Wilderland Adventures: Those Who Tarry No Longer

Adventures-in-Middle-earth-Wilderland-Adventures-cover-900
The previous three adventures are all reviewed on this blog. The first one is here.

I’m running all seven Wilderland Adventures with my group of 7 players. You can also read reviews of other AiME products on this blog (and other D&D stuff). These adventure blog-posts are part review and part suggestions for Loremasters on how to run or adjust the adventure, based on my experience of running it. And to provide context for those two things, I will also describe what happened during the adventure. Art is copyright Cubicle 7 and pulled from their material.

Those Who Tarry No Longer was one of the adventures I really loved when reading it. Unfortunately, it has some issues as an adventure when you run it.

The story involves the characters in protecting an elf noble lady who is going to the White Harbor and into the West. The characters are to deliver her to the High Pass, but unfortunately, the Big Bad Evil Guy wants to destroy her.

The adventure invokes a strong sense of Tolkien and captures the mood of the diminishing world very well.

But, the adventure is very railroaded. It depends on the players how big an issue the railroading is for the group.

My players have bought into the fact that we (more or less) run these seven adventures and nothing else, to reduce my prep time for a period and to check out Adventures in Middle-Earth. Despite that, a few of them were bored with how little actual agency they have on the adventure. Other players just enjoy the ride.

How it played out:

The adventure took 2½ sessions to play, partly because I had a large group for the two first sessions – 6 and 7 respectively.

obama
Sometimes using anachronistic real world reference can be very helpful describing in game experiences. I would be pretty dumb struck meeting this guy…

I – rather ham-handedly – narrated how they had decided to hunt the white stag of Mirkwood, and during the hunt encounter Legolas escorting Lady Irimë. I had to spend some time describing the emotion she instilled to get the players to see, how their characters might react – despite knee jerk murder hobo reactions of scoffing at pansy elves. I both described her in Middle-Earth terms, but I also equated the meeting with how we might react, if we suddenly meet a global celebrity or politician, whom we might not agree with or who’s work we don’t care fork – Beyoncé or Obama for example. You may not care for them, but it would be impossible for most people to blow them off or make fun of them. That seemed to work.

We then had a fun time role-playing the mood of feasting with the elves and travelling with her – where she gives insight of the things long gone.

It works really well that they are travelling through areas the group passed by before in previous adventures. The way she provides new layers of understanding to the history of the Old Ford for example, gave the players a sense of all the things that were forgotten, which they didn’t learn from previous Lore rolls.

After the Old Ford they begin to encounter orcs, which led to the major fight on the hill top, where they are rescued by eagles and brought to an eyrie. The seven characters held off the orcs for eight rounds and with only one character down. Then I brought in the eagles, to not drag it on any longer.

rescue by eagles
A classic Tolkien scene. Too classic?

They laughed a bit at the cliché. But it is very thematic, and the meeting with the eagles afterwards I think was quite cool.

Session 2:

The second session of the adventure began with the players being dropped off by the eagles and settling in to the ruins of Haycombe. They camp and a caught in the dream world when Irimë fights the shadow that attacks her.

Initially, they liked the mystery of being transported to Haycombe and trying to figure out how to get home. We roleplayed in the inn and had fun, but when the master arrives and a fight breaks out, it quickly becomes clear that they have no real options. They can fight until they are forced to surrender, by the threat of burning down the inn. So, they surrendered.

We ended the second session after they had been marched to Dol Guldur.

Session 3:

The final part in the dungeons of Dol Guldur had fine role-playing opportunities, the mood was dark and the dwarves of the group had fun trying to fight their way out (I simply described how their attack ended up in severe beatings). The result was that when one was picked to fight the hill troll, it wasn’t the dwarf slayer – who might have had a chance – and instead it was the Dunedaín warrior, who was killed, and woke up – but I didn’t give him all the shadow points, as it was more a narrative death, to show them what was going on in the real world.

Their wanderer took the place of the boy in the next fight against the hill troll but was only beaten unconscious.

Finally, the shadow comes for the elf, all the characters make their saving throws, and they return to the world, with Irimë alive.

Elrond’s sons then arrive (and it was nice having the Rivendell Guide, to add extra flavor to that part), and Irimë made them Elf Friends.

Irime
The final scene of the adventure. It is cool, but I have a hard time imagining player’s, who have chosen to play Middle-Earth disavowing Irimë or going over to the Enemy, which the adventure is prepared for. The players want to be heroes.

