Sunday, April 12, 2020

Trollsmyth Does the Borderlands

Yesterday, my wife and I were talking about choice in D&D, and that lead to a chat about dungeons. Apparently, she’d never experienced the classic dungeons. Her experiences with early D&D were largely of the cloaked-guy-in-the-tavern-sends-you-into-the-dungeon-to-retrieve-a-Maguffin-and-you-get-to-keep-everything-else-you-find sort. And where the monsters just waited patiently in their rooms for the PCs to kick in the door. That sort of thing.

And while I’ve played in campaigns like that, I’m not sure I ever ran one like that. My model was the Caves of Chaos. So I dug up my pdf of B2: Keep on the Borderlands and ran it for her.

And I still can’t quite say she’s experienced a classic D&D dungeon. Not quite.

We played with 5e rules; could have done my old mish-mash of B/X and 2e, but we had 5e books at hand. She made a half-elf wizard with an entertainer background. Her character was headed to the borderlands to get a jump on his wizarding skills by searching for long-lost treasures of the ancient and wicked empire of Acheron (because yes, I’m totally up to stealing from R.E. Howard when asked to DM at a moment’s notice). Feel free to skip down to the end for my final thoughts if you want to avoid spoilders, because SPOILERS FOLLOW:

So with some favorite name-generators from the internet and a meh-quality pdf of the adventure pulled up on my laptop, I started her character off outside the keep. He was soon at the tavern (which I’d combined with the inn to make a single establishment called the Tipsy Cockatrice), negotiating a deal with the owner to perform in the evenings to defray some of the costs of room and board. He then wandered around the outer bailey, hearing about the strange monk (Gimha) and caravans that had gone missing, noticing the shops, and the temple to Astarte. At the fountain, he encountered a half-orc warrior whose sword bore marks of ancient Acheron.

Now, while I’m totally willing to forgive B2 its unnamed Castellan and innkeeper, because it’s easy enough for me to name them myself and give the keep the character I want it to have (in this case, a wee bit Howard’s Aquilonia), all the featureless +1 swords do start to get on my nerves pretty quickly.

So the sword I gave this half-orc warrior named Lagakh was fashioned from a variation of my old weeping iron. (This version was just like that except it was weeping steel because I’d forgotten which I’d called it originally.) Tindomé the half-elf wizard was intrigued and asked about it. Lagakh let on that she and a warlock had plundered a before-now-undiscovered ruin and found the blade there. Lagakh was now hurting for money because she’d spent her coin to refurbish the grip and scabbard, so she was willing to lead Tindomé to the ruin in exchange for half of whatever treasure they recovered, or 10 gp if there was no more treasure to be found.

While I was inventing an Acheronian enchanter named Ilerius whose mark was on the blade (but who probably hadn’t actually made it, because the blade didn’t have Ilerius’ trademark soul-stealing enchantments on it), I realized that I was inviting Tam’s character to go on adventure I didn’t have prepped. Now, coming up with a ruin that had a secret portion that Lagakh and her companion hadn’t found would have been easy enough, but the idea here was to introduce Tam to some classic dungeons. And I don’t think I’d ever run the Moathouse from Temple of Elemental Evil. Which was perfect; nearly two-thirds of the dungeon under the moathouse is separated from the rest by secret doors and it has its own exit to the outside world. So it was a piece of cake to say that Lareth the Beautiful was a priest of Apophis in league with the priestess running things in the Caves of Chaos. And because old-school D&D is so wonderfully simple and easy to run, it took me a half-hour to find my copy and prep it.

So Tindomé and Lagakh went to the ruins of the Moathouse, which I repurposed as a final-days-of-the-Empire Acheronian fort. That meant aging everything outside the secret area by about a thousand years, but that wasn’t a big deal. I got rid of the brigands, said Lagakh had already slain the spider, and left the snake in its room (which Tindomé and Lagakh choose to ignore). A very high roll on a history check revealed the secret door in the “Black Chamber” where the brigands were to have holed up. I also removed the zombies, ogre, and captives from the area in front of the secret portion.

