Saturday, January 8, 2011

Random Saturday Notes - I've played a game of 4E D&D!

Well it's a big deal for me as I run almost all the time and I haven't been a player since a 3-session run in the fall of 2009 which was a 3.5 game.  One of my players wanted to run a one-shot game to warm up his DMing skills after a few years so I jumped at the chance. As usual I over thought the whole thing.

With a week's notice I knew I wanted to play a leader type so I made up 3 different warlords and then tried out about 3 different clerics. Then I made an avenger and a sorcerer just in case someone else wanted to play a leader. In the end, I settled on a battle cleric that is the next generation of one of my old sets of characters. We started at 1st level and the party was:

  • Dragonborn Paladin of Torm (played by the Warlock player in my usual game)
  • Human Avenger of Oghma (it's very funny - DON'T YOU KNOW THE DEWEY DECIMAL SYSTEM? was utttered more than once during the game - played by the Bard from my usual game)
  • Half-Orc brawny rogue with dual daggers played by Lady Blacksteel (very brawny - 18 Str, 18 Dex, another major change from the Wizard she plays in my usual game)
  • Dragonborn Dragon Sorcerer played by Apprentice Red (I normally keep the kid game and the grown-up game separate but we needed a 5th player and he was available)
  • Human Battle Cleric of Tempus played by yours truly (more below)
I thought I would ramble on a bit about my character since I don't get to play them very often. Butalus Maximus the IVth is the most recent scion of the Maximus family that began back during a 2nd edition Forgotten Realms game. I liked clerics just fine in D&D back then but once Faiths and Avatars came out they were my class of choice for the rest of that edition for one reason: Specialty Priests. Basically each deity in the realms got a custom class that still had some connection with divine magic but got a lot of other nifty powers as well. Tempus specialty priests got to use a nasty spiked gauntlet and got to pick one non-blunt weapon as their signature weapon and they got a +1 to hit and damage with it. So in short order our party had a half-elf cleric in blackened full plate wielding a longspear and refusing to heal anyone who had more than half their hit points left (this wasn't totally dickish behavior - there was a specialty priest of Mystra in the party as well and she was pretty easy with her healing). He eventually died fighting a Red Dragon.

His human nephew joined the priesthood soon after and took up the two-handed sword as his chosen weapon and had a decently successful career (replacing his sword at least 3 times) before retiring with the advent of 3rd edition.

During  early 3E days Brutallus III made a brief appearance but the campaign ran in spurts and never really got a lot of momentum. The new flexibility of 3E meant that he didn't have to be a specialty priest - couple levels of fighter and a whole lot of cleric worked just fine. "Three" followed his predecessor and used the great-sword to great effect in his limited career.

(Yes I still have some of these character sheets. maybe I will post them up one day and look at characters through different editions)

So now a few years into 4E and Maximus IV finally appears. His first outing was not especially impressive - first roll to hit "1". Second roll to hit - "2". Later during the same session he managed a "4" and a "6" and even in 4E those are bad rolls. He did manage to help the rest of his party though, particularly in tagging a beastie with Righteous Brand (at will attack that does standard damage but gives one ally a +3 to hit it on their next roll) and setting the Rogue up to absolutely annihilate things with dagger +Dex bonus + Str bonus + Sneak Attack Damage boosted by a feat. Every time she hit on her turn it was for 20+ points of damage. Whew.

He also talks a little like Hulk Hogan, a lot of "Let's go get 'em brother", "Brother, have you heard the good news about Tempus? -Headbutt - Now you have!" and that kind of thing. Because that's what his ancestors did and it doesn't feel worn out after taking 8 or 9 years off.  He also doesn't heal you if you aren't bloodied. "That'll make a nice scar" was also said more than once during the session.

We fought some crocodiles at a swampy river crossing and some giant frogs near a sunken keep and it was a blast, even with multiple crappy rolls. It was especially refreshing playing with Lady Blacksteel and an apprentice and some friends of 10+ years and finally being on the same side! I really need to get back on that side of the screen more often.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Super Campaigns - Have we been doing them wrong for 30 years?

