Sunday, July 19, 2020

Expanding Domain and Faction Play in Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.

So we had another session in my new campaign world of Xiombal tonight. We were having so much fun we lost track of time and went over.  A few of the highlights

This campaign is focused on domain play. Rather than getting to high level and securing a domain, they have joined an expanding Fort settlement in a distant dinosaur and giant animal filled jungle. The angle here is that they are part of the settlement, hired to protect it along with the soldiers. So this is domain play where they play members of the fort, not the leaders

They can choose to work with the sorcerer who runs the fort, Maegar the Mighty, and the commander of the Fort’s soldiers, a lizard folk slayer named Uraku. They can align against them, or work with one against the other, or align with any other factions within or outside of the Fort. 

I’m tracking their status with the various factions at the fort and elsewhere. For example, they killed a vodyani, an underwater umber hulk that had been killing fishermen as Maegar hadn’t prioritized it. So they now know the fishermen are unhappy with Maegar and the fishermen now like the party for dealing with it. The fishermen are an important group at the fort as they provide food so the other crops can be traded and sold

Also, the fort soldiers had claimed that bandits were stirring up local dinosaurs to attack the fort. Uraku had doubted them, the party convinced Uraku to investigate, and they routed the bandits in the last session. 

Then they hunted down the Sorcerer Morgalath, who led the bandits, he bargained for his life and in exchange for his chest with his items and information he was set free. 

In this game world lizard folk are the dominant group, and humans and aarakocra have been settling a new continent. The party found out the bandits were hired to attack and disrupt selected settlements. The party were told a lizard folk Regis (this game world has no nations, just lizard folk run Roman style city states, a Regis is a powerful city state leader, each Regis heads a powerful family) had hired them.

The Shakarn family led by the regis Vissa Mahr, located in the city state Raet, paid the bandits. This is explosive news, as the official position of the Lizard folk city states is that they are indifferent to human and aarakocra expansion into the continent. 

Secondly, they found out that there was a cult of psionic acolytes in the deep jungles around Fort Maegar that worshipped the “insane gods” (read Cthulhu gods, the gods of chaos). 

These were two pieces of important information, gaining them gave them power and prestige, which matters more in this game and will translate to encounter reaction bonuses with some people and penalties with others 

Then they had Morgalath’s chest. The party aarakocra thief looked for traps and found them. In this case there was a sigil on the chest. He recognized it as a magical ward but not what kind. 

Sorcerers in Xiombal are sages, this was outside the party sorcerer’s  fields but he still had a 19% chance to know the sigil, he rolled 15 so I told him it was explosive runes. So they came up with a plan. The party thief would try to disarm it, neutralizing the magic of the ward, the party disciple ( a home brew class, a monk/cleric/druid combination) would cast resist fire on the thief first. The thief used his cold iron tools to try and disrupt the sigil.

IMC if you set off an explosive rune it explodes outwards and destroys what it was written on, so I’d you put it on a chest the chest is destroyed but the contents are left behind. This prevents hack thieves from destroying their items. In a neat twist, the spell is guaranteed to do a min of 11 hp damage, save for half, which will slay any 0-level, only a classed PC stands a chance at survival. 

He rolled high enough to fail the remove traps roll, and high enough to trigger the enchantment, and the chest exploded outwards. He saved, so dove out of the way of the worst of it, and the contents of the chest were left on the ground

Two scroll spells (Pro from Normal Missiles and a homebrew spell called Entir’s Eminent Elevation that elevates targets into the air where they hang helpless then drops them for minor damage (used on the party last week). There were 3 platinum bars... and a crystal ball.

This is an information and faction play game, and now the party sorcerer can spy on anyone he meets for a short period of time. It’s a game changing item and it will make him both powerful and a potential target.

They returned to the Fort and chose to share their intel about the Regis family and the cult with  Maegar, but not the crystal ball. Uraku knows about it but didn’t share with Maegar either. So they learned of a fissure there as well. They then discussed next steps. 

Maegar wanted to send a diplomatic and trade delegation to a nearby Settlement, Neirpal. 

He wanted them to do some information gathering, to see if Neirpal, an aarakocra settlement, was also being targeted, or perhaps the Regis was supporting the aarakocra settlements. They would take goods to trade and try to forge an alliance or at least a mutual non aggression pact, and do some snooping or deal making. Option B was to go North to investigate the potential lair of a sorcerer. They had found hybrid monsters in the woods, and hybrid monsters are made by sorcerers. Their hunters had seen lights and suspected a sorcerer lived on a nearby escarpment. So the party went to get him instead, the trade mission would wait

They took a two day trip with wandering monster rolls but none came up. They arrived at a bend in the river near the escarpment. The hunters claimed that lights appeared when a man crossed the river here. They fled immediately but swore they saw a glowing figure coming from the escarpment.

So the party arrived and one of them crossed the river. They figured this tripped an alarm and the sorcerer appeared. Instead they brought out a ghost, the ghost was a warrior who drowned in this river after being turned over by his comrades to buy their freedom from the forest cult. He escaped after their torture and was hunted down and psi blasted into paralysis when crossing the river, where he drowned. He is back as a ghost. If they try to talk with him he will tell them to help him slay the cultists, if they do not he will slay them in his blind fury. So the ghost appears, a glowing, smoking crimson apparition of a warrior. 

They all roll saves, the party Mercenary (fighter) and thief age 10 years and flee in terror. They also change stats from the aging. That scared them a bit.

