Friday, July 1, 2011

DM Notes on the Silver Pyramid Sessions

I had several goals when designing this part of the campaign. I wanted to touch on the idea of the Sorcerer's Isle and the pyramid found there in the old Gold Box game. It was a fairly big plot point as it was polluting the river that runs through the city and had to be cleansed and stopped . There was also an element of mutation there with some mutated forms of normal monsters being part of the encounters in and around the place. In that case though it was a mad wizard behind the trouble which I did not want to reuse but I liked the general theme. So I turned up the mutated weirdness and turned down the pollution element. I also needed to resolve the Spear/ Pool of Twilight hook and an nincursion from the Far Realm was what I had planned from the start.

I also wanted to use a non-conventional dungeon and play up the atmosphere more than I typically have, using imagery other than "ruined city" which has dominated the campaign thus far. I wanted it to feel like an alien environment, not another cave or building. A lot of that feels comes down to descriptions and language which I know I am not always great at using on the fly unless prompted by one of my players who looks at the ceiling or something. I fight that weakness by writing up some descriptions in advance and trying to remember to use them during the game. The other part of the feel of  a place is the map design. Putting the party into a large room then getting prrogressively smaller and more cramped makes it feel like you are moving towards something and hopefully that the tension is amping up. Finishing up in another large room but being constrained by energy barriers and other weirdness should feel like the climax of the adventure. I don't know how well I did this but the players seemed happy with it so I'm calling it a win.

As far as theme I wanted horror and weirdness. I don't think you can really do a true horror adventure during a game of largely by-the-book D&D. The most you can do is theme the location and the descriptions and the monsters within and try to get your players to notice. D&D is much more "Aliens" than "Alien" both mechanically and thematically but I like to take a shot at some spookiness and weirdness every once in a while just for a change of pace and I had a really good time with this one. Plus I got to throw some Star Trek into my D&D which can only make it better.

Setting it up: So how do  I drag the party out of the city & ruins and into a somewhat remote self-contained location for an adventure? Well, the players already had a fairly strong hook from the Ogre King adventure and knew the spear was connected to the Pool. They asked around and found out the Pool was in the Silver Pyramid. Sooner or later they were going to want to go there. I also had a backup option to use the pollution from the pyramid as a growing threat that must be stopped, much like the original gold box game, so I wasn't wed to a single connection.

One of the things I saw as a weaknesses that has turned out to be a strong point for 4E is the 10 encounters per level formula. In 4E XP is set up so that 10 encounters of the same level as the party gives enough experience to level up. This gives a nice way to plan out adventure locations and dungeon levels while knowing pretty well what level the party will be when they get there. It also means that as I design options for the party at each level I end up with unused outlines, encounters, and ideas that mean I could run another party through Phlan and not have them overlapping into the same adventures. I just re-sketched out how the party is likely to finish out this first stage of the campaign (Heroic Tier) and realized one of the major areas I had been planning to use at higher levels has been squeezed out - and I'm not upset! It means I have a good focus for the NEXT group to run through the area, whether that's next week or next year.Actual play is generating a sandbox campaign area for levels 1-10 without my actually intending to do so!

Mechanically things have gone pretty well. The party started the run at 6th level and levelled up to 7th when they finished it. We haven't run into any holes in the game and the players and I agree with the general consensus that a) missing sucks and missing with a big daily power really sucks so dailies with a "miss" effect are much better than those without, b) daze and stun conditions are painful for players as they get to do less during those rounds but they are better than being dead as in some older versions of the game and c) this system just seems to work really well - fights take longer than say Basic or 1E or 2E but they are more interesting with a lot more going on in each round and a lot more interplay between the payers and characters during a round: a monster misses an attack, the bard uses a power to grant an ally a free shift or a free attack, that character uses a power and hits, then another character fires off a different power triggered by that action - it's very cool in play.

Fights lasted an average of 6 rounds, with the low being 3 rounds for the "Brains on the Bridge" and a high of 12 for the finale, though that was divided into 5 rounds for the Mind Flayer and the Gibbering Mouther followed by 7 for the Thing from Beyond, so it should almost count as two separate fights.The fighter regularly takes a beating and mostly stays up. The barbarian does firghtening amounts of damage but goes down if he becomes the focus of the attackers. The wizard does OK single target damage and a ton of area effect damage and other area effects. The Warlock does a ton of single target damage and some nifty, almost afterthough area damage effects (e.g. "Daughter's Promise"). The bard is a very versatile leader type - he can heal, he can grant extra moevement, he can do ranged attacks, and he can move enemies on his own turn in ways that are quite annoying to the DM. Everyone seems pretty happy with their characters and roles as far as mechanics and that's a good thing.

