Irongrave – Session 3

27 December 1010

Impressed by the party’s success in dealing with three werewolves, the Patriarch of the Order Militant in Irongrave assigns Nessime a new task: Orcs have recently defiled a shrine in the foothills of the Black Mountains, making off with the Holy Handkerchief of St Veronica (no point me leaving it in Rome, the party won’t make it that far for years, if ever). Her mission is to recover it and bring it back to Castle Irongrave, where its powers (unspecified, but probably Greater Healing) can be put to good use.

The party found the shrine without much trouble, and discovered just how difficult it is to track opponents when no-one has the necessary skill. Fortunately, however, a group of orc archers tried to ambush them, and discovered how difficult it is to survive combat in wooded terrain with a group of Wild Cards who all have better Stealth and Fighting skills than you. While Nessime and Tenchi executed a classic fire-and-movement approach to the orcs, the warforged sorceror approached their position under cover, then assaulted them and rolled up their flank.

These guys have been playing long enough now to be dangerous when not outmatched.

While Nessime and the warforged argued loudly over what to do with the purloined icons the dead orcs had on their persons, Tenchi used sleight of hand to pocket them.

PCs, eh?

Review of Towers of Adventure

Towers of Adventure is a Castles‭ & ‬Crusades supplement by James M Ward‭ (‬yes,‭ ‬that Jim Ward‭) ‬and published by Troll Lord Games.‭ ‬As usual,‭ ‬I’m behind the curve‭; ‬this was written in‭ ‬2008.

The manufacturer’s website says:‭ "‬Tower Adventures offers the Castle Keeper a marvelous set of interchangeable tower levels,‭ ‬rooms,‭ ‬monsters,‭ ‬NPCs,‭ ‬traps and treasures.‭ ‬This box set allows you to make literally millions of exciting towers for your players to explore.‭ ‬Treasures,‭ ‬tower inhabitants,‭ ‬and tower maps are at your fingers and so easy to use you can put together a complex adventure in five minutes or less.‭"

They’re playing my tune.‭ ‬So,‭ ‬one quick raid on the piggybank later,‭ ‬a copy has moved from RPGNow‘s servers to my hard drive.‭ ‬What have we here‭?

IN A NUTSHELL

Toolkit for generating one-shot dungeons.‭ ‬Cheap,‭ ‬fast,‭ ‬and easy to use.‭ ‬Not quite what I was expecting,‭ ‬but value for money,‭ ‬at least as a PDF.

IN DETAIL

The product is split into:‭ ‬Author Forward‭ (‬one page‭ ‬-‭ ‬I think they mean Foreword‭); ‬15‭ ‬different towers,‭ ‬one to a page‭; ‬services and adventure hooks‭ (‬three pages between them‭); ‬NPCs and monsters‭ (‬12‭ ‬pages between them‭); ‬treasures‭ (‬8‭ ‬pages‭); ‬traps‭ (‬4‭ ‬pages‭)‬.‭ ‬It looks like this was originally a three-volume boxed set,‭ ‬though they would have been thin booklets indeed.

Use of the product is intuitive and straightforward.‭ ‬You pick a tower,‭ ‬label the floor plan with numbers,‭ ‬and assign monsters,‭ ‬traps and treasure to the rooms‭ ("‬Room‭ ‬2:‭ ‬117,‭ ‬201.‭") ‬-‭ ‬because all the entries in the monster and treasure sections are numbered sequentially,‭ ‬you need only scribble a couple of numbers on the key.‭ ‬You pick an adventure hook‭ ("‬Hook‭ ‬4‭") ‬and explain it to the players.‭ ‬Their characters kick the door‭ ‬in,‭ ‬and off you go.‭ ‬Instant dungeon crawl.

Towers:‭ ‬Each tower is on one page,‭ ‬with a black and white illustration,‭ ‬a floor plan‭ (‬which doesn’t always match the illustration‭)‬,‭ ‬and a blank key for you to fill in with references to room occupants.‭ ‬I especially like the Troll Tower‭ ‬-‭ ‬a four level tower in the shape of a giant troll,‭ ‬carved into a cliff face.

Services:‭ ‬Suppose instead of killing the tower’s inhabitants for their loot,‭ ‬you wanted to hire them‭? ‬This section lists the services provided by the assassins,‭ ‬thieves,‭ ‬wizards,‭ ‬clerics and fighters who live in these isolated keeps.

Adventure Hooks:‭ ‬20‭ ‬reasons to venture into one of the towers.

Non-Player Characters,‭ ‬Monsters:‭ ‬Each of these sections has a similar format‭; ‬a number of entries,‭ ‬each of which has the C&C statblock for a single tower inhabitant or a small group,‭ ‬followed by a descriptive paragraph.‭ ‬There are‭ ‬92‭ ‬human characters,‭ ‬divided by level and class‭; ‬24‭ ‬demi-humans,‭ ‬divided by race‭; ‬80‭ ‬monsters,‭ ‬divided by level.

