Saturday, February 1, 2014

SSoI - Session 1 - Cairn of the Winter King Part 1

Our story begins in Fallcrest, the Nentir Vale, Impiltur, Faerun, in Greengrass of the year 1480 D.R. (the year of Deep Water Drifting).

The party begins scattered about the city, but all are drawn to the riverside where a crowd has gathered. With heavy snows for the last month, food is growing scarce and the Lord Warden of Fallcrest is announcing a new program to collect and ration food in the city. Naturally this is met with some resistance amongst both rich and poor. A clan of river-trading halflings landed the day before and news has spread that the unnatural cold is affecting all the lands they travel, spurring the controversial decision from the city's lord. As freezing winds blow ever more snow into the town the fierce debate continues.

Lieutenant Gravis, a genasi refugee from Thay in service to House Reinhardt, is assisting the city watch in maintaining order, mainly though a connection with a dwarf friend of his. Interestingly, he has a young owlbear pet.

Isenheim, a dwarven Cleric of Moradin, is Chaplian for the dwarf members of the city watch and is on the scene working crowd control.

As the arguing continues the more alert citizens and visitors pick up a rhythmic sound. Slowly it clarifies into words in an unknown language - a war chant! Coming from the sky!

Down out of the blowing snowstorm dives a longship with a tattered black sail, crewed by skeletal figures. It lands in the river, glides up to the shore, and the chanting dies down as undead crewmen leap from the ship and attack!

The crowd scatters as do some of the watchmen. Isenheim and Gravis rally the few remaining guardsmen and several other people step forward to confront the raiders - Gartok, a dwarf warden of earth and stone; Dar Bloodmane, a paladin of Tempus; a mysterious elven ranger who wields a nasty greatbow; Zara, the mysterious exotic agent of House Bauer - unafraid they stand their ground as the undead sailors swarm the green.

Thanks Online DM for the maps!
Though unacquainted before this, the two dwarves stand shoulder to shoulder and form a strongpoint that cannot be broken. The Elf with No Name stands in the clear and fires arrows faster than the eye can see, dropping zombies left and right. Dar Bloodmane puts almost as much effort into fighting as he does reciting Tempusian Battle Chants giving glory to the war god as he struggles to make an impact on the fight. Lt. Gravis tries to order up a true battleline but several of his guards drop and he is forced to work with the mysterious and alluring Zara. The agent of House Bauer is doing fine on her own until a zombie bites into her shoulder and in response she loses control and bites it back, tearing into it with gleaming fangs! Hopefully no one noticed...

The fight is brutal but short, and thanks to the unknown heroes the undead are soon scattered about the snowy landscape in pieces. In the aftermath some approach the skyship and when they do its dragon figurehead speaks:

"Return the Ice Scepter to the Winter King or this winter shall never end and the dead will feast upon the living"

The oddity of the talking ship is quickly overtaken by the realization that someone must have stolen this "Ice Scepter" and unleashed a terrible curse - presumably someone now in Fallcrest! A halfling at the edge of the returning crowd tries to slink away but is caught by Gravis and Isenheim. They also find that he is carrying what could easily be described as an "Ice Scepter" wrapped in a cloth on his person.  He spills out a tale of flight, mountain travel, and theft that confirms the origin of the current problem. As the tale winds down, an obvious solution to the problem also becomes apparent. The Lord Warden is quick to pounce - "Dear friends and mighty heroes ..." - and soon enough the group has agreed to undertake the journey to the Cairn of the Winter King, taking Marko (the halfling) along with them as "community service". They are promised a reward in the form of the ruined Tower of Waiting on an island in the river - should they end the unnatural winter and return alive then the tower will be theirs.

In a quiet moment, Gravis notices that the exotically beautiful Zara seems interested in his pet Owlbear and he hopes this is a connection he can explore in the future.

As this episode closes the team gathers their supplies and prepares to board the ship, contemplating both their short-term and long-term futures.

DM Notes: This was the kick-off for our new campaign and I decoded to use a published adventure, "Cairn of the Winter King", partly to see how more recent published adventures hold up, partly because I wanted to use Fallcrest and the vale in this campaign since I have not previously, and partly because I just liked it. The opening encounter is cool and makes for a memorable way to start things, I hope. It was only a 5-round fight but there was quite a bit of RP time and introductory time and connecting background time so it was a full session. Plus new characters take a little while to find the best ways to work together and we have a brand new party created without much metagame discussion so no one started out with a nice combo move ready to go. 

Party composition mechanics note: We have 2 leaders, 2 defenders, and 2 strikers. That's going to be a very interesting mix, especially once they figure out all of the ways they can interact during combat. I can already tell they're going to be very tough to bring down and keep down. Perhaps it's a reaction to the last campaign's unexpected ending but regardless that's a lot of healing and some very tough characters.

The best thing was that the players were enthusiastic about starting the game up again and everyone was pretty good at coming up with an angle or a voice or some distinguishing feature about their character beyond just class/race/level/magic items, so it felt pretty good. I'm calling it a win for the group.  

