Monday, December 10, 2007

Play Report: Treasure of the Shrouded One

My group played a decent session on Sunday, fraught with some unexpected twists and events, not all of them pleasant!

The first of these involved the real world, and the laptop on which I transport all of my game notes. It's about ten years old, and runs on Windows 95, but it has been serving my D&D needs well for the last year. So of course it chose the worst moment, about 5 minutes before we were due to game, to irrevocably die. My adventure notes were trapped within, and I was left with the prospect of winging a 3rd Edition game from memory.

I used to make sessions up on the fly occasionally, but I'd never done it with 3e before - quite frankly the complexity of the system made such an endeavour quite frightening to me. Luckily I had my maps on hand, and I'd studied the relevant notes the night before, so things went surprisingly well. It was something of a revelation for me - 3e is as easy to play on the fly as the previous editions. I'd been scared off by all the numbers, but I know now more than ever that most of them (especially those in the statblocks) are utterly extraneous. If an orc shows up, you just need an Attack Bonus, hit points, Armor Class and saving throws. The rest is window-dressing (unless you play a far less hack-and-slash campaign than myself).

Before I start talking about the game's specifics, I should give a basic run-down of my campaign world, The Darkened Land. The setup is that a few hundred years ago the forces of evil won, and the resident sun god was killed and dismembered. So the land is stuck in an eternal night, prowled by dark and dangerous creatures, and peopled by scattered settlements that struggle to survive. The PCs operate out of Bastion, an ancient fort that sits atop a tall pillar some hundred feet in the air. Bastion is under threat by an approaching army of orcs, and the PCs are hunting around for ways to stop them. They've had quite a few adventures, some of them official (notably the Sunless Citadel module and Gorgoldand's Gauntlet from Dungeon Magazine) but mostly my own stuff, and they've managed to obtain a piece of the scattered sun god - The Hand of the Light. Their current goal is to finish exploring the caverns below Bastion, as well as investigate a temple a few hours to the southeast.

The party for this game was Jah (a human rogue 4), Elrohir (an elf fighter/wizard 2/2), Gordred (a human ranger 5) and Qwan (a human fighter 4). The caverns below were their first destination, as they had almost cleared them out in the last session - drow were the main enemies there, as well as some forward scouts for the orc army. The orcs were now gone, but the PCs found the main encampment of drow - some 50 to 100 in all. The leader, Azanoth, they had met before as a lone scout investigating rumours of the sun being gone. Now they spoke with him again at a severe disadvantage, though they did learn his goal - to find the Hand of the Light. The PCs had it in their possession, but a few Bluff checks made sure that Azanoth didn't figure that out. Even so, he wasn't about to let them go without payment of some kind, and he called up one of his wizards to detect magic on the party. The elf took this the wrong way and uttered the immortal words that can ruin any campaign - "Arrow to the face!" The drow wizard got his detect off first, but it didn't help his 1st-level self survive the arrow. Then it was a mad scramble back to the surface, the PCs pursued by a mass of really pissed off drow. Everyone had the same base speed, so I fudged a system based on Fortitude saves to simulate fatigue - not advantageous to the drow with their elven stamina, and they only got off a single crossbow shot at a straggling character. One thing D&D has never had is a good mechanic to simulate chases, and I really hope that one gets included with 4th Edition.

Having riled up the drow elves below, the guys pretty much wrote off those caves and decided to explore the temple. They had some minor interaction with their nemesis in Bastion before leaving, a hunter named Elmyr. I had to create this guy on the fly during the campaign's first session, and for some reason the PCs took an instant dislike to him, even going so far as to poison him with mushrooms. Naturally, I've set him up as a chief antagonist ever since, and this was the session where he was finally going to do something.

So the PCs took off to the Temple, and found it to be consecrated to The Void, my campaign's god of death and entropy. Before they could enter they were ambushed by a bear (Elmyr's animal companion of course!) and a winged figure firing flaming arrows from above. Much to my surprise they made very short work of the bear - it had a lot of hit points, but these characters have a surprising capacity for dealing out damage. The mystery archer flew away after that, causing much consternation and confusion, and the belief that maybe the drow were after them already! (I love PC paranoia.)