How was the adventure?

It is a very railroaded adventure.

It is also an adventure with a great atmosphere, and there are some really good role-playing scenes in it. The core idea is strong, but the execution has several flaws, in my view. It seems like the author has a story to tell, and the point is to show the players the power and magic of the elves and give them a chance to experience Dol Guldur. It succeeds at that. I think there is a chance the author had something greater in mind but couldn’t fit it within the space he has in the book.

If your players simply want to experience and ‘live’ Middle-Earth and just want to help you tell this cool story, they will most likely enjoy this adventure.

If your players want to have real agency, they are probably not going to like this adventure, unless you change it – a lot.

I think a key issue is the fact that the players can’t see what their objective is, and the mechanical parameters aren’t visible. That means the choices they actually can make which have an impact on the final outcome aren’t clear, which means the players can’t make any meaningful choices (see game designer Sid Meyer’s view on that). They can of course roleplay their character – to some extent – but if their character would flee Haycombe at the first sign of trouble or they have a great plan to avoid being captured, they can’t really execute on it.

An example are the two big battles: the outcome is given for both and in the second case there is little penalty for death. But neither is there any advantage from holding out as long as possible. They might as well just surrender at the beginning, or you can narrate the whole encounter at the inn. It makes no difference.

There is not really any advantage in figuring out what is going on, either. And very little to ‘investigate’, which was my player’s initial approach. They just have to wait for the ride.

In Dol Guldur all their actions help decide the final DC of the saving throw they have to make. But the players don’t know that – although in my case I gave them enough information to their characters that they figured it was a spiritual battle about not giving in. As they did all the right things, the final DC was not hard. Is a single dice roll for each character the best way to resolve the climax? I’m not sure…

What could you change?

It would be a significant amount of work to make the adventure less railroaded. Below I have some ideas as to how players could get more agency within the current framework. I would love to get comments with other ideas.

In the battles against the goblins, I would have Irimë tell them that she will signal the eagles, and that they would have to hold out until they arrive. I would then progressively make each round significantly more difficult, using wolves, archers and perhaps a hill troll at the end. I would also wait with the star light from Irimë’s magical ring, until they came under big pressure. It might also grant them a HD in hit points. If the group fails to hold on for the given number of rounds (it says six in the book), Irimë would be killed, and the Eagles would come and take them all away.

inn fight
Fights in inns should by fun and dynamic. I managed to make it relatively dynamic with foes breaking through the windows, but the group was well barricaded.

The fight at the inn is the biggest problem. I almost think the best solution is to simply narrate it and get on with the story.

You could give inspiration for lasting through both waves at the inn as a reward, but it is still very railroaded. Fighting to let others escape the town is another option, because that would feel like a victory of sorts, but then why would the key NPC’s not be among those who escape?

In Dol Guldur, the DC of the final roll changes depending on what their characters do. Do they tend the dying man? Do they convince the minstrel not to join the Necromancer?

To make a less railroaded version, I would keep the first part of the adventure, and the core idea for the dream and the spirits attack but make it into a (longer) more open adventure, with more freedom, requiring more investigation to figure out what is going on and more proactive means of defeating the spirit. But that is a significant amount of work.

All in all, the mood and role-playing in the adventure is great. But the players are mainly along for the ride. It depends a lot on your players if they would enjoy this. 

Wilderlands Adventures: Don’t Leave the Path

I’m running all seven Wilderland Adventures with my group of 7 players. You can also read reviews of other AiME products on this blog. These adventure blog-posts are one part review and one part suggestions for Loremasters on how to run or adjust the adventure, based on my experience of running it. And to provide context for those two things, I will also describe what happened during the adventure.

Our first adventure had a somewhat fragmented group. We began late December, and due to vacations, illness and work, I had 3-4 players when running the adventure, but in different constellations, so I had to do some narrative adjustments to keep it logical.

How it played out

Session 0.5:
The first four players made their characters, and we began the adventure. I followed the adventure and had them wander along Long Lake, when the young Belgo comes running, and tells them that his father is being attacked by his guards. The group rush after to help him and drive off the thugs with a well-aimed attack and a solid intimidate roll. They agree on helping him getting through Mirkwood, travel with his elven friends on rafts to the Halls of Thranduril and manage to convince the elves that they can stay and get some nice supplies, while they rest. They still feel that they are rather an unfriendly lot, those elves.