While working on the supers background and villains etc., I had a flash of insight and realized I may have been doing this wrong since the early 80's. Details:

Many many players come into RPG's through D&D. What's the modus operandi for a typical D&D campaign? Let me put a typical intro into my own words:

"You are a cut above the common man. Imbued with skills and abilities that set you apart. Instead of hiding in a town leading a mundane life you venture forth and test your abilities against the toughest of foes and if you survive you claim great rewards of treasure, fame, glory, and increased power."

So the PC's are special and they seek out trouble, defeat it, and take its stuff. I'm sure some of you can see where I'm going with this, but let's look at some more:

Shadowrun: You're special - better than almost anyone else at what you do. You work with a team and carry out dangerous assignments for rich rewards - sometimes for cash, sometimes for gear.

Star Wars: You have special talents and skills that make you stand out from the crowd. Seeing the tyranny that oppresses so many, you decide to fight against the existing social power structure. There are rewards of course, both material and not, and much of the reward you receive from each strike will be used to plan and execute the next strike, or to bolster your capabilities for those future strikes.

Vampire: You are special, different from the masses. You know that true power lies in the hands of a few individuals who largely maneuver behind the scenes - and you want that power. Or maybe you want to live a life of decadence - either way, inevitably someone like you, maybe even an old friend, will cross your path with a conflicting goal and conflict must result.

So in the implied campaign setting of all of these games you are a gifted individual who decides to take a path to power and that path often involves violently taking what you want from other people. You also tend to fight against, operate outside of, or feel apart from normal society, ignoring conventional laws or morality. Clearly we have been doing it wrong all of these years - we're not supposed to be playing Superheroes - we're supposed to be playing Supervillains!

Think about how other games work - the PC's listen for rumors, decide what they want to do, then go invade a dungeon/hit a corporate office/attack a hidden imperial base/ thrash a street gang and make off with loot, blueprints, respect on the street, etc. They don't sit around in the secret lair all day waiting for a call for help like firemen! They don't patrol a city waiting for trouble to erupt - they're the ones who go in and start the trouble!

If the police or city watch represent conventional authority, in which games are the PC's allied with them?
  • Vampire - unless they secretly control the police, most Vamps want nothing to do with them and have little to fear from them anyway
  • Star Wars - Stormtroopers are the enemy in most games, as is anything Imperial
  • Shadowrun - Lone Star is something you run from or misdirect, not something you typically see as a cohort. 
  • D&D - I can safely say that my players have spent far more time on the wrong side of most City Watches than they have spent having them as allies. Most of the time  it's a mutually uncomfortable tolerance, and I don;t think our experience is unusual.
So in none of these other games are the local authorities viewed as helpful allies. yet in most supers games the police are reinforcements, or cavalry, or helpful sources of information. They are on the players' side, which is a deviation from the normal RPG paradigm. This may be one reason supers games are less common - they feel different than most other RPG's and this is one major reason.

So what's the answer to this? Rebel anti-heroes? Nah, they're still reacting to events, they're just crankier. I suppose you could run something like the first Blade movie where he comes into town hunting vampires and is the one who initiates the action, but that's difficult to maintain over a full campaign with a limited enemy group Star Wars works because the enemy can be quite varied - Bad Jedi, Bad Droids, Bad Clones, Death Stars, etc. Maybe if you ran one campaign to establish some equally diverse organization as the main threat to peace, like say Viper in the old Champions universe. Then you could run another campaign focused on "Viper-Hunters" and it could be cool, but there's a simpler solution: just have everyone play Supervillains.

Now Necessary Evil tried this in a way (and it's great) but it still turned the villains into anti-heroes more than traditional super villains. I think we need to try a full-on Villainy Runs Amok campaign.

Some might say "but true villains would never team well enough or long enough to make that work." To this I respond that it happens all the time in the real world. There are plenty of real individuals with strong self-interest who can still see a bigger picture enough to work well with others, from corporate types to sports team owners to movie stars to just flat out wealthy individuals. Sometimes their plans work, sometimes they don't, but they keep trying.

