Review: Green World

Here’s the third full-length adventure from GRAmel for Beasts & Barbarians. It’s a 58 page PDF, part adventure and part setting expansion.

The adventure is in four parts; as ever, I’ll try to minimise spoilers, but it’s not giving much away to tell you that the PCs wake up in a strange place with no memory of how they got there, and their objectives are to figure out what happened to them and find their way home. My experience so far is that each part in one of these adventures takes about four hours for my group to get through, give or take, and since that’s how long our weekly session lasts, I’ll get about a month’s worth of adventuring out of Green World.

The adventure takes up about 30 pages, after which we get expansions to the Beasts & Barbarians setting. There are a dozen or so new beasts and NPCs, and a 14 page section on demons, those who worship them, and those who fight them. Amongst other things, this explains what the enigmatic Stylites are actually doing.

As ever with Umberto Pignatelli’s adventures, Green World makes full and clever use of classic Swords & Sorcery tropes; Conan would be right at home here. In this case, we have damsels in distress, vile creatures bent on consuming same, demon-worshipping savages, and a lost world.

Some foreshadowing is useful in running the adventure; I’d recommend doing that several sessions in advance.

It’s also worth noting that the B&B adventures played in sequence show a natural progression northwards and eastwards through the game setting, and that some of the smaller adventures fit into it. So far, I’d say the logical progression is: Death of a Tyrant, Citadel of the Winged Gods, The Skinner of Syranthia, Green World, The Carnival at Nal Sagath, Wolves in the Borderlands, and The Cliff Queen’s Court. Vengeance of the Branded Devils could come at the end of that arc, at a stretch, although it’s intended as the introductory scenario. If you start the heroes at Seasoned, as recommended, and award the usual two experience per session, they’d be well into Heroic by that point.

Rating: 5 out of 5. I was really started to feel jaded, and this series of adventures has perked me up nicely.

Shadows of Keron, Episode 7: Citadel of the Winged Gods, Part 1

I see I miscounted somewhere along the line, and this was actually episode 7. Never mind.

The party continues its mission to Gis by crossing the border into south-east Kyros en route to Kenaton, where they plan to take ship along the Sword River to Askerios. After a few weeks, they encounter the army of General Tunamos and are enlisted as advance scouts in his campaign against Azagara. Their mission is to prevent anyone raising the alarm as he approaches.

“After all,” says Gutz, “We’re going that way anyhow, may as well get paid for it.”

Despite – or maybe because of – their reputation, the General assigns them N’Dula, an Ivory Savannah mercenary, as a guide. Hilarity ensues as the best Riding skill in the party is a d4. Maybe if they fall off their horses enough, they’ll take the skill. At length, the group finds some goatherds and a dozen goats. Intimidation succeeds where Persuasion fails, but the goatherds don’t know where Azagara is other than its vague general direction (extensive travel is not for commoners in the ancient world). The party steadfastly ignores all clues about going to the goatherds’ village, and despite N’Dula and The Warforged pointing out that just letting them go is not going to keep the alarm from spreading, Garstrewt buys a goat from the herd at vastly inflated prices, intending to train it as a war mount.

The Warforged feels sorry for N’Dula, who had intended to kill the goatherds and make off with (or at least eat) their goats, and uses Stealth to reverse pickpocket his loincloth and slip him 12 silver. We gloss over where exactly he puts it.

I’m forced to put them back on the rail by introducing a trail leading to Azagar, and transferring two key NPCs to a caravanserai along the way. Here they encounter a squad of Valk mercenaries, and rapidly develop a healthy respect for composite bows. (Even The Warforged, now that I’ve reminded him he can’t be Healed, only Repaired.)

The Warforged’s respect for them reaches such levels that he uses Blast to dispose of the Valk from a nearby roof, unfortunately turning one of the (potentially) friendly NPCs into a Crispy Critter. A melee with the survivors ensues, and while I’m wondering how to keep the recurring villain alive, he gets thrown down the caravanserai’s well, and apart from throwing some debris in after him in the hopes of braining him if he survived the fall, they lose interest and loot the caravanserai. Good enough.

Despite everything, they find clues to a great treasure in Azagar, and decide to desert the army and go after it, now mounted on Valk war ponies and armed with composite bows. Not quite what was planned, but it’ll do.

Experiments and Reflections

This week’s experiment was to abandon MetaCreator, my faithful servant for years, because the PCs keep wanting to do things which seem reasonable to me, but which I don’t understand how to do in MC. Also, it’s more portable to carry the character sheets as word processor files – I did look for a form-fillable PDF form, but as ever nothing is quite what I wanted. The players care a lot less about character sheet layout than I do, so that worked fine.

I realised that the Command Edge applies only to NPCs, not other PCs, so I introduced N’Dula to allow Athienne’s player to experiment with it. It also sets up a friendship which will be needed later in the campaign, when I run Green World – of which more anon.

How Long Should A Campaign Last?

As long as the participants want it to, obviously; but I wondered if there were any assumptions built into games. My current face to face group is averaging about three sessions per month, or 36 per year; so how long would a campaign based on a game’s declared assumptions last?