February: The Red Hand of Doom Recap month

In February I am cranking my lapsed campaign back up again. To help with this I will be posting one session recap every day of the month. This does mean that the first few will be re-posts as I did make an effort early in the campaign to do them but I didn't keep up and soon enough they disappeared. I am writing up the interim sessions in the meantime and will post them all in sequence, once per day. To get things started, here is an introductory post.

This campaign kicked off in early 2012. It is a 4th Edition game set in the 4th edition Forgotten Realms. It begins in Impiltur in the spring of 1450 DR.

We went with 4th Edition because we were coming out of a previous 4th Edition campaign that ended in a TPK. That one never made it out of Heroic Tier but it was very close and the group wanted to keep playing the same system to see what Paragon felt like and eventually to get to Epic. As a compromise between starting completely over and just jumping ahead directly to Paragon Tier we began with 4th level characters.

Everyone still liked the Forgotten Realms so we stayed in that world. We did move to a different region as we wanted a fresh start with no connection to the prior campaign. I set the game in Impiltur. This region is really not associated with any legendary NPC heroes and has not been all that thoroughly explored in the published setting material.

The geography is not widely known so I could alter it to my liking without provoking an attack of opportunity. I did this by placing the Nentir Vale (from 4th edition core materials) and the Elsir Vale (from Red Hand of Doom) in Impiltur. I’ve left the overall map pretty vague for now as most of the campaign has been entirely contained within the Elsir Vale, but eventually I will detail it out.

The history of the region is interesting and ties into some things I expected would be a big part of the campaign. Namely demons in general and Orcus in particular, who figures prominently in some of the Epic Tier adventures for 4th edition. Vaasa, a land to the northwest of Impiltur, is home to the Warlock knights, a new enemy group in the post-spellplague Realms. They could make for an interesting change of pace if I need one at some point.

Finally, after 4th edition turns the Realms upside down Impiltur is wide-open with a power vacuum my players could fill if they chose to do so. I wanted to give them a chance to become the movers and shakers of the Bloodstone Lands.

I set the game a few decades earlier in the official timeline, post-spellplague but not as much as the standard starting time in the FR book. This has about zero impact on the game but it sets things up nicely if I decide to run a follow up campaign as much of the early part will be based on Red Hand of Doom, and one of the published 4th edition adventure paths is a sequel to that adventure, the Scales of War. Given the amount of time these things can take we may never get there, but I like planting the seeds just I case.

My original vision of the campaign was tied in to Impiltur’s history as a center of Lawful Goodness, Paladins, and a general knightly atmosphere about the whole area. I assumed my players would be thinking along these same lines, traveling about the land, righting wrongs and looking to restore the king. Thus the “Shining Swords of Impiltur” campaign was born.

Unfortunately I did not really get into a deep discussion of this idea with my players so of course this meant I was on a completely wrong track. They created a Genasi Warlord, an Elf Ranger, a Shifter Paladin, a Dwarf Warden, a Dwarf Cleric, and a Drow Vampire, mostly hard-bitten survivors from other areas around the region rather than the high fantasy scions of Old Impiltur. Given the situation I changed the label to “Savage Swords of Impiltur” and decided to run with a slightly darker, nastier tone. It is a new age after all.

Some additional background posts are here and here.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Campaign Troubles - Getting Back on Track

Having figured out where some of our structural problems were I decided I needed to find out if my players still cared - so I asked them. Things fell apart as we were coming to the grand finale of heroic tier D&D 4E with a city under siege depending on the PC's to pull off a miracle. I hate leaving things like that, over a year's worst of campaigning, unresolved. Don;t get me wrong  - they could lose, die horribly, and expose the rest of Impiltur and the Bloodstone Lands to a horde of evil, but at least we would know how it ended!

So I sent an email asking if they

  1. Wanted to finish the siege 
  2. Wanted to continue into paragon tier 
  3. Wanted to keep playing D&D4E in particular
  4. Wanted to keep playing fantasy in general
  5.  Wanted me to keep DMing
I wasn't sure where things stood and there might be varying feelings on each of these within the group. I was hoping they would at least want to finish out the "arc" we're on and any more than that would be gravy. With WOTC putting 4E out to pasture 2 years ago this month there is not a lot of energy around 4E these days online or in the FLGS so if they wanted a change I would understand. If they were tired of  D&D or fantasy or me being the DM I get that too since we've all been playing it together for a while and I felt I had to ask.

As it turned out the answers were yes to all of them so I am cracking open my notes once again, making sure I have what I need, and figuring out where things might go next. I figure it will take around 3 sessions to wrap up the siege and determine the fate of the Red Hand.

After that there is much interest in working through paragon tier and I have an outline for that too. I shared some of my thoughts with them. Here's a hint:

I expect it to be epic - well, you know what I mean. I can get on board with running 4th Edition for at least the rest of the year, likely longer. We may be the only ones playing it after Next comes out, but we don't care.

I haven't totally resolved the schedule issues but I'm working on it. It will still be on fixed weekends but we are moving back to Friday. If I can just find one more player it will feel like balance has been restored.