They do not speak with it so it dives in to attack the PC who crossed the river, screaming as it dives. The player then says he jumps in the river. Since this is where the ghost drowned, I rolled to see if he would go in the water after the PC. It came up “no”, and the PC ( a mercenary/slayer multi-class, the slayer is a assassin / ranger custom class) was safe. Blind luck, but it worked!

The ghost then turned to attack the party. Initiative was rolled and the party Sorcerer and Disciple cast protection from evil on themselves, IMC this spell hedges ghosts and spirits. The ghost attacks the party yuan-ti slayer, they miss each other (the yuan-ti’s attack can’t hurt the ghost anyway) and it passes over. The ghost then attempts a magic jar against the yuan-ti, and it works. He takes him over and heads to attack the party disciple. 

Now, I have home brewed casting rules for the sorcerer so they can cast higher level spells than usual for their level from memory. But ALL spells, level appropriate or not, have failure odds based on intelligence + caster level, and harm odds based on spell level.  His casting odds are 78% (he’s third level with a 17 INT), the last 6 sessions the sorcerer has cast all of his spells successfully.

This time he cast Tenser’s Transformation. He failed the casting, the first failure of the campaign for him. Then he had to roll to see if the failure was harmful. As a 6th level spell there was a [30% chance - the caster’s level] of harm. He rolled a 20.

So the spell had a harmful effect. I decided he was transformed as the spell describes but he would go into an uncontrolled rage and attack anyone nearby.

So the party disciple asked what would happen if they cast a protection from evil spell on the ghost possessed PC. If pro from evil hedges ghosts, would casting it on a PC possessed by a ghost’s magic jar to be pushed out.

I made an on the spot ruling to treat pro from evil like dispel magic, base 50% chance -5% per level difference between the ghost (it’s HD - 10) and the caster (3rd). So there was a - 35% modifier, for a 15% chance. She cast it but failed the roll so the ghost wasn’t expelled. It then attacked the disciple but couldn’t hit her because of her protection from evil.

That enraged the ghost further!

So the situation was:
1. Two party members, one flying and one running, had aged 10 years and fled in terror
2. One PC was possessed by a ghost that can age them when it hits them
3. One PC is mad with rage and attacking all people nearby while under a Tenser’s transformation spell.
4. Another PC hides beneath the river. 

We were a half hour over time at that point so we stopped. The next session, this Friday, should be eventful!

I’m loving how factions and domain play are shaping this campaign. Information is power, and they are plotting, making alliances and exploring both the game world and the new classes and magic system.

Good times.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

D&D and Hit Points - It’s Not What You Think

OK, there has been a bit of a surge recently in discussion of hit points in D&D. As expected (by me at least!) there has been a lot of loose talk and sweeping claims being made. So I thought I would do some loose talk and make some sweeping claims of my own.

Hit points in D&D are not “strictly physical”, Gygax makes that clear as far back as 1e where he explicitly says that hit points are not just physical, otherwise a 10th level fighter would be built like an ox. Hit points thus are an abstraction. They represent a bunch of different things:

Dodging a blow
Taking a blow but one that doesn’t damage you significantly
Rolling with a blow
Favor of the gods

There may be other possibilities too. However, Gygax didn’t break down what exactly HP were, so there is no guideline to explain WHAT happens when you take HP damage. So for example, what percentage of your HP are “luck”, what percentage are “favor of the gods”, that sort of thing.

And it gets more interesting if you look at saving throws. Saving throws in 1e AD&D are tied to class membership, so if you are a magic user for example, your saves versus magic are comparatively better as it is assumed you are using your ability to manipulate magic to redirect or control the magic directed at you. Clerics get excellent saves across the board as they are assumed to be to some degree protected by the gods, etc.

Now, many people criticize Gygax (and by extension later editions that adopted his abstracted, non-specific approach to HP) for his decision to treat HP this way. And I understand why this is the case, it can be confusing.

But I think people are fundamentally misunderstanding what HP represent in the game, they get stuck in the abstraction and whether or not it mirrors anything in the real world. That is a mistake in this case, as hit points aren’t really representative of physical toughness, luck, or anything else.

They are narrative armor.

D&D is a story game, I know, I know, what the hell.

But really, it is. It is a story game because ONLY CLASSED PCs and monsters get more than 1-6 hp. And only classed PCs and monsters are important to the story. The reason a 10th level PC has a bucket of HP is that a 10th level PC is important to the story, they have plot armor so they will stick around for a while. D&D emulates pulp literature, and in pulp literature Conan doesn’t die in the first story he appears in. Neither does the Grey Mouser, or John Carter, or any other pulp or literary hero. The story is about those who survive, not those who die in the first five minutes. So the game has to have some mechanical way to emulate that.

Hit points are one such tool, saving throws are another.

This is why D&D is such a bad fit with player facing “luck” mechanics that allow them to fudge results, and DM’s who constantly fudge the game in their favor. It’s a bad fit because it ALREADY HAS PLOT ARMOR BAKED INTO THE GAME.

If you want to get a better sense of this, try the following experiment. The next time the group goes out on an adventure give each PC 1-6 HP on their sheet. Then record elsewhere their regular HP total minus these 1-6 HP. Then, each time something in the game would have killed them at 1-6 HP, take that damage off of the secret total, but don’t tell them you are doing this. Say instead “the arrow misses you”, or “you just manage to hang on to the branch and break your fall”, or “fortunately the fireball blowback stops a few feet in front of you”, that sort of thing.