There are other motivations as well - a common cause can bind together all kinds of strangeness. From comics you have the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants and from Star Wars you have the Rebel Alliance just for starters. If the PC's start from a common origin then that may be a really good reason for them to form a group and stick together.

OK so how would this work - what's their goal? Simple - money and power, just like D&D. Some might have more complex motivations, but if those have been good enough for a huge number of D&D campaigns then they will do for a start. If Player A wants to build a giant laser to write his name on the moon he needs equipment so he needs to steal it or steal enough money to buy it. Player B wants to steal Impervium Man's latest suit of powered armor. Player C wants to get their name on TV and become famous. They decide to break into Stane Labs one night, steal the suit, steal a bunch of other valuable technology, and then send out a broadcast with Character C as the narrator crowing about what they did. It sounds a lot like D&D, or Shadowrun, or Star Wars to me. This is also awesome as a DM as you can go with the same mindset as you would in those other games - set up some different opponents around the city (or the country) including their bases (like a dungeon), include wandering opposition (police, patrolling heroes, corporate security). Plus I can still use all those nifty villain books - after all it's not like they never fight each other. If you look at it as "the city is the mega dungeon" then you begin to see some remarkable possibilities.

This also leads to some very interesting choices while avoiding some cliches. Superhero registration act? Who cares - we aren't heroes. But wouldn't that data be valuable to some people...? A secret organization is hunting mutants? Big deal - LOTS of organizations are hunting us! Alien invasion? Now we get to the interesting part, as heroes would just automatically jump in to stop them. The bad guys might still do that (invasions are bad for business) but they also might try to make a deal,  play both sides, seize an opportunity to take out a rival, or even ignore it and go for the gusto assuming that the heroes will handle it, leaving the banks more vulnerable. There are just a lot of interesting choices that heroes may never get to make but that these guys will.

I see a lot of freedom in a campaign like this, beyond the already pretty wide open superhero campaign. Not the "freedom" of playing evil characters in D&D where the word usually meant you could use poison freely and screw over your buddies while commuting imaginary rape and murder. No, it's freedom in the sense of turning genre standards upside down and giving players a chance to make different choices while following those instincts honed by years of dungeon-looting, TIE-blasting, and corporate extractions.

Am I going to run this right away? No. One, I need more time to think about it. Two, I need to establish the universe before I can turn it upside down and I have one session so far with Atomic City. Three, I think it's better for the kids to play the good guys anyway for now. When I get the chance, I'll let my older players try out Villainy Goes Amok in a different city most likely - maybe Millennium City from Champions. Letting the two groups operate at a distance but in the same world could mean a lot of possibilities down the road, from a straight-up slugfest between the two to some side-switching between heroes and villains.

Actually I really like that idea - maybe the Thursday Night Game is West Coast Heroes while the Saturday Night Game is East Coast Villains. Running them in parallel with two groups and planning to do it that way could be really awesome in a sustained campaign. I probably can't do it in 2011 but if the new supers game goes well then that would set up beautifully for 2012.

OK, so there's the awesome idea for the week. It gives me a nice long-term angle on Atomic City that I had not previously considered and maybe someone who reads this will get a chance to pull it off before I do. If so, let me know.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Return to the Ruins of Adventure - Session 12: Black Robes

Our heroes:

  • Mikal, Level 3 Human Infernal-Pact Warlock
  • Althea, Level 3 Eladrin Wizard
  • Uthal, Level 3 Goliath Barbarian
  • Tavar, Level 3 Deva Invoker
  • Jovanni, Level 3 Half-Elf Bard 
  • Kordan, Level 3 Human Fighter 
After scouting around and listening to more scuttlebutt our heroes have chosen an ambush point along the route they believe the Temple of Bane will be using to transport the Coat back to the temple. Word is that the Legion will escort them to the edge of Crimson Legion territory but not outside it. Another rumor says that a sizable temple force is meeting them at Kuto's Well, leaving only a small window of vulnerability between the edge of Podol Plaza and the ruined keep at the well. It is along this route that the heroes lay in wait.

