Monday, January 5, 2015

Wrath of the Righteous - Pre-Campaign Warmup

This is a little bit of a cheat as it's a re-post of an entry from September of 2013. I thought it made sense though - if I'm going to recap the whole campaign this month I might as well start at the beginning. As of today we've had 22 sessions of the campaign and I expect we will have one or two more this month. I write these up mainly for myself and my players, but I share them on the off chance someone else will get some entertainment or inspiration out of them. See the end of this post for my comments after running for more than a year.

In case it might help someone else here's what I've been doing to get ready for the WoR campaign.

Rules Stuff - it has to be addressed so I tackled it first:

  • Ability Scores: Pathfinder has several options for generating ability scores. As much as I like rolling the dice for this I thought we would try the new-school approach and make this another set of "interesting choices". I went with 20 points, which in PF terms is "High Fantasy". It gives good but not godlike scores, typically 16/15/13/12/10/8 or 17/14/12/12/10/8, slightly lower if someone wants to get rid of that 8, or more peaky if someone wants a full 18 before racial bonuses.
  • Races: Core Book, standard D&D races. There are a lot of options for swapping out racial abilities in the Advanced Players Guide and I would probably let someone take them if they were interested but it didn't come up.
  • Classes: Core Book + Advanced Players Guide. I included the APG mainly to bring in the Cavalier, which fits the theme of the adventure almost as well as the Paladin. I'm not a fan of all of the classes in this book, but I don't have to play any of them so it's not a real problem. When we get to the prestige class levels I'll probably add some more books to this list.
  • Traits: An optional Pathfinder thing that ties into one's background, I kept them optional. Most of them took at least one and a little more flavor doesn't hurt.
As far as the rules in general I don't have enough experience with these rules to feel the need to change anything yet. I'm not going to try and solve problems that haven't come up, so we're going as-is for now. The only potential wrinkle I can see is that non-magical healing is almost as slow as in 3E and I find the whole "we'll just spend another day resting up to heal" to be a real momentum-killer in the middle of a time-sensitive adventure and throwing extra random encounters at the party to get them moving again is risky at the low levels. I'm going to ride it out for now and try not to make assumptions based on the older edition's rough spots.


I am deliberately choosing to run this campaign using Hero Lab/PC Gen + Pathfinder Combat Manager instead of my usual on-paper approach. I've played around with it on some superhero games but not really used it for D&D. This changes some of the session prep work as most of the monster stats are already available, but I have to "build" the NPCs to use them. This is actually a positive as it means I am much more familiar with their capabilities after rebuilding them as it seems to stick better for me than just reading it off the page. It also means I can see what kind of shape my PC's are in during a fight and what resources they have expended too. So far I am enjoying it a lot.

Also, I'm not using a screen for this one. I always use a screen - except for ICONS - and have for years. This time it's rolling in the open, let the dice fall etc etc. I'm not big on fudging anyway, and with most of the monster stats on the laptop screen there's not much to conceal. I'm looking forward to seeing how it goes.

Prepping a Published  Adventure:

I read it once all the way through before doing anything else for the campaign This initial read-thru is really just to see what it's about - I read it about like I would read a book. Does it look like fun? Does it make sense? Is there any stupid sh*t  or things my players are going to hate in it?

Most of the things my players hate boil down to "forced railroading", stuff like the trap or fight that automatically knocks everyone out, etc. Most of the stupid sh*t boils down to a plot pivot or a writer being overly cute. I'm sure most of you know what I mean.

This adventure had no real problems. It begins with a somewhat forced situation and is fairly linear but then pretty quickly widens out into a sandbox set in a ruined city before focusing back down to a major confrontation with evil. I'm willing to accept a narrow beginning to kick off a new 1st level campaign and I like that it eases up soon after. The structure is good, the events taking place are interesting, and it does feel like there is a point to it all in my opinion.

A week later I read through the first half again from a "what are my players going to be doing" perspective. I look at how much plot and how much freedom the players will have. I look at traps and monsters to see what's in the mix, stats,  and how they might work together. I look over the maps and see how everything connects, sequences of  and if I understand the layout of each dungeon or wilderness area or city. 