Then, when the pool of secret HP are gone, describe the next hit or damage as physical, and let them know if they die based on the amount.

Mechanically, you have changed nothing, but from the player’s perspective, their hit points are now strictly physical.

This is how HP work in D&D. They are narrative gaming tools just like tools in games that allow PCs to change results, but they do so PASSIVELY, not ACTIVELY.

So people who complain that D&D HP are “nonsensical” or “unrealistic” or “confusing” are really resisting the idea that D&D characters are like characters in fantasy novels, they are the central characters in a story, and as such last longer than your average 0-level peasant or shopkeeper.

Gygax liked the idea of passive narrative tools, alignment, encounter reactions, morale, hit points, saving throws, all of these are designed to make the game more like the stories it was intended to emulate, but they don’t give players active control over the mechanics, instead they kick in when appropriate.

I think this was done to maintain the illusion of an independent game world, for various reasons this illusion can be helpful to maintain immersion, and to create a challenging game where the players have a sense of achievement.

It’s fine of course to want a different kind of system for this, there is nothing sacrosanct about the way Gygax and earlier creators handled hit points. But it isn’t “nonsensical” or “broken” or “absurd”, it’s a clever game design element to capture one aspect of the literature that the game was meant to emulate.

White Plume Mountain Day 5

So we started today with the party fighter/illusionist, magic user and thief/magic-user on the second ledge in the hanging chains room. The rest of the party and the NPC party were stranded back on the first ledge. They had seen two people fall to their doom in the boiling mud and had decided that they were not interested.

The fighter from the NPC party (Hoan Brannor - the “White Lion”) had been given possession of Wave, the NPC party was sent to retrieve the artifact, and since the party helped them get it, they were now helping the party to get Blackrazor. Hoan was sent along as a worshipper of Poseidon so he would be able to use the trident. Last session he attempted the crossing but fell off one of the discs, on his way down he activated the cube of force ability of Wave and was bobbing up and down in the boiling mud like a cork.

They now had to cook up a plan. They were on the platform, 50’ up from the boiling mud. The party magic user (Mahl Unoss the Puissant) had used his levitation spell for the day. The party fighter/illusionist (Omallan the Carn), had used his Alter Self spell. The thief/magic-user (Hinn Virkoss, the “Brass Spider”) had a spider climb spell, so she could climb down the side of the rock and try to help Hoan up, but the minute he dropped his cube of force he would plunge into the boiling mud. It will last for a max of 18 turns.

So they talked about this. While this happened, I rolled for wandering monsters, one result on the table was Sir Bluto Sans Pite and his warriors, they were sent out after Snarla and Burket did not report back that the doors to the underground lake were secure. But the roll didn’t hit.

So they come up with a plan, there are three of them there, between them they have 150’ of rope. They fashion it into a huge loop, one big enough to fit around a 10’x10’X10’ cube.

They have fashioned a 50’ loop and tied 100’ of rope to it, and the two other PCs have it at the top. Hinn casts strength on Mahl, then positions herself and waits for the cube to bob close enough to loop it with the rope.  So, I rolled to see how long it would take for Hoan to bob back by. He fell off a later disc so he landed close, but there was no way to know where he was. So I just rolled for it, 1-6 turns until he would be close enough. I rolled a 2.

So two more wandering monster checks, both fail, and the cube of force with Hoan bobs into range. Then Hinn takes out a live spider from her belt pouch, eats it, and climbs down the cliff with the rope. She lines up the shot, and I told her she would get three chances, then the fighter would bob out of range and I would have to reroll. I also reminded her that her spider climb spell would last 6 minutes, and then she would have to make a climb walls roll to stay on, or grab the rope to avoid falling. She took a round to climb down and get into position.

I also told her that hitting this thing and snagging it would require a 20 to hit. She was allowed her RAA bonus (+1) from dex. So 19 or 20. She took her first shot and rolled a 19, snagged the cube, and pulled it in. That took 2 rounds. The other two PCs pulled too, and once the cube was hauled up a bit Hinn positioned herself underneath it, that took 2 rounds.

Hoan drops the cube, he falls and is caught by Hinn, who is still under the effect of the spider climb and right beneath him, she then gives him the rope to hang on to and makes a climb walls roll. She makes that as the spell ends, and then Hoan climbs up the rope as the other two party members hold it above. They both had to make open doors rolls to make that happen, with Mahl boosted by the strength spell and Omallan with a 15 strength they make the roll, and Hoan climbs up. Hinn then climbs over to the rope with a successful climb walls roll, and climbs up with the rope.

I was frankly shocked they pulled it off.

So they moved on to the door.

It was checked for traps by Hinn, after reviewing the door for sigils or signs that might indicate harmful glyphs, she ran a thin metal shiv around the edges to look for tripwires, she tapped the door with a hammer to check for hidden mechanisms, and then checked the floor and walls around it. This took them to a turn of time, and another wandering monster check. This came up with Sir Bluto, but I decided he would hold off, let  the foolish party face Ctenmiir and then clean up what emerged.

The thief announced the door was safe, and they opened it.

Now, when I prepped this module I noted which creatures were charmed and which were pressed into service or bound here. The charmed creatures could not be bargained with, the bound creatures could. It added a fun wrinkle to the game, and made it less predictable. So the vampire in this module won’t necessarily kill the party, as he wants Keraptis to suffer, and perhaps for him to be freed. So the party goes down the thin, dark corridor, and they find a door with holes in it.

They all look at each other. They approach the door, which is not fully closed, and look in to a room with nothing else other than a box, 7ft by 3ft by 3ft in size.

