Friday, March 11, 2011

The Achaean Age Campaign - Session 1: A Final Obligation

We open in the great coastal city of Argos. Argos is the main port for travel and trade with the island of the minotaurs and is quite prosperous. It is also the favored city of Posiedon, which doesn't hurt either. Three of our party members are newly arrived from Minos (Crete) and have spent their first day in town looking for equipment for exploration and travel. Talking with a like-minded Artificer they met in the agora, they are approached by a slave from the temple of Hephaestus. Jordon, the Artificer, knows him and welcomes him to the table.

The slave has bad news - the last priest of Hephaestus in the city has died and his final wish is to be buried in the shrine of the smith god outside of town. The slave knows where it is but no one has gone there in decades and the countryside is crawling with bandits and monsters. He knows he would never make it alone and asks Jordon (and his friends) if they would escort him on this journey. After a brief discussion the party agrees and they plan to meet at the main landside gate at dawn the next day.

Meeting up without incident the group sets forth, 4 adventurers and a slave pulling a cart with the body of his former master. The shrine is about a day's travel away and for the first hour things are uneventful as they follow the main road north, which is now in a sad state of disrepair. Then a pair of ragged-looking men step out of the woods on either side of the road and signal them to halt. The bandits then demand payment or they will attack. The party refuses as all good Acheans should and the fight is on.

The two bandits find themselves quickly outmatched when they are rushed by Spartakos the warrior and Jaak the minotaur berserker. Then 5 more bandits step out and hurl javelins and for a moment things appear to be more even. That's when Kettenbar charges them as Jordon unleashes some of his magical concoctions and in a short one-sided fight the bandits are slain to a man.

The heroes take a short break, toss the bodies to the side of the road - scum like these do not deserve burials like honorable men - and continue on their journey. Hours later as the sun sinks low they spot the shrine ahead.

It is a simple stone construction - a raised stone platform with columns surrounding a central altar. It appears it might once have had a roof but it does not any longer. The whole thing is set in a quiet open area though the grass and scrub are brown and withered despite the onset of spring. Approaching cautiously they realize the shrine is not uninhabited.

Atop the platform they spot 1...2...3...4 scorpions! Man-sized scorpions! Briefly discussing a plan the heroes decide to open fire with missiles and let the beasts come to them. Spartakos heaves a Javelin at them, while Jordon pulls a man-like framework off of the cart and sends it marching towards the shrine. Jaak charges, clearly understanding the plan. Shrugging, Kett charges after him.

Jaak reaches the steps of the shrine and is seized by one of the beasts, discovering that besides being man-sized these things' claws generate some kind of lightning effect, blasting him even as he is caught in their grip - Stormclaw Scorpions! Could they be a divine agent of some kind?

The rest of the party charges forward to support the minotaur and a melee fight breaks out along the steps of the shrine wit hall four scorpions engaging all 4 heroes as the slave guards his master's body. Jaak breaks free as hits are given and taken between the two sides. Spartakos comes around one side of the steps and rams his spear up into the softer underside of the one scorpion, slaying it. Jaak and the automaton team up on another one, killing it as well. Jordon blasts one with a cold blast then Jaak goes berserk and kills it and cleaves into another, setting it up perfectly for Kett who plunges his fullblade into the thing's back, ending the fight.

After catching their breath, Jordon mentions that the traditional burial place for priests is somewhere under the shrine. He fiddles with the stone altar and finds a movable block, which allows the altar to slide back smoothly, revealing a stone stairway down into darkness. After discussing options the heroes slide the altar back into place, deciding to rest for a night and venture downward in the morning.

DM Notes: This was fun and the boys really got into it, working together fairly well and not arguing at all. Normally I like to give players multiple choices when it comes to adventuring options but to start this off I wanted to take a firmer hand, thus the slave's request for aid. The artificer's divine connection to Hephaestus played right into this so it was a done deal from the start. It also emphasizes the decline of the gods in the region which will be a theme for the campaign, at least early on. 

