Thursday, May 28, 2020

Liminal D&D

One of my favorite things about AD&D is the “between adventure” time, when players can stretch their role play muscles and do things with individual characters. It’s also fun to see where they bump up against the game world. Today’s session was one that was mostly “liminal’, e.g. between adventures, so I thought it would be a good example of what a 1e AD&D game looks like when you aren’t in the evil temple.

It’s also interesting as my sessions run about ⅓ each of exploration, social interaction and combat, but sometimes you get no combat at all in an individual session. This is one of those sessions. So if you were curious how old school systems handle the non-combat sessions, here is an example. Just for calibration purposes, this one was 3 hours long, 

Finally, people often ask for "examples of play" and what you get is a description of walkng down a corrider and falling into a pit. AD&D is so much more than that, and this is an example of play that shows the range of possibilities. Just for calibration purposes, this session was 3 hours long, 

Last session they had broken a merchant out of a warlock’s tower, short story, the merchant faked his death to frame their employer, Kammerli the Ivory. Kammerli is a warlock in my city setting, working for House Himmenghost, one of the noble houses that runs the city.

Kamerlil was framed for the death of Quillor Maas, a wealthy shipping merchant. Quillor took a large sum of money from one of Kammerli’s rivals at House Himmenghost (the party does not yet know who)  and he was spirited away to the keep of Warlock Ghon Mord. Mord was paid to frame Kammerli for murder by keeping Quilor with him for a few weeks then he will polymorph Quillor to look different than he does at the moment, and Quillor will “take over” his previous business interests as a “lost relative” who Quilor left his inheritance to. Kammerli is charged with murder. In my setting warlocks and lords have honor duels to resolve differences, killing someone in their sleep (which was the set up here) is dishonorable. 

So the party took the merchant, then left four gargoyles from a monster summoning spell to keep the warlocks at the tower busy while they escaped. It worked, and they made it back to their ward and to their employer. Kammerli couldn’t retain them directly, so his stone giant bodyguard, Jokal, was the intermediary. 

They travelled through the city with a sullen Quillor Maas, who was only cooperating as they promised to plead with Kammerli for his life if he returned without resistance. So they met with Jokal, and he took Quillor to the Ward’s Justiciar and Magus, the high level paladin and warlock who are in charge of adjudicating the ward’s administration of city law in egregious circumstances like this. Kammerli was freed, and asked the party to meet at his tower that night.

They went back to Kammerli’s tower and he told them he was grateful that they had found Quillor and cleared his name, and he saw the value of having a small team of adventurers who were NOT affiliated with his House on retainer, to look out for his interests, as this scheme with Quillor was linked to another warlock or lord at House Himmenghost. When he was freed city law made Quillor his prisoner, and he used sorcery to extract much information so far.

So the party stewed about this, and said they might be interested in having a patron. Then he offered them something else. We role played the session in character, they were eating and drinking and he told them the most valuable thing that you can have in the city is real estate, and you aren’t allowed to own any unless you are a citizen. Or you can have real estate bequeathed to you.

He offered them a place in the city, a second floor of a building that is a storage facility for Kammerli. If the PCs ever decide to snoop around the first floor I have a few ideas about  how to make that fun. 

The stairs are in the middle and are separated from the first floor by walls, they lead to a corridor that goes to the front of the building. There is a table and chairs at the landing, room 1 is a kitchen, room 13 is a bathroom 12 is storage, the rest they can set up as they like. There will likely be a room for animal companions as well, and a stable downstairs for their mounts.

So Kammerli sent them to their new place, and they were to report to him the next day or two for their first assignment, at their leisure.

Day 2, they decide to go out into the city and explore a bit, specifically the party fighters want to get some weapons covered in silver, as they have just encountered undead and have decided silver is a good idea. On the way to the weaponsmith I roll for an encounter, and they run into two of the warlocks from the tower they raided, and one other warlock they hadn’t met, along with two Algoids (plant creatures from the Fiend Folio). I was planning on having the warlocks catch up with the party, so they were a result on the random encounter table, the dice gave us a potential combat encounter.