They enter, and check the box, and see it’s cover is slightly askew. They open it and see a cushion lining. I make them roll for surprise. They are not surprised, so I tell Hinn that she hears a noise behind her, just barely, like a sigh, and they turn to see a man with a black cloak standing before them.

He speaks in a voice cracked like death.

“Leave this place”

Hinn looks at the man and says, “Sure, I’m out” and turns to leave, the man, in her way, turns to smoke and reforms behind her, in front of the other party members.

“ITS A VAMPIRE” they all scream.

“Leave this place” he says again. And the other two look at each other and say, “OUT!” and start to run to leave, he once again turns to smoke, and goes back in to his room.

They run out like the Scooby gang.

They wanted NOTHING to do with the vampire. They knew it was guarding Whelm from the clue, so they only wanted it to help get Blackrazor. At this point they were just OUT on the vampire. I rolled to see if Ctenmiir would accept this hoping the adventurers would wreak havoc on Keraptis, or if he would feed on them for amusement. I rolled that he would sleep again, and he did.

So now I know what terrifies my players, not giants, not dragons, not ghouls, not gargoyles, not umber hulks, not squealers, but vampires.

Who knew?

So now they were stuck. They had to get back, and didn’t want to use the discs. I have house ruled monster summoning in my game so that it draws from the local monster population. The magic user had a wand of conjuration that could be used to summon monsters. The wand had been used already, and each use costs 3 charges. He used it again and I rolled on the wandering monster tables to see what it drew in, and it grabbed 5 gargoyles. That did the trick, they each grabbed a party member with a spare and flew them back over.

Now, Sir Bluto, when he realized they were coming back, withdrew to a more secure location, he gambled they would be going up the left branch of the dungeon, directly to a perfect ambush location, the hallway with the metal plates. So he calls his men back and they get into place.

The party follows suit and heads to the left branch of the dungeon, the one that they hope contains Blackrazor. They get to the hallway with the metal plates. They quickly discover it’s ability to heat up metal, and they try to figure out what to do. Since the module has started they have used up a lot of spells and abilities, and they haven’t had time to recover.

So eventually the party paladin takes off all his armor and weapons, joins the NPC party monk, the party illusionist sans weapons, and the magic user walking down the hallway. They get to the other side and come to a room with stairs on the other side. When they go to the stairs Sir Bluto and his men come out of a secret door and attack!

The party paladin and the monk block the stairs while the illusionist and magic user go up, the stairs narrow the number of opponents that can fight them. The NPC monk is attacked by three soldiers that try to overbear her, but she trounces them, breaking their grapple and sending them flying. The illusionist casts fog cloud and now all the warriors are effectively blind. The magic-user uses his wand of conjuration again (the charges are getting low) and waits to see what comes. The paladin and monk hold the line against the soldiers for another two rounds, the monk manages to stun one, the paladin manages to get a weapon from one and use it against him (recall that the paladin gets 5 attacks per round against these soldiers).

Then the conjured monsters arrive, three shadows. Shadows are one of my all time favorite D&D monsters, they are creepy, being two dimensional and moving across surfaces but becoming three dimensional to attack. They are fast, deadly and scary as hell. They wade into the fog cloud and start picking off soldiers.

What the magic user didn’t know was this: when the shadow hit a soldier and killed him, the soldier became a shadow! Since the soldiers didn’t have magic weapons, and they were blinded by the fog cloud, the shadows commenced a slaughter. And in several rounds there were 9 shadows in the room, only 3 under the command of the magic-user. This left Sir Bluto Sans Pite as the last man standing.

Mahl Unoss the Puissant was panicking, what to do about the shadows he didn’t control? Attack them with the shadows he did? He made an on the spot decision, that he would send away the shadows he did control and see if the others would follow. Since the shadows he did control spawned the others, I decided it was a possibility. I rolled and they followed the shadows out and away from them. I described them as screaming, boiling shadows flying down the corridors in search of souls…

So they now had to deal with Sir Bluto, who was pretty ticked. He charged the monk and she one-shot stunned him and when he went down slit his throat.

That was some unexpected badassery. And she saved the illusionist, who was the target of the warrior’s attack. The player who was running the illusionist didn’t like that much. He had two characters, a lizard man fighter and a fighter/Illusionist.

So they searched Sir Bluto’s body and found a key, searched the hidden room he came from and found a mechanism that fit the key. He turned it and the plates stopped working. The party re-kitted and continued. I checked the clock to see how we were doing, just under an hour left.

So they moved on to the next room, the frictionless room. This was a challenge for them. They quickly figured out the frictionless part and that there were two pits. Then they stewed on the problem for a bit, they had used a few spells that would have been helpful, and were stuck.

Then something crazy happened, the fighter illusionist PC decided to push the NPC party Monk (Sister Jalaka) in to the room, to see what happens when you slide into a pit. I have no idea why he did this, I know he was irritated that she had saved his can, but it was a wild reaction. Unfortunately I made him roll for surprise to try and push her without her noticing, he was surprised however, she was not. So she moved to the side and he fell into the room!

He slid into the first pit before anyone could react, and fell on to the spikes! Fortunately he rolled his save, but he still took a lot of damage. The party argued briefly with the NPCs before agreeing to bring him back. The threw him a rope and he pulled himself back over. There was quite a bit of conversation and encounter reaction rolls to see if the NPC party stayed with them after this, but the dice kept them there.

