Friday, November 27, 2015

Interesting Encounters: The Battle for Skullport

Interesting encounters are short descriptions of encounters that GMs can use to build on.  They combine unique aspects of different types of foes, terrain, skill checks, weather, combat, etc in order to provide more unique challenges than hit monster; repeat.

It is sometimes very challenging to get lower level characters engaged in a way that feels epic. This interesting encounter is putting some moderately leveled (5E level 7-ish) characters in the middle of a huge battle. This battle is designed to make the PCs actions determine the outcome of the battle. It is also designed to feel epic and balanced.

This particular battle takes place in Skullport in the Forgotten Realms, however, by replacing the foes with equivalents, it could really be a battle in almost any setting. Skullport is a city of ill repute that bridges the surface worlds and the Underdark in the realms. Unfortunately, in this scenario, it has been assaulted by an army of warforged and the PCs needs to help take it back.

The battlefront for this scenario is a coast line in a shallow bay. 50 Foot war golems, melee and ranged warforged groups, and warforged cannon groups line the coastline. In order to succeed, the party needs to destroy all of these foes, because in this case, they aren't backing down. (If you replace them with another foe, retreat may become an option, of course.)

The party is attacking from a battleship with advanced weapons. In my version the advanced weapons are cannons, but that can certainly be varied based on the setting. The plan is for the party to fire off colored magic flares at targets, and the battleship will attack those locations. The party is splitting up. Each PC gets a longboat with around 10 allied fighters of lower level. The PCs need to guide the longboats ashore and then engage in melee and ranged combat combat.

Because the allies are of lower level than the PCs, the PC special features can still do significantly higher damage than the group of allies. The PC controls both, giving them some flexibility.

There are a number of points of danger. The war golems can easily crush the incoming PC-controlled forces. The enemy cannons can also easily devastate the PC-controlled forces, as well. To give the PCs some maneuvering room, I added a lot of cover for the PCs to use to hide (along with their troops). The melee and ranged warforged forces are going to be gunning for the PCs. I used a very large battlefield to give the PCs (and their forces) time/space to move away/towards their enemies of choice. This is important, because if two groups of enemies engage them at once, they will be greatly outnumbered.

The war golems, if the PCs choose wisely, should stay focused on the battleship, wade out into the water to pummel it (where they are slowed by deeper water), and hopefully get obliterated by the battleship's advanced weapons.  This doesn't stop the battleship from getting severely damaged during the battle by the land-based enemy cannons. Make sure you give the PCs direct information on how badly damaged the battleship is to increase the tension.

The strategy that the PCs should quickly figure out is to bring the longboats under as much cover as possible, then sneak into range, and attempt to capture the enemy cannons. Enemy melee and ranged forces will complicate this, but once they get some cannons, they can either assist the battleship or take out enemy warforged on the shore.

When the PC and their group of allies get hit by normal damage, kill off their allies one by one. The dwindling number will feel very dramatic. However, when the party gets hit by area effects, like perhaps spells, make sure you damage the PCs too. The fear should always be that the PCs will end up as a lone target with no allies.

As the battle play out, if well-balance, it should feel very tense in the beginning, turn into hopelessness as the battleship approaches destruction, and then feel like joyous success as the PCs take the land-cannons and turn the tide. This will add a lot to the epic feel of the battle.

For more thoughts on how to run large battles, take a look at this article discussing a nice mathematical way of handling it.

The Dread Naught Campaign Summary

This is a brief summary of the 11 month campaign that I GMed and recently ended. I have left out the bulk of details about the party, which changed several times over the 11 months, but rather captured the framework of the plot used. I thought other GMs might find this inspiring. As with most of my campaigns, this one focused on epic deeds, not just humdrum bandit-bashing. There are, of course, added to this framework, a number of character specific plot lines which are mostly not discussed here. If you reuse any of this, definitely considering customizing it for the motivations of your party.

For reference this campaign took about 33 sessions. Each session took about an average of 3 hours, meaning that the campaign was about 100 hours of play. The party started at level 1 and fought the last battle at level 12. It was played using D&D 5E.

The Dread Naught Campaign continued a previous year and a half campaign that I ran in Pathfinder in the Forgotten Realms. Though the lore continues, the party is completely new and unaware of most of what happened in the previous campaign. The story starts out in the woods very near the small town of Grievance, just south of Baldur's Gate.

