Thursday, 22 October 2015

First Session Report: Journey to the Keep

Last Monday we kicked off our first real session of our new 5e D&D campaign set in the Grand Duchy of Karameikos and the Known World of the BECMI D&D era. A historic night here in Canada for all sorts of reasons but for my players it was their first game ever.

All the good stuff for the first session!

For two people who had never played an RPG before they dove right in and played well. During character generation last time they chose to link their bonds. The Tiefling Monk with the Hermit background learned his monk skills while on his hermitage and it completely changed how he interacted with the world for the better. His hermitage started because he was implicated in one of the scams run by the Elven Rogue with the Charlatan background. The Rogue's bond is guilt over burning the Monk by shifting the blame to him. Thrilled with his new worldview, Traorin (Tray) feels grateful to the Rogue, Ano, for setting him on the right path and he returned to Specularum to help her see the light too. Sadly his return caused problems for Ano, who was in the middle of a Scam at the time and they had to leave the city in a hurry. These background choices helped us get the party moving and give a reason for them to adventure. The party headed north to the Barony of Kelvin but didn't stay long because of the harsh rule of law attitude of the place. They continued north along the Duke's Road to the Barony of Penhaglihon in the Wufwolde Hills. That's where they heard about the Keep on the Borderlands which seemed like a good place to lay low for a while and scam the odd merchant from Darokin.

The pair made friends with a halfing trader named Bobberto Farstrider, who was taking a wagon load of dry goods up to the keep. Bobber was pleasant company who was flattered to be travelling in the company of an exiled elven prince from Alfhiem (Ano's default persona - she's actually a Vyalia wood elf). He happily gave up his tent to make Ano more comfortable while he and Tray slept under the wagon.

Tales of the Scarecrow cover image by Jason Rainville

The magic started when they came upon a ripe cornfield by the side of the road. They knew something was fishy right away since it was early spring and there's no way corn was going to be ready for harvest at that time of year.

Megan, who plays Ano, was not down with the cornfield. She felt her character would see no profit in exploring it and she thought it was a pretty obvious trap.

"This is a frickin people-hunting alien cornfield and it's going to eat us!"

They argued in and out of character with great reasons on both sides. Jeff, playing Tray, wants to explore and check out the strange things and Megan, playing Ano, doesn't want their characters to die in the first session. To break the deadlock, Tray asked the NPC, Bobber, what he thought. Of course the NPC wants you to go down the trail through the unnatural cornfield to the strange farmhouse! Bobber felt adding a few bushels of ripe corn to the wagon would definitely make this a more profitable trip for him and wanted to inquire at the farmhouse they could just barely see from the road.

I'm impressed with these two. Once inside the clearing in the centre of cornfield they did well. They investigated the interior and exterior of the cottage with care. They worked under the assumption that everything would kill them but were still open to possibilities. They were compassionate with the lone survivor in the house and managed to get quite a bit of information out of him because of it. They tried to save him even though they figured out he was cannibalizing his friend.

They lost all the NPCs but managed to come up with a great plan that saved themselves involving the harpsichord and the wagon. They also lost the oxen though, so they left the wagon by the side of the road with a sign warning others away from the field. I was a little worried about inflicting a Lamentations of the Flame Princess adventure on brand new gamers, but as scary as they are there is always a way to think yourself out of them. I had been through the Tales of the Scarecrow once before as a player and my character came out of it well ahead. It's just a matter of figuring out how to use what you have. Besides, I gave them extra resources with the merchant and everything in his wagon (that they dumped on the ground for their plan). Turns out I didn't need to worry. They have the natural paranoia necessary to navigate an LotFP adventure.

They took the two books even though they discussed the option of just leaving them there. Both books now link them back to Specularum and I'm hoping I can use them to pull the party into B6 The Veiled Society or some other kind of shenanigans in the big city. They are hoping to sell the books since the receipt they found says they are so valuable.

They kept the Sword Which Is Uncertain, a beautifully crafted magical rapier. The rapier treats all targeted ACs as 14 no matter what armour they have. It also strikes a random target on a modified roll of 16 or 17. I'm thinking of simplifying it to an unmodified roll of 13 or 1. Ano is using it despite the curse because Megan thinks Jeff deserves to get a few random stabbings for dragging them into that cornfield.

The Keep on the Borderlands by Erol Otus

After that they hiked the rest of the way to the Keep, travelling safely and sleeping comfortably in Bobber's tent (one of the few things they were able to keep and still escape).

