Thursday, April 25, 2013

Modules, sandboxes and things in between...

For my DCC game, I'm planning on using a mix of the Goodman Games modules and third party adventures from Brave Halfling, Purple Sorcerer and Purple Duck games (hmm... purple) among others. There's three reasons for this;

1) I think they're excellent
2) I have to be realistic about what I can reasonably prep in the limited time I have
3) I think they're excellent

That's right! I have the shirt!
There's a couple of challenges however. First, there is a big focus on dungeon crawling. That may sound like a silly complaint given that the name of the game is Dungeon Crawl Classics, but simple room clearing gets old fast. Fortunately, although the setting for most of these are "dungeons" (that is self contained locations with encounters in each) I think they are non-standard enough and have enough character that they won't feel like kill the orcs, take their stuff, repeat.

Secondly, there's no overall story or campaign arc, which is something my group seems to be used too. It's really just a series of adventures. I'm going to add a few themes that will tie them together, but there's no concept of campaign goal other than adventuring. I'm hoping that the "story" such as it is, will emerge from the evolution of the characters (and their deaths of course - this is DCC). One of my gang, Mr. Todd over at Beacon, is a big advocate of emergent story, and I'm hoping the others in the group will see it that way too.

The final consideration, which is both positive and negative, is that by using modules, this won't be a sandbox game. I love sandbox games and I think they have the greatest potential for a truly rewarding game experience. Sandbox campaigns were the norm in the glorious high school and university years when we had oodles of time to explore, discover and build.

But that was then and these days our group (not the same group as in uni of course) seems to lose its way in sandbox games - we tend to wander about aimlessly until the GM gets mad and throws something nasty at us. I'm not sure why this is exactly, but I think it's because sandbox games require a lot of proactive energy from the players. As players we need to be as creative as the GM and look for ways to build longer term goals, strategies and stories into the setting's framework. This is a long process and requires patience, effort and lots of investment but pays off in epic proportions.

But the reality is most of us don't have this sort of time or energy anymore (some of us do, but they're rare and lucky bastards, each and very one of them) - we've got jobs and kids and a million other things demanding our attention. When we get together on a Friday night we're brain dead from a week in the real world and I think we're lacking that vital creative capacity. We need to react, as it were, rather than proact. We also only have about four hours of gaming every two weeks - which makes it hard to sustain that (wonderful) meandering, discovering the world and our role in it approach that typifies sandbox gaming. We need to get into a game quickly and start seeing results. If a game world is just too big or complex, it tends to overwhelm us into a state of paralysis and we chase after the easiest, nearest thing like a pack of ADHD crazed camp kids with axes and fireball spells. In short we arrive at the table and we're craving immediate action. We need a goal we can quickly understand and work toward solving in a session or two. If things are too open ended (which would be a feature in the sandbox style) we can get frustrated (and frustrating for the GM).

I'll use my own Trail of Cthulhu Armitage Files game from last summer as an example. I had multiple secrets, personalities and stories sketched out with multiple approaches, an open world where multiple leads and hooks meant the investigators were free to chart their own course to uncover deadly conspiracies and deal with them however they would. Their actions would have ramifications that would reverberate in many directions and shape the future of many nascent plots. It was fucking magnificent and perfect if we gamed eight hours every week for the next two years (with lots of secret notes and e-mails between sessions) and the players had the time to invest in thinking and planning for the long haul. I was very proud and excited about it (and was the reason I started this blog in fact). But it closed after three sessions. I certainly don't blame my players - they had the best of intentions. It was simply too much, too long term, too involved and required far more effort than most players could give (there were other factors too, such as it being the summer when attendance gets spotty, but you get my drift).

Now before anyone gets too yanked up over this, I'm talking about my experience, which will obviously differ from yours. But it comes down to this; for better or worse, our group seems to need something to focus us for our sessions. Something's gotta kick in the door and give us a reason to get out there or we'll just sit around and talk in funny voices for an hour or four. It's one of the reasons board games go over really well with us - jump right in, clear objectives, not a lot of rev up time.