So they were stuck, and the magic-user suggested using his wand again, I reminded him that it had limited charges (9 to be specific), but they were out of options (or so they thought) and they were hoping for a flying monster.

They got two black puddings! They slithered up the hallway and the magic user ordered them into the room, the first one slid an oozed into the first pit and it’s caustic body ate away at the spikes on the bottom of the pit. The second one oozed over the first and slid to the second pit, where it did the same.

So now they had two pits with puddings in them, and they were no better off than before!

So this spawned more conversation, and a wandering monster roll (that came up blank). And then the party fighter asks Hoan Brannor - the “White Lion” if the cube of force could hold them all, and at 10’x10’ it can. So the decide to get into close formation, turn on the cube, and see if they can slide through the room.

Clever bunch.

They do so, slide over the first pit (as it is too narrow to fit the cube, and there is a black pudding there!) and over the second, coast through the illusory wall, bounce off the far wall and coast back, when they are in front of the exit door Hoan drops the cube and sinks his trident into the door, they all grab each other and one of them grabs the trident. Hoan then hauls himself up opens the door (to hit to stab the door, open doors to heave it open). They then leave the room one by one.

Not elegant, but effective.

Sister Jalaka kept a close eye on Omallan as they moved forward, she didn’t trust him. They moved down the hallway to a branch and chose south heading to a door. The party thief checked it for traps, came up with nothing, and they opened the door to see the inverted ziggurat.

Side note, none of my players knew what a ziggurat was before this game, let alone an inverted one, now they know!
At this point we had about a 45 min left. They saw all the different monsters in the room and decided that their best bet was to use the magic-user’s wand of conjuration to try and take control of the monsters in the room. The wand had 12 charges left, so they decided to try and break the glass barrier for the monsters at the top (the crayfish), then use the wand to try and control them or the scorpions in the next level. The caster can’t determine what they control with the wand, so it was a bit of a crapshoot.

Mahl Unoss the Puissant cast lightning bolt on the glass barrier and shattered it, sending a wave of water and the giant crayfish to the next level. He then used 6 charges from his wand and I rolled and he got the crayfish as his summoned monsters. He then proceeded to have them attack the giant scorpions. The scorpions were at a disadvantage in the water, so I wasn’t sure how that would go. I had the players roll the attacks for the summoned monsters, so they don’t just sit around watching me do stuff. The fight was short and furious, and when the smoke cleared there was a single giant scorpion left.

The party paladin waited until the scorpion was on the other side of the room and leapt down into its level, waded through the water and started smashing the glass with his mace, 4 solid blows later and the glass shattered, and the water flooded down to the sea lion level and washed over to the bottom level. The scorpion was washed over with it. The sea lions took care of the wounded, waterlogged scorpion in short order.

Then the moment of truth. Mahl had 6 charges left in the wand. If he wanted to control the sea lions, he would have to use them all. When you use up all the charges in a wand in AD&D the wand crumbles to dust. If you leave at least a few charges in you can conceivably recharge the wand. These characters will be continuing in our regular campaign play, so the player thought long and hard about this. He decided to “take one for the team” and use his last charges.

I rolled and the wand took control of the sea lions, the paladin and the fighter waded into the sea lion’s level and shattered the last glass barrier, flooding the pit entirely. Now the magic user had the sea lions fight the manticores. We shared the rolling duties and after a brief but fierce fight there was one manticore left, flailing in the water. They finished it off with missile fire, closed the door to the room and spiked it closed, and tried to figure out how to get down to the door at the bottom. Someone noticed that the water was draining, so they waited while the water drained out of the room completely.

When they went to the bottom the door was slightly ajar, inviting them in.

As I mentioned above there were a agents of Keraptis who were charmed, and others who were bound to service. Quesnef the ogre magi was bound to service, so he was looking for a way out, and adventurers were one possibility.

So I had planned that he would make an offer to the two parties, whichever party could offer up someone to take his place would be given the sword, as that would fulfill the conditions of the magic that bound him. I expected that the two parties would likely fight each other over this, and then Quesnef would either fight the winners or honor the bargain, depending on a reaction roll.

Instead, one of the players from the PC party suggested that they should put up the party illusionist Omallan the Carn as the sacrifice to take Quesnef’s place, as he had tried to kill the NPC party monk.

That was a bit of a shock, but it fit so well with the RP that had happened that I was delighted. Sometimes I have to remind myself that you should just roll with what happens at the table, I was worried that we might not finish in time, that things wouldn’t work out, but here the players gave me the solution on a silver platter.

What I wasn’t sure of was whether the player of the illusionist would be upset about this. I had given each player two PCs to run, something I usually do in my games due to attrition, so it wasn’t his only PC. So I asked him, what do you think of the idea? The other players suggested that they could threaten to kill the illusionist if he didn’t accept the offer, and use that as a lever to get him to agree to the exchange. They decided against that.

So the player of the illusionist thought about it and said, “Quesnef lives in luxury here, food, drink, luxurious surroundings, wanting for nothing. Sure, I’ll swap with him.”

And that was that.

Quesnef took out the sword, and asked the illusionist, “Do you freely accept this bond, to remain here until Keraptis sees fit to release you?”

He agreed, and Quesnef took off the amulet and gave it to him, binding him to this room until Keraptis let him out or someone else willingly took the amulet.

The PCs grabbed Blackrazor, and headed for the exit as fast as their feet could carry them. At this point we had about 5 minutes left so we stopped.