The combats were short and clean, lasting 3 rounds and 5 rounds respectively and not a kobold in sight!  We were all pretty happy with the game and are looking forward to the next run sometime after spring break.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Achaean Age Campaign - Session 0: Set Sails!

Well we managed to get the Greek mythology campaign started over the weekend and it went pretty well. Once again Apprentice Red and Apprentice Blaster stepped up to take the plunge after agreeing to scrap the Impiltur campaign to do it and after almost choosing 1st edition TOEE they decided they wanted to play 4th this weekend, specifically the mythological campaign.

I set some pretty limiting guidelines (only Humans, Minotaurs, Automatons (warforged), and Wilden for races, no Primal classes) and let them make up two characters each. Not monitoring them closely I was a little surprised when Blaster came back with two fighters, one human and one minotaur. Red came in with an artifcier (human) and a wilden avenger, which are fine, but I told Blaster that next session he's not bringing two of the same class.

This also caused me to review the rules on companion characters in the DMG 2. These are the rules for player-controlled NPC's in this edition so they're basically 1E henchmen. The rules look pretty good so this is what I'm going to do next session: allow each player only 1 character, but allow them to also bring 1 companion along as well. I may also let them have some minions too.

The reason I do this is the source material. From the original Odyssey and Iliad to the Argonauts to Clash of the Titans, the heroes of Greek myth tend to be surrounded by nameless spear-carriers who die like Star Trek redshirts to illustrate the danger to the hero. Some games like AD&D, GURPS, and Savage Worlds have mechanics for this when creating a character and even 3rd Edition D&D had the leadership feat. The new edition does not really have mechanics for acquiring sidekicks but it does have mechanics for building simplified NPC-types so I'm going to use them. I think each hero is going to have 1 "sidekick" type companion and a renewable band of expendable minions -if they want them- to accompany them on their journeys. This should add to the flavor and make it feel that little bit more distinctive from standard D&D.

But that's for next time. This session we begin with 4 characters:

Spartakos, Human Guardian Fighter who is strong, tough, and was raised by Minotaurs on the island kingdom of Minos.

Jaak, Minotaur Battlerage Fighter who is even stronger and is very nasty in battle even though he was raised as a farmer.

Jordon, Human Artificer who is very smart and was blessed by Hephaestus - clearly he is destined for great things. He also uses some outlandish weapon he calls a "hand crossbow" that may be unique amongst all Achaea*

Kettenbar, the Wilden Avenger of Pan**, who is wise and skilled in the ways of the natural world.

We decided that Jaak's family had raised Spartakos from childhood and that Kettenbar had been on the island as well, training with minotaur tutors in the ways of the greataxe. They decided to head to the mainland for adventure and to see the rest of the world and encountered Jordon when they were looking into magical weapons before heading out into the countryside, and this is where Session 1 will pick up.

*Yeah I forgot to put "No crossbows" in my instructions to them and he really wanted it so I decided the gadget-builder class  would have one if anyone would. I let him keep it.

** He started off with Ares then I asked him if he really wanted his plant-like character to be tied to the war god. We talked a bit and he decided to go for Pan. I decided that was OK as Pan strikes me as the type of god that would have a lot of descendants, especially Wilden descendants, even among the Olympians. I mean when you eventually get tired of playing your pipes, you look around and see all these wood and water nymphs hanging around, well...

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Megadungeon Awakening

So after thinking about it a bit I made some decisions:.

  • 1st Edition AD&D will remain as an option with Temple of Elemental Evil ready to go, but it's not the "Mega" campaign
  • 2nd Edition AD&D will be on the bench with Greyhawk Ruins ready to go. Looking through it again (first time in probably 10 years) I am a lot more impressed with it than I was. More on that later.
  • If someone wants to try one in 4th Edition, well, since I'm already running in the Realms then I will use Undermountain. Not doing a lot of planning on it right now but it is an option.
So the final solution is to place the Megadungeon in my Dragonport campaign, where we're already doing some Basic/Expert adventuring anyway. I had already outlined a location known to be where the King of the Stone Giants rules - Skullcrusher Mountain! Added partly as an in-joke due to the song  that the apprentices and I love so much (especially in Rock Band) it now will take on a somewhat more important role. I have ideas for several levels and monster groups within and I will put out more about it in a different post. We may not touch it for some time but that means I'm not under any pressure to get that first part mapped out. I consider it my training effort so I'm going to go fairly slow. 