The first inhabitants of the place encountered by Tindomé and Lagakh were the gnolls who were feeling ill-used. A reaction roll said they were wary, but considering their feelings on their situation and relationship with Lareth, they were hesitant to get into a fight. Tindomé said they were here to meet with “the New Master” (I forget how he came up in the conversation) and the gnolls, disappointed, pointed them to where the New Master could be found (and warned them about the trapped doors, though they did not explain how those traps worked). After wandering about for a bit and finding some orichalcum I’d placed in the mechanism of the trap, as well as the guards protecting the passage to Lareth’s quarters, they then found the secret exit. There they discovered a bit of a torn sack that had contained barley with a mark on it that made it likely it was from a missing caravan. One the way back, they discovered even more: one of the caravan’s wagons, abandoned with a broken axle and still holding four sacks of flour. They returned to the Keep with the sack and requested an audience with the Castellan.

What they got was an audience with the Bailiff of the Outer Bailey, Arus Dun. He brought in the Priestess of Astarte to discuss the situation. Arus pointed out that bandits raiding the caravans almost certainly had spies, probably at the Keep if not at the other end of the route. Tindomé mentioned that they’d walked in with Lagakh lugging the sack of flour over her shoulder; it was likely word of their find and what it meant were all of the Keep by now. He suggested they lock down the keep, do a quick census to see if anyone had fled, and then use Zone of Truth and his own Detect Thoughts to root out any spies.

This dragnet of course caught Gimha and his two acolytes. They nearly killed the Priestess of Astarte with a snake staff and multiple sacred flames, and did manage to kill a few guards and nearly Lagakh with Spiritual Guardians. Our heroes triumphed in the end, capturing one of the acolytes alive to rip his knowledge out with Detect Thoughts. A bit of Speak with the Dead filled in the holes.

Before they’d left for the Moathouse, Tindomé had spoken with Gimha who’d suggested they gather a party and travel to a series of caves used in the era of Acheron as cells for ascetic worshipers of Apophis famed for their powers of prophecy. Tindomé thought it was a splendid plan and agreed to go as soon as he and Lagakh got back from the Moathouse. Now they knew Gimha’s plan was to lure as many of the adventurers (especially the spell-slinging ones) away from the Keep and into an ambush. And that the Priestess of Apophis in the Caves of Chaos was all but ready to unleash her humanoid army on the Keep. Gimha didn’t know how they planned to succeed (it was with the help of summoned earth elementals) but knew the hour was fast approaching.

Tindomé finally got his audience with Castellan. He gave Tindomé and Lagakh some coin and an invisibility potion to scout out the caves. Which they did.

First, Tindomé had Lagakh help him disguise his scent. They avoided going in the caves of the cult (feeling too creeped out by the entrance), then did a pretty good job scouting through the orc and bugbear caves, a bit of the gnoll caves, and the goblin caves. They nearly got nabbed by the magic in the minotaur’s caves, never got past the door into the hobgoblin caves, and decided the owlbear and ogre didn’t need to be disturbed. They got caught in the orc’s net (and escaped with the help of a well-timed Unseen Servant) and then later fell into the kobolds’ pit trap. Another Unseen Servant “opened” the pit for them to crawl out, but there was a mob of kobolds there now, and through sheer numbers they put more than a few holes in poor Tindomé. He passed out, but Lagakh was able to carry him out and pour a healing potion down his throat.

The two then high-tailed it back to the Keep to make their report. The High Priestess of Astarte told them that the Priestess of Apophis was using an ancient altar upon which various humanoid chieftains had pledged not only their obedience to the cult of Apophis, but also that of their descendants. It was the great-great-great-great-so-many-greats-grandchildren of those long-ago chiefs who had brought their tribes to the Caves of Chaos so the cult of Apophis could capture the Keep.

Tindomé and Lagakh agreed to infiltrate the caves and desecrate the magic altar with holy water in hopes of breaking the hold of Apophis on the humanoids. An Adept of Astarte named Zaret went with them, and the Bailiff with some mounted archers went as well to supply a diversion.

T, L, and Z infiltrated the cult’s caves and, after nearly desecrating the wrong altar, got the job done and then ran like hell to escape the wrath of the cultists and their undead minions. The humanoids either started fleeing or turned on their erstwhile masters.

The Castellan is planning to hit the caves the next day. By then, most of the humanoids will have packed up and left. The cultists might still be there; I haven’t decided yet. Either way, most of the treasure will be gone.