Adventures-in-Middle-earth-Wilderland-Adventures-cover-900
A book of 7 linked adventures for Adventures in Middle-Earth by Cubicle 7. 

Session 1:
The group begins the journey through Mirkwood with the merchant Baldor and his son Brego. With two of the original four players missing, and two new players participating, and one still not able to make it, I create an encounter, where the two new characters are fighting two attercops, and the third – still unnamed character – has been poisoned and is unconscious. The two ‘old’ characters come upon the battle, while leading the small caravan, and throw themselves into the fight. During the fight, the non-present characters ‘guard’ the ponies, Baldor and Brego against other attercops. The two groups agree to travel together for safety (obviously).

For the journey we rolled Feast for Kings for Embarkation and two journey events. I decided to place the journey events in between the fixed encounters, and they arrive at the sink holes, a place touched by the shadow, before the Castle of the Spiders.

Baldor drinks from the stream, and the present characters chase after him, while the non-present two characters remain behind to guard Brego (felt fitting with the story, actually).

They follow his trail and arrive at the castle of the spiders, where they successfully rescue him, after a tense and fun battle. I had one of the absent PC’s arrive, a world weary Dunedaín, to provide bow cover-fire for their escape.

After the battle, Baldor and a dwarf player character have a great role-playing exchange on Baldor’s experience of the death of Smaug and the reclaiming of the Lonely Mountain.

I introduce the second journey event, and the group comes across Tauler, one of Shelob’s children, but they manage to avoid him without being seen, but gain a few shadow points, and run for their lives.

Session 2:
The unconscious (7th) characters wakes up, but due to unusually low attendance, he only has two active travel companions. I narrate how the absent characters are so exhausted and mentally drained from the trip, that they stay around the Baldor and Bregor to guard them. The new character is a Wanderer, and as the group really needs a long rest, he activates an ability, to lead them to a hideout, where they can have a long rest.
After the rest, I introduce an additional journey event, where they find warg paw prints at a potential camp site, and the wanderer shines again. Then comes the storm, they fail their audience with the hermit, and a thrown out of his home.

Finally, they arrive at the well, the Dunedaín fails his save, and jumps into the well. They fight the Thing in the Well and survive.

As we still have good time left, Baldor tells them of the rumour of the new Easterly Inn. They head for that location, we role-play the arrival, have a fellow-ship phase, and I introduce the hook to the next adventure. We end the session when they depart to find Dindoas Brandybuck.

How was the adventure?

It was a strong adventure, and it played better than I had expected. After reading all seven adventures, I considered this the weakest of them all. But it was dramatic, had a strong mood and reflected the dangers of this journey well.

My players have had different play experiences, because of the fragmented group. But, overall, they are happy that there is action, but a greater focus on role-playing than in my home brew campaign. A couple of them did fear that the setting was too – how shall I say it – light and too focused on pure narrative role-playing drama. They want to roll initiative and fight orcs. And they still get that!

One of my players also told me that he really liked that he knew that everyone is a hero. In regular D&D, he must consider everyone’s true motives, but in AiME, they can fundamentally rely on each other.

Dark mood
The mood inside Mirkwood was excellent. The journey events enhanced the mood really well. In the second session I did change one of the random events from an encounter with more attercops to the ‘place of shadow’, because they were fighting attercops when I introduced the new characters.  For pacing reasons, I had four journey events (including the attercop attack in session 1), and it worked well.

The oppressive and exhausted mood that is the essence of the journey played out very well. Particularly, after the group rescued Baldor, and he told his story of losing his wife and home, wishing the dwarves had never woken Smaug, we had one of the best role-playing scenes in recent years. The frayed bond between father and son also gave the last part of the adventure a shadow of sadness, which I think worked well.

IMG_0092
I’ve had the battle maps printed. It adds an extra dimension, for sure.

Good & bad encounters
The Castle of Spiders was an awesome encounter. It was very tactical, because of the terrain. It was tense due to constantly appearing spiders, and it looked like the players had a great time. The small things, like 25 ft. movement, and wielding a spear with reach, was important.

The Thing in the Well was not quite as interesting a battle. I had to boost its hit points, despite there only being three characters, as they had reduced it to half hit points, before it had a chance to act.

At first level there is a lot of luck involved in combat, and one blow can fell a character. So, on one hand, the encounter is very dangerous. Characters falling down the well, or who are hit more than once, have a good chance of going down, and that will quickly turn the tide. Particularly, if they have spent their powers already, they will be in great danger. On the other hand, the Thing has AC 12. With starting characters having +5 or +6 on hit rolls, it means it is likely that 3 out of 4 attacks will hit it the first round. Three attacks can quite easily do 20+ damage. As written, it is unlikely the combat will last more than 2 rounds.