I’ve read that WotC operates on a five-year cycle; their research tells them that gamers have bought all the products they will ever buy for a particular game in the first five years, and after that, a new edition is commercially necessary. So, my expectation going into this exercise is that it won’t be more than five years, call it 250 sessions tops.

I started with D&D 3.5, because while I wouldn’t play anything that complex at the moment, it’s more consistent mechanically than any other game I know. The underlying assumptions of D&D 3.5 are that a PC levels up after 13.33 balanced encounters, and that they pause to recuperate after four encounters. Since a session is intended to be 3-4 hours, that suggests a session will include 3-4 encounters, which feels about right from my experience. PCs can go up to level 20 in the core rulebooks, for a total of 267 encounters, or 66-90 sessions.

D&D 4E assumes one hour per encounter plus one hour easing in and out of the game, levelling up every 8-10 encounters, and a maximum PC level of 30. So a campaign taking PCs from 1st level to 30th will be about 270 encounters, or let’s say 90 sessions. 4E characters level up faster, but have further to go.

What about Savage Worlds? Well, one is encouraged to hand out two experience per session, and PCs reach Legendary rank at 80 experience or 40 sessions; there’s no upper limit to advancement, although I suppose one would eventually run out of advances to take. Looking at the plot point setting books in my possession, I see that Necropolis 2350 has 31 scenarios, Dogs of Hades 30, Savage Suzerain 40, Slipstream 27, and Solomon Kane 28. So 30 scenarios would be a good average, say 60 experience. Most of the setting books have adventure generators and assume that you will create and run your own adventures, to be fair, and there are a number of free scenarios, supplements with extra adventures and so forth. Let’s say that doubles the run, for the sake of argument, and takes you up to about 120 experience – four advances into Legendary, or the beginning of Demigod if playing Suzerain – or again about 60 sessions.

So, a baseline campaign duration for my group would be two to three years under any of those systems. In order of increasing campaign duration, the games are Savage Worlds, D&D 3.5, and D&D 4E. Looks like my off-the-cuff guess of two years in an earlier post fits right in, although an SW game where I didn’t add extra scenarios to the plot point campaign could easily be over in a year.

I expected SW to be the first to finish; the fast, simple combat means groups chew through plot faster than in later editions of D&D. I also expected the D&D 4E campaign to be shorter than the 3.5 one, but that’s not what the numbers tell me; and I don’t argue with the numbers.

Another way to look at it is to say that if an early-adopting group finishes advancing to the maximum PC level over a five year period, they are probably playing one evening every three weeks or so. I’m curious now; how often does your group meet?

Paradigm Shift

The responses to my recent player survey suggest that some of them haven’t fully made the mental shift from D&D. I’ve played and enjoyed D&D for decades; but SW works better with a different play style. I wanted to explain the differences, and after some forum surfing, and reflection, this is what I came up with. Other insights welcome!

COMBAT

Ablative hit points vs sudden death: D&D characters are worn down gradually, over 4-5 encounters. In Savage Worlds, any blow in any fight can be lethal, and there’s no resurrection spell to bring you back.

Death spiral: D&D characters stay fully capable until they lose the last hit point. SW PCs see their capabilities degrade rapidly, wound by wound.

The GM effort per enemy to run an encounter is lower in SW than D&D, because of the simpler damage and condition rules, and because players control their allies, whether or not their characters do. This encourages bigger fights.

LEVELLING UP

D&D characters start off weak, and improve dramatically as they level up. SW characters are more capable to begin with, but don’t improve as much later; arguably, they level off at the equivalent of 6th-8th level. There is thus no need for the monsters to get bigger and more dangerous as PCs level up, because even goblins remain a viable threat at all levels. Therefore, the multi-level range of monsters in D&D is unnecessary in Savage Worlds.

Savage Worlds isn’t very sensitive to differences in level between party members. This means new or intermittent players don’t get left behind.

Savage Worlds has no niche protection. In D&D, only a wizard can do wizardly things, only a thief can do thievish things, and only a fighter can fight well. In SW, there is no reason why a wizard can’t also be a competent fighter, stealthy, and able to pick locks. This means that effective parties can be smaller than in D&D, and as the party grows, it becomes harder for each character to have its own unique role in the group.

Update: As Umberto Pignatelli points out in the comments trail for this post, SW PCs tend to grow horizontally (broadening their niche and overlapping into other niches, but not getting overpoweringly good at any one skill or trait) while D&D ones grow vertically (getting much better at what their niche does).

ENCOUNTERS

Random encounters and traps in D&D provide experience and treasure for level grinding, and act as a “hit point tax” for entering parts of a scenario. Those are neither necessary nor desirable in Savage Worlds, as SW PCs don’t get experience for killing monsters, and don’t have hit points in the traditional sense.

Vox Populi

As mentioned earlier, I recently surveyed my players about how they would like the campaign to develop. There are a couple of votes still outstanding, but I don’t expect them to change the outcome significantly.

