Thursday, November 30, 2017

Old School, New School, and Reviewing Classic Adventures

With my dive into 5th edition this year I've picked up a lot of the current adventure books like Storm King's Thunder, Curse of Strahd, the Elemental Evil One - all of them so far. I've also been looking at ways to integrate some of my favorite adventures from older editions, particularly the ones I've not run in years or for this group of players. When Tales from the Yawning Portal came out it of course made my day because here's a whole string of older adventures converted directly to 5th - that makes it a lot easier if it's a decent conversion. So far so good.

I also started listening to some podcast reviews and discussions on the various new adventures and some of the talk around the Yawning Portal material really had me shaking my head. So this post covers my thoughts on these same issues.

Side note: After all of this research I am even more certain of this: reading the adventure is not the same as playing the adventure, any more than looking at a map of France is the same as actually visiting France. Rulebooks have a similar conundrum in that reading them is not the same as using them to play a game but adventures are even worse in this regard. I've read some that looked amazing and then fell apart in play and I've read some that looked iffy and turned into some great sessions. There are nuances that may only come out in play, plot details that only make sense when run, encounters that get a lot more interesting once they're in play, and NPCs that become much more memorable or important when they hit the table. People dismiss some things as "unplayable" - one of my pet peeves - that I have run and enjoyed. People will laud adventures they've never actually run as "amazing" yet when I tried to run them they were disorganized messes with missing map elements and conflicting information. 

If you want a specific example check out some reviews of Pathfinder AP's the month they come out. These are 99% "read-thru" reviews with no actual play experience. Then go look at the Paizo forum for that AP six months or a year after they have been released - you will see pages and pages of corrections, clarifications, alternate approaches, suggestions for improvement - it's night and day.

I'd say the best advice is that if reading through a published adventure gets you fired up then you will usually do what it takes to make it run well, and if it doesn't then you should probably put it back on the shelf. 

First up I have to admit it's weird to hear people discussing an old adventure that don't know, for example, whether Against the Giants was a first or second edition adventure. It's not a tremendously important detail but it does tell me they probably picked up the game during 3rd edition and so may not get what earlier adventures were about. They may not remember that in AD&D experience points were based far more heavily on gold pieces than on monster bashing and that makes a notable difference in how adventures were written and played. I don't think that anyone who came in after they were part of the current scene can't have an opinion on them but I wish they would do some research or talk to someone who was running and playing these things back then.

The single biggest complaint I here is that "well there's not a lot of story here, it's really just a dungeon" - thus dismissing the biggest way the game was played for the first 15 or so years it was around.  Hey, guess what? We didn't need a writer to give us a story - the "story" is what happens at the table, with the players and their characters, as they go through the dungeon. Typically what they really mean here by "story" is "plot", as in there needs to be some larger plot to be uncovered and stopped for the game to have meaning. You don't need that! The whole conceit of D&D is a group of adventurers and explorers out looking for fortune and glory! You shouldn't need a world-threatening plot (as many newer adventure path type campaigns use) to justify going out on an adventure! Sure some have it and that's fine but not every adventure has to have a plot!

Maybe it's the concept of the sandbox that's been forgotten by some amidst all of the adventure path models and organized play railroads that seem to constitute a lot of what we see discussed online nowadays. The biggest ironic moment for me was when one reviewer commented that "if it's just about the combat you could just go play a computer game" to which I would reply "if it's just about the externally-determined metaplot then you could just go play a computer game.".  Most of the 1st edition and Basic adventures are as much about exploration as they are combat. Experiencing a cool environment is as valid a reason to play as following a pre-written plot.

Think of "Isle of Dread" - it's a jungle island full of dinosaurs with a ruined city at the center - do you need some additional reason to explore that? The 3E Savage Tide adventure path included it, added demons, and placed a quest object for the larger campaign in the ruined city. That's all fine and it did work in the context of the AP but in the previous 25 or so years I never had a party express dissatisfaction with the adventure in its original form. In my experience when you hand your players that mostly blank hexmap of the island at least half of the group feels a mandate to fill in the rest of it.