As I considered the Thing a bit of a boss encounter, it was a little bit disappointing.

What would I do differently?

I would change the hook:

MAtt C Tavern
 You can listen to Matt Colevilles arguments for starting in a tavern, here.

The hook is rather weak. I understand they want to introduce the action quickly, but if I were to run it again, I would start the adventure in Lake Town at a tavern. I would let the thugs be competitors to the characters, which would create tension in the first scene. It would also give the characters a way to introduce themselves, the can haggle with Baldor, and intimidate the thugs. Later on, the thugs can follow them, and try to attack them at night.

I would introduce scenes:

When Baldor drinks of the enchanted stream and runs off, it is one of several cases, where something happens during the Wilderland Adventures, where it seems like the characters can act, but the outcome is basically certain, if you want a fun adventure.
The problem is that the characters think they can catch Baldor, before he runs into the forest, for example with a skill roll. I mean, Baldor is an older, not very fit man. It seems plausible, but there is no indication of how far Baldor is from the watch, when he goes crazy. That can create frustration with players. My player just shrugged it off.

The same can basically happen, if Brego is the one enchanted by the Thing in the Well, and throws himself into the well, and a similar situation occurs in the next part of the adventure.

The solution is to me – suggested by a player, who also DMs – that I tell them there is a scene, and I then describe what happens in a dramatic way. They are cool with a fun story unfolding, and that way there is no ambiguity to create frustration.

I would change the final encounter:

I think the final encounter could use some more terrain to make it more interesting. If the well is inside some kind of ancient structure, just with some walls and perhaps a couple of rooms, it would create more tension when they explore it.

The Deserted Wizard – Part 3

I was almost caught up – and then life hits. Well, here is the final recap of this adventure. The next session had some downtime, and the sessions after that is the first chapter in a grand expedition to explore the lands around them after the winter. As always, I prioritize actually preparing D&D over writing about what happened. At least until I have significantly more time in the evenings… I do want to add a couple of reviews of RPG-material that I’ve been reading. And I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival of Trudvang Chronicles

If the players thought they were done with mindflayers, they were wrong. The group was back to only four players, due to the Easter holiday, and the decided to make a short rest, before exploring the rest of the guild hall. They find their ancient archive, in a magical storage room, and recognize it as a valuable trove of lore, if you spend sufficient time on piecing things together. The also enter the guild masters office, where they locate the secret door to the strong room, but when they tamper with it, two stone guardians attack. In the strong room they find gold and silver, and more importantly a few bars of mithral and adamantine and a scroll that can be used to enchant a weapon permanently.

purple worm
Unfortunately, the purple worm mini I had ordered didn’t arrive in time. There will be more opportunities though… 

I kept track of time, because – unbeknownst to the players and their characters – the mindflayers continued to be aware of them and their actions. So they gathered another force and attacked again. They led that attack with a hill giant and a purple worm. The players were pretty freaked. But still, the four 8th level players, decided to fight the purple worm (which is CR 15 and has 250 hit points). Fortunately for them, they had luck on their side, as the purple worm is so strong that it can basically remove a character from the fight every round. The purple worm used its bite attack on the paladin/ranger in the first round, but the dwarf bard/fighter used his protective ability to give it disadvantage, so it missed. And the dwarf could tank the tail attack. Next round the purple worm missed with its bite again, but hit the druid with its poisonous tail, who went down. And then a mind flayer emerged from the hole the purple worm left. This was double trouble, but they kept piling on damage, and then the paladin/ranger was swallowed by the worm. The purple worm was heavily damaged, so with a final eldritch blast the warlock killed the purple worm (which 3 characters gave 250 in damage in 3 rounds…)

I had narrated that the three characters, with players who weren’t present, take on the hill giant and the goblins that followed it, and that the half-orc bellowed that they had to flee (that we my DM-que that it was wise).

The purple worm spits out the paladin in its death throes, and with a feather fall they escape the guild hall, but in the ruins beyond the run into another mindflayer ambush, with a single mindflayer, two intellect devourers and some goblins. That was fun!

id
They aren’t hard to kill, but surprisingly nasty, as the Int reduction needs a Greater Restoration to counter. 