Once at the Keep they got a room and made friends with a Gnomish Wizard (Abjuration Tradition) who was able to identify and put a value on their loot. Their new friend managed to get close to the Caves of Chaos once, before her party was slaughtered by goblins. She knows vaguely where the Caves are and has agreed to join the party to provide some magic support.

The Tales of the Scarecrow turned out to be a great encounter adventure for the road. They could have driven past with no consequence, but I'm glad they played it out. For new players I wanted them to play a modern adventure before they got stuck into the Caves at the Keep so they'd realize there are all kinds of possibilities and more than one way to play any situation. I was also glad to see they were willing to talk and investigate since that will help them in the Caves of Chaos. They are a small party so they need to be smart.

I enjoyed seeing them get a little more sense of the world as well. Talking to the NPC they learned he was travelling out of the Duchy into the Republic of Darokin and specifically to his home city of Vornheim.

This version is WAY better! Go get one at RPG Cartography!

Next session will be the Caves of Chaos. I'm using the DnD Next conversion from the playtest for the Caves while using B2 for the Keep. I have a beautiful, colour coded map of the Caves of Chaos with the monsters listed in their locations I downloaded from RPG Cartography here. I'll be converting anyone from the Keep on the fly as needed.

It will be interesting to see how they approach the Caves of Chaos. There is a lot going on there, and they could definitely play the different factions off against each other. With a Rogue, a Monk and a Wizard, the party is also light and stealthy. They might be able to do a lot in the Caves with hit and fade tactics. I can't wait to see how they play it!

The gear for the first session:
B2 Keep on the Borderlands, GAZ1 The Grand Duchy of Karameikos,
LotFP's Tales of the Scarecrow, the map of the Known World from X1 The Isle of Dread,
 and my little black book of campaign notes.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Review: "The Hell House Beckons"

This is a first look at Kiel Chenier's haunted house adventure and tool kit, The Hell House Beckons. If you are looking for something different for your table that embraces the spirit of the Halloween season, keep reading!

Before you read this review it's important to note a few things in the spirit of full disclosure. Kiel gave me an advanced copy of the PDF. I didn't pay for it like everyone else so my copy has typos and other errors that yours will not. I won't be able to comment on the editing. I've also gamed with Kiel as a GM and I like him. It is possible I am biased in his favour even though I will do my best to be objective. This review will be a bit spoilery, but I won't include any information players can use to beat the adventure.

My first impression of the cover was that it mixed cartoon style silliness with some serious creepy horror. It reminds me of the Hilarious House of Frightenstein TV show for kids from the 1970s (Vincent Price was a cast member). I scrolled further expecting some Evil Dead style shenanigans. The Evil Dead impression fit as well as anything. Kiel is drawing on many horror tropes for this adventure, making it a kind of Frankenstein's monster itself.

Kiel is upfront in the GM advice section about how his goal is to make the House a malevolent character in its own right. The House is trying to harvest the party's blood, souls and sanity for its own evil purposes. The House itself has a long, terrible history and the PCs will have easy access to it. The background gives some clues to what they'll find in there but none on how to deal with it.

Even the successes of the group can feed the House. Any blood spilled or souls destroyed gives the House the power it needs to confront the party directly. The other thing feeding the House is the sanity mechanic. The adventure adds a new Sanity statistic to the PCs and NPCs. The Sanity stat is where the system agnostic approach comes up a little short. The Hell House Beckons is designed to be used with pretty much any D20 RPG but it is clear that the adventure was written with Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons in mind. If I used that system I'd add a few rules of my own. The text encourages this behaviour but doesn't make any suggestions.

The first thing I'd do is give some fantasy races a bonus to the Sanity statistic. Tieflings would definitely get a bonus of one or two from their infernal heritage. Others would depend on the setting although Dark Elves would certainly have a bonus at my table. Dwarves would also be a good choice and work well with the back story. Since the house only claims its Sanity points from the characters after a save I'd give certain classes proficiency bonus on the save as well. Warlocks are a must for proficiency on a Sanity save. I would consider giving them advantage on it with certain pacts as well. I think Clerics, the adventure-specific NPC Medium class and maybe Wizards of the illusion or necromancy school should also add proficiency to Sanity saves.