This ... attitude? expectation? even spills over into newer adventures - I heard the same criticism of Storm King's Thunder! There's not enough "story" connecting the different parts of the adventure! This is an adventure that has a background plot that is written out for the DM that explains why the giants are suddenly stirred up and causing trouble. The player side of this begins with multiple attacks on settlements by giants and encounters with wandering giants at a much higher rate than is normal. So the adventure demonstrates the problem in-game, it doesn't write six paragraphs of exposition for the DM to read and that is a feature, not a bug! After wandering the Savage Frontier for a time and experiencing firsthand the ongoing problems the players are pulled into the plot and from there on it's a more linear AP-type run. That means it's a large area sandbox with a lot going on plus a key to a specific "quest" that the players can jump on or the DM can drop in whenever they're ready - that's perfect!

One of the criticisms was that the players won't learn about why this is happening, only the DM knows. So let me ask somewhat ironically - do your players not talk to NPC's? There are multiple points within this adventure where people who do know what is going on are expected to be conversing with the party, not fighting them. This is exactly the kind of conversation that would happen at this point - "OK here's what's happening and if we do X, Y, and Z we can put things back together." As a DM if your player characters never learn what's going on then how are you doing your job? Heck a simple Commune/Legend Lore/Contact Higher Plane type information spell could give basic clues on what's going on if your players think to use it. These kinds of criticisms start to tell me quite a bit about the playstyle of the person raising them, from "how do you even run your games" to "did you really read the adventure?"

I think some of this kind of criticism is a cry for hooks to pull your party into a particular adventure - that's a much simpler issue to solve. I will say first that no one knows your party better than you do so you shouldn't be looking for a lot of outside help there. Most adventures, old and new, include at least a few hook ideas. If you're stuck here are the basics:

  • The Push: 
    • The king commands you to go to the Caves of Evil and make them safe for the people 
    • You have all been convicted of a crime and your only chance for clemency is to go slay the great dragon Bazamazaran
    • Your temple orders you to travel to the Tower of Menace and recover the Staff of Enlightenment 

  • The Pull:
    • The lost mines of Oria-May are know to have been a source of mithril and many magic weapons were crafted there until it was overrun ...
    • Denzor the mage built a tower a few miles outside of town and hasn't been seen in years. He was known to have a Staff of the Magi ...
    • The famous pirate Big John Platinum has a humongous treasure hoard buried on some island. Sailor Bob here has come across a map that he believes leads to it ... 
  • The Guilt Trip:
    • The village you started the campaign in is being attacked by raiders and needs your help!
    • Your NPC girlfriend has been kidnapped!
    • The merchant who handles most of your loot-dispersal has been cursed and is wasting away! Who will track down his assailant?

Once you have been playing for a while these kinds of things become second nature. Specific author-suggested ties to a particular adventure are welcome, but hardly necessary. There was also the perhaps most frequent and most honest hook:

"Hey guys I just bought "White Plume Mountain". It looks pretty cool - want to go through it this weekend?"

"Sure - what levels is it for?"

"Says 5-7"

"OK I'll bring my 6th level dwarf fighter/"

We weren't always crafting epic narratives back then - sometimes we were just playing a game. There's no reason that same thing can't happen now. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Old Scarred Lands Campaign - Year 3

For 2007 the party was largely the same crew:
  • Aden Hornmantle, Human Cleric of Corean 
  • Rukan, Human Paladin of Corean 
  • Gotar, Half-Orc Fighter 
  • Simone, Human Ranger/Rogue
  • Cressa, "High Elf" Wizard 
  • Caldon Greyleaf, Spellthief  - gone
  • A new human Fighter/Rogue joins up later in the year
  • A reformed Gnoll Barbarian with  a no-doubt complicated backstory joins during the big ocean expedition

Sessions 33-38
In Amalthea two of my characters get married on the 25th day of Vangalot! The Cleric and the Ranger, after much discussion and flirting for the last few months of game time end up married while Gotar the Half-Orc fighter has become devoted to the "Elf" Wizard. Fortunately the Paladin remains commitment-free and so has a clear perspective on things.