The party is started using the adventure "A Dark and Stormy Knight". This adventure find the various adventurer's taking shelter in an old tomb built into a hill. Inside they fight rats, they discover trapped treasure, they socially interact with a quasit named Merf, they fight hobgoblins, they fight off some spiders, and eventually they face off against a big bad undead Knight. The story introduces the characters to each other and takes them through all of the major rules of the game. Merf joined the party by choice of the party through strong social interaction.

From there, the party was off to Grievance. It was attacked by "cultists" and a blue dragon just after their arrival.  The party saved as may people as they could, took out some cultists, and then went after them. After infiltrating their lair, they stole back a bunch of the loot, freed a gold wyrmling and an elf named Varn, and started tracking down the bandits who had been masquerading as cultists.

The party infiltrated a caravan shipment of "cultist" loot headed for Baldur's Gate. The caravan was attacked before reaching Baldur's Gate, and all of the normal crew were killed. The party continued with the shipment into Baldur's Gate and found themselves suddenly in charge of a warehouse with a bunch of riches and blackpowder. Further investigation showed they were now in charge of a massive fortune being used to build something.

The something being built was completed under direction of the party. It was a massive warship called the Vengeance. The plot became clear. The "cultists" were actually bandits, mercenaries, and and others from Skullport. Skullport had been invaded by a warforged army commanded by evil gnomes. The party and the Skullport crew of the Vengeance were going to take the city back. Though the evil nature of Skullport was troubling, the party knew their actions would protect Waterdeep above.

Under the command of a beholder named Gurag, the party sailed into Skullport and started an assault on the warforged army. Leading groups of fighters, rangers, and other folk, the party forced the warforged to retreat back into the mysterious tunnel from where they came.

The Vengeance was left in Skullport, most likely to be dismantled for materials to rebuild the city. The party went after the gnome-controlled warforged army in the tunnels. They went through a rather large underground complex, clearing a path, and enabling power for some sort of magical tram.  There they found the first indications of the technological and magical advancements of these gnomes. Journals even spoke of Dreadnaught being completed and the bridge builder. These clues didn't really paint the whole picture though.

The party got underway on the tram, following the path of retreat of the warforged army. In the tram tunnels they experienced goblins, beholders, and other adventures. Above ground they tended to other cities attacked by the warforged army.

In Athkatla, they found a city that had disabled the warforged and used them for their own purposes. Unfortunately, tracking down this power was held up by various political entanglements with one of their own being framed for murder, and another member being put under a geas to kill the party's noble. In the end, evils were defeated, and some secrets of the warforged were uncovered. The party left the city, leaving behind one of its own as a new member of the city's government.

In Zazesspur, the party found a large crater formed by the unexpected explosion of a gnome-built mythallar. In this crater, the dead came back, and several lost party members and family members appeared to the party. The party also found the commoner population under attack by a plague. Through smart investigation, the party determined that Aluando and his band of mages and alchemists were the source. They were making plague potions from the dead remains of a sleeping tarrasque killed by a shard from the exploding mythallar. They also found a baby tarrasque that they added to the party.

The party ran Alaundo off after a short battle. They also infiltrated the city government fortress which was being run by shapeshifted gnomes. They retook control of it for the people. They also fought off a destructive religious order that was killing people in the city.  Unfortunately in the chaos of Zazesspur, the party lost Merf, their quasit party member, who disappeared after potentially tracking down Alaundo.

In Zazesspur they also found the Vengeance again, heavily damaged from battle with the Dreadnaught and with only one hidden crewman left alive. The description of the battle was troubling -- the Vengenace had been bombed and attacked by airships. They funded The Vengeance's repair and a new crew, and sent it to Calimport to assist in the future battle. With help from one of the party's friends, the battleship would sail to assist them once again.

Then the party headed on to Calimport. Along the way they learned their helpful friend Varn wasn't all he seemed to be. Varn, in fact, was a dragon, who told the story of the gnomes. The gnomes started north of Waterdeep in the mountains where they were guarded over by Palarandusk, an ancient gold dragon. During a previous battle (from a previous campaign) a magical anomaly was unleashed on the gnomes, causing them to enter hypertime and twisting their nature. The sped-up gnomes built airships and flew away to Chult, getting hundreds of years in hypertime to advance their tech and magic in only a few short years. More troubling though was that Palarandusk, friend of Varn, later disappeared, presumably at the hands of the gnomes. Varn was determined to find his ancient gold dragon friend and save him from whatever evil the gnomes had unleashed upon him. The magical secrets Palarandusk holds could be the death of all.