A brief word about my setting. Warlocks and Lords in my setting (women and men use the same titles) are public figures competing for honor, skill and power. They have a reputation, and when they take a setback like this, having a man under Ghon Mord’s protection snatched out of his hands, well, that demands restitution.

So Ghon used his resources to track down the party and two days after the raid he finds them on the street. Ghon Mord (8th level warlock) issued a formal challenge to the group on his behalf and behalf of his two companions, Moon Abithin (5th level warlock) and Zimmerlin Suel (7th level warlock), He was wearing a House insignia of House Omsan, a white mountain on black, showing his House colors meant it was a formal challenge and had the approval  of his House (or it didn’t, and he was playing around). Ghon waved over city guards, always accompanied by a warlock of their own, and asked for her to witness the formal challenge.

His challenge was shaped by city laws, when offense to the reputation of a warlock is given, restitution may be demanded in one of four ways:

The options were: 1. Return Quillor Maas to them  2. Go to the arena and fight it out, to the death or to surrender 3. Pay them off with magic (scroll spells, magic items) 4. Take on a dangerous job to repay them 

Now, just to be super clear, I have ran a lot of D&D games, and in MANY cases, the group would have taken the arena fight, just to mix it up. It’s one of those standard observations about D&D that it “encourages combat”, but what form that takes isn’t really discussed. My group plays 1e, so they know combat can quickly shift against them, particularly with spell casters when you don’t know what they can cast. These guys were prepared and angry, everyone at my table knew this could be a deadly encounter, and as the guards were all around and they were in public, and following the laws of the city.

The players decided to take option 4, to take a job on for these guys to address his honor challenge.
What does that tell you about what 1e rewards? In my game, faction play is important. Paying off this honor debt both saves them the future enmity of this warlock and his House, but also gives them a chance to show they are badasses, build their own reputation, and even gain new alliances. 1e is an unbalanced game where you can encounter things beyond your pay scale at any level, so alliances make sense, they also help with information, resources and at generating adventures, which, in a gp=xp system, generates experience.

So no, 1e doesn’t prioritize combat, except as a last resort, or sometimes as a preventative strike.

I decided to see how Ghon would take their choice, would he seek to send them to their doom on an impossible quest, would he betray them? . I rolled the encounter reaction and it indicated a strong positive (99%) so I decided that Ghon was impressed at the party for pulling one over on him and honoring the city’s laws (the party are outsiders), and he was going to send them on an important but dangerous job. Ghon is treating this as a bit of a test, if they do well he may try to wrest them away from Kammerli. 

He told them to meet up the next day at the docks to board the Silver Sword, their mission would be revealed to them there. They went back to Kammerli to see if he was OK with them taking the other job. I rolled a reaction roll for that too, maybe he would be angry, offended? The roll was positive, so he agreed, wanting to know what Ghon was going to ask of them. Information is power, and the party could be his ears, or betray Ghon after completing his job if it was beneficial. There was some explicit discussion of whether or not to betray Ghon after taking this road. They decided that they would draw the line at him asking them to do anything shocking (e.g. slaughter innocents). 

The game is like an onion, layers upon layers. 

I love these sorts of discussions at the table, strategy, long term planning, resource management, right and wrong. That lasted a bit

So they had a day to plan, knowing they would be heading out on a ship, and we had avoided a fight. 

What happened next was cool. They had time to kill, so I asked what they wanted to do. Did they want to buy any equipment? Cast any spells? Visit the thieves guild, that sort of thing. One of the players looked at me and asked, “Can we hire henchmen”? 

I did a small inside dance. I love it when they hire henchmen, as they bring a host of benefits to the game, particularly when you play an open ended sandbox 1e AD&D game as I do:

A. They add to the strength of the party B. They give the players another character to run if their PC dies, we play it so the henchman inherits your stuff unless you designate it to someone else C. They give players other vectors of action if their PC is not able to contribute or does badly. Having henchmen means you have other options for what to do, of if your main character misses or fails, your henchmen might still be able to act D. IMC if your henchman survives for a long enough time they can become a 1st level fighter and level with you 

They asked Kammerli about where to find henchmen, and he sent them to one of his contacts. This avoided the need to roll in the DMG to see if they could find help. 