A short time later the party heads back into the dungeon and ends up in an even bigger brawl in the Temple of Orcus (level 4, room 15 mainly if you have the adventure). At one point there are 45 skeletons on the map plus zombies, ogres, ghouls, acolytes, and priests of Orcus - it's one of the biggest fights I have ever run and epically appropriate for wrecking a major temple of the demon lord of undeath!

A short time after that the cleric is getting raised from the dead at the temple. The wizard spends 3 days "identifying" all of the loot.

Heading back they end up in some flooded levels and finding their way through another section full of purple mist. Returning from this last investigation they find that a dragon has attacked the town, part of the city is wrecked or on fire, Karnov is hurt, and Rastan the Champion (another NPC they've encountered) has set off after the wounded draconic attacker.

DM's Notes: This was another "let's break up the big dungeon crawl" side trek which involved a short travel through the wilderness to a smaller dungeon with a different theme. It also helps to remind players every once in a while that there is other stuff going on in the world.

Sessions 39-40
These two sessions were spent going through Goodman games "Temple of the Dragon Cult" which is a cool little drop-in adventure featuring cultists, some half-dragon type people, and a wounded red dragon. Our heroes triumphed, eliminated the cult, rescued a wounded Rastan the Champion, and slew the evil red dragon.

Sessions 41- 42
These two sessions are spent in training, prepping, and then traveling to the city of Mithril, a 600+ mile journey. This is mainly driven by the Cleric and Paladin as this is the center of Coreanic worship on Ghelspad. Once in Mithril the Paladin joins the Mithril Order, becoming a Knight. The Cleric joins the Gold Order, the militant religious arm of the church. Gotar the Fighter visits his father's grave in the city. They also meet up with an old friend of theirs, a swashbuckler who is in town as well - this was an old player returning to the group.

While in the city taking care of business they end up learning of a quest in search of Bloody Jack's gold, a legendary pirate hoard. Someone has discovered an old map, and, well, you know how these things go. Soon enough they are sailing the Blood Sea on the Darkmaiden's Dance.

Sessions 44-48
A sailing voyage to a lost island full of nastiness followed by a delve into a trap and monster-filled dungeon ends with a sizable treasure found. It takes quite a while to loot the place and to load that much coinage but the party is very wealthy after this adventure.

Sessions 49-51
Returning to Mithril the party has a few days to expend some of their loot and ponder their next move. Then word comes in - Ordocar Abbey, a stronghold of the Mithril Order, is under attack! Our heroes can hardly refuse a call for aid from their own allies and so the group heads north to lift the siege. They teleport directly to the front gate only to find the undead attackers have already broken through the defenses and a fight rages throughout the castle! They manage to destroy the invaders and defeat the leader, an undead fallen Paladin looking for revenge.  Though victorious, they are concerned that this may have been a diversion to allow other forces to break into the Iron Crypt, a remote underground fortress where the most evil of artifacts, things that cannot be destroyed by mortal means, are kept hidden away from the rest of the world. They resolve to investigate ...

Sessions 52-54
...and this is where it all comes crashing down.

The entrance to the crypt is guarded by two stone golems who prove to be very effective guardians and the Cleric is killed during the fight. Teleportation magic makes things easier and he is soon raised at the High Temple in Mithril and the party is ready to crack open the vault. Fighting their way through traps and undead they sense a powerful and growing evil.

Finally, while fighting in a cavern full of undead driders, Aden (the Cleric) falls. Though the party fights on, he rises again on his own but with a new look in his eyes and beckons to his wife (the Ranger). As he embraces her, she "turns" as well and now a new fight is on - an intra-party fight as those who die here rise quickly as evil undead versions of themselves. Sensing the danger, Cressa (the Wizard) dimension doors to a clear area, teleports Gotar to her side, and separates them from the battle with a wall of force. As they watch, the rest of the party falls, then rises with that new light in their eyes. Deciding that it's over she drops her disguise, revealing herself to be a dark elf, then teleports herself and her loyal follower to Dier Drendal, the city of the dark elves, to begin a new life.