The party continued to Calimport where they joined forces with genasi rebels in the city.  The city was in ruins, with all normal folk leaving. Warforged and airships and lizardmen and dinosaurs took control of the city for the gnomes. Reconnaissance showed a large bridge being slowly built from Chult to Calimport, inching closer every day, with a walking city behind it. This walking city was the Dread, the first, serial number 0, the Dread Naught (a terrible pun). Airships guarded it and the bridge.

Unfortunately, while sneaking through the city, the party lost "Tarry", the baby tarrasque, to the gnome army. The stakes were greatly raised considering the destructive force the party had just given to the gnomes.

In the city, the party captured a downed airship which they took as their new battle platform. The party infiltrated the main base and determined the location of the tech center. There they battled a much stronger Alaundo and tracked down the information on the Dread Naught. Unfortunately, there, they also found Merf, who had been transformed into a terrible beast of destruction by Alaundo. The party was unable to save poor Merf, who mustered enough power to help the party before disappearing.

Using the recovered tech information, a plan was formulated to infiltrate the Dread Naught and explode the mythallar inside it. With support from Varn, the Vengeance, and other allies they had gained in the city, the party planned an attack to give the party cover for their operation.

The final battle was intense, with Varn battling airships in the sky and the party infiltrating the mechanical guts of the Dead Naught to plant an explosive device.  Merf made a brief appearance to assist the party, but was later lost to an unknown end. The Dread Naught and bridge builder were destroyed by the mythallar explosion. The Vengeance was sank with only some crew recovered. Varn took out most of the local gnome air fleet. Golaiths and genasi stormed the bridge builder, but escape before the final explosion. With the destruction of so much of the gnome army, the rest retreated back into the underground tunnels. The party barely escaped with their lives, hanging from ropes from the airship Menace as it flew clear of the explosion.

The Sword Coast was saved from the invasion, but the war is not over. The gnomes still lurk, learning and rebuilding in the jungles, mountains, and savannas of Chult. The bulk of the party left for safer lands and safer times. Cieran, as the remaining dedicated member and captain of the Menace airship, gathers a crew to head for Chult to start the new campaign: Nightmares of Chult. Deep in the jungles of Chult, the new party hopes to recover the Tarrasque that was lost, find Palarandusk, and stop the dangerous gnome enemy before all of Faerun falls to their diabolical plans.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Interesting Encounter: The Grande Hotel

Interesting encounters are short descriptions of encounters that GMs can use to build on.  They combine unique aspects of different types of foes, terrain, skill checks, weather, combat, etc in order to provide more unique challenges than hit monster; repeat.

The Grande Hotel is a social encounter. I originally wrote this encounter as a balancing bit of luck for a min-maxed overly-charismatic bard. It certainly highlights the dangers of being too reliant on only a single aspect in a single character. It is also a lesson in not splitting the party.

The Grande Hotel is the first big chance for the new big damn heroes to flaunt their wealth and get some rest. From the moment the party walks into the hotel, they get a flood of elegance. A doorman opens the door for them and offers to take their *ahem* luggage. If they agree, a bellboy will appear with a cart and take any items, weapons, etc and load them on.

At the front desk, a very polite man will offer to get them a room or suite, separate or together. After they pay for their room, he will offer to have one of the other servants measure the party and send up evening wear before dinner, since the party probably doesn't have any such thing with them.

The rooms will be beyond anything most of the party has imagined. Dealing with the staff is always pleasant. The other guests may not be so welcoming. Nobles that stay in the hotel will be particularly snobby. Give the players a good hook into the next stage of their adventure that requires them to talk to them and gather information.

The charismatic leader of the party will catch the eye of one of the two beautiful sisters that owns the Grande Hotel. Venecia is a very beautiful woman, and she will take an instant liking to this charismatic party member, who I'll call Jim, although Jim need not be a man. Jim will say all the right thing in his normal charismatic way, and in doing so, will get invited to dinner with the owners. Everything about Venecia will seem pleasant and wonderful, even perhaps supernaturally so.

If there is a cleric, priest, or paladin in the party besides Jim, they might a bit of a bad feeling about Venecia. It won't be anything specific unless they dig in further.  Any cautions from them will be hand-waved off by Venecia in a very convincing way. After all, Venecia and her sister are respected business people in this city.

Should someone try to join Jim and the sisters for dinner, Venecia will indicate her desire to spend some alone time with Jim. Venecia might even offer a rain check for another night for the one wanting to join their dinner.