The deadly countdown is a mainstay of horror so the Hell House Beckons supplies some endearing NPCs as red-shirts. While I liked the NPCs for the multiple ways they give clues about the House (dying is only one of a few), I find the NPCs add a Scooby Do element to an adventure that punishes such actions without mercy (let's split up and look for clues gang - oh no, a ghost chopped off Daphne's head and is wearing it!). It's not necessarily a bad thing, as it increases the party's vulnerability without directly harming the PCs and the players can work to overcome it. The NPCs also cover off particular archetypes usually found in horror movies that the player characters are not likely to supply without turning the thing into a railroad or story the players are watching rather than playing in.

The House keeps the souls of the recently departed from going far so all dead PCs hang about as ghosts who can still play. There's even a possibility of returning a ghostly soul to its body and coming back. That means even the staunchest non-killer GMs can indulge in a little PC slaughter guilt free.

My character will have bacon in his or her pockets to avoid this fate.

The best thing in this adventure is the way Kiel handles the ghosts. In the Hell House Beckons ghosts are all unique creations. There are a few linked directly to the house's history, there are some more general entries that could easily be dropped into nearly any adventure, and there is a table for creating random new ghosts. This variety makes the ghosts far more interesting since different ghosts will respond in different ways and can be defeated or helped by different strategies. My favourite part is how the ghosts are tied thematically to the place or way in which they died. This addition makes the ghosts more like what you would find in a good ghost story or horror film. That they fit the expectation of the source material rather than the Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual is a huge win in my book. I'm not fond of all the ghost descriptions including: "Usual Undead powers and immunities apply." It means your GM needs to have a bestiary or monster manual with ghosts in it to have everything you need to play. Some of these other elements from whatever bestiary may not work well with what is already here. I would have preferred Kiel include complete descriptions and make whatever changes he felt were important to the theme of the ghost for the Hell House Beckons himself. Zak Smith completely rewrote vampires in A Red and Pleasant Land and that adventure won four ENnies. There's no reason to hold back.

The ghost of the succubus might be my favourite image in this adventure.

The ghosts can inflict some strange and horrible effects on the characters. For example, ghosts that drowned can fill a character's lungs with water. One ghost that spent much of its life in the form of a cat can infect a character with cat-ness. You think cats are cute until they are replacing your character's limbs and sprouting from random body parts. The juxtaposition of the ordinary with the horrific has worked well for the more frightening episodes of Doctor Who. A skilful GM could make the cat disease a frightening experience. It leaves the character completely helpless as their body is high-jacked by fluffiness. I'd be tempted to drive that home by meowing loudly whenever that player tried to talk. It depends on who is playing though.

I'm starting to think Kiel is afraid of cats. Who could blame him?

There are plenty of unsettling effects throughout the House and a great horror staple of a monster who harasses the party with hit and run attacks from random hiding places all over the mansion until killed. The 1970s classic horror movie qualities of the Sackcloth Boy should satisfy the expectations of the horror true-fans in your group.

Think a mutated feral halfling child with garden shears is no challenge for your party?
Yeah, you're wrong. So very wrong.

The tables are useful for developing the House but they could be used to flesh out any similar haunted house type adventure. Since the die drop table uses room names as well as numbers that correspond to the map you could use it to quickly populate any mansion, manse or manor with the macabre. Kiel also includes unnumbered floor plans of the house at the end of the PDF in case you want to do exactly that. We have a fully realised adventure and excellent example of how to use all the tools with the Hell House Beckons, but the tool kit included allows you to quickly make up your own haunted house with ease. This adventure could be used as is, cannibalized for parts (yum!), used as a design tool, or simply mined for ideas on how to run ghosts. I think I'll run it as is with 5e, and then use it as inspiration for adventures built around the haunting of a single ghost with Lamentations of the Flame Princess. If you are going to use this adventure with an older edition or a retro-clone you might want to adjust the hit points. Everything has a pile of hit points which is again, pretty consistent with 5e play.

Die drop tables are the new blue dungeon map.

The layout of this adventure is solid; two columns with a fair amount of white space. The tables are easy to use and read. Small uses of red are effective in creating emphasis or controlling how you move your eyes through the document. Neither too much nor too little, the use of red is just right. The whole PDF is also hyper-linked for efficiency so you can use it on some kind of electronic device at the table (with the apparent exception of my Chromebook - computer nerds who feel the need are welcome to tell me it's because the Chomebook is linux based or I'm not using the right ap or whatever in the comments below). The cartography is clean, easy to understand and well thought out.