Treasure:‭ ‬88‭ "‬treasure parcels‭"‬,‭ ‬divided by character class or race of soon-to-be-dead owner‭ ("‬Fighter themed treasure‭" ‬or‭ "‬dragon themed treasure‭") ‬and value‭ (‬generous,‭ ‬sizeable,‭ ‬substantial or huge‭)‬.

Traps:‭ ‬77‭ ‬traps,‭ ‬divided by category‭ ‬-‭ ‬mechanical,‭ ‬creature,‭ ‬magical,‭ ‬poisoned,‭ ‬and my personal favourite,‭ ‬dangerously loud noises.‭ ‬These are fun,‭ ‬but some of them would need a little amendment to include in the towers provided‭ ‬-‭ ‬the barking guard dog,‭ ‬for example,‭ ‬as written requires a‭ ‬300‭ ‬yard corridor‭ ‬-‭ ‬none of the towers are that‭ ‬big.

SUMMARY

It’s only going to make‭ "‬millions of exciting towers‭" ‬if you count every permutation and combination of towers,‭ ‬inhabitants and loot as a separate tower‭; ‬at least‭ ‬15,‭ ‬definitely,‭ ‬and you can probably reuse them a couple of times each over a long campaign.‭ ‬I was expecting something a little more modular. Still,‭ ‬for £6 that’s about‭ ‬20p each,‭ ‬can’t complain at that.

I can see myself getting a couple of dozen sessions out of this before I start getting comments like‭ "‬Oh no,‭ ‬not the lonely wizard’s tower again.‭" (‬To which I will probably respond‭ "‬Oh,‭ ‬that‭? ‬The last great human empire used this as a standard guard tower on their minor trade routes,‭ ‬there are dozens of them in this region.‭") ‬Even better,‭ ‬I can throw the adventures together at less than an hour’s notice…‭ "‬Surprise birthday party‭? ‬Dungeon crawl required‭? ‬No problem,‭ ‬I’ll be there at eight.‭"

Irongrave – Session 2

26 December, 1010

Travelling on towards Irongrave, the warforged and the dark elf became separated in a blizzard. In search of shelter, the warforged found a recently burned-out keep, full of mutilated bodies. He also found Nessime the paladin (Giulia’s PC), sent there by the Order Militant to investigate rumours of strange livestock killings, and Tenchi (her husband’s PC), who claimed to be a concerned citizen looking for survivors and not a thief at all.

After a thorough investigation of the ruins, the party made off for a nearby inn. Scouting the outbuildings, the warforged discovered a dismembered horse, and when he demanded an explanation with menaces, the band was attacked by a trio of werewolves hiding in the basement – the landlady’s family, transformed through some unknown incident.

A savage melee ensued, which the PCs barely won – one werewolf per PC is a little too evenly matched for comfort, especially with novice players who are still learning the combat options. This was Tenchi’s first session with Savage Worlds, but he quickly got the hang of making full use of the environment and some looted silverware; Giulia figured out how to use her powers in combination to make me use up the bad guys’ bennies so that they could be hurt; and Nick, although frustrated at not being able to deal overwhelming damage as he usually does, started getting creative about immobilising the werewolves instead so that the other two could fight them.

Best moment of the session: Nessime trying to persuade the others to take the werewolves alive, because “Werewolves are people too, and with modern medical help they can be cured.”

The Road Not Taken

Over the last six months or so I’ve been toying with the idea of mapping an old-school fantasy setting. I went another way in the end, that of Irongrave, but while I was dithering I came across some really good ideas for campaign building. Here they are, for your edification and delight.

  • Ars Ludi’s West Marches campaign. A different take on the classic sandbox, where you have a large troupe of players who combine into ad-hoc parties, and whose characters are the only adventurers in the region. Pure gold.
  • S John Ross’ essay on Mediaeval demographics. Want to know how many taverns your base town has? How many cities your kingdom has? What percentage of the population live in towns? It’s all here.
  • Signal GK’s Classic Traveller subsector generators and other tools. (This is here because I had a mad idea about using CT subsectors as a basis for a fantasy map, now discarded.)
  • Swords of Minaria’s reavers from the wastelands. An essay on the unexpected importance of nomads in the OD&D wilderness.
  • Welsh Piper’s approach to hex-based campaign design and thoughts on how big a monster’s turf ought to be.

Review of D&D Essentials Red Box

This was an impulse purchase, as I already have the core rulebooks.

In a Nutshell: Introductory set for D&D 4th Edition. New players start here. If you’re an experienced player or DM, move along, there’s nothing to see here.