Modules are also great for this. There's a clear set up and a feeling of accomplishment in one or two sessions rather than the slow group build to an epic arc over say, five, ten or more sessions. So, that's the way I'm going to go. Our first session with Sailors on The Starless Sea was a lot of fun so hopefully that becomes the trend.

Unfortunately this removes that treasured freedom to explore, at least at a macro big world map kinda level. It can feel a bit railroady and "monster of the week" too, so there's a definite trade off. The question is, will we be content with these limitations of the module approach in exchange for the benefit of having highly focused games, or will we eventually get frustrated and start trying to break out of that box? I have seven or so more sessions in the GM chair before it passes over to the next game, so this will be my experiment to find out.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Sailing the Starless Sea part 2

Incredibly we completed the entire module in one four and a half hour session. I say incredibly because our game group loves to take its time. We like in-character stuff, we like making jokes, we like getting side tracked and often forget what were doing and end up harassing completely innocent bystanders. For some reason I always have an image of a us as a group of slightly befuddled, cranky, bickering old geezers with ADHD. And weapons.

Anyway I digress. We ripped through Sailors on the Starless Sea in record time, surprisingly the players missed little. They just seemed to be very very focused. Might have been the character death...

Spoiler warning for those that haven't played this!

The players, each with four 0-level funnel characters generated at Purple Sorcerer;
  • Todd - Nerista the mercenary, Smint the blacksmith, Daniloth the elven sage, Lance the noble
  • Jeremy - Draug the beekeeper, Rubin the rutabaga farmer, Ester the hunter, Bran the barber
  • Trevor - Thursby the unnaturally strong halfling, Corren the trapper, Grom the indentured servent , Jenson the squire (Grom and Jenson were Lance's retinue it was determined)
  • Sebastien - Four as yet to be named; a parsnip farmer, a dwarven blacksmith, a blacksmith, and an orphan
  • John - Daley the incredibly strong orphan, D'tali the elven falconer, Arvin the rat catcher, Chez the gravedigger

So we left off in the last post with the party descending the stairs into the tunnels beneath the ancient keeps mound. They'd had four or five fatalities by this point (poor old Todd had lost three of his four characters, through no fault of his own), so were starting to get more cautious.

The stairs led down, down, down into a dark and dank corridor. Lighting up torches the party stood on the steps none too eager to proceed (visions of traps dancing in their heads). That is until Brand the barber (who was shaping up to be a magnificent bastard) once again saw the glint of gold in the darkness ahead. With a cry of "Worry not! I'll scout ahead!" he scrambled further down the stairs and found a couple of gold coins up against the stairwell wall. Searching about he found a not very well hidden door that opened easily to a small room beyond.

Shining the torch in he spied three upended chest and sprinkling of coins. "Don't come in! Still checking to see it's safe!" he shouted back. The rest of the group, beginning to see a pattern in Brand's behaviour, filed in anyway and dispassionately watched Brand discover a hidden compartment in a chest and then almost immediately loose a couple of fingers when he activated the associated trap. He still managed to stuff a few coins down his pants while wrapping cloth around his hand.

There followed a touching moment when Brand (whose pockets and shirt were now filled with more coin and goodies than he'd ever seen in his life) tried to convince the rest of the group that maybe they should turn back, because, you know, they'd tried their best, and what good was coin if you weren't around to spend it. It was Chez the gravedigger that reminded Brand that they were in fact here to rescue kidnapped villagers, one of whom was Brand's very own son. "Oh yeah..." replied Brand, eyes shifting about.

That doesn't look spooky at all.
Back in the stairwell it was noticed that a draft was coming through from the wall opposite the emptied treasure room. Pushing at the wall opened a second not very well hidden door leading into a rough chill passage. Not liking the look of it but still wanting to investigate, some one distracted Bran as another tossed a few coppers in and announced "Look - are those coins in there?". Bran immediately took the lead and the party soon found itself in front of massive stone door bearing symbols of Chaos that glowed with a faint
magic. Daniloth the Elven sage attempted to read the runes and came away with the impression that it was some sort of limerick involving cold and heat and bad weather. Chez the grave digger took a look and came away with "Fire, Ice, Hate and Storm". The group decided to go ahead and try to force the door. Amazingly no one was killed in the ensuing blast of magical fire triggered by their efforts.