While settling in to this site the party sees another group moving into the area, consisting of 3 figures in black robes and a few fighter types in black armor - apparently others have some bad intentions towards the Banites as well. This is not a tenable situation and as soon as both parties spot each other initiative is checked and battle is joined.

Fighting in a ruined section of city can be messy - there are only limited clear areas, there is plenty of cover, and it's difficult to move quickly if a situation develops. This proved out as the wizards on both sides unleashed big blasting magic right away and the more mundane types opened up with missile weapons. Uthal was the exception as he charged in.

In short order two of the guards are down and the Invoker is seriously injured. The two war mages have a power that does area burst poison damage and ongoing poison damage making them quite nasty. They can also blind a target and have various other ranged attack powers. The Black Sun adept has a power called "Rebellious Limbs" that lets them move a target against their will and them make a basic attack against themselves too and this was used against the barbarian very effectively, eventually causing Uthal to drop and begin making death saves. Uthal and Tavar took the brunt of the attacks but everyone was wounded at some point during the fight and it came down to one of the war mages blasting away as the entire party converged on him and blew him to cinders.

Fixing up the two most-wounded party members, the group searched the black robed strangers and determined that they were Zhentarim, an evil criminal organization thought banished from this area. It was not a good sign, but at least this particular problem had been solved. Hoping their cover had not been blow with all of the pyrotechnics, the party staggered back into the ruins to hunker down and wait for the real ambush.

Uthal's take on things

DM Notes: This was a long fight, 8 rounds, that took several hours of real time, pretty much the whole session. These kinds of encounters are very different from a solo encounter like a dragon - this was more similar to the early early fight against the other adventuring party (outside the tavern) in that this enemy group had defender-types who could tie up an opponent while the 3 striker/controller types in the back could unload freely. This kept the barbarian and especially the fighter from closing on them and locking them down until the very end of the fight. Of course, with a wizard, a warlock, and an invoker, not to mention the bard, the team does not lack for ranged blasting abilities of their own - it was just a different kind of fight.

One interesting part of this encounter was that the party was reluctant to use their daily powers because they knew their true quarry was coming along soon and they knew that would be a tough fight, possibly tougher than this one. Once the hurt started coming in though, they did go ahead and use their big guns.  Then of course they spent a week of real time worrying about whether they would have time to rest before the next fight. There has been some discussion about players who go 1 encounter, nova off all of their powers, then retreat to safety before starting the next encounter. There are several ways around this, as shown here, and they mainly involve the concept that the players do not always get to decide when they will take their next extended rest, the DM does. Now they can certainly try to take one,  but the monsters don't always stay in their holes and wait to be attacked - sometimes they come after you. Other times an entirely different set of monsters stumbles over you and screws things up. There's just no telling the future at 100% accuracy, even in D&D 4.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Return to the Ruins of Adventure - Session 11: Jailbreak!

Our Heroes:
  • Mikal, Level 3 Human Infernal-Pact Warlock
  • Althea, Level 3 Eladrin Wizard
  • Uthal, Level 3 Goliath Barbarian
  • Kordan, Level 3 Human Fighter
We begin in Podol Plaza as the auction for the Invulnerable Coat of Arnd  wraps up. Rumor says that the lone survivor from the expedition that retrieved it is being held at the Crimson Legion's jail, a large stone tower on the edge of the plaza area. Thinking that the prisoner might be able to give them some intelligence (and that he is worth something to the temple of Torm) they decide to rescue him and then figure out how to acquire the armor.