As anyone who has run a tournament module will know, timing is everything. You don’t HAVE to finish a tournament module, but it’s awfully nice when you do. I run an open sandbox game, so I normally don’t care about this sort of thing. But for a 1 week long summer camp, you want to try and complete something. Actually, your PLAYERS want to finish their task in the week, to them, it’s an accomplishment.

I’m super happy with how this turned out, the players were challenged, they had to use their noggins constantly to outwit this dungeon, and through some relatively minor additions I changed the flavor of the module to fit my campaign. And of course there can be long term repercussions to this as they still have to return the weapons to the warlocks who hired them, which could lead to all sorts of hijinks.

This was a big success, the players LOVED the module, there was just enough death that they felt it was challenging (two actual deaths and four very close calls), and they achieved their goals without me making it happen for them, so it felt like an achievement. They were saying to each other that they were going to brag about this to their friends, they had beaten an old school module with brains and a bit of the old ultra-violence, and they really enjoyed the “funhouse” aspect of the adventure. It ends up players LIKE to be challenged *as players*, not just as characters, they LIKE the threat of death, they LIKE the excitement that comes from taking real risks.

And they don’t like vampires.

I have a brief break then I will be running another summer camp in the first week of August. Depending on how many players are interested (at the moment I have 4) I may split up the camps into two groups, one playing in the AM and the other in the afternoon, we’ll see. I have to pick a module for that as well.

Here’s to first edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and the hours of pure adventuring joy that it brings. They will be talking about this adventure for a long time, I’m proud of them for outwitting much of this adventure, and for completing their task. This is the first time I’ve had a group finish all three branches of this adventure. They rocked it.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

White Plume Mountain - Day 4 

This one was too long for a Tweet!

I treat dungeons like organic, breathing things. They exist and operate with both objects and living creatures in symbiosis. Modules don’t really give you a ton of guidance on what to do based on what the PCs do. Instead they explain the set up and you have to improvise. So last session the PCs tore a hole in the bubble that kept out the water from a superheated volcanic lake. Now the area beyond the safety doors (at 14), where the giant crab and the trident Wave are located, is flooded. They have to retrieve Wave from this boiling lake behind a steel door sealed by the pressure of the lake water.

I decided to roll to see if Keraptis was “in lair” when this happened. He’s a powerful wizard, he will have things to do, he won’t always be there. I rolled that he was out of house. So I said to myself, if Keraptis built this dungeon as a test, would he have a course of action if the bubble collapsed? I mulled it over, and decided that if the bubble collapsed then the local agents in the dungeon would immediately ensure that the safety doors were not breached, as a breech would completely flood the dungeon. From weakest to strongest these agents they would go to check on the doors and ensure that the dungeon didn’t flood

I decided that when the bubble collapses the magic that created it slowly self-repairs the bubble, then magically leeches the water out of the space, but over a 3 day period. Still, if the party destroyed the bubble they might be able to destroy the safety doors, so they would be checked on I looked at the wandering monster table, and assumed that the wandering monsters periodically come up from the “indoctrination center” mentioned in the module. When a breach happens, Keraptis’ agents in the module are given monsters from the center to investigate. 

First up was the warrior Burket and wizard Snarla, four wights from the indoctrination center were sent to them and they headed out to the doors to see what had happened. While they were heading over, the party was trying to decide what to do. 

The party illusionist said he could use wraithform to get past the doors, but he couldn’t grab the trident on the other side. So they stewed on it for a while longer, and the party magic user mentioned that he had a ring of fire resistance, and the party thief had a ring of swimming.

This is one of my favorite aspects of game play, when players put their heads together to see if they can use their abilities and magical items/spells to solve a problem. There is a real creative element to this game that emerges from play in unpredictable ways. In this case they punctured the side of the bubble from a distance rather than by accident in melee, so they got to leave before being scalded. In the module they don’t say what happens after the bubble is breached, as they sort of assume you will die. So both ref and players had to improvise.

The paladin pointed out that even if the illusionist (who was a lizard man) managed to get past the door, then change back to human form with the two rings on, he would be visible to the giant crab who could quite easily slay him (he only has 18 HP). They were disappointed when they realized that.

Meanwhile, Burket, Snarla and 4 wights were making their way to the PC’s location. I knew how long it would take them to get there, and I kept track of the party deliberations in real time. Then the party thief/magic-user had a eureka moment. They would give the illusionist the two rings, she would cast invisibility on him, he would cast wraithform on himself, and he could enter, the bubble, transform back into lizard man form, still invisible, and then get to the trident. He couldn’t cast wraithform twice, so he would be stuck there, but they were hoping the trident might have a power that allowed him to get back. 

This is the essence of old school play, use your resources to solve a problem, but you don’t control every variable, there is still chance, still and unknown, and then to go ahead anyway. That’s the stuff. My players have it.

The optimism of youth, it's awesome.

Now I had to decide if you could cast invisibility, then wraithform, then when you transform back if you would still be invisible. There is no rule for it per se, but based on the fact that you stay invisible until you attack, it made sense to me this would work. So they agreed to that plan, and spells were cast, the illusionist became insubstantial and entered the bubble, now completely filled with superhot water. He then transformed back to human form and swam over to the back of the bubble, where the trident and a chest were visible

Now, in AD&D high HD creatures have a chance of detecting invisibility, the crab was 15HD, but there was no intelligence listed, and you need an intelligence to use the table. I decided after consulting my monster books (where there was no giant crab) that it was animal intelligence. That gave it a 10% chance per round of noticing the illusionist. He swam by, the creature did not see him, he got to the trident and grabbed it but didn’t move it, so it wouldn’t look odd. IMC when an invisible person picks up an object the object does not become invisible. The trident immediately conveyed its powers by telepathy

Now the illusionist had to decide how to get out of the room safely. The doors were held shut with the force of an underground lake pressing against them, so he would not be able to pull them open. Nor could he transform to wraithform again. The trident had a few powers: fish command, water breathing, free action, cube of force, telepathy and dehydration. However, he had to convert to the worship of Poseidon to use these abilities, so he thought about it, then made the conversion on the spot! 