Behind the door was unnaturally chill tomb containing a corpse with savage looking hide armour and a brutal looking waraxe. One of the nameless four run by Sebastien managed to get to the corpse and after much exertion tore the axe away along with a couple of frozen corpse arms and get out of the tomb without freezing to badly. They didn't fancy going after the armour and decided to get back to the main corridor.

Descending the rest of the stairs the party found itself in a curious long room dominated by a central rectangular pool. Of course Brand gazed into its depths and was initially filled with hope as a several golden points glowed back at him. Hope turn to trepidation however as the golden glowing started moving and then surfaced as four ancient and algae covered skulls, eye sockets shining with undead energy. Several tense moments past while the party stood pressed against the wall ready for battle, but the heads seemed content to bob there watching benignly. Growing bold, a few the adventurers threw stones at the skulls, cracking one which sank.

Not entirely convinced that the skulls were harmless the group turned its attention to the rest of the room and examined pair of murals depicting two mighty chaos lords and battles going on around them and some sort of sacrificial ritual on an island with tentacles rising from the waters. Neither filled the party with optimism. Also discovered were four mouldy robes with chaos markings on them, which were bundled into a back pack.

With a last nervous look at the floating skulls, whose gaze turned to follow them, the group departed through the other side of the room and followed the stairs down even further. Eventually the stairwell ended opening up on a wide dark beach overlooking an immense underground lake. At the edge of the beach was a tall 30 foot rock spire with stairs chiseled about it. Out 30 feet or so into the water was a dragon prow boat and in the far distance, near the centre of the great lake, was a sinister glow and the echo of drums and howls.

Brand decided to check out the rock spire and while climbing the stairs noticed some very intriguing chaotic writing that circled around with the stairs. By the time he reached the summit and discovered a partially melted black candle at the flattened top, he had decided that it would be a very good idea to savagely murder Daniloth the elven sage. He wasn't exactly clear on why this was a good idea, but he wasn't going to let that stop him. He ran back down and called the sage over indicating that there was something very interesting at the top that only a sage of his prowess could figure out. Halfway back up Brand gave himself a good shake and realized slaughtering a companion wasn't such a good idea.

Meanwhile the others were trying to figure out how to get the dragon boat to shore. Wading out toward it seemed to prompt something to start swimming about in the water. They beat a quick retreat. Then Thursby the unnaturally strong halfling threw a rope with a hook (not exactly sure where they got this, but oh well) which caught on the boat. They couldn't pull it in but they tied it about the rock spire and tried to cross above the water. Unfortunately the thing in the water figured them out and a radish farmer was torn into tiny little shreds by a violent frenzy of tentacles.

With nothing to loose, Thursby decided to light the black candle at the top of the spire. On his way up he too, after staring at the carved runes, became enamored with the idea of stabbing a compatriot. After a bit of a frantic chase about, he managed to recover himself and get to the top and light the candle. The dragon boat slide gracefully over to shore.

Light the incense!  Light the godamn incense!!
They all jumped on board and the boat immediately set off toward the island in the lake's center. Gearing up to what they figured was the big showdown, the adventurers were horrified when the boat stopped halfway over and those same tentacles emerged from the water and waved expectantly. Suddenly remembering the mural depicting the sacrifice and the tentacles, the party started eying each other. The tentacles were not satisfied with the shoes and other bits of junk tossed at it and it was with sinking dread that they realized that the beast was waiting for someone to be tossed overboard.

Just as mob violence was about to break out it was Jenson the squire that had a sudden flash of insight and figured out that maybe burning the chaos censer found in the temple would placate it. The rushed to do so, and to everyone's relief the tentacles swayed back beneath the waves, apparently satiated. The boat then continued towards the island and the hellish glow and sounds of unholy rites.