Approaching the tower, the group notes a strong wooden door at ground level and some archers up on top of the tower. They knew the jailers were bugbears and that it would be a tough fight but there was no discussion of negotiation or deception. Althea used ghost sound to distract the archers as the party rushed the front door as quietly as they could. Not having a competent thief in the party Althea used her Fey Step to teleport inside, surprising a table full of bugbears playing dice. She then released the bar securing the door and welcomed the rest of the party inside and combat ensued. Facing the 4 man party was a 4 bugbear guard team who formed a battle line and dared the party to advance. This is where the barbarian's incredible mobility and the fighter's Tide of Iron proved their worth and made a mockery of their formation, splitting them and moving them into various positions advantageous to the team.

During the fight the head jailer bursts up out of a trap door to the dungeon and the fight gets a lot more serious. The barbarian takes a beating but unleashes a crit with some nasty barbarian power and takes a bugbear down, while the fighter exhibits his ever-improving stickiness by keeping the jailer off of the wizard, who is busy setting the hairy supergoblins on fire as is the warlock. Eventually the party triumphs in a tough fight that the DM rather enjoys.

After the fight the team heads downstairs and finds cramped smelly cells, one of which contains a seriously wounded cleric of Torm. They bind his wounds, get him mobile, and decide not to linger in the tower. On the way out it becomes apparent that the archers up top have sealed the trap door to their level with something heavy so the party makes a high speed exit from the area after ghost sound shows its efficacy again. Evading local patrols (Skill Challenge!) they eventually find a good spot to rest for the night and plan a way to heist the armor from the Banites.

Uthal Commentary on this session

DM Notes: This was a shorter session as we were down two players but we still had a good time. I spent some time setting up a skill challenge in case the party wanted to talk their way in to the tower but there was no need - my group is very much a Plan A team and there was no way they were going to negotiate with bugbears. Still, it felt good knowing they had the option if they chose to do so.

One of the missing characters for this session was the bard, and without a leader type the bugbear fight was somewhat tougher than it probably should have been,  but it was a good close fight with a lot of maneuvering in tight quarters. Plus some bugbears have a fun little "grab" ability that lets them use a party member as a weapon. It didn't work out but it was fun to try. the fight lasted 8 rounds, which is on the longer side for us.

 Several things are starting to become apparent about each character in combat:
  • Once the Fighter gets on something it's not going anywhere, it's not making any ranged attacks, and it's not going to land a hit on anyone else. He's incredibly "sticky" and is a serious pain the DM's rear when it comes to executing a battle plan for the badguys. Plus as his reward for the Kuto's Well adventure he took a throwing shield, one he can throw and it returns to him in the same turn so he's not just a melee guy even when he's decked out for melee combat - now he's frigging Captain America too so he's getting even more ability to interfere with my combatants.
  • If the barbarian wants to get somewhere he can do it regardless of what I throw in front of him. He's too strong to stop with a grab and his class abilities let him move through (or worse, charge through) opponent - occupied squares.and the Brutal hammer he uses ensures he gets decent damage at a minimum - most of the time it's much worse. He can be dropped, but it takes a lot of effort.
  •  The wizard has learned how important the phrasing of those area/burst/blast powers are, where "all enemies in burst" vs "all enemies in burst" makes a great deal of difference, particularly in how much grief yo uare going to get from your own party. As a result she mostly has "enemy" targeting spells now other than Thunderwave. That stupid auto-hitting magic missile is pretty annoying too as it's a guaranteed 8 points of damage every round ignoring cover etc and that's the bottom of her damage curve. 
  • The warlock is interesting as he often ends a fight with more hit points than he begins with. He has a very regular attack routine of Curse->Blast->Move (to maintain his concealment bonus) and pretty soon every enemy on the board has his little curse marker on it which means he gets temp hit points every time one of them dies. When pressed he can also unleash all kinds of area fire damage effects that usually mean he gets more hit points or some other bonus too.  He is rarely tested in melee but he's annoyingly effective there too.

There was only one combat encounter in this session which seems a little low, but there was a fair amount of planning, then the fight, then a skill challenge, then some more planning so no one seemed to feel short-changed. it was another good example of role-playing in combat as various quips were made, exclamations uttered, and verbal kicks to sensitive parts of the anatomy.  It was a good "action" session after the more talk session prior to this.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Return to the Ruins of Adventure - Session 10: Talking, Talking, and more Talking

This session finds the party back in the civilized section of Phlan after a nasty fight with a green dragon and the first part of the session is haggling, talking to NPC's, and leveling up.