In the meantime the Wrath of the Righteous campaign will continue, the occasional superhero games will continue, and whaddya know I actually get to play in a friend's upcoming Pathfinder campaign! Things are shaping up pretty nicely as the new year gets rolling. I'll keep it up to date here.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Campaign Troubles - Sorting Out the Train Wreck

Keeping a game going can be tricky. You settle into a routine where you're meeting on a regular schedule, things are going well, and then you miss one session, then a little bit later you have to cancel again, and then the holidays hit and a month goes by and suddenly the game is not a priority anymore.

We had a pretty steady twice-a-month thing for the first half of 2013 and then in the second half we had all of 3 sessions. Yep, Mr. DM Advice's main campaign slowed down to a bimonthly schedule. I did run some other games in there and started up a new and unrelated campaign, but the Big One almost died.

There were a lot of reasons for this.

  • One, the summer seemed to mean everyone took a turn not being available. It happens. 
  • In the fall I had to switch from our traditional Friday nights to Saturdays because I have two kids tied into Friday night football stuff. 
  • I also went from a rolling schedule where we decided the next session date at the end of the current session to a set schedule of 2nd and 4th weekends. That was partly because game night kept tripping over kid schedules, partly because it was impossible to plan any other game if this one took all of our open time and partly because it was tough to plan anything more than a week or two in advance. The lessening of flexibility really cut down on rescheduling options when someone had a conflict and pretty much guaranteed a 4-week gap if we had to cancel a session.
Besides my schedule challenges our current group consists of five players: we have one guy who's almost always available, another who has very few conflicts, two who have a few - more on that in a minute, and Lady Blacksteel, who is on pretty much the same schedule as me when it comes to availability, though not always.

Early on I set a cancellation policy. D&D 4th edition assumes a 5-man party, and unlike a game such as ICONS or Marvel Heroic the numbers do matter. I build my adventures assuming a 5-man party. As long as we have at least 4 players, I will run. If w have 3 or fewer then we call it and either do something else or just regroup the next time. Early on in the game we had 6 players so this worked well - at 6 the players have an advantage, at 5 they are even, and at 4 things will be more challenging but still possible. At 3 the system starts to get swingy and it gets to be really difficult to handwave why 2 or 3 characters disappeared in the middle of the dungeon. I really did not want to have to cut down encounters to accommodate 3 characters either and the XP gets off significantly if it continues. 

This all worked well when we had 6 players as we rarely missed a session. Once we lost our 6th though, things got a little sticky. Two of my players are part of the same organization, and quite a bit of the time if one has to miss, so does the other for the same organizational activity or event. This absolutely destroyed our previously neat little system as now we typically went from "5 and fine" to "3 and a cancel" and it was only occasionally that we had a party of 4. Combine this with my limiting the game to two weekends a month (instead of "when can we play next" and we lost a lot of sessions. Moving game time to Saturdays also meant that if before they were able to delay their participation until Saturday to keep Friday open, well, that was out the window now too. Previously the only reason a game was cancelled (usually) was if the DM had a conflict. Now we had all of my conflicts AND a pair of players also impacting the schedule. 

Now I don't hold this against them - that's been a thing for them for a long time and that's just how it is. It did reveal a serious weakness though, and I think the best way to shore it up is to pick up another player. We did use the Apprentices as fill-ins a few times and while that worked this is supposed to be the "grown-ups" game and it's hard to throttle back when we drop the kids in on short notice. 

Other than adding another regular player the only workaround I see is to relax my "4 to roll" rule. If I build the encounters around a 4-man party then having all 5 gives them an up, 4 is even, and 3 goes back to challenging but not suicidal.

Also, I think going back to Fridays will help too.

So with the problems identified and some possible fixes in the works, it was time to see if anyone still wanted to play.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Black Sails Ho!

One of the main captains

Starz has a new original series about pirates called "Black Sails". Their take on it is here. It started up this weekend and after watching the first episode I thought I would share a few thoughts:

  • It's supposed to be a more historical take on pirates - I'm assuming that means no supernatural stuff like the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. I'm fine with that. There was none of that mentioned or shown in the pilot. 
  • It's supposed to be a more "realistic" take on pirates too - so plenty of cussing, blood, and sex. This is a pay-cable series after all. Realistic or not everyone is very pretty on the show.
  • The pilot sets up the basic situation, the major players, and the conflicts between them. We don't get a lot of character depth but I assume motivations etc. will be explored in more depth the rest of the season. 

I liked the pilot. Nothing struck me as horribly wrong (other than the prettiness of everyone but hey, it is a visual medium). We have a sea battle, a sword fight, some other conflicts, some betrayals and counter-betrayals - quite a few items on the "pirate story checklist" were crossed off. I'm going to give the full season a look and let you know if it hits any particular highs or lows.

The timing was interesting because over the last week or two some of the kids have been watching the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and I started looking at my Savage Worlds pirate books trying to figure out how I would run a "mundane" or realistic pirate campaign. Most of the games I run have some kind of magic or supernatural or super-technological element that makes keeping interest that much easier. Running a pirate game with no spooky stuff, no magic items, and no magical healing had me a little lost. I suspect this show will give me some ideas.

Yeah ... there's some of that too ... hey it can't all be fighting!