I would be remiss if I didn't say anything about the art. Anyone familiar with Kiel's blog/RPG Tumblr page Dungeons and Donuts will recognize Kiel's whimsical art. In the Hell House Beckons, the art conveys the character of the NPCs and the horror of the situations while remaining in his personal style. This weird mix works for me because it only adds to the creepiness of the whole thing, but I'm already a fan. The occasional use of heavy blacks conveys a sense of the tone but may drain your printer's ink cartridge. I also like the use of red in specific places, especially with the Pale Artist.

Had I'd paid the $9.99 USD for the PDF, I'd be happy with the purchase. There's a lot that can be used in the Hell House Beckons. It's obvious that Kiel put a great deal of effort into this adventure. I admire his ambition to change how ghost like creatures (ghosts, spectres, etc) are used in D20 RPGs. He created some good tools to do exactly that.

If you want a good ghost story for your table, check out the Hell House Beckons from Kiel Chenier!

Friday, 9 October 2015

Starting my new 5e D&D campaign...

"I've always wanted to play D&D and never had the chance."

This phrase implies a barrier to play that I have never known. Based on what I've heard from others I was lucky that no one stopped me because I was too young or doing it wrong or whatever. I don't understand the wall that keeps someone from our silly little hobby but I am happy to cut a hole in it and wave them on through.

Last Monday was full of firsts. It was the first session for my new group. It was my first time running Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons. More importantly, it was also the first time ever that my new group played an RPG.

We went with fifth because they have copies of the 5e Players Handbook and wanted to play the latest, greatest version of the world's most popular role playing game. As far as the editions go, fifth edition is probably my favourite. It has a good balance of streamlined rules and extra parts that can be used or not without breaking anything. If I have to run D&D (and for these guys I did) I'd rather run 5e than any of the older versions.

The character building system for 5e really shines with new players. It presents solid choices and each choice leads to another. I found the background section particularly useful. It allowed them to quickly flesh out their characters, giving them a grounding in the world. We ended up using the suggested bonds as inspiration, creating a shared history that bound them together.

(The Gazetteers and old adventures print up into a nice A5 booklet!)

After we got the characters all done I asked them about what they wanted out of the world. For people steeped in the genre like we are, the possibilities are virtually endless. As newcomers they were looking for a "Traditional D&D" experience. They wanted all the D&D stuff like elves, goblins, dwarves and dragons. Intrepid heroes pushing into the uncivilized wilderness to explore forgotten temples in search of adventure and treasure!

As we talked I got a feel for what they wanted and suggested we play in the "Known World" that was used as a backdrop fro the "B" and "X" D&D modules. The Grand Duchy of Karameikos was my introduction to the world of D&D so it's a joy for me to share it with them. It features pockets of civilization stretched across a vast expanse of untamed wilderness full of monsters, ancient ruins and mystery. The open nature of the original setting fits the modern style of sandbox play I prefer and it will give them control over their characters' fates. It also gives me plenty of room to place some of my favourite locations and adventures from Lamentations of the Flame Princess. To give them a balanced experience, I plan to use the better classic adventures like (B2) Keep on the Borderlands along side the best the OSR has to offer like Death Frost Doom. Other play will be stuff of my own and the things that develop out of their decisions. I'm wicked excited about this campaign! I don't know how long it's going to last, but I can keep us going for years!

The group is excited to play the Keep on the Borderlands. Our next game will start with them heading up the Duke's Road from the Barony of Kelvin. Perhaps on the way they'll come across a cornfield that is suspiciously lush for the time of year and investigate. Maybe they won't investigate and I won't get to use Tales of the Scarecrow after all. Who knows?

(Some of the stuff my players could stumble into over the course of the campaign.)

I'm looking forward to leaving trails of rumours and other breadcrumbs to all the corners of the sandbox. The classic modules already have their place in the Duchy so I just need to dust them off (or print them out) and read through them before they get there. That's settled, but the stuff I have from Lamentations of the Flame Princess, especially the older adventures that don't fit the new assumed real-world historical setting, can be placed anywhere.