Magic items are important (like in older editions) but do not dominate the game or radically change what a character can do (unlike 3E). They are definietly nice to have and do end up as a sort of signature item for some characters (Kordan's Armor and Sun Blade, Uthal's Spear and Horse) but they are not viewed as critical for optimization the way stat-boosters and a wand of cure light wounds were in 3E which is a wonderful change and feels much more like the 1E/2E days which is pretty much the opposite of what I expected. There's a lot less of the "Level X FIghter should have this, this, and this" kind of metagaming talk around the table - maybe it's more common online but in our experience the choice of magic items is much more about flavor and a lot less about choosing the optimal combination of gear.

Next up: what happens next!

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Return to the Ruins of Adventure - Session 25: The Pool of Twilight Part 2

Looking at the platform the party takes one of the crystals dropped by a floating brain and places it in the empty socket. A low hum sounds in the room and the other crystals begin to pulse with a bright purple light. Somehow knowing what they must do the team steps on to the platform and vanishes in a flash of light.

They reappear in one corner of a  large, open, metal-walled room. Feeling remarkably normal they look around and see...

Four large purple crystals are set up here surrounding an inky black pool. Nearby stand a tentacle-faced humanoid and a mass of flesh that appears to have many faces on and within its flowing substance. Arms and legs emerge at times, some still wrapped in brightly colored bits of cloth - a single entity that babbles maddeningly and constantly. Over the pool is a smoky black mass that drives an observer to the edge of madness. Vaporous forms swarm from the pool to this cloud, and it appears to be caged by a glowing purple energy wall that flows between the crystals.

The tentacle-faced creature steps toward them and unleashes a crushing blast of mental energy. Taking this as a sign of hostility, the heroes fire back - except for Uthal, who is still dazed by the effect of the mental blast. Kordan attempts to engage while the others blast away. The huge fleshy mass surges forward, babbling madness and slamming into the front line of heroes with teeth and arms and legs flailing. Althea locks them down with the grasp of the grave but the tentacle being manages to squirm out of reach, only to be pulled back to the fore by a magical compulsion from the bard. All the while the swirling black cloud from beyond crashes against the energy barrier.

Recovering, Uthal summons 'Dragon', his obsidian steed, and begins fighting while mounted. Through this early part of the battle the strange robed being works to keep the gibbering mound of flesh between him and his attackers, firing off mental blasts that damage and daze various members of the party. The barbarian mounted on his magical steed proves highly mobile, thwarting this to a degree.  Eventually though the mass of flesh is hacked into ruin, destroying the horror and hopefully sending the souls of those trapped within its disturbing form to a better place. Once that happens the weird controller of this place is surrounded and cut down in short order, still firing off his unearthly mental attacks.

Realizing that to get to the Pool they must bring down the barrier and face the Thing from Beyond, the heroes smash one of the large crystals and the energy barrier winks out of existance. The party braces as the pulsating cloud swarms in on them and vaprourous tentacles lash out with painful results. A battle rages on the edge of the pool as Uthal and Kordan are locked down and hit with a storm of psychic damage and the rest of the team is battered by semisolid tentacles from another dimension. Things look uncertain for the heroes for a time but they gradually gain the momentum and blast the thing out of existance.

Uncertain of what else might be lurking in this horrid place, Uthal spurs Dragon, leaps into the middle of the pool and drives the great iron spear into the Pool of Twilight...

The shimmering runes winding up and down the shaft disappear in a blast of silvery light as the pool screams and the winds of limbo roar around the party. There is a massive explosion and darkness...

... and the heroes awaken on the shores of the lake still wondering what just happened but knowing they have ended the threat of the Pool for good.

Oh, and the moon is in a different phase from when they entered the pyramid the night before.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Return to the Ruins of Adventure - Session 25: The Pool of Twilight Part 1

Energizing into a metal-walled room the party sees...

"The room is dusty with no marks on the floor and appears to be disused, other than the crystals being placed on the pad. Each of the 6 pads has a 1’ dimly glowing purple crystal on it in a silver stand or socket of some kind. Fine silver wires run from each of these crystals back and forth across the pad area. Several of them run up the wall to another silver socket that is empty." 

They also see 3 floating brain-creatures using their tentacles to manipulate the purple crystals and silver wire. The creatures drop what they are doing and rush the heroes, who respond with steel and spell.