As boat beached itself the adventurers saw that a massive ziggurat dominated most of the island. A great number of the beast men where hauling groups of wailing villages up the zagging stairway to the pinnacle where they were being hurled into a pit by a high beast priest. A great and terrifying figure, hard to discern in the waving heat, seemed to preside over the ghastly ritual. They party had lost six members and where greatly outnumbered by the beast men - a frontal assault seemed like suicide. The squire thinking quick again, suggested that four of them don the four chaos robes and pretend to take the rest of the gang up as prisoners. They felt it was their best bet, especially as they didn't have a lot of time to figure out something better.

With mounting incredulity they found their ruse working, passing beast men who were transfixed with the ceremony at the top and who seemed to ignore the robed villagers. They slowly made their way closer to the top, and were nearly there when one beast man turned and focused on them. Suddenly realizing the presence of interlopers it raised the alarm hooting out a warning. The boatmen were galvanized, but spread all the the way along the ziggurat ramp, only a couple were with striking range. As they began to move in, the party made a heroic effort to get to the top of the structure, where it was was relatively empty. They saw a high priest and two beast men chucking villagers and treasure (treasure! cried out Brand)

The following battle was intense and there were many near misses. The giant figure turned out to be an effigy which Thursby cut down. Unfortunately the brilliant plan of cutting it down only resulted in it falling into the giant lava pit in the the center of the ziggurat and seemed to accelerate whatever evil process the beastmen had started. Just as the adventurers seemed to gain the upper hand a towering lava encrusted figure erupted
from the pit. The party concentrated their attacks on this new threat but succeeded only in shattering the lava cooled to stone outer layer and a chaos demon emerged from within. Hideous and beastial, with a skull head and single burning eye the monstrosity waved a fearsome flail. D'tali the elven falconeer and Arvin the rat catcher met their doom, but the demon was beaten back and finally felled with mighty blows from Thursby, Rubin and Ester. Lying in a pool of burning remains were the beast's hide armor and terrible flail. Thursby strode forward to claim the flail but the demon had one last surge which engulfed the brave halfling abruptly ending his short but brilliant adventuring career.

With the final destruction of the demon the came a massive shuddering, shaking and roaring as the immense underground cavern began to collapse. The remaining beastmen were in disarray, howling in confusion and frustration. The surviving characters freed the villagers and raced down towards the dragon boat. Brand stopped to scoop up some fallen gems, but even his greed could not hold him as great chunks of rock began falling and crashing about.

The Squire Jenson however, risked his life to run forward and take the fallen holy symbol of Law and cast it as a curse into the evil chaos pit. For this act the Lords of Order took notice and he regained luck spent during battle.

With bare moments to spare the party managed to get themselves and the remaining terrified villagers past the panicked beastmen and into the dragon boat. An enormous wave crashed down and drove the boat out past the island and down a dark cave. After what seemed like an eternity of dark crashing and thundering the boat was shot out into daylight landing in a calm and sun drenched lake.

20 went in. 11 came out...

And so ended our first session!

Next session: Leveling up and Doom of the Savage Kings. Can't wait.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Sailing the Starless Sea, Part 1

You're no hero.

You're a ditch digger, a beekeeper, a turnip farmer, maybe a barber, baker or candlestick maker. You've been eking out a living, saving a penny here or there for the occasional pint down at the pub. The land has been generally peaceful, life mostly uneventful, and everything is, well... kinda dull.

But now there's a big, strange new star in the sky. Old man Roberts says it's a sign, an omen. The ancient cycle of order and chaos is turning and the world just started getting wilder. For the brave, greedy, or simply not too bright, this means adventure.

Most of you will die. Or become hideously corrupted. Being sucked into some hellish outer dimension is also a distinct possibility. But some of you will survive, by hook, by crook and by sheer dumb luck. And if you survive, you'll get better, you'll get stronger, richer, and be able to afford cooler clothes. You'll become an adventurer; a warrior, a cutpurse, a heathen-slayer, a tight-lipped warlock guarding long-dead secrets. Yes, maybe even a hero.

You'll seek gold and glory, winning it with sword and spell, caked in the blood and filth of the monstrous, the dark, the demons, and more than a few of your vanquished companions. There are treasures to be won and secrets uncovered, and you shall have them.

Mostly though, you'll still die.