Some of them are obvious choices. The town of Pembrooktonshire is crying out to be placed on the edge of the Black Peak Mountains north of Threshold. The hidden country of Voivodja (A Red & Pleasant Land) needs to be cradled in the Altan Tepes mountain range. Nestled between the Duchy, the Empire of Thyatis, the Emirate of Ylaruam and the Republic of Darokin, it is well positioned to secretly influence the many countries of the Known World. Rumours of the ruins of the great palace of the vampire lords that ruled Karameikos during the dark age point toward those mountains. There might be stories of gardens full of treasure for anyone brave enough to follow the Volaga river to its source.

Speaking of the Republic of Darokin, Vornheim needs a home. Corunglain, the northernmost city, seems a natural spot. Foreboding and dreary, next to the Broken Lands while sitting astride important trade routes. That's the locale that mixes melancholy and wealth together to produce Vornheim! The mountains that border Darokin and Rockhome is probably the best place for The Hammers of the Gods, an old LotFP adventure centred on the Dwarves. I bought it strictly to find out the big, bad secret of the dwarves. Maybe I'll get to use it and my players will find out too.

The Grinding Gear is another old one, with its goblins and stirges, that could be used as is anywhere around Threshold. Likewise the Black Peak Mountains could hold the little cottage from Death Frost Doom. I think I'll place it near the Lost Valley of the Hutaaka and weave into that story. Still, it might be better in the Altan Tepes Mountains, near the frost giants and Castellan Keep. I have time before I spring that one on them and I can put it pretty much anywhere if I wait until play delivers us a macguffin worth the effort.

The horror-show adventure Forgive Us could fit in any town in the Duchy on a trade route (nearly all of them). The same could be said for Death Love Doom, bu if I use that one it will be on the outskirts of Specularum. That adventure would be a good impetus to get the players to leave the Duchy for a while and head south to the Thanegioth Archipelago and the Isle of Dread (X4) or the Isle of the Unknown. Perhaps they would even go as far as the southern continent to find Qelong. I was going to put Qelong on the western edge of the map, on the other side of the Malpheggi Swamp where the Atruaghin Clans are supposed to be, but I'm thinking that's a better spot for the Slumbering Ursine Dunes (by Chris Kutalik and the Hydra Cooperative).

What I'm really going to have fun with is the God that Crawls. It can be placed in any remote location but instead of St. Augustine of Cantebury as the cursed monster prowling the maze it could be Halav, the first king and saviour of Traladara. Gnoll warlocks could have captured him after their defeat and used a ritual to transform him into the crawling monster. Zirchev would have captured him and placed him in the holding place for the cursed Blackmoor artefacts for everyone's safety. Petra built the original Traladaran temple on top of the maze so Halav could be cared for. That's probably the easiest way to work the adventure into the setting. The secret would not undermine the Church of Traladara if it got out because it only increases the suffering of Halav for his people, but it would completely destroy the Cult of Halav who depend on the idea of the Duke as the reincarnation of Halav. Halav can't be the Duke and a monster at the same time. But if he can be restored he could lead the Traladar back into a golden age. That's something the Thyatian ruling class might want to keep a lid on.

(Inside foldout image from The God That Crawls by Jason Rainville)

I'm hoping to get that one in right after they are done with the Keep on the Borderlands. It would be nice to do it earlier but I'm not sure they will take the bait and head off the Duke's road to some remote village while they have a goal in mind. It will likely depend on how things go in the first encounter.

I'm excited about this hybrid setting! All this material blends well and gives me a lot to work with before we add the influence of the players who may change things as they go knocking bout the world and looking for trouble and making assumptions about how things work. There's no better source for material than the paranoid musings of the players after all.

The rush of ideas came after I printed out the old Gazetteer for the Grand Duchy of Karameikos. I wanted to read through it to give the Keep a world to have a place in. The more of these old Gazetteer PDFs I read the more I am impressed with the Known World setting. It has its own rich history and intrigues but nothing is so important that it can't be tweaked or changed to taste.

My big challenge will be adapting the experience awards in the adventures to suit 5e. I'm reading through my new DMG in the hopes that I can figure out a fair way to assign experience since the adventures I'm using where designed to use treasure as the main source of XP rather than the conflict. I'm hoping there's something in there like the old Palladium System had or the 2e optional experience system that rewarded good ideas, RP and problem solving. If not, I'll come up with something based on what I've done in the past, test it out and we'll have an exciting blog post about experience points in 5e D&D!

Because of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend here in Canada we won't have another session for a week-and-a-half. You can expect a session report sometime after that. Good or bad, I'll be talking about it.