The players know they are just a couple of bad saving throws away from defeat, but a couple of summoned bears and a charging paladin kills the mindflayer, which cause the rest to flee. The warlock had his intelligence reduced by the intellect devourer though, and is comatose, so now they are down to three characters.

The finally reach the exit point at the tower, where an elf is waiting for them. He introduces himself as Kelgon, but the paladin sense that he is a fiend in disguise. He does not reveal his true form, when they confront him with that knowledge, but he admits that the Mezzoloths that attacked them works for him, and that he has a proposal for them: if they are willing to help him kill undead in the ruins, he will give them knowledge and magic items in return. Their response is that they want to consider it, and that they will return with an answer, if he is willing to let them exit the ruin. He allows that, and finally the group emerges from the ruins into a forest that now seems much more benign and safe.

 

 

If you want to read my notes of this entire D&D adventure, they can be found here: DnD Adventure – The Deserted Wizard.

Books that Inspired my Campaigns – Part II

Song of Ice and Fire

This series made me step out of the traditional mold when it came to world-design. Before I read the first novels of the series, my campaign worlds had been pretty standard “European” or it had been Earthdawn (which as a game itself also inspired me a lot). Westeros was not what I found most inspiring, but the decadent and old lands of the east are very cool with places such as Astapor and Mereen. I made a campaign called the Far Seas, a maritime campaign with a lot of islands, where I put in big Jade pyramids, nomadic Halfling armadas, lost gods, fantastic cities with ancient monuments and strange magical effects. Looking at many published campaigns today, Far Seas isn’t exceptional, but it was a good step for me, and it was so popular that when I moved to another town, a frieSOIFnd of mine ran a campaign in that world. That is a pretty big compliment.

“Aggo was back next. The southwest was barren and burnt, he swore. He had found the ruins of two more cities, smaller than Vaes Tolorro but otherwise the same. One was warded by a ring of skills mounted on iron spears, so he dared not enter, but he had explored the second one as long as he could. He showed Dany an iron bracelet he had found, set with uncut fire opal the size of her thumb.”
– A Song of Ice and Fire

 

Dark Souls

The fantastic video game Dark Souls is a masterpiece of game design. I’m intensely inspired by the level design. The way the world seamlessly flows together and slowly reveals new secrets and connections has to be experienced. The story of the world, its mythos, and the NPC’s stories and motives are extremely opaque and are only revealed by examining all objects and if certain specific steps are taken in the right order. And in Dark Souls outcomes and decisions are permanent, so if you attacked that NPC or he died in a battle, you will have to start a new game to try a different path. This is an exploration element that I really like as well, and is an approach I’m attempting in my current D&D campaign.

Watch the show ‘Extra Play’ on Youtube play and deconstruct Dark Souls game design.

They way that you avatar’s experience mirrors your experience as a player is masterful design. The setup of many of the monster encounters is also very interesting and can easily be used in D&D.

Dark Souls II has less interesting level design (it is still great), but it is also visually very inspiring for my current campaign.

When it comes to video role-playing games, it is – in my experience – when it comes to mechanics and exploration the closest you can come to a pen & paper game. The reason is that you can approach enemies and problems in many ways, which is close to your experience in a pen & paper game.

dark-souls
Approaching the Red Drake. The staircase on the right is a wise move.

 

For my current D&D campaign I’ve not fully taken the plunge into making my own version of a coherent world where the campaign basically all takes within a dungeon. I’ve more tried to let myself be inspired by the design philosophy behind it. If I were to go all the way, D&D would not necessarily be a great system, as many of the spells would need to be modified. But any system would probably need to be modified, in order for the system to emphasize the way the world and campaign should work.

 Playing at the World
This book is about the history of D&D and the games that led to this revolution. It led me deeper into the ideas in the original D&D and made me want to go back to basics – although without going back to some of the OD&D versions of the game, as I have a preference for the smooth mechanics of 5th edition. It is a massive book (600+ pages), and you will learn something you didn’t know.

playing at the worldOne thing that I’ve taken directly to heart in both my home brew campaign and in our Temple of Elemental Evil game is that D&D originally had three core aspects: combat, exploration and logistics. Exploration is of course a cornerstone of my new homebrew. The last part I also find very interesting. I think it is quite apparent that among my players there are different preferences for these elements. Logistics is about how much ammunition to bring, what spells to select and dividing treasure. I have previously skipped this somewhat, but I will try to have it as a more intentional element, for example by using the construction rules from Pathfinder Ultimate Campaign.