What’s in the Box? One set of polyhedral dice; double-sided battlemat, 22” x 34”; sheet of diecut counters, 12 for PCs, 38 for monsters (3 of them large), 5 for action points; advertising flyer for other products; code to download another solo adventure from the WotC website; pad of four blank character sheets (why only four? I guess you can download others or photocopy them); 63 power cards; 32-page players’ book; 64-page Dungeon Master’s book.

The battlemat has a dungeon layout on one side, and a wilderness layout on the other.

The monster pogs are double-sided, with a different monster on each side. There 28 different types of monster. The PC pogs have a bloodied side and a healthy side.

Players’ Book: This takes the form of a programmed solo adventure. You start knowing nothing about your character, but as you choose your path through the scenario, the race, class, characteristics, skills and powers are gradually revealed. I’m not a fan of this approach; I would have preferred some pre-generated characters with which to leap straight into the action, and a much terser guide to creating new ones. I am hardly the target audience, since it’s clearly aimed at people who have never played before; but as DM, I wince at the thought of guiding 4-6 new players through this booklet one after the other.

The character classes are different from those in the Players’ Handbook, essentially being streamlined versions of the classic fighter, thief, cleric and wizard.

DM’s Book:  This is composed of an introduction, 16 pages of combat rules condensed from the Dungeon Master’s Guide and Player’s Handbook, 8 encounters which advance the story of the solo adventure, 6 pages of advice and guidance on creating your own adventures, 14 pages of monsters selected from the Monster Manual, and a couple of pages each on rewards (treasure and experience points) and the Nentir Vale setting. This all gives you enough to advance some beginning characters to second level, after which you’d need either more products from  the Essentials line, or the main core rulebooks.

Conclusions: Production values are good, but this has nothing for me, really, and even if I were the newbie DM it’s clearly aimed at, it would only last me for 2-3 game sessions, unless I were prepared to make up my own level advancements and powers (which I might well be).

Irongrave – Session 1

23 December 1010

A first trial run of the Irongrave setting, conducted over the Christmas holidays to demonstrate the Savage Worlds rules to Nick’s friend Buster.

Nick created a warforged sorceror (I decided to say warforged swap the free edge human PCs get for the Construct ability). This should be entertaining as his hindrances combine to give him a Charisma of –6 once people get to know him.

Buster, as always, created a drow ranger. I figured this was basically a normal elf with a different colour scheme and a bad attitude, so a straightforward conversion.

Travelling towards Irongrave in search of their fortunes, the pair came upon a village beset by orc raiders, who had set fire to the buildings and taken the villagers captive. After some furtive sneaking around, and a lot of sliding about in the mud by the warforged, Nick’s character unloaded all his power points into the orc chieftain via magical Bolts, eventually killing him, while the drow went around the right flank and then proceeded to roll it up by throwing bricks at the rearguard.

Having seen their leader shot down by magical bolts, and the ranger despatch three of their number with bricks and swords, the remaining orcs opted to kill the captives and flee. One captive survived, only to have the drow try to stab him; he fled, only to be brought down by a well-placed brick. However, the party decided to leave him alive, unconscious in the mud.

At some point, the two surviving orcs or the surviving peasant may return to complicate their lives, although no-one who saw Nick’s warforged lived to tell the tale and only the dark elf will be blamed. For now, they press on towards Irongrave.

Interpersonal Skills

“In my opinion, the dice are there for everything that can’t be determined at a table – because we’re sitting at a table.  Yes, I can do the splits, and I can do a back flip, but I’m not going to do that at the table to show that my character’s acrobatic stunt should be successful (well, not again anyway).  That’s what dice are for.  What I can do at the table is role-play, and I don’t need dice or stat scores for that.” – Charisma Keller, Stuffer Shack

In the beginning, about 1975, man didn’t know about rock’n’roll shows, and all that jive.

What? Oh, excuse me. I zoned out there for a moment.

What I meant to say was, for a brief period in their infancy, roleplaying games didn’t have interpersonal skills – Diplomacy, Streetwise, Bluff, things like that. If you wanted to persuade the ogres that they should give you all their gold to reduce their risk of heavy metal poisoning (don’t knock it, sometimes it worked, generally the first time each Dungeon Master heard it), you as the player made the case to the DM, and he adjudicated whether it succeeded or not.

Then, starting with EPT and Traveller, skills like that started to appear on character sheets. Some argue that this allows players who aren’t that good at persuasion to run characters who are; some argue it’s just a crutch. When acting as Game Master, I get players to roll for persuasion attempts, but apply heavy modifiers depending on how well the argument should appeal to the NPCs, and often I’ll rule that the argument is good enough that the NPC doesn’t need to roll for it.

However, in solo or same-side play, these skills come into their own. When I am both player and GM, I need some way of determining an NPC’s reaction which is both fair and occasionally surprising, otherwise I might as well be writing a novel. Interpersonal skills and reaction rolls give me that.

The same applies in Play By eMail; there are times when it’s better just to roll against a skill or attribute, and move on.