Adventurers, they are a fickle lot.

They spent the next little while trying to decide what they could do to get the illusionist out. At that point however, Snarla and Burket had arrived in the room just to the south of them with their wights, as they were taking a long time figuring this out.

I rolled for surprise, as the party was engrossed in discussion, but there was no surprise. So I told them that they heard some noise from the south of their position. For some reason they decided that they would ignore it and focus on how to get the illusionist back. I found this odd, but I think they were so engrossed in the process of trying to figure out how to get him back and get Wave, that they figured whatever was there could be dealt with when it showed up.

Alright then. 

So Snarla cast stinking cloud on the party. There were 11 of them in the space on the map below, the square with the 14 and the two below it. A perfect spot for an ambush. They all had to roll saving throws, those who failed would be stuck in the cloud, those who passed could exit the cloud but would be incapacitated for one round after they left. So they all rolled saves, and of the 11 party members on this side of the door (6 from the PC party, 5 from the NPC party) ALL BUT ONE OF THEM FAILED. BWHA HA HA HA HA. 

As an aside, stinking cloud is a perfect example of how unbalanced AD&D spells are, it is a VERY powerful spell, it took out a group of 10 mid level adventurers easily.  This is the essence of AD&D, the party was rocking a ton of spells and lots of items between their 12 members, but they all could be taken out in one round by a 2nd level spell. 

Now, the paladin made his save, and he asked if he could leave the cloud. I said yes. He asked if he could drag someone out with him. I made him roll for that, considering how debilitating the cloud would be. He rolled successfully and dragged out the party magic user with him. If you look at the map there are stairs to the south of the hallway, but he figured that they would be waiting for him there. There is, however, a door at the end of the hallway going to the east (they went in that door earlier and found a spinning tunnel that was ignited by Burket). So he dragged the magic user off to that corridor and closed the door behind him. 

Inside the bubble the illusionist swam to the door.

I rolled to see if the crab cared that the trident was slowly drifting around the bubble. With animal intelligence I gave it a 3 in 6 chance of noticing and trying to retrieve the trident. I rolled that it didn’t, so the illusionist got the trident to the door. But the party was engaged. So now Burket throws a net on the party, still in the cloud and helpless, so he can collect them when the cloud disperses. In the hallway, the magic-user takes out his wand of conjuration, expends three charges, and casts a monster summoning spell. IMC, monster summoning draws from the local monster population. So I roll on the wandering monster tables to see what monsters are drawn to the spell, and a d4 to see how many rounds it takes them to appear. I rolled a 6 and a 1. So wights would appear in 1 round. 

That meant that THE SPELL SNARED THE WIGHTS WITH SNARLA AND BURKET!  So the magic-user and warrior see their wights shuffle forward into the stinking cloud, and they disappear from sight. Inside they go through the door to the paladin and magic-user, who have recovered from the cloud. They wait, and when the stench of the cloud disappears, the magic user and paladin jump out of the door, the wights ahead of them, so the magic user can sight the warrior and his partner and direct the wights to attack them. 

Now, I had to decide how Snarla would interpret what just happened.

I assumed she would know that monster summoning spells summon from the local monster population, and that wights, who were under their command due to Keraptis’ magic, would not normally wander off. So that meant she knew there was likely a magic-user nearby. So when the stinking cloud ended she was ready, and she cast a web spell on the hallway to trap the paladin, magic-user and wights! We rolled initiative, she won, and the entire three square area was chock full of webs, tangling up the whole party. 


Again, 2nd level spell took everyone out, sorry folks.

So they all tried to get out, and while they were struggling, Burket set the webs on fire and they fled! Everyone in the webs took 2d8 damage, which collectively dropped everyone’s HP down to somewhere around half. That got their attention! We rolled saves for equipment, scrolls, etc.

Another reminder that it can turn on a dime, no matter how powerful you are.

Then the magic user was ticked. The wights were too slow to capture the departing pair, so he pulled out his single scroll copy of invisible stalker. He knew he would never get the spell in his spell book (I’m running the regular group through this module, so that’s a real cost). He cast it, there was a 20% of failure, and if it failed a 15% chance of harm. He rolled a 24. It was successful, and he sent the stalker to slay them. That was good fun. They saw it tear off through the air, a wispy, insubstantial figure made of wind that looked almost like a person

It screamed as it chased them, and the party followed. They found it in a room with flesh golems that had numbers on their chests. Snarla had deactivated them to get by them and was going to activate them again, when the stalker appeared and slayed the wizard. The party caught up when it was holding Burket in the air about to snap the warrior’s neck. The magic user told it to stop, and told Burket they would kill him for what he had done to them. He replied, “Keraptis is my master, he will slay you all for your insolence, I fear nothing”. 