Jovanni (Half Elf Bard) leads negotiations with Barnabus of he town council and manages to get an increase in their fee since there was a dragon involved. As a part of the original agreement each member of the party is allowed to choose a magic item from the city vaults and they do so with much satisfaction. There is also some discussion of the council's next request which they will return for later.

The head of the green dragon -taken after the battle- is sold to the Dragonskull Tavern, which (despite the name) has been without a dragon skull for years. This is done for 100gp up front and 1 free drink each day for each party member for life. The Dragonskull is where Jovanni's main guild contact hangs out so this is a useful deal in several ways. There is also some negotiation with the guild representative as a potential source of exotic items.

Althea (Eladrin Wizard) trades the enchanted fomorian eye to the Mage Guild in return for membership, and eventually haggles the bard and warlock memberships in as well. Mikal (Human Infernal-Pact Warlock) asks about duties and is asked to keep an eye out for something.

The local gem dealer is a also a victim of the bard's excessive social skills and makes the party a very good deal for some very average gemstones.

Next the PC's remember that there are gods and that they have local offices in the town...

Uthal (Goliath Barbarian) and Kordan (Human Fighter) head for Martial Hall, the local temple of Tempus (the war god). There they make a deal for some healing potions in return for gold and stories of their battles so far. The high priest, Koros Redbeard (pictured above) is a loud boisterous man who has actually heard good things about them from the town council. He directs them to the adjacent training hall and it's master Dannan MacLeir, a dwarf from the Moonshaes who is an expert swordfighter. 

Althea runs into a local priest at the mage guild during her negotiations and pulls him aside to discuss his problems later. He tells her he is trying to locate a missing party from his temple and the mage guild has not been especially helpful. he invites her back to the temple of Torm with her full team to discuss further if she is interested.

Several members of the party also discover Sunset House or "the red house"  and decide to spend some time there - the barbarian especially enjoys himself. This house is associated with the temple of Sune (across the screen) and there is a discussion of doing some work for them as well.

So after a few days the party has taken on multiple jobs:

  • The town council has heard rumors that a powerful magic item is to be auctioned off in Podol Plaza a few days from now. Barnabus wants to know what it is, who is selling it, and who is buying it. the reward is another choice of magic from the town vaults.
  • The thieves' guild wants to know about a rival group that is said to be gaining power in the ruins and is supposed to be based near Podol Plaza. the guild will pay 500gp for this information. 
  • The mage guild wants to know about 3 wizards, garbed in black, that have been seen in the ruins and have shown considerable power. They are not guild members but the guild likes to keep an eye on all arcane types in the area and they know nothing about this crew. they will pay 100gp each (500gp total) for this information.
  • The temple of Sune wants the party to keep an eye out for any exotic slaves they find in captivity. the Sunites will give them a place to stay and teach them a "trade" and will be happy to ...reward...the party for any rescues of this kind. 
  •  The temple of Torm had a more complicated story: They (along with the temple of Kelemvor) keep a watch on Valhingen Graveyard, the massive city of the dead across the river from Phlan proper. Neither temple is strong enough to cleanse the foul place, all they can do is monitor and hope to contain any evil that bursts forth.  Recently the Tomrites mounted a punitive expedition to take out an unusually active band of undead and (according to a sending from the expedition) they discovered a powerful magic item, a lost relic of an ancient Tormite hero. They recovered it but were swarmed by hordes of undead and only a few of them made it out of the graveyard. The expedition's survivors never returned to the temple and now the rumors of an item for sale in the ruins has Armanthius, the high priest, concerned that this is in fact the item his people recovered. He would love to have it back but he is mainly concerned with the fate of his men. His request to the party is that they they locate and retrieve any surviving members of his expedition or, failing that, learn of their fates and also find out what they can about the item in question. The reward for this is a set of healing potions and a free raising if they die during the mission or at any time after that if they do not. 
Leveled up to 3rd, equipped with new gear, and refreshed from their break, the party set forth for Podol Plaza. The plaza is a relatively stable area of the ruins that was a marketplace in ancient days and is one again now under the control of the Crimson Legion, a large band of Hobgoblins that maintains very strict control over this area. They make a great deal of money from the controlled trading environment and having such an area is worth enough to other factions in the ruins that it has persisted for years.