It led me to buy many vintage modules online, and there are some great ideas in them as well.

“Into the dramatic structure of Dungeons & Dragons, the mode of logistics injects some much needed banality: after the suspense of exploring and the adrenaline of bloodshed, the chore of logistics, even when they border on tedium, serve as an important counterweight to adventures.” (In Playing at the World, by Jon Peterson)

The Scramble for Africa

Africa is a vast and extremely varied continent, and both its nature and

scramble for africa
Amazon naturally has all the books: if you’re interested

history is an inspiration to me. Recently I read this history of how the European Powers explored and carved up between them the many independent kingdoms and more or less inhabited wilderness of Africa. The exploration element is as always interesting to me – the hardship in traversing deep jungle and the couple of years that Stanley spent traversing the continent East to West. The brutality of the conflicts and of the rule of some of the African kings can also be used in D&D, as can the power play between the nations trying to grab as much land as possible.

“Stanley looked at the majestic brown river flowing past the tall square houses and the baobab trees. Its calmness seemed to him a kind of hypocrisy. It had robbed him of so many of his best men, including Frank Pocock, the last survivor of his three white companions. Even now Stanley felt the hollowness of his triumph. He had sailed from Zanzibar with more than 250 men, women and children. Only 108 would now return safely to their homes.”
The Scramble for Africa, Stanley arrives at the west coast of Africa

The Italian Renaissance

Italy, before it became a nation and was a collection of city states, is so full of intrigue, war and conflict that period has near limitless potential for inspiration for almost any role-playing game – but for Warhammer Fantasy Role-play in particular. As there is so much surviving art and written works from the region and period, there is a lot of potential reading to do. I just needed an overview before a visit to Florence, and I picked up The Italian Renaissance. It deals with both a few central topics such as Women and Princes and the State, and has a chapter on each of the major city-states, and for someone growing up in a modern democracy; I find it helpful to be reminded of the attitudes, government structures and social structures of other people and other times. It can add some memorable tweaks to your NPCs and campaign setting.

IMG_0386
Monument to the most feared mercenary genral in Italy John Hawkwood (Fading Suns, anyone?), who fought for Florence

“On this knowledge the Council acted swiftly and silently, for no public trials enlivened the Venetian scene, and there were no appeals. Once found guilty, the prisoner was sometimes quickly and efficiently strangled in the dungeons or thrown into a part of the lagoon reserved for the purpose, where no fishing was allowed; or hanged by one leg from the pillars of the Doge’s Palace; or quartered and distributed about the city; or buried upside down in the Pazetta, legs protruding; or beheaded – as a public spectacle – between the great pillars on which stand Saint Theodore, with his crocodile and the winged lion of Saint Mark.”
– The Italian Renaissance, on how its Council of Ten kept power through its intelligence system.

 

Dresden Files

The Dresden Files didn’t make it to the top-10 list, but I include it as an honourable mention, as I think it can teach you a thing or two when it comes to upping the stakes and making the stories more action packed.  The Dresden Files demonstrates that you can always kick it up a notch!7bcd5b3f4e4c8b81976032eb67030845

Board game and RPG loot from Essen

I went to the board game and comics convention in Essen, Germany, a couple of weeks ago, and I came home with a bad cold, four board games, a couple of role-playing games and some new experiences.

It was the first time I went to The Internationale Spieltage convention (or simply Spiel). It is the second largest in the world with hundreds of board games being demonstrated and sold. I wish I had been in better health, but I did manage to play a number of fun board games, and I will provide a brief review/introduction to a couple of them here. And also discuss the two RPGs I got.

Rise of the Kage

Ninjas are awesome.
Ninjas are awesome.

A stealth ninja game. It had some very cool mechanics, great miniatures and awesome flavor. I think the stealth mechanics works really well, and it plays well both with 2 and four players. Basically three ninjas have to infiltrate a location and complete a mission before the sun rises or the alarm sounds. One player plays the guard, and 1-3 players plays the ninjas. Each time they fail an action noise is generated, which advances both the time and the alert level, and allows the defending player more actions, guards and so on. We’ve only played it a couple of times, but it has depth, a lot of missions, and thus replay value, and it’s just awesome playing ninjas. If I have to point out some negative things it is layout and design of the rule book, which I think is hard to use for quick reference. The fact that the different cards you use only have two different backgrounds, when they are to be in different piles that you draw from at different times, is very annoying and finally that the design of the box lacks space for the counters.

