-target threat and the dragon hopping all over and making himself a whole-party threat and some minions running around to provide some numbers, it was a pretty good mix in my opinion.

The outcome was not really what I expected. This was supposed to be the big climactic encounter that would end the threat of the lizardman rebellion in the swamp and secure a keep for the party, setting things up for Paragon tier a little bit down the road. Instead it was nearly a TPK  (effectively it was, with only one member surviving and running away at the end). The party has fought through some realy vicious encounters before and I felt that they could handle this one, even with the barbarian down. Alas I was wrong and whatever "story" we had going with this group ends here as another group of heroes falls prey to the forces of evil.  Although I didn't know it at the time, this was also the end of this campaign which was another unexpected outcome. More on that next time.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Blogometric Slowdown

Things are a little slow game-wise around the lair these days. With the conclusion of the main 4E campaign (more on that later) and the Apprentices being tied up for the past few weeks there have not been a lot of dice being rolled. I expect that will change with weekends freeing up and the holidays coming up too. Rough plans:

  • I'm feeling the itch to pick our Basic game back up for at least one run as I'd like to have them finish up the two B modules they're in right now and then I'd like to send them off to the Isle of Dread after that for a change of pace.

  •  On the Supers front we are in the middle of an ICONS adventure and need to finish it. Depending on who is available and when I may also run some MSH - they seem to like playing the actual Marvel characters so we may take on the challenge of the Breeder Bombs next (the concept of which is kind of like the first X-Men movie so they should be on board with it. At some point we may take on M&M 3E but probably not yet - maybe during December vacation time.

  •  Then there is the ongoing 4E ToEE campaign which should fire up again, maybe as soon as this weekend. I'm looking forward to it as I worked through a lot of prep to get it started and it's fun to run. 

Anyway that's behind the slowdown in posts lately - less game time = less material driving the blog. Lots of other good things have been going on too, so everything's good here, but I'm lookig forward to getting back in the groove.

Motivational Monday