The temple was pretty standard stuff on my part - a few monsters (gargoyles), and some things that would prove nasty if the party investigated them, such as a vacuous grimoire. The gargoyles were made short work of, and the grimoire was the only thing the PCs really bothered to check - the elf ended up 1 Intelligence and 2 Wisdom points lower, wracked with the belief that minions of the Void were constantly stalking him just out of the corner of his vision. Not only that, but the poor guy had been carrying around a cursed sword since the last session, and it chose the fight with the gargoyles to make him start using it. The poor guy couldn't catch a break for the whole game, though he probably brought it upon himself by almost causing a TPK with the drow.

The gargoyle fight also saw the appearance of a masked figure, who stood watching the fight for a few rounds before firing a crossbow bolt at a PC then running away. Who could it be? (No prizes for the correct guess...)

The caves below were a bit more interesting. A fight with some ghouls and a ghast left the elf paralysed (and before you say anything, elves aren't immune to a ghast's touch), and about one round from being thrown into an iron maiden. He was saved, but as I said, that guy copped the brunt of all the bad stuff in the game. Maybe it's just because I hate elves? Anyway, the paralyzation was a blessing in disguise - the other PCs grabbed his cursed sword and threw it into a patch of green slime on the first level, and it melted into oblivion. (I have no idea what the correct ruling was here, so I reverted to my Golden Rule - when in doubt, favour the PCs. Unless they're being stupid.)

Further into the caves was a series of twisty, turny passageways, all alike. I took a leaf from Keep on the Borderlands, and gave the tunnels a disorienting effect - the party leader had to make a Will save, or the party would take a random direction without realising it. Needless to say that caused a lot of consternation to the party mapper, and his frustration was a joy to behold. The party were lost, until they eventually stumbled across an ochre jelly. During the fight the thief tried to flee, and the others all saw him try to go one way then strangely veer off another. At this point I relented and let them overcome the effect - I'd already confused them enough, and the potential for having them wander around blindly for hours didn't sound like much fun.

So eventually the PCs navigated the tunnels and came to the final room - the treasure room of course! Inside a glass case was a magnificent jewelled statue of The Void. Money isn't of much use in the Darkened Land, to be honest, but there are civilized lands to the north that the PCs can buy their way into, and that's where I'm hoping the campaign eventually leads. Besides the treasure there was a Shadow Mastiff bound in a circle of salt. So the PCs broke the glass, releasing a gust of wind that blew the salt away and released the hound.

I wasn't expecting this to be a tough fight, but it was actually pretty surprising. The Mastiff used its bay, and the PCs rolled really badly on their saves - three of the four ended up panicked, fleeing for their lives into the tunnels. This left the rogue (a glaive-wielding rogue mind you!) alone, though he did manage to kill the beast. There was some consternation when the masked man reappeared though. The thief thought he would be killed, but instead the man absconded with the statue - though not before dramatically lowering his mask to reveal who had bested the PCs: Elmyr! To be honest, the players were not surprised all that much. The Mastiff was done away with, Elmyr escaped (with the aid of his bat-winged, flame-arrow shooting mistress) and the PCs made their way back to Bastion hoping to expose their antagonist!

It was a good session, and we had some fun. I tried a few new things out, such as making the PCs map things themselves. I like the extra frustrations that this can throw into the PCs plans, but I'm not sure it's worth the effort - it slows things down, and I felt like I was focusing too much on room dimensions as opposed to descriptions. I also paid a lot more attention to light sources, and what the characters could actually see - this I liked a lot. I've always described the entire room regardless of size, but describing just what's within torchlight gives a real sense of the unknown and uncertainty, and I'll be trying to keep it going in future dungeon adventures.

I also discovered that I hate the way concealment works in 3rd Edition. The miss chance is annoying for PCs, especially when they roll a natural 20 and yet still don't hit. I'm hoping that 4th Edition radically retools this mechanic.

Lastly, the lack of healing in this party is truly irritating. After the gargoyle fight the ranger was low on hit points, so the party decided to return to Bastion to get healed - half a day's journey each way to heal one PC! I tried to jog their adventurous spirit with a volley of flaming arrows from above, but it didn't deter them from heading back to base. I initially hated the purported 4th Edition ability that gives every class some healing abilities, but I'm coming around to the idea.

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