The players LOVE to get henchmen, they kit them out from their own pockets and we roll for various stats. I roll a 1 in 20 chance that a henchman will have an exceptional stat, for the 11 henchmen hired, one had an exceptional stat. We don’t roll the other stats at the moment, as they are all by definition unexceptional (they don’t generate bonuses). We roll for HP, or take the average. All henchmen have 1-6 HP, attack as 0-levels, which means levelled NPCs get their level in attacks against them.

They choose armor, and this spawned the second big conversation of the game, armor good and bad. We discussed the various in game benefits so they could make the decision, and most of them opted for lighter armor to have faster henchmen. Again, this is a reflection of the game, 1e makes movement important, and better armor is heavier and can slow you down. shields are good but not great in D&D, i add a few bennies to them. 

One PC hired two henchmen with heavy armor.

Weapons choice was a great opportunity for a reminder about the basics, you need a melee weapon and a missile weapon at minimum, then there are options. Pole arms in my game have dismounting/ disarming options, spears are good all purpose weapons with set against charge and use while charging as an option. 

I give all henchmen three weapon slots to start. If they want they can sacrifice one of them for a +1 to hit with one weapon. The choices were interesting, one PC went for 3 slingers with shortswords dressed in breastplate, helm and vambrace, others went for 3 chain mail sword and boarders with crossbows, the party illusionist hired three with leather armor, daggers and short swords, and the party thief hired two plate mail clad ranseur wielders, that was unexpected. Since that was the only weapon the ranseur wielder’s took, they got a +1 to hit with it. He also got the henchman with the exceptional stat, so we rolled and it was strength, we rolled for that and it was 17. So he got an additional +1 to hit with his ranseur.

I will name them and stat them up this week. That will make our party 17 strong. 


Then they went to the docks and the Silver Sword. There they met the captain and came on board, there were 40 sailors on the ship, and they were greeted by Ghon and his two companions. 

Their job was to sail several days out into the ocean to an island. The island is believed to be cursed, and it houses a powerful magic item, a chalice that produces water which gives you visions of the future and the past. Ghon wants the chalice, and the party will retrieve it and return it to him to discharge their debt. He provides them with three charms, each one with a bas relief of a broken chain, in jade. They have symbols on them. They are priest “scrolls” (IMC priest scrolls are not scrolls, they are items with symbols), and each one can remove a curse, with success linked to the level of the caster. The party priest of Zeus took these.

Unbeknownst to the party one of the ship crew is a minor warlock that works for Ghon, he will shadow them and if they find the chalice and take off he will use a charm that Ghon has given him to contact him and let him know.

The party accepts the job and they set sail in the morning.

So now we are at sea. I told the players we could do one of a few things:
  1. I roll for weather to determine progress and encounters every day several times until they reach the island, and we only stop “hand waving” things when we have an encounter
  2. We talk about what the PCs are doing “between rolls”, so “my character watches the water for threats”, or “my character practices with his longsword”, or whatever.
  3. We role play in character so the PCs can interact with the NPCs on the ship

One of the player mentioned that talking to the ship might get us a fairer picture of what is to be encountered than they would get from Ghon. They were right about this.

So the party thief, who has a charisma of 15, starts playing rock paper scissors with his henchmen. One of the sailors, who has never seen this game, walks up and watches. The sailor asks about  the game, and for the next few minutes we had a conversation about it.

“There are three things, rock, paper and scissors, each one is weak to one and strong to another. So, rock smashes scissors.”

“But surely rock tears paper”

“No, paper covers rock”.

The sailor was having none of that. 

Paper cannot stop a rock!

I rolled an encounter reaction roll after a few minutes of this conversation, and the sailor was neutral, so we talked it out and they moved on. 

Then the party thief joined a dice game. We played that for about 10 minutes, some gold exchanged hands, and I rolled another encounter reaction, this one was good, so I spun something out of the conversation. The thief had asked the sailor how long he had been working the sea and since the reaction was favorable I had him give up other information, specifically that he had sailed the coastlines for a few years, but he had been to this island twice before.

That jump started the conversation. For the next bit we discussed things, and the sailor revealed that they had taken a group of mercenaries to the island a month ago, they disappeared. Then a group of adventurers with a warlock, one of them ran bloodied out of the jungle and had to be killed as he was raving mad and violent.