That got their attention. They were PISSED about the web though, so they had the stalker slay him. Then they remembered the illusionist. They headed back to the door (I checked for wandering monsters), and went up to the door. The illusionist heard them and used Wave to speak with them, he communicated to the trident telepathically and it communicated with party members on the other side of the door. The aerial stalker was still around, so the magic user tried to use it to solve their problem, they asked if it could push back the water with wind (I said no), if it could get past the doors (I said yes), and they talked it out for a while, the MU put the stalker on guard to protect them while they deliberated.

Clever bunch.

Eventually they had part of a plan, the illusionist would stand near the door that was currently held shut by the lake water. He would use Wave’s cube of force ability to make a block between the door and the water. He would therefore take the water pressure off the door, someone on the other side could then open the door for him to go through. The only problem was that when he dropped the walls of the cube he would be flooded through. He didn’t know what to do!

So they all reviewed their sheets, and the party magic-user had two scroll spells, invisible stalker (cast and soon gone), and wall of ice. Bing bing bing, we had a winnah. He could cast the wall of ice just beyond the cube of force, it would seal the passage. It wasn’t thick enough to last long, but it only had to last long enough for him to open the door a foot in front of him, run through and slam it shut. To his credit the magic user casting wall of ice did so with the second door closed behind him, so if he screwed up all his fellow party members wouldn’t die. Teamwork!

The gambit worked, and they retrieved Wave! Unfortunately, it was the magic item the NPC party was there to retrieve, so they reluctantly gave it up to honor their part of the bargain. The NPC party is mostly good aligned, so they vowed to stay until the party found their item. The stalker dispersed, then they decided to go back to where the flesh golems stood, heads hanging down, deactivated by Snarla, they rifled the bodies for loot (nothing there!) and went on to the turnstiles, and decided to keep going to the next area. Then they arrived at the mud geysers

This is the best room in the module. There are two geysers, and nine discs connected to chains that cross a lake of hot mud. The discs are not stable, and are covered with scum and mud, and are very slippery. They see another platform at the far side of the chamber. The first geyser goes off, it sprays several platforms, and gives off a wave of heat. They talk some more, then the second geyser goes off! They decide to put a watch down the hall behind them, and watch the geysers in front of them to see if they have timing. 

They are TERRIFIED, falling damage, burning damage, DEATH, DEATH, DEATH.

They watch a few cycles, I roll for wandering monsters, none come up. There is another group of agents from the dungeon on their way (led by Sir Bluto Sans Pete), but they are taking their time knowing that the party is heading towards Ctenmiir, the vampire. Let the vampire soften them up...

So the party magic user walks over to the wall and casts levitation on himself, moves to the top of the chamber, then pulls himself along the wall to get to the other side. It takes him 20 minutes, but he is far enough away from the geysers and Sir Bluto and his bully boys are waiting further back, so no wandering monsters appear.

Then the NPC party Thief/MU casts Jump on himself. He effortlessly makes the jumps because of this, but sticking the landings requires a roll. I make it a 4 in 6 base chance to land the jump because of the spell and add a 1 in 6 for his high dex, so he has a 5 in 6 chance to land and stick it. He waits for the first geyser to go off, and he jumps, he sticks the landing but discovers that the discs tip when landed on, and when jumped off. That gets their attention. He jumps again, and again… then he fails his roll, plummets off, and falls into the boiling mud, dying. 

Now they are really freaking out. Then the party illusionist casts alter self on himself and grows wings, and the party Thief/MU casts reduce on herself so he can carry her, and they fly across hewing to the walls.

That works. Next up, the NPC fighter who is carrying Wave. When they sent in their crew, they included one member who worships Poseidon, so he could use the trident. He makes the first jump, he had a 4 in 6 chance (the jump is 4’ to a tippy disc), and I added a 1 in 6 because of his strength (so he could hold on when he landed). He waited for the first geyser, then made four jumps in a row before falling off. As he plummeted he turned on the cube of force, and bobbed along in the boiling mud. Next, the NPC party priest cast resist fire on herself and started jumping, she fell off on disc 5, and plummeted to the boiling mud. She swam towards shore but the mud was heavy and hard to swim through, so she sank to her death, drowned in boiling mud before reaching the other side. 

And who says D&D doesn’t do horror! They were THOROUGHLY HORRIFIED by this, and the dice rolls created real anticipation and excitement. So right now the party Thief/MU, MU and illusionist are on the far platform in front of a door that leads to a vampire’s lair. I have decided that the NPC party monk, if she were to try this, would get a 5 in 6 chance to stick the landing, and if that fails an additional petrification save to hang on. So I will roll to see if she tries to cross or not knowing she has better odds of making the jumps and landings. The NPC party ranger isn’t going to do it. The NPC party fighter bobbing in the hot mud has to figure out how to get up when he drops the cube of force.

The PC party ranger, paladin, thief and fighter are stranded on the first ledge, they aren’t likely to try jumping as making 9 consecutive 4 to 5 in 6 rolls is hard to do, and falling off means death. So they may be stranded for this encounter. That leaves a thief, thief/MU, MU and maybe a monk to take on a vampire. 

Easy peasy. These kids are rock stars, they are figuring out tough situations and combining spells, items and abilities to do the next-to-impossible. And they are risking death to do it. 

This is also a great example of why even with magic items and spells death is just a few rolls away, and sometimes you will have what you need, sometimes you will cobble together what you need by being smart, and other times you will be stuck, spells or no.

This was peak 1e AD&D goodness, terrifying, challenging and fun. They were on fire today and they knew it. Tomorrow we wrap it all up. We’ll see if they make it, and what they take with them. This is shaping up to be one of my favorite module runs. 


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