One other good thing is that the brain cycles spent on it have led me to think that it's really would not be that hard to do for 4E either. I think the core of the megadungeon experience is exploring, fighting, and sneaking through hoping to not have to start fighting, and 4E can handle those just fine. A lot of the crazy stuff from the earliest days like gates to other planes and pocket universes would work just fine with 4E. Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself as that's at best the second one down the road.

Now that I have a place and a system I can start getting the concrete parts down and actually think about running it.  Time to dig out the graph paper.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Return to the Ruins of Adventure - Session 19: Hulk Smash!

Picking up where we left off the party is exploring a chamber in the tomb of the ogre king far beneath the ruins of Phlan when orcs and ogres in archaic armor and dress materialize out of thin air and begin attacking.

Three ogres and three orcs appear in the room and rush the party. Scattered throughout the room the team is vulnerable and things look pretty dangerous. Two ogres charge the fighter, while another engages Mikal who is all by his lonesome at the other end of the room. The orcs move in to support their brethren  and combat breaks out all over.

The orcs go down fairly quickly but the ogres are much tougher customers and the fight goes on for some time. gradually the newcomers are beaten down and slain but it's not an easy fight. After pausing to bind their wounds, the party opens the inner door and moves down a hallway of worked stone.

Emerging into a new chamber the party sees a huge ogre berserker and two ogre spearmen, apparently laying in wait for them and a fight breaks out before the team can even enter the room. The big ogre blocks the doorway, pounding on Kordan and Uthal, while his allies throw javelins really hard at the rest of the party. The fighter manages to knock the huge beast down at one point but it recovers and then in a devastating whirlwind attack with its flail knocks almost the entire party down, severely injuring some of them. Things appear grim as the rampaging brute continues to assail Kordan but mighty magics are unleashed and the party recovers, pushing back into the room and blasting the ogres into oblivion.

This new chamber features a huge skull mosaic inlaid into the floor, the symbol of an ancient ogre god, long ago devoured by Bane. Two huge braziers of everburning flame light the room and a passage leads out into unknown darkness.

DM notes: There was less setup this time and more straight-up combat. Both fights went for 8 rounds and were very exciting (ogre warhulks in confined spaces are fun) but there's not a whole lot else to tell. There is a trap and a curse in the room but they did not have a huge effect on the fight. It's still only 2 encounters but maybe next time we will make it to 3.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Megadungeon Dreams

It's something that afflicts many of us even after decades away from the core of the game it represents. Even after disastrous episodes with near-megadungeons in 3rd edition it still calls. It causes us to go search through the garage and dig out that Undermountain boxed set, that copy of Greyhawk Ruins, those scattered handwritten pieces of graph paper and think about those campaigns that never quite got off of the ground, and wonder...

So I've decided to start writing it down. Ideas for monster and levels and parts of levels have started to appear in my brain lately and I need to put them somewhere else. Some of the notes will show up on the blog - when I feel like I have something worth sharing anyway. Some points:

Why not run one I already own? Greyhawk Ruins is 26 linked levels of dungeon that I never got to actually run and I probably still have my notes on it in a binder somewhere. . It's even written for 2E, still old-school enough to run quickly and feel different from 4E. I still might do this, just to have a drop-in option with the Apprentices' tricky schedules.