Uthal and Kordan score telling hits on one brain then with a FOOSH the Wizard unloads  a fire shroud into the room roasting all three. A short time into the fight Kordan finds himself grappled by one of the brain creatures and repeatedly bitten, all while inside his head the Spirit of Arnd shouts at him Go! Hit it back! You can do this! Eventually Kordan breaks free but it is an unpleasant experience at best. In a long and harrowing fight the party wins out but is battered and bloodied by the end, standing over the shattered brain creatures and leaning on their weapons to catch their breath.

Recovered they notice that one door in particular shows signs of activity.

"The door is closed and locked and shows signs of claw marks and bloody smears on the outside. Behind the desk is a headless body slumped back in a chair. On the desk before him is a glowing purple crystal similar to the ones outside. A small boxlike object lays on the floor near the chair."

Uthal is instantly fascinated by this boxlike object and begins playing with it. Despite the obvious - perhaps even desperate - crying out to fate for something bad to happen the Goliath remains undisintigrated and happily puts the shiny away in his pack for future investigation. The party notes that the colorful clothing on the headless corpse looks similar to the tattered remains seen on the creatures encountered below. 

Moving to the last set of doors (which appear to be larger than the rest) the party decides to actually listen before entering. They are are rewarded with a set of screams from the other side of the door followed by a swish as they slide into the walls. Inside is a scene of horror:

"There are 5 chairs around the room placed in front of tables. Sitting in those chairs are what look to be uniformed humans. The top of their heads is open (their heads appear to have exploded), blood streams down their bodies and is splattered over nearby consoles and floor, and what appear to be their brains are crawling away from their bodies."

The brains have sprouted legs and antennae. The blood is fresh and the fight is on. The horrifying things scuttle to advantageous positions (they are brains after all), their antennae twitch, and mental attacks slam into our heroes. The warlock and the wizard flame the room, the fighter and the barbarian stab the survivors and the bard trades mental barbs with the last survivor. Then the suicidal brain-thing takes a flying leap at Uthal and pays the price as it is swatted out of the air by his great black spear, violently and thoroughly ending its brief existence. 

The party surveys the room and realizes they will find no answers here. They have come to destroy the Pool of Twilight and it is clearly not in this room. Returning to the anteroom outside they begin to puzzle out the crystals, the wire, and the glass disks and realize that their answer is likely found somewhere else, somewhere they can only reach via this alien device...

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Return to the Ruins of Adventure - Session 24:

Climbing up the metal shaft our heroes discover a light some distance above. Soon enough it proves to be an opening and moving through it the party finds a series of halls and doors, all apparently metal and eerily quiet. There are no obvious handles or knobs or grips on the doors. Mikal fiddles with some carvings near one of the doors and seems to be making some progress when a low groan emerges from behind it. A faint sibilant whispering at the edge of everyone's consciousness starts up. Sensing danger, the warlock backs away as the door slides sideways into the wall and a nightmare figure emerges from within, a warped and twisted humanoid shape, a foul mockery of what might once have been human, clad in tattered remains of colored cloth. An instant later a bunch of other doors whoosh open and their grotesque inhabitants shuffle out of their rooms and into the halls. In response, weapons are drawn by untainted hands and a battle begins.

Ranged attacks fire first, dropping several of the creatures, then they slam into the one-man shield wall that is Kordan. Aided by the irresistible force that is the goliath barbarian, the highly trained immovable object that is the human shield fighter holds off the monstrosities spawned from the gods only know where. Althea, completely disgusted, fights ugly with ugly by calling up the grasp of the grave, summoning hundreds of skeletal arms to grasp and tear at the ruined things. Happy to face substantive, non-splitting foes the fighting man and the barbarian shine in this fight, giving the warlock time to bring forth the pure cleansing fire of the Nine Hells, and allowing Jovanni time to go mind-to-mind against one of the taller creatures and it's blasts of pure madness.

In the end the heroes triumph, slaying every last one of the horrid things. No one feels remorseful about this at all, even though they have never seen these kinds of creatures before - they do not appear to have any kind of natural origin. Instead they seem to be a damaged and altered from of might have been human, and it feels as though slaying them is a kindness, ending their torment.

Searching the rest of the area yields little. The rooms are all similar with metal walls and indirect light sources. There are some scrapes and gouges in some, and old bloodstains in others. There are also some piles of dust and what might once have been furniture, but it seems as warped and twisted as the former inhabitants - possibly for the same reason.

Returning to the metal shaft the team begins climbing again and soon spots another faintly lit opening. This time they are more cautious but caution avails them not as they emerge into a room with 3 floating, beaked, and tentacled brains. Who are constructing something...