Approaching the main entry point to the plaza area, the group decides to act like legitimate traders. They show some gold and talk things up enough enough that for the first time in their brief history they manage to pass through some monsters without rolling for initiative! They are given a pass to show to any patrols they encounter and are waved on through. They encounter two patrols on their way in and successfully pass the resultant questioning.

Reaching the Plaza proper, they see large crowds milling around, trading at various tables and stalls around the square, and witness a slave auction happening in the center of the place.  They learn that the special auction is supposed to happen tomorrow and there are rumors running rampant about what it is. There are strange wizards in town, the temple of Bane across the river has sent representatives, and the Fire Knives, a rising new power in the ruins,  are taking an interest too.

The party spends the night at the Dead Dragon Inn, an ancient structure that is the only authorized inn within the boundaries of the plaza as defined by the Legion. They pick up a little more information and see some of the notables mentioned in the rumors. Uthal and Kordan consider starting some trouble  but the innkeeper's bouncer "Brutus" makes an appearance and things calm down as the arcanists of the group recognize distinctive appearance of a flesh golem and realize trouble here is a bad idea all the way around.

The next day the party is up early and heads to the plaza to get a good spot...

A crowd gathers on the cracked stonework of Podol Plaza. The auction block is surrounded by bugbears and hobgoblin archers watch the crowd from towers in the corners of the plaza. Hobgoblin soldiers stand near all 4 entrances to the plaza – not interfering but ready to block access if needed. Mordicus, leader of the Crimson Legion stands atop it next to a cloth-covered rack of some kind. He announces in common “The greatest treasure ever offered for auction by the Crimson Legion is up for bidding – NOW! As he finishes his sentence the cloth drops away to reveal a dull, plain-looking suit of chainmail. A "huh?" goes up from the crowd and he jostles a nearby human wizard who makes passes, says some words  and then the armor changes to a shining suit of plate, the finest anyone here has ever seen. “It is a mighty suit of armor, imbued with magical power beyond anything we have ever seen and fit for the mightiest of champions –what am I bid for this incredible prize?”

Bidding begins and the Temple of Bane is very active as the Preceptor wants it for himself and will pay quite a lot to get it. The Three Wizards bid but drop out at 10,000 with a shrug of their shoulders.  A group of orcs from the Bloodskull tribe is active at first but drop out at 50,0000. Bidding tops out around 125,000 gold and the Banites will win, just beating out a Tiefling in red leather armor who has been an intermittent bidder right up to the end. 

Various figures in the crowd turn to each other and wave and otherwise signal and the onlooking guards tense up, waiting to see if someone makes a play for the armor right there in the square - but no one does. The crowd begins to disperse, then inside Kordan's head he hears:

"Free me and I will make you the hero you know you can be" Together we can be a legend!"
(To get the true impact of this you need to use the correct accent. This guy's accent. Yep, I went there.)

Kordan looks up and realizes the voice is coming from the suit, that no one else can hear it, and that he wants it badly as Destiny is calling - The Invulnerable Coat of Arnd lies before him and wants him to rekindle the legend.

DM Notes: Here is a report of one player's "interpretation" of the session. he's been doing these for a while so I'm going to go back and add links to each of my session reports.