But...I have found recently that developing your own area of play means that you don't have to worry about contradicting stuff someone else wrote, or forgetting about the secret door that links Level X to Secret Level Y, or just keeping up with the details that someone else wrote.I ran into this a lot running Tomb of Abysthor and Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil where a lot of the details were hard to spot and tricky to keep in mind in the heat of play. Undermountain has the same problem in that it has a ton of mapping done, but only part of the levels are detailed, so I'd be going in and filling out someone else's map - in some ways the worst of both worlds. For myself, stuff that I write makes sense to me and means I'm not going to lose track of it during the game, so I'd like to write it myself.

Plus there is the challenge factor - it's something I haven't done before, so let's try it.

There is also the ownership factor - if I write it from scratch it's mine, no one else/s - no apologies, no remorse.

Now what system would I use? Clearly some version of D&D is called for, though I might be able to scratch my Greek itch by using Mazes and Minotaurs instead. Seems kind of silly though to finally sit down and do a megadungeon after all these years and make it for a different game system. Maybe if I used Mazes & Minotaurs creatures but used the Undermountain maps...

Anyway, system: Probably not 4th edition as combat is too complex to really get the old-school MD feel. Basic D&D/Labyrinth Lord is a little simple and I already have a game of that going anyway. I could do 1st Edition but I was kind of wanting to run them through Temple of Elemental Evil then Against the Giants then the Drow adventures if we sat down to do that. Heck, 2nd edition may win out here after all.

And yes, the Apprentices (and Lady Blacksteel) have been fully outfitted with a copy of Basic D&D (Moldvay), 1st edition PHB (Wizard cover because that's what I found for sale), 2nd edition PHB (rider cover because that's what I found), 3rd edition PHB, and 4th edition PHB so that they are prepared for any game of D&D they happen to run across. They also have d6 Star Wars books (Second Edition), despite my mixed results with the system. The extra copies of Fasa Star Trek and Champions await in the garage.

So we have version options. To fuel the proper MD exploration and motivations I think it requires early editions' usage of gold for XP, so that's in regardless.

What campaign world? Does it matter? There's the Town, some Wilderness, and the Dungeon - we're not going on a world tour here. I suppose it affects the gods and maybe some races but it's not a real big part of this kind of campaign for me - it's very much a "local" story.

Hmmmm, maybe I mix in my West Marches itch and run this as an Open-Table Mythic Greek Megadungeon! Solves all my problems at once! Or maybe not.

I'm a little worried about overloading the players with multiple systems but if we only play any particular system once a month then it's not exactly overloading anything.

So I've laid out that I clearly want to do it, now I just need to nail down some details. The next post on this, whenever it occurs, will probably cover those.

Systems and Mechanics and Decades

When I was doing my retrospective on games I have played I noticed some patterns and decided to share:

 The Original Way: 3d6 for stats, different dice, non-unified mechanics. That's D&D and just about everything else that happened back then. Some are still popular today - Palladium and the retro clones come to mind.

The System of the 80's : Percentiles - Runequest, Rolemaster, Call of Cthulu, Star Trek, Twilight 2000. I can't think of any current games that still use this as a core mechanic other than CoC and other BRP games.

The System of the 90's: Dice Pools -  Star Wars, Shadowrun, Vampire. I know Star Wars got started a little bit earlier but it clearly started a trend. Many of these are still going today.

The System of the Oughts: I think it has to be d20 which dominated everything for most of the decade. Simplified, unified mechanics is the signature of this trend even if it's not pure d20 such as the Decipher Star Trek game.

The System of the Teens: I think that it will be "lighter" systems. d20 can get pretty heavy with a codified answer to every question so this may be a reaction to that approach. I think Savage Worlds started it early but with Mutants and Masterminds 3E moving in this direction, Cinematic Unisystem following a similar trend, ICONS, retro-clones, Mongoose Traveller, and even D&D 4E going this way (simplified skills, simplified modifiers, trimming out unique sub-systems) I think it's the biggest trend I can point to. Pathfinder sort of bucks this trend, but I'm not sure it negates it - I think it merely illustrates how so much is moving in another direction. Think of the new games launched in the last 5 years - how many of them have big thick rulebooks full of crunch? Pathfinder, Hero 6th. Aces and Eights. That's about it and I'm not sure those last two are "major" anymore.