The rest of the party will be dining at the same time in the grand dining hall. The servants will have provided elegant evening wear and insist that they leave their weapons in their rooms.  A PC may be able to hide a small weapon like a couple of daggers under their jacket or a light crossbow under a puffy dress. They will be seated among other guests and enjoy a variety of small talk.  Along with the snobbery before, there may be calls for stories. This is a great time for the party to tell about some of their adventures. The nobles, of course, will be impressed by everything excepting descriptions of obvious gore.

Jim will be escorted onto the roof of the Grande Hotel where there is a beautiful garden open to the sky.  The sun will have just set and stars will be appearing. There will be a low table there, surrounded by pillows, and loaded with fruit and other feast-worthy foods. The servants will get everything in order for Jim. Venecia will be there waiting. Her sister, Varista, will arrive late in a beautiful dress with a veil. Venecia will say all the right things. Her sister will say very little, coughing perhaps a bit, and mentioning that she has a cold.

Once dinner is underway, the servants will ask if there is anything else. Venecia will send the servants away, saying that they no longer wish to be disturbed. If Jim studies the servant's face, he will notice an odd look. Venecia's face will tell of ravenous desires.

After the servants leave and dinner is finished, the sisters will snuggle in close to Jim. The affection will quickly turn as Varista pulls away her veil, revealing a gaunt frightening face. The illusions will quickly drop as the sisters are revealed as succubi. Jim is obviously to be their dinner.

They situation will seem quite dire at first. Jim, because he is more of a talker than a fighter, may not have the physical skills to fight off the sisters. Even a skilled fighter will be hard pressed to fight off two of such fiends. He will be struggling to ultimately try to get away to signal the others.

The others will be down a floor and down a hall, so it isn't an easy location to hear anything from the roof. The one saving event is that someone at dinner with the party might mention several hints at other guests disappearing and some strange tidbits about the sisters. That might be enough to have one of the party members grow alarmed.

Whether Jim is able to contact the party or the party decides to check on Jim, it ultimately turns into a fight between the sisters and the party. The sisters will use their wiles and persuasion to attempt to talk the party into letting them be. They obviously have a tremendous amount of money to offer. This chance meeting with Jim was a desperate last measure to save Varista's life, after all. The party may or may not be convinced.

No matter what happens, this evening will likely be the party's last night of staying in the Grand Hotel.  In addition, should they kill the sisters, they will be hard pressed to make a convincing tale for the local authorities that the sisters were succubi. The sisters may return to humanoid form after killed, likely resulting in the party being wanted for murder. This makes for another nice plot hook.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Interesting Encounter: The Goblin Luge

Interesting encounters are short descriptions of encounters that GMs can use to build on.  They combine unique aspects of different types of foes, terrain, skill checks, weather, combat, etc in order to provide more unique challenges than hit monster; repeat.

This encounter is all about excitement and speed with a lot of humor thrown in. The encounter takes place on a sleepy little snow-covered mountainside in a village. The party can start out either inside or outside.  After an overnight ice storm, the party will be startled by screaming and strange noises.

A group of goblins has gathered up the mountain from the village. They have recently discovered that if they load 4 or more of them onto metal shields they recently recovered from a nearby battle, they can attain a lot of speed going down the hill. They get the wonderfully evil idea of using this new found method of transportation to make a raid on the village.

The raid starts with the first few groups sliding through the village at high speed. They have bladed weapons that at speed can be quite deadly to townsfolk or hurt the PCs. They are also trying to grab things like goats and buckets and laundry and whatever else might be outside as they slide through. Some sleds with fewer goblins might even be going slow enough for ranged weapons like shortbows to come into play.

The goblins will grab whatever is in reach, which is not always a good idea. One sled might end up with a laundry line of bloomers blocking their view. Another might spin out of control with the uneven weight distribution of a grabbed goat. Some might hit ramps of wood or other material laying around in the village. An airborne sled can do a lot of damage if it hits someone or something, though the goblin crew won't fair well in the collision.

Because the goblin shield sliders are moving so quick, they will be extremely difficult to hit if attacked, and also difficult to dodge. Since this looks like a fun raid, however, there will be a lot of goblins up the hill waiting for their turn keeping the chaos going.  The party may try to engage the goblin sledders, improvise traps, grapple them, or even charge up the hill after them. In all cases, they will be at risk for weapon attacks and collisions.