Based on the answers so far, the ideal campaign for this group is…

  • A swords & sorcery campaign with high fantasy overtones, in which magic and magic items are rare, possessed by key figures in the setting and possibly by the PCs as well.
  • One that can be described in a 1-2 page handout, supplemented by a “setting guide” of a few dozen pages.
  • One in which PCs have episodic adventures, not strongly linked together, and without becoming major political figures themselves. The adventures should focus on combat, treasure and PC advancement, with puzzles a close second and NPC interaction not terribly important. This is probably the most important finding.
  • One that can be played under Savage Worlds or D&D, with characters that fit on an A4 page and advance by improving their skills and edges. (Savage Worlds is the preferred system of the group as a whole, but it’s close enough that the remaining votes could swing it towards D&D. However, the responses on character advancement suggest that SW should win a tie. I find SW easier to GM, but I like them both.)

This isn’t quite where I’m heading with Shadows of Keron as a campaign, so I need to think about what would work better. Should’ve done the survey first, really…

There were some surprises, too:

  • There’s no real pattern to favourite books, TV shows or movies which I could use as a guide to what kind of adventures are best.
  • Players are much less concerned with character advancement and which rules we use than I expected.
  • I hadn’t realised how popular Steampunk as a genre is with the group.

Shadows of Keron Episode 7: Stargazer

I wanted to do a small homebrew scenario for a change, and as I sat listening to Ritchie Blackmoor’s Rainbow, the idea that came to me was of an abandoned tower in the desert. Here, a wizard had been researching the Fly power, and having mistakenly thought he’d got it right, tried it – and fell to his death. (In Beasts & Barbarians, sorcerors can’t learn the Fly power, but I reasoned this wouldn’t stop them trying, just stop them succeeding.)

On his death, his slaves revolted and slaughtered his apprentices and guards, looted the tower, and made off. The tower is now haunted by his ghost, and full of smashed equipment and bodies decayed almost to skeletons. In honour of the inspiration, I named the wizard Blackmoor. The tower itself I generated using Zack’s rules from the Vornheim City Kit; 2d6 stories high, 1d6 rooms per level arranged like the spots on the die.

Meanwhile, Jughal the Restless wants his eyes back. I upgraded him to a liche, but kept the Fast Regeneration; he has been following the party with Invisibility cast – under the No Power Points option this stays up until he drops it, is Shaken, or falls asleep, and being undead he doesn’t sleep. Seeing the party enter the tower, and all the skeletons inside, he decides to animate them and attack the party.

-o0o-

I had worried about what treasure to put there for the party, but I need not have been concerned; they became engrossed in a hula-hoop competition using the hoops from some smashed barrels, and McGyvering a scorpion launcher for the Warforged out of scrap metal and some scorpions they found in a crack in the walls. They did find a book of legends casting some light on Jughal, although not the full story.

I had also wondered what opposition would be appropriate, but that was almost superfluous too. The Warforged and Garstrewt came to blows over Blackmoor’s library. Gutz became convinced that the tower itself was magical and had granted him the power of flight; he made a flying squirrel costume out of his cloak and a pair of goggles, and threw himself off the top of the tower. If Nessime hadn’t used Entangle to grab him, that would have ended in tears.

By interviewing Blackmoor’s ghost, they did discover that he hadn’t animated the skeletons to attack them, but they didn’t believe him on the grounds that anyone who throws slaves off a tower to test his fly spells is obviously untrustworthy. Never mind, they’ll work it out eventually.

-o0o-

So, one lesson to be learned is that the PCs will read all kinds of things into whatever I describe, and some of them will have a ball doing it.

Another lesson is that I made a basic GM mistake, in not having something for every character to do. Athienne’s player ended by wondering what her role in the party was, and Gutz, as previously described, threw himself off the tower.

I could summarise both of those by quoting a proverb: The Devil makes work for idle hands.

Goodbye to Languages

After some reflection, I’m dropping languages from the campaign and the character sheets.

There are several reasons for this.

  • Mechanically, they duplicate effects already covered by Investigation, Streetwise and Common Knowledge (i.e. Smarts). They’re therefore not necessary.
  • Heroes in the source literature always seem to know just the right language for the occasion, so no language skills is a better reflection of them.
  • The guidance from Clint Black at Pinnacle is that characters shouldn’t take Knowledge skills unless they are (a) a prerequisite for an Edge or (b) expected to be used in every session; languages are neither, so they’re not desirable.
  • In metagame terms, PCs are savvy enough to choose complementary languages, so that as a group they can talk to anyone they need to talk to. Languages as a restriction on communication therefore doesn’t work, and if they did, I prefer the PCs to succeed or fail based on their interpretation of clues, rather than because one blew a roll against a Language skill.

If necessary, I’ll replace language rolls with a Common Knowledge roll. This will be a straight roll against Smarts if the PC’s background suggests he should be able to figure it out, and a roll at -2 if nothing in his background argues for him knowing it.

For example, someone with Arcane Background (Magic) would roll against Smarts to decipher an ancient tome of sorcery, whereas someone without that Edge would roll at -2, and someone with the Illiterate Hindrance wouldn’t roll at all.