With this we kicked off our DCC mini campaign, starting with Harley Stroh's excellent funnel, Sailors of the Starless Sea. Unbelievably we managed to finish the entire adventure in one night, but I'll break the play report into two pieces. Spoiler warning for those that haven't played this!

The players, each with four 0-level funnel characters generated at Purple Sorcerer;

  • Todd - Nerista the mercenary, Smint the blacksmith, Daniloth the elven sage, Lance the noble
  • Jeremy - Draug the beekeeper, Rubin the rutabaga farmer, Ester the hunter, Bran the barber
  • Trevor - Thursby the unnaturally strong halfling, Corren the trapper, Grom the indentured servent , Jenson the squire (Grom and Jenson were Lance's retinue it was determined)
  • Sebastien - Four as yet to be named; a parsnip farmer, a dwarven blacksmith, a blacksmith, and an orphan
  • John - Daley the incredibly strong orphan, D'tali the elven falconer, Arvin the rat catcher, Chez the gravedigger

We opened with a group of 20 pitch fork and torch bearing villagers approaching an ancient ruined keep south of the drowsy village of Lemsby. Many homesteads had been discovered empty that morning, their inhabitants taken in the night. The trail had led to these old ruins and smoke had been seen above its crumbled towers.
"Anyone bring a snack?"

On the dusty road before them stood a macabre sight of two corpses bound to a pole with spiky vines.  To everyone's horror, the corpses detached themselves and stumbled forward tendrils waving. Sensing that his great moment had arrived, Lance Darkrouge (one of Todd's characters), the only noble in the village, boldly stepped up with his grandfather's broadsword and with a rousing "Follow me peasants!" to lead the charge. His almost immediate death by throttling certainly inspired the villagers as they proceeded to pummel the vine horrors. Everyone was then rewarded with an explosive covering of pungent corpse mucus as the defeated corpses burst and spread their foul seeds.

There was a moment of reflection as Jenson the squire took his master's signet ring and with trembling lip bid them move on. They spied the silhouette of some beastly creature on the ruined wall, and hung there flapping in the breeze was a crude banner with a red flaming skull. They pressed forward and had rock and other debris flung down on them below the main gate. Uncowed they started crawling under the partially raised portcullis which was promptly dropped on them when half their number were through. Amazingly no one died, and with the aid of the unnaturally strong halfling Thursby, they pulled the old rusted gate off their companions and moved cautiously into the courtyard.

A few titterings and hootings could be heard above, but there were no more attacks. The courtyard presented a few intriguing areas. There was a massive collapsed hole in the ground that no one wanted to go near, a well with a complex looking winch system attached, a burnt out chapel of some sort barred from the outside, and a stout recently repaired door leading into the only tower still standing.

Brand the barber (who had heard that loot was often found in these sort of expeditions) decided to investigate that well, as obviously someone was using the winch to store stuff down there. He looked over the edge and a profound blackness stared right back. No loot down there he thought. Why yes there is! said a sudden thought that just popped into his head. Lots of treasure and and women too! "We must investigate the well! I'll go first!" He stated aloud and one of his companions obligingly cranked on the winch pulling a terrifying leather harness up from the depths. "This is going to go well" remarked another as Brand strapped himself in and was lowered down.

Brand's disappointment that jewels and vivacious woman were not immediately thrust upon him quickly turned to consternation as an alien wind from some far and terrifying realm of chaos began to moan about him. "Up! Up!" he yelled, and he was cranked up out of the well but not before that alien wind got in his ears. The others were dismayed to see him appear with massive elephantine ears instead of the tasteful regular ones and there were muttered comments about dropping him back in.

Pulling Brand out the others spent a few moments prodding him until more rocks were chucked down from the old battlements. Daley, an incredibly strong orphan picked up a rock and chucked it back. Against all odds his stone not only found his target crouched behind a crenellation, but killed it stone dead. Encouraged, he picked up and threw two more stones and repeated the performance twice (he rolled 3 natural 20s in a row...!). With three dead beastmen, lying crumpled in the courtyard, the emboldened would-be adventurers decided to try their luck with the barred chapel.