The real goal at the heart of this encounter is keeping the goblins from hurting townsfolk and taking their stuff, so the party may also be corralling townsfolk indoors and moving stuff out of the grasp of goblins. The might also be building up things to deflect the goblin luge track away from the village.

To further complicate the encounter, some large creature, like a hobgoblin or ogre may come along and decide this looks like fun. Where the party is preparing for only the goblins, this makes for a hilarious change of pace. The bulk of a much larger creature is going to call for an immediate change of tactics. Failure to do so will cause a lot of damage, and even perhaps result in a PC being grabbed up and taken captive. A huge creature could also destroy buildings or grab up townsfolk.

Another aspect is that the goblins will be attempting to pilfer items off the party. If the fighter's magical sword or the wizard spellbook gets grabbed, the pursuit is on. Expect that the PCs will grab an empty shield and head down the hill after them. The chase is on.

During the chase, let the PCs lean to steer and push with their arms and weapons to gain speed. With any luck, they will catch up and engage the goblins in melee combat while sliding.  Of course, in true Indiana Jones style, or perhaps inspired by Numenera's GM intrusions, the chase has to end badly.

The improved mountainside luge track empties out on to a partially frozen lake. At the bottom, the sleds will slide out onto the ice. The ice is safe for small goblins but the bigger PCs will, of course, crack through the lake and start the ice chunks flowing towards -- you guessed it -- a waterfall.  What was at first a fun chase, is now turning into a fight to life or death. The PCs will usually be able to just paddle their concave shield over to the shore and count themselves lucky.

If the large creature earlier grabbed something, it is going to be bad news at the bottom of the hill. The huge creature is going for a dip through the ice into the cold water, and whatever he grabbed is going with him. If it is a PC, there is going to be significant cold damage, a fight to reach the surface and potentially break through the ice. Trying to get warm before frostbite and hypothermia set it will also be a challenge.  With the party in chase, this shouldn't be too big of a problem, but it should feel dangerous.

In the end, the party should have a good time watching the goblin antics and feel lucky they survived the encounter relatively unscathed, except perhaps for a missing item or too.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Danger of Stereotyping Players

We probably have all heard the stereotypes: the munchkin, the min-maxer, the power gamer. There are entire sections in gaming books written on different types of gamers and how to deal with them. Today, I'm covering why this kind of classification of players is dangerous for being a good GM.

Using stereotypes to identify players is a terrible way to relate to your gaming group. Once you believe you can adequately boil down the needs, wants, and behaviors of a player to a single name, you have lost sight of all of the details that differentiate that player from everyone else. You start thinking that those stereotypes are the important part of what defines a player. You start designing a game around those stereotypes. People are rarely so fundamentally cookie-cutter. Stereotypes gloss over the details that you need to pay attention to in order to be responsive to your players.

So how do you deal with a power gamer or a min-maxer, if you don't want power gaming or min-maxing in your game? If you are already convinced that is what these players solely want, then the only answer is to kick them out. A power gamer will power game, right? Wrong. Power gaming is a behavior, one that any player might pick up in a certain situation. If we focus on people as a problem, instead of behavior as a problem, we lose all of our options for dealing with undesired behavior. When one of my players starts min-maxing a character too far, I send them a reminder, that in my games we play characters, not character sheets, and that min-maxing a character is not acceptable in my games. Players respond to this. They can change behavior. They can become better players. They are not limited to one play style. They can grow beyond a stereotype.

Stereotypes with bad connotation are also a problem because they are used to mask other problems. Every couple of months a post pops up on the forums with an exasperated player.  "My GM isn't enforcing the rules, other players are doing things that aren't allowed, and I don't want to be a rules lawyer." Sometimes the GM in the game has gone so far as to tell the player to stop rules lawyering. This is a valid complaint by a player, that the GM and other players aren't playing by the rules. Instead of dealing with the valid problem, the player who brings it up gets swept under the rug as a rules lawyer, and nothing gets fixed or improved. Stereotypes for players provide a shield for the GM, allowing them to ignore problems. That doesn't help anyone. Stereotypes are too often used like this, to write people off.

The bottom line is that your players are complex people with probably varied backgrounds in gaming. If you want to put together a good experience for everyone, you need to drop your stereotype view of the game and focus on really caring about what your players want. Instead of calling out players as bad players with bad habits who will never change, focus on reigning in bad behaviors when they impact everyone having fun in your game. Taken together, these things can help improve your game, without the stereotype name-calling.