Maps are critical. For a dungeon, maps show the connections between encounters and pretty much define the choices available to the players at any given time. Maps are also where sandbox adventures tend to fail, whether it's a printing error, a disconnect between the key and the map, or a simple lack of clarity. If I look at two maps and can't tell how Map A connects to Map B (where are the stairs to the next level? Where is this building on the city map? Where is this monster lair on the overland map?) then it's a problem, and it happens more than it should.This adventure looks good so far.

Monsters are important but are easier to replace or fix than almost anything else. I think I have spent 57% of the last 3 years of game time running kobolds. From Basic to 4E I have run kobolds. If this adventure featured kobolds I was probably going to swap them out. Fortunately this was not a problem. There are also plenty of notes about how different enemies in certain areas will cooperate, or not, and why, and that's how it should be.

One somewhat different aspect is that there are some NPC's that go along with the PC's for the early part of the adventure. They are higher level, but each is handicapped in some way so as not to overpower the party. they are capable enough to not just be helpless victims, but their individual problems keep it under control. The whole point is that the PC's relationships with the NPC's as it develops during the early adventure can open up some good and bad things down the road. It's interesting, but I' m glad it's limited and not assumed to be continuing all the way through the thing.

The only thing I didn't really like - and that's probably the wrong word - was that there is a heavy focus on one or two NPC's gender and orientation. I don't care about it on the surface, but instead of "like" let's say I think it's overkill and largely a waste of space for an NPC in a D&D game. Current gender is relevant, sure. The fact that it used to be different doesn't seem relevant at all as I can't see that coming up in a convrsation with strangers (the PC's) in the middle of a fight with monsters. Orientation, well, frankly that doesn't come up much in my games and I can't see a campaign that focuses on a desperate, heroic crusade to stop a demon invasion having a whole lot of time for worrying about that anyway. Sure, go ahead and note that these two female NPC's are married (and faithful), fine, but I don't know that I need a full page or more of text describing the entire history of their relationship. It's not a huge problem but it seemed like an odd sidetrack for an otherwise tightly written adventure.

Anyway, this one is a good one and I don't really see a need to change anything. Sure, I may retcon some relationships between certain PC's and NPC's as they are encountered, but the maps are solid, the monsters are not the usual fare, the plot stuff makes sense, the sandbox part is handled well, and the NPC's are well done. I don't mind a little railroading to kick a new campaign off "en media res", especially with a new mix of players and a new system to worry about. 

If I was changing something I typically use post-it notes on the relevant pages or I just rewrite the entire section in my notes and note that down in the book. I haven't needed to here yet but we'll see what develops in play.

Finally, a day or two before the first game I went through the entire adventure and made sure the monsters were all available in my tool of choice (Combat Manager) and if they were not (such as some of the monsters with class levels) then I built them in the tool. It's a little work but it's fun and makes things a lot easier during the game. The same goes for the friendly NPC's too - if it has stats it goes into the machine.

That might seem like a fair amount of work but it doesn't feel like it - and if it does then that's a warning sign. For me knowing an adventure inside and out is the key to a successful run. Writing your own means you are automatically familiar with it. The published stuff has a lot of advantages but this is not one of them - you have to make it your own on some level. Reading it, making some notes, putting some stuff into a program - this is what works for me. I'll let you know how it plays out.

Notes as of January 2015: 

Rules-wise I'm pretty comfortable with Pathfinder now. I'm not particularly worried about any classes or races. Healing has not been an issue because they have enough magical healing, and enough time between most of the big encounters that it has not been a problem.

Adventure-wise I still think they made some odd choices as to how to spend a limited page count but it didn't slow me down. I have de-emphasized the NPC's quite a bit, especially in the second part of the campaign where some of them accompany a PC-led army into the Worldwound itself. There is enough action with my 4-6 player characters that I don't need manufactured NPC drama to make it "better". I've ignored most of the sub-plots and just played them straight for the most part. The campaign is epic enough without a lot of side story time.

Process-wise I think HeroLab + Combat manager is an amazing way to run things. I spend very little time doing "homework" between games. I keep some notes during the game but that's about it. I get to focus on what's happening now in the game and less on numbers and managing the flow of things. I had a long post on the details here if you're interested.

Overall we're having a really good time with it and plan to see it all the way through.

Tomorrow: Session 1 all over again!

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