I think some of it is that a lot of the cool new games are coming from smaller, mostly online publishers and are developed for more casual games than the traditional lets all sit down once a week and play for six hours scenario. They tend to have fewer rules, smaller rule books, and unified mechanics. They also tend to be easily adapted to other types of games.

As a parallel to this it's interesting to me that companies have also shrunken their game lines down dramatically from previous years. At one point TSR had the following game lines in print:

  • Basic D&D
  • AD&D
  • Gamma World
  • Star Frontiers
  • Gangbusters
  • Boot Hill
  • Marvel Super Heroes.
Now all of those games had different mechanics, enough so that supporting materials had to be published separately for each game. There was some potential for crossover between say the D&D versions and maybe Gamma World or Boot Hill, but the others were dramatically different. Can you imagine any modern company trying to keep seven distinct lines of RPG's afloat simultaneously?

It wasn't just TSR either. During the 80's GDW had the following games:
  • Traveller/MegaTraveller
  • Twilight 2000
  • Traveller 2300
  • Space 1889
All of those were in print at the same time and all of them used wildly different mechanical systems. By about 1990 T2K second edition came out and then the relentless unifcation of GDW's roleplaying lines began with T2K, Traveller the New Era, Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, Merc 2000, and Dark Conspiracy all using the same system with the space of about 4 years. Then GDW went under. 

Fasa did it too with Mechwarrior, Shadowrun, Earthdawn, and for little while Star Trek overlapped with those too. None of them shared mechanics.

West End had Star Wars, Torg, Paranoia, and Ghostbusters all with different mechanics too.

Even Iron Crown did it for a while in the 90's publishing Rolemaster and Hero System at the same time.

It seems so strange looking back now at how companies used to have such wildly different systems in-house and most of them didn't appear to see it as an issue.  Current day producers seem to assume from the get-go that they're going to use one system. Green Ronin looks like the only one that still puts out mechanically different games at the same time and I like a lot of their output. Maybe it's not as terrible an idea as was once thought. I'm not sure there are real economies of scale at work when we're talking about a product like RPG's. At least, I'm not sure there's enough at work to justify shoe-horning games from radically different genres into one master system. I see the attraction from the business side, and to some degree from the player side - I like Hero and I liked the d20 run for the most part - but when I saw people trying to come up with d20 Shadowrun I just shook my head. Not everything is a good fit and sometimes the system is just so in-sync with the setting that it needs to remain its own thing.

I think from the baseline of original D&D we saw a reach for realism in the 80's and percentiles provided the most granularity that could be easily achieved and used in play. In the 90's story became king and hard mechanics were a little less in favor, so dice pools came into vogue by allowing a broad comparative rating of "this is better than that" without getting bogged down in tiny elements of realistic detail. Classes and levels, the other favored mechanic of the 80's, were a victim of this as well. Then we get to the 2000's and the unified mechanical system becomes the thing of the moment and classes and levels come back, largely driven by d20's popularity - maybe it's a "practicality" movement - "no they aren't always realistic but they work and when combined with a unified mechanic they make for a good playing experience" would be my take on it.

Now as we move into the next decade I think the unified mechanics aspect will remain as it's almost essential to a game that's mechanically lighter. I think classes and levels though are due for another pendulum swing and will fade some outside of the retro game collective, Pathfinder, and D&D - large though that crowd may be there are other games in the universe.

So it's an interesting time. I'm looking forward to whatever is next. Even if I don't like it things will roll in a way I do at some point, and until then I still have more games to play.

Postscript: It's sometimes easy to tell when someone came into roleplaying. Show a 70's - 80's gamer a new game that uses classes and levels and they're probably OK with it. Show it to a 90's recruit and they typically will use words like limiting, outdated, straightjacket, and the like. Then show it to someone that started during the d20 wave and they're probably fine with it. It's funny how things come and go then come back like that. This next decade will be interesting for sure.

Motivational Monday

Special Muppet Edition