The board with witches and towers.
The board with witches and towers.

Broom Service

Several of us bought this fun family game. Each player has two witches who has to deliver potions to a board full of wizard towers and dispel clouds to score points. The colour of the potions you deliver has to match the colours of the towers. There are no dice in the game, which is great. Each round each player gets to pick 4 out 10 cards, which you use to move your witches, gather new ingredients, produce potions and deliver the potions to score points. All the players have the same cards, and when the player who’s turn it is plays a card, everyone else who has picked the same card has to play it, which can really mess up your original plan. As your plans are often dependent on the sequence you play your cards, the game play is very much about figuring out what the other player’s intentions are and foiling them, or avoiding getting screwed by other people’s actions. The art is fun and attractive and the game play is simple, but has a lot of depth.

The dice that are evolving monster counters.
The dice that are evolving monster counters.

Light of Dragons

I didn’t buy this very deep but simple looking game, and I only played it once. It is a two-player game, also without dice, and only takes 20-30 minutes two play. You play with 6-side pieces, basically dice you don’t roll, where each face of the dice represents a monster with special abilities on the simple square board. You score points by killing the other player’s monsters, and with each action you have, you can either move a piece or evolve it to the next level of monster. You quickly realize that the way the different abilities interact in play is simply brilliant, and results in a host of available strategies. It could easily be used as a chess-equivalent game in a fantasy RPG campaign. I highly recommend it.

Two new (old) RPGs

It turns out that Bram Stoker's Dracula novel is in fact an old British intelligence report with all the really interesting parts removed.
It turns out that Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel is in fact an old British intelligence report with all the really interesting parts removed.

I bought two new role-playing games as well: Ars Magica (2004 for the 5th ed.) and Night’s Black Agents (2012). I know I won’t be playing them for a long, long time, but I took the opportunity to buy them anyway.

Night’s Black Agents is a thriller game with spies going up against vampires. Think the Bourne films or Ronin, but with big vampire conspiracies. Unlike the Vampire game from White Wolf, you can only play the human underdogs. The reason why I really wanted to pick this up, was because I heard the author, Kenneth Hite talk (on this podcast), about his newly published campaign, the Dracula Dossier, and it is just really, really cool idea. You should check it out (here). Furthermore, it looks like the system handles investigation much better than the old basic roleplay version of Call of Cthulhu or the White Wolf games. It would still be at least a couple of years before I project my D&D campaign to finish, but a man can dream.

Ars Magica speaks to my strong interest in history and in making long campaigns with big story arcs. But it would require a big effort from me to actually create the campaign I would want to play, and that won’t happen for several years. But the dream of a several years long campaign with every player having several characters and slowly developing their Chantry through the political and religious turmoil of the 13th century is very appealing.ArM5LogoColor

So, I found a great fantasy art book in Paris…

Front cover of the art book of Oliver Ledroit.
Front cover of the art book of Oliver Ledroit.

I was in Paris this weekend, and was recommended by my friend Adrian, who is also one of my player’s in my own group, to go to Rue Dante and check out the comic book stores there. It was a great suggestion, and I dragged by girl friend to a number of them, while looking at the great French and American comics and graphic novels (not that there is clear verbal a distinction in Europe), as the French, Dutch and Belgian artists have always made comic books for both children and adult audiences, with some stories very adult.

I was exiting a store, when my eyes fell on an art book, which struck a chord, and I open it, and I see the illustrations from one of my favorite dark fantasy comic books The Black Moon Chronicles (also available in English). The artist is Oliver Ledroit, and it turns out he only did the first few albums, but has done a number of other things since then. It was his first job as an illustrator and got it by showing his portfolio at a convention, when he was only 17.

Inside the book I learned that there is a whole line of miniatures for the setting, and that Ledroit, was inspired by the early Conan comics and has worked on role-playing games and the video game Heroes of Might and Magic

Half of one of the big double page battles, which you also see in Prince Valiant.
Half of one of the big double page battles, which you also see in Prince Valiant.

He has these vast tableaus of thousands of troops, and is mentioned to be inspired by Prince Valiant, which is also clearly evident.

“If you ask him to represent 5,000 guards, you will get an outpouring of millions of men.”
(author of Black Moon Chronicles, Marcela-Froideval)

I can’t say that my own games are directly inspired by these stories directly, but I would recommend them to any fantasy fan. Even after Ledroit left to pursue other projects the artistic style has been retained, and it is really epic, where the good-guy templars are cast as the bad-guys.