Bizarre chaotic inscriptions, leering gargoyles, burned out and barred from the outside, the chapel seemed to beckon the party forward. Straining as a group they hoisted the massive door bar and
"Hmm.. I'm sure it's safe in there now.."
cranked open the double doors to be met with the sight of burned ruin and charred bones beyond. All hesitated, except Brand who thought he could see a hint of gold buried in the ashes. He stepped in and was greeted by ghostly screams and a phantom blast of heat, echoing from the past. Greed quickly overrode fear however and Brand pushed forward digging in the detritus discovering a few partly melted gold coins.

The rest of the group quickly pushed their way in and discovered a few more coins, a few old maces and bits of armour which they distributed. Brand quickly proving himself to be quite the treasure hound, pulled out a solid gold brazer with runes inscribed around it. He quickly hid it under his shirt and turned to find the party peering at him and the new "growth" bulging out his side. He laughed a little laugh and pretended not to notice their stares. Also found was a box containing incense cones obviously for the brazer.

It was the glitter of gems that drew Brand's attention to the toad statue with the burning black tar oozing out its mouth into a stone bowl. He approached even though the heat became intense. A few feet away the black ooze suddenly leap from the statue's mouth and the party rushed forward to engage. Brandon's barber scissors did little other than get his fingers burnt, but Thursby the unnaturally strong halfling and Draug the beekeeper waded in with their recently found maces smacking the ooze about, sending great burning chunks off in all directions. Unfortunately Neristina the mercenary and Smint the blacksmith just happened to be in some of those directions and both were horribly burned to death (Todd's second and third funnel character - he was now down to one). Thursby and Draug felt slightly bad and the band beat a hasty exit from the chapel.

Out in the courtyard their eyes fell upon that recently repaired door to the still standing tower. There was some discussion as to who would be the one to open the door. Daninoth the not so sage elven sage (Todd's only remaining character) flatly refused to go anywhere near the door. Finally a few of the stronger types kicked it down and hurtled inside. Immediate roaring, croaking and bleating battle ensued as beast men and peasants hacked and stabbed at each other, and a towering beastman master came swinging into the fray.

The beastmen were defeated but the peasants took casualties as well. A quick check of the repellant chamber (no one was much interested in scrounging through the rotting hides strung across the floor) revealed little other than a few captives taken the previous night from the village. They were quickly released and most fled after a quick thank you. A pair of radish farmer brothers, Chester and Lester, decided to join the adventurers and seek revenge. They would accompany the party but were not yet recovered enough to fight or help out in any meaningful way. After a quick scout onto the battlements turned up nothing, the party decided to head down the stairs leading into the hill from the beastman room.

To be continued in part 2...

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

...and I'm back!

So I haven't written in this blog since last summer. The Trail of Cthulhu game came to a close in August and I never got around to writing up the last session. I can't recall the details, but it involved the usual antics. Kidnapping an army major in his bathrobe, infiltrating a small military base posing as evil psychologists, being discovered by terrifying experiments, and wild shooting and screaming in the middle of the night. It was only three table top sessions in all, and combined with a couple G+ Hangouts we made lots of story progress, but the group never really warmed to the gumshoe ruleset.
Ubiquitous "I'm back!" type image.

Since that time we played more Beacon run by the illustrious Mr.Todd and tried out FATE with Diaspora run by the indomitable Mr. Jeremy, both of which I enjoyed. Jeremy was especially brave to run Diaspora as it involved a lot of plot control from "the table" and I think we kinda destroyed what was probably a very interesting and intriguing plot by lighting pillows on fire and and de-orbiting space stations. Also by creating non-violent hippy worlds. Non-violent hippy worlds are the most boring places to go in an rpg by the way. Great in concept, but lead balloonish in play. Sorry about that Jeremy. I also got to run a one shot of Ashen Stars, which was lots of fun - it was an expansion of the Stowaway intro adventure. Interestingly the group liked the Gumshoe implementation in Ashen Stars. Fickle bastards.

But this past Friday I had the pleasure of starting up a Dungeon Crawl Classics game. This campaign will run for about eight sessions. So I'll summarize here for my group and anyone else that happens by.