The party is the third expedition.

That produced a lot of conversation. 

I rolled for encounters for that entire day, nothing. Then for the night, they assigned themselves to watch duty with the rest of the crew and I rolled three more times, nothing.

The next day they had a full day’s sailing ahead of them to get there. They decide to sleep in and wake at noon, and the party ranger asks the ship’s captain if they can stop for a half hour so he can take a swim. He always wanted to swim in the deep ocean.

I roll for an encounter reaction and the captain agrees, and she has six of the crew climb the ropes and find spots to sit with their crossbows armed and ready. They will watch the waters for sharks and large predators while the ranger, D’Kell Massar, goes swimming.

You know, when stuff like this happens I’m happy. This is immersion. When the game world is real enough to the players that they want to interact with it, just for fun. I rolled for possible encounters with underwater nastys every 5 minutes he chose to stay in the water. A 1 in 4 chance each time. He passed three checks before going back in.

When stuff like this happens I’m happy that AD&D is a game of small cumulative bonuses, because it gives me the chance to play around. In this case, I decided that jumping in the dangerous waters and swimming around impressed the crew and Massar’s henchmen, so that would give him a small (5%) ER bonus with the crew and his new henchmen. 

Just for reference, if they are good to their henchmen then they will be loyal, that means helping them in combat, healing them, sharing loot, etc. 

So we moved on to the evening, and I rolled my last random encounter roll right after they see the island in the distance under a bright half moon.

I rolled an encounter with Sahuagin. About 30 of them. IMC I have replaced undead for the most part with lycanthropes of various kinds, they work better for my setting. So these sahuagin, if they land a bite attack from the claw/claw/bite, can infect you. They have weapons, but if you get close they use natural attacks.

Now here’s the super cool part. I rolled for surprise, because the sauhagin were approaching from under water at night,  so there was a chance they would surprise the ship. There was a watch on, and lanterns lit in the sails (more on that later), but they had a good chance at surprise. So I upped their odds to a 3 in 6 chance of surprising the party.

Then I rolled to see if D’kell was on duty, as a ranger his chance of being surprised is reduced by 1 in 6. I rolled that the attack came during the 4th watch, which was his, so the overall chance of the party being surprised was 2 in 6. The sahuagin were surprised on a regular 2 in 6.

So we rolled, the party rolled a 4, the sahuagin rolled a 1. So that means the PARTY surprised the sahuagin. 

This is one of those places where the game mechanics challenge you. How do I explain the Sahuagin being surprised? On the spot I interpreted it like this.

“This area of the sea is well known for sahuagin, underwater dwelling creatures that swarm ships at night as the light bothers their eyes. The ship has lanterns hanging from various places in the sails and on deck on poles. The watchmen sit at these lanterns and if the sahuagin start climbing the hull they shine the bullseye lanterns at them blinding them. On of the sailors up in the sails saw something glint in the moonlight near the water and shone down his light, he screamed, “SEA DEVILS ON THE PORT SIDE” and all the various watchmen shone their lights down, blinding the creatures from the deep”

So now, everyone on that ship gets THREE ATTACKS against the sahuagin climbing up the ship, so that's 10 crossbowmen for now, and the party members on watch. 

1e surprise is a harsh mistress, sometimes it hits you, sometimes the enemies.

They will hopefully thin the herd a bit, 30 2 HD sahuagin lycans against a crew of 40 +17 party members will be a rough ride, sahuagin have nets, great weapon stats, and once they use javelins to take out a few bullseye lanterns they will even the odds fast.

That was the session.

Three hours, not a shot fired, everyone had a blast, they loved the reward, they loved the formal challenge from Ghon, they enjoyed equipping and rolling up their henchmen, interacting with the crew, gathering intel and swimming in the ocean!

AD&D is a remarkably flexible engine, and once the PCs move in a direction the game just sort of organically grows from there. It certainly doesn’t reward combat, nor necessitate it, to achieve success in the game, and the sessions without it can be as fulfilling and exciting as those where there is plenty. Like next session, let’s see if anyone gets bitten!

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