Hooo boy this one was a doozy, a pivotal point in the campaign. Advancing to third level, the first extended rp session in civilized Phlan, first set of skill challenges, and the introduction of the first artifact.  Thoughts in order:

The "Town Vault" is my compromise between 4E's preferred method of handling magic items (let your players pick them) and my old school sensibilities (magic items are found in dusty tombs and dragon hoards and in the ogre chieftain's hands, not purchased at a store). For each council quest I specify a level of item (for Kuto's Well it was level 6) and pretty much let the player's pick an item from Adventurer's Vault 1 or 2 as their reward for completing it. The concept here is that the town has been in ruins for centuries and many adventurers and expeditions have come and gone and the town has collected many many magic items from those expeditions and excavations, storing them in a massive underground vault. Lacking a lot of cash the town has decided to use this hoard to finance the expansion into the ruins. This maintains some internal consistency while giving the players a fair amount of choice about their signature items. In the old days when fighters were good with all weapons you could hand a guy a +1 polearm , then a +2 battle axe, then a +4 Defender longsword and all was well. Now with feats and powers being tied to specific types of weapons it's not as easy, so I'm  OK giving them some choice.

When I designed the civilized section of Phlan I knew the town council would be the main quest-givers for any party but I wanted to include specialized contact groups for different types of characters. Martial Hall is there for Martial types, the mage guild for Arcane types, the temples for Divine types, and a druid in a grove on the edge of town for Primal types. I also included some nobility for high-society types and  the Thieves' Guild for lower-society types. There's a general outfitters/equipment shop tat can also be a source of information or quests and an alchemist as well. So far the PC's have been focused on only a few of those and that's fine - I like having some room in the design for a potential second or third party. I like to sketch in names and titles ahead of time, along with a basic personality and appearance and some notes on information and quests they might have. For example, Koros Redbeard, high priest of Tempus in Phlan, looks and sounds like Brian Blessed. This gives me an easy hook to remember even after extended downtime between appearances.

Once the party left town it was time for our first experience with skill challenges. I had left these alone before sticking to regular combat and quest XP for the first couple of levels. Having had time to study the much better presentation of skill challenges in the Rules Compendium made it a fairly straightforward thing to do. I made getting a pass from the hobgoblins a challenge, getting through the patrols (whether by interaction or by stealth) a challenge, talking their way into the Legion's jail (next session) a challenge, and getting information at the inn a challenge. Of course many of these could also end up in combat too so I had full combat stats handy as well but the party surprised me a little and talked their way into Podol Plaza with no combat at all.  I was very pleased with the way it went and I will be including more of them where they are appropriate. To me they are an extra spice for the DM to add, but will not be the main focus of most games.  If there's a chance for something other than combat I will consider working up a skill challenge to grant a better chance for skill use and an XP reward.

So...the artifact. One of the interesting changes in 4th edition is the idea that artifacts can be introduced at any tier of play, even low-level Heroic Tier. The more I read this the more I thought it could be a lot of fun as they have mechanical elements that encourage certain behavior and they have specific goals that when accomplished mean that the artifact moves on. The example in the DMG is the Invulnerable Coat of Arnd and knowing the player of my party's fighter very well I knew he would jump at the chance so I decided to start with him, though I do hope to give everyone in the party a chance to be the center of attention for at least a few levels through our campaign.

Also knowing the fighter's player I knew that the Coat of Arnd is way too close to the Invulnerable Coat of Arnold, and thus the accent and personality of the coat was crystallized for all time.  I tweaked the background a bit so that "Arnd" was a famous barbarian heroic dragon slayer who came to Phlan centuries ago to fight dragons during one of thier migrations that destroyed Phlan. He joined the temple of Torm, then eventually was slain and interred with his legendary armor in Valhingen Graveyard. Knowing that a time of need was approaching, the Coat sent dreams to hte nearby temple, guiding them to the mausoleum in which it rested and beginning the new legend which we are still telling. The coat hates dragons, and the coat pushes the wearer to fight them whenever they appear, which will make the later stages of the Phlan campaign very interesting. Mechanically it's powerful but not ridiculous the way some old 1E artifacts were. plus it "expires" later so someone else will get their turn too.

Overall it was a great session and set a good tone for the next part of the campaign.