The Deserted Wizard – a D&D adventure

This is the first part of a three part recap of a D&D adventure. I also include some thoughts on design. 

The group decided – in the previous session – they wanted to explore the large ruined city that lies half a day’s march from their settlement. It is the first time they enter the ruins, and I wanted it to be memorable and give the players and characters a good sense of the danger and conflicts going on inside the ruins. The ruined city is also a centerpiece for the campaign – an almost irresistible adventuring fun-land – but it is de facto optional for the characters.

Design choices

The ruins is my own combination version of Myth Drannor and Parlainth, two city-ruin box sets that I have always enjoyed, and that I know tickles the imagination of players.

parlainth myth drannor
Two ruined city mega dungeons, but designed very differently. I don’t think I’ve used any RPG box set more than Parlainth. 

Like in the Parlainth box set (from Earthdawn) I’ve divided the ruins into a number of districts, and added a few key locations and a faction or two to each. By making a ‘purpose’ and framework for each district, it become easier to improvise, created random encounters and to describe each district in a distinctive way.

The characters already knew from a celestial they met in the Warrens, that he was unable to enter the ruins, and they know of a fey queen trapped inside, and the power of the ranger has told them that there are plenty of demons inside too.  So clearly, not everyone can move freely in and out, for some reason.

From a design perspective, the feature that some things can’t get out, means that there is a contained, mid to high level adventuring zone, close to their home base. The fact that it is contained means that the characters don’t feel forced to remove this danger close to their settlement immediately. On the other hand, it adds tension that they have to fear messing with whatever contains the monsters inside the ruins, as that would be a potential disaster for the entire region.

Inside the leaders of the various factions can be powerful allies and sources of information, particularly of the ancient history of the land. They can also be major plot movers, but they don’t have to be. Which is why it is optional. If the players chose to engage with one or more of them, the appropriate plots they are involved in can be affected.

Session 27 – setting the stage

I introduced an actual quest set out by the governor, which gave them an objective. The first wizard that came with the settlement, a diviner named Corbian de Juxa, had deserted from the settlement and went into the ruins with a group of soldiers, whom he had convinced to follow him. He believed someone important was trapped inside.

The group – which for this session only had four characters present – went to the ruins, and outside the walls encountered the elves, who guard against creatures coming out. They were warned by them, not to let anything dangerous out, but were also shown to the point where Corbian and his men entered the ruin – one of the broken towers in the wall surrounding the city.

Mezzoloths are the regular soldiers of the Yugloth armies.

From the inside of the tower they can see a building that matches the description Corbian gave to the governor before he deserted, and they head for it.

In a ruined road, in what was a residential area with many 3 and 4 storied buildings, they are attacked, and the attackers open with a Cloud Kill. The attackers turn out to be three Mezoloths supported by a pack of armored hounds led by two hell hounds. They fight fiercely, but the fiends don’t fight to the death. All three Mezoloths teleport away when they go low on hit points, and the group manages to defeat the hounds.

However, they spent quite a lot of resources to do it. They therefore decided to have a short rest. At that point they get a second random encounter, which are two mind flayers with a pack of goblin slaves. They don’t see the hidden players, but the player on guard sees them searching the place where they fought the yugloths.

The mezzoloths were a fixed encounter, as I need them to set up a meeting in before they exit the ruins. The mind flayers were a random encounter, but worked well as foreshadowing. 

At the end of the session they reach the building they were heading for and try to enter through a balcony door, but the fighter, Arak, is hit with a disintegrate when he tampers with the door and barely survives.

Fiends, cloud kill spells and disintegrate traps and the rightly feared mind flayers sets the stage for the ruins, shows them that they’ve move up into a ‘new league’ and it foreshadows future encounters.

More on that in the next installment…

Earthdawn and D&D

I had the pleasure of DM’ing a game of Earthdawn last week. We got together most of the old group from high school and had a full day of gaming. It was great fun, but also displayed the strengths and weaknesses of Earthdawn, which was created in the mid-90s, compared to today’s games.
For those who might not know it, Earthdawn is sort of a high magic post-apocalyptic fantasy world with a dash of H.P. Lovecraft monsters.

Earthdawn’s main strength is its campaign world. It is incredibly rich and detailed and is much more coherent with actual logical explantions for dungons and ruins. Its world is full of jungles and Inca-like ruins, which is a welcome change from the standard ‘European’ setting.
The best part is probably is the way magic is described. There is an astral space layered on top of the real world, and inside that lurks many foul monsters and it has been tainted by the magical apocalypse. At the same time everything has names, and magical patterns that symbolize what it is, which can be viewed by many characters. This creates an extra layer of storytelling, as you can work in important locations or item’s symbolic meaning, and let characters perceive interesting things related to the background or plot. Magical items always have histories, and require deeds and quests to unlock. This is very much opposed to the ‘Detect Magic’ of Dungeons & Dragons.

Therefore for my new D&D campaign, I have merged the Feywilds, the Shadowlands and Astral Space to something more akin to Earthdawn’s astral space, and called it the Warrens (stolen from Steven Erikson’s excellent fantasy novels). They are also path’s to tread, and a place you can go, much like the Spirit World in the Werewolf the Apocalypse game. This takes some rewiring of a number of spells, but I hope it will pay off to make a more interesting magic experience in my campaign.

Earthdawn and Consequences

The Eartdawn system is quite ‘crunchy’. And I certainly had forgotten how long combat can take. One issue is initiative rolls every combat round. The reason for that is good – that some characters gain special advantages if they are acting before their enemy in initiative. But it really slows the game down.
It has one great thing going for though, which I hadn’t realized when I played it in high school. Combat is full of interesting choices. Many of the better combat abilities, such as avoiding an attack, either cost a little bit of damage, or extra magical energy (which you have to buy with experience), and spell casters can speed up the casting of their spells by accepting higher difficulty numbers. All this makes for very interesting combat, where almost every choice has to be weighed against its cost. I like that!
The same can be said for the way you advance your character, but that is another story…

Earthdawn Modules
As I noted in a discussion on another RPG blog, it is a shame that the modules made for the game aren’t better. Most of them are railroading a lot, and although full of cool stories, they don’t exploit the backstory well enough.

The Parlainth Box set is one of the best expansions to the game (maybe to any game!), and has a general description of this ruined city and its inhabitants and wonders. It is a great play-ground. But why haven’t they made a fully detailed abandoned Kaer (apocalyptic fantasy shelter against lovecraftian horrors) as a dungeon module? Most of the Kaers in the modules are very small (only 8-12 rooms) and seem very inadequate as long lost self-sustaining communities. Why isn’t there a sandbox module with a village or town in trouble, and a range of adventures and adventure opportunities located around it? Sure the Dwarf Kingdom (Throal) source book comes close, but it only has the story ideas. Not the full mini-adventures.
All in all, I loved coming back to the game. I made a prequel to our very first adventure (Mists of Betrayal), set in Parlainth. But I don’t think I will be running another campaign in it, ever. I feel I have spent enough time in that setting, there is not enough left for me to explore, and I am very fond of the speed and ease of use of the new Dungeons & Dragons.