The art book was reduced in price from 50 to 20 euros, and was a bit of a steal, in my view.

It has also left me wondering about the French role-playing scene. It turns out the author of Black Moon Chronicles also makes role-playing games. What does that look like? What other games do they make? How big is it? Are any of them in English? It is a big market, and a country like Sweden, which is significantly smaller, has a number of very successful home-grown games, like Drakar och Demoner (which I’ve played a lot!), which leads me to assume that France must have many.

When I return from Internationale Spieltage in Germany, I will have to look into the other projects Ledroit has worked on, such as the science fiction SHA and the noir story XOCO and perhaps I will see some new RPGs at the convention in Essen.

I will conclude this post with a few more samples from the book. But it is full of awesomeness, so I recommend to check Ledroit out yourself.

It shows in his fairies sketches that he was interested in butterflies when he was young.
It shows in his fairies sketches that he was interested in butterflies when he was young.
Character sketches for a SF universe by Ledroit.
Character sketches for a SF universe by Ledroit.
Awesome elf character sketch for Heroes of Might and Magic by Ledroit.
Awesome elf character sketch for Heroes of Might and Magic by Ledroit.

I wished for a TPK…

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I don’t normally wish for it, or plan for it, but a TPK would just have been great for the story. Let me try and explain why…

We were playing our sixth session of Temple of Elemental Evil, this time with only 4 players with 3rd level characters and the paladin was the only healer. At first they accidentally ventured down a sloped hallway to level 2, and saw the chained hydra and chained owl bear. They engaged the owl bear, and killed the troll keeper that came after with some trouble. They explored a bit, and established that there was at least one more troll in the area. Wisely, they went back to level 1, and found their way into one of the two ghoul lairs. This is where things got really interesting.

Ghouls, and more ghouls

Ghoul
The ghouls in 5th edition are nasty, as when you hit paralyzed characters it is automatically a critical hit. This illustration is from the 3rd edition of the D&D Monster Manual.

It was one of the many encounters in the temple that quickly turns into several waves of enemies. In this case, one of the ghouls from the first room will run into the adjoining rooms and get help from its buddies. Furthermore, two cowardly ghasts will be watching from a third room, and join the combat if they are winning, but I decided to add the mechanic that if more than half of the four ghouls were alive after a couple of rounds the two ghasts would flee.

Fortunately for the characters they killed the third ghoul by the end of round two, making the two ghasts flee. However, they flee through the room of the two boss ghasts, and these two will not back down from a fight (as described in the module).

So severely depleted, with the barbarian at 1 hp, the monk had been down once already and with no more healing power or potions, they had to face two ghasts with extra hit points. It was clear it could turn ugly quickly. With the damage output of the ghasts, any of the players would go down with one hit, which would reduce their damage output, and further increasing the odds of more players going down. My first internal reaction was ‘crap! what do I do if I kill them?’ But then it dawned on me that it would be great if I wiped them out.
Because, as you may have read here previously, I have a pool of around 12-14 players for this campaign, and I play with the group that shows up that evening (max 7 players). The area around the temple attracts a lot of adventurers, so it works out really well. It is very dynamic, and we get to see different group combos. Each session ends with the party returning to the surface. The rest of the adventurers stay at their base camp or in Hommlett, resting and planning their next raid on the dungeon.

Great flavor and motivation
Had they TPK’ed, I would have sworn the players to silence, and their party would have been yet another group of adventurers disappearing without much trace in the dangerous catacombs beneath the Temple of Elemental Evil.

It would have created a fantastic motivation for the other players (and the TPK’ed players with new characters) to go and find out what happened, and perhaps find surviving captives, or avenge them, if they weren’t (I would probably have rolled randomly who survived). I could have them as sacrifices in the deeper temples, I could have them charmed or dominated, they could be torture victims of the cult leaders. And their magic loot would turn up in new places, adding a new dimension of investigation and interrogation, such as: ‘Where did you get this cloak? This was worn by our friend Ishmael the last time we saw him…?!’ The extra sense of danger in exploring the dungeons, when the players know a TPK can happen, would also add to the tension of the game.
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As it turned out, I rolled very poorly for the two ghasts, hitting the players zero times, and the players managed to win the day with very high damage output. Great for them…

But I think it is fair to say that I don’t fear having a TPK in the future. I may even wish for it, a little bit.