DM notes
So after three years the campaign ends in while not a TPK, certainly a down moment, especially for my Paladin player. It's a nasty dungeon with traps and level-draining undead but I felt my players were up to it. I still think they were, but one part of the dungeon is basically radioactive with evil from one powerful artifact and dying in that part is a bad thing. Once the cleric was dead I took him aside and told him what was going on and he decided to have fun with it while he could - naturally his first target was his character's wife and she played it well - cautious but concerned and that led to her being drained and raised and then it got really hairy and once the wizard punched out and took her pet fighter with her it was over. 

There are still some sore spots when this ending comes up, even years later. I still feel like I handled it right. Not all stories have a happy ending, and it was not a TPK. People were playing their characters true and not in that "I'm a jerk" kind of way. Choices were made and consequences were suffered - that doesn't make it "fair" but it's how this tale turned out. I admit I was disappointed that it ended because I had a lot of plot threads hanging and more adventures to run, including a quest for the paladin to get his holy sword. 

Ah well. If at all possible I will be touching on some of the events of this campaign in my new one, which is one of the reasons I wanted to recount it. I also wanted to show how easy it is to drop in published adventures over the course of a campaign and how certain ones just seem to fit as a group develops. This was my next-to-last 3E campaign and hopefully the leftover material from it will find a new home in that new game. More to come - this time in 5th Edition!

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Old Scarred Lands Campaign - Year 2

Picking up where I left off here is what the party looked like during these sessions:

  • Aden Hornmantle, Human Cleric of Corean 
  • Rukan, Human Paladin of Corean 
  • Gotar, Half-Orc Fighter 
  • Simone, Human Ranger/Rogue
  • Cressa, "High Elf" Wizard 
  • Caldon Greyleaf, Spellthief (intermittent player)
By the middle of the year they were all levels 6-7.

Sessions 12-19
These were spent exploring the upper levels of the tomb and recovering in town. highlights here included:
  • Paying the town's high-level wizard Karnov the Red to use a limited wish spell to free the paladin from a cursed sword. 
  • Having the headless half-orc resurrected after one particularly tough battle
  • Fighting skeletons, zombies, cave morays,basilisks, trolls, ankhegs, and su-monsters 
  • First encounters with priests of Orcus!
After this I was concerned we might be getting into too much of a rut so while in town a new problem came to light and the party headed out to ...

Sessions 21-26
These were spent exploring the legendary White Plume Mountain. Only one of my players had been through it before and that had been some time back. The high point here was when Blackrazor took possession of the Ranger who was finally saved by the Paladin who managed to fail some saves and get possessed by the sword himself while back in town. This resulted in a a massive chase all over town by the whole party. He was eventually captured and freed from the sword which was then hurriedly deposited in the temple of Corean for safekeeping. They still  bring this up today so I must have done something right.

Sessions 28-32
After the Mountain experience - or the Blackrazor experience as they would no doubt call it - it was time to dig back into the Tomb of Abysthor. This is where they dug into level 4 and got into a big battle with ogre guards and cultists of Orcus. Afterwards they had the Half-Orc raised again and decided they might need some help. This led to the cleric getting more involved with the Temple of Corean, the wizard joining the Mages Guild, the Ranger finding a new pet, and the fighter & paladin buckling down and beefing up their gear. 

Further Thoughts on 2006
This whole year's worth of the campaign was spent based out of Amalthea and traveling to two different dungeons. There was a lot of action but there was also a lot of intra-party roleplaying and character development. There were certain NPC's that made regular appearances and were much liked (or dis-liked) but the bulk of the fun stuff really happened within the party. In-world holidays were celebrated, characters died and came back, NPCs were mocked, and we had a blast.