Which brings up an interesting point about how EXP interacts with player choices. What T did was perfectly valid and effective in so far as foiling the plots of the cult. However, Tindomé liberated only 50 gp worth of treasure from the whole affair which he’ll have to split with Lagakh. If it wasn’t for rewards from the Keep folk, the entire affair would have been at a loss after you count in the used healing potions (worth 50 gp each themselves). By the time the soldiers sack the place, there’s barely going to be any treasure left to speak of that isn’t cursed. If we were playing by B/X rules, my wife’s character wouldn’t have earned enough EXP this way to get anywhere near 2nd level (and we started Tindomé off at 3rd since we were using 5e rules and she was playing solo).

GP-for-EXP certainly encourages more aggressive and mercenary play. Whether that’s a bug or a feature will really depend on what your goals are. I have to say that what happened certainly felt like something out of a Conan or a Thieves’ World story, so I’m pretty happy with what did happen, and my wife very much enjoyed herself. If we continue, I’ll probably send her Tindomé to the small farming hamlet of Orlane, a vital source of food for the Keep until they can get their own farms productive. Papers recovered from the cult will show that the servants of Apophis are making headway in their designs against the town, thanks to the aid of a mysterious personage called Explictica Defilus.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Escaping the Railroad

Over at the Alexandrian is a new article about the long-term effects of railroading on players and GMs of RPGs. It’s largely about the frustrations of trying to run an open-ended campaign based on conflicts for players who are conditioned to look for and ride the plot-train.

I’ve long considered the way I run D&D to be non-standard. My experiences in campaigns run by others have largely been of the sort where the DM preps a dungeon, the players go to that dungeon, they go through the front door, they clear out a few rooms, they retreat, rest up, then go back in. The dungeon does not react much to the PCs incursions, nor does the wider world. It’s fun, popcorn gaming and I know folks enjoy it. I like it every now and then, but it’s generally not what I’m looking for in an RPG.

So when an experienced player shows up at my table for the first time, I assume that even if they do understand intellectually what I mean when I talk about sandbox-style play, once the dice hit the table they are likely to default to old habits. So I throw a blatant choice in their path and I openly discuss the consequences of the potential choices.

Sometimes I’m pretty overt about this. I’ll have a conversation with the players, as the DM and with the actual living humans around the table, about what the choices are and the likely outcomes of each choice. This not only allows them to make an informed decision (and tell me, the DM, what their priorities are), it blatantly shoves in their face the reality of meaningful choice. Some folks still won’t get it, end up frustrated and give up. Which is fine; my games are not for everyone. But eventually most players come to expect this sort of decision gate and start looking for it everywhere.

When I can, I prefer to have this conversation in-game, in order to preserve the immersion. I call this NPC arguments, and my players frequently call it “Brian has a conversation with himself.” Generally, two or three NPCs (adding four or more often makes things too confusing to follow) will argue about the choices the PCs face. Each will champion a different choice, and will point out the potential pitfalls and opportunity-costs of going with their rival’s preferred option. And then, to make it blatant, one will turn to the PCs and say something along the lines of, “Well, what are you gonna do?”

Keep in mind, these are sandboxy scenarios, so while I’m presenting two or three choices, those are never the only options. And nerds being nerds, they’re going to want to Picard these scenarios and find a better plan that mitigates the bad (or, at least, pushes all the bad on people they don’t like). And I’m totally cool with that, because, as I said: sandboxy. If the players want to Yojimbo between the Castellan and the Caves of Chaos, I’m totally down for that. Whether their motivation is a thirst for freedom, a desire to screw with me, or just because it sounds like more fun, I can roll with those punches. Especially if they’re creating their own option because it sounds like more fun!

Art by Jim Roslof.

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Lost and Wandering Vagrant Queen

The opening scene of Vagrant Queen is a God-awful mess. It’s supposed to invoke the opening scene of Guardians of the Galaxy (itself attempting to invoke the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark). But we don’t get any cool, imaginative dungeon-delving and trap-thwarting. Instead, we see our heroine dismember and toy with a pair of would-be robbers before brutally shooting them both in the head.


Listen, I get it; they wanted to show us our main character being a badass survivor. The problem is, she comes off looking cruel. Trying to leaven that cruelty with some post-modern banter would have been cool and edgy in the ‘90s. Now it feels de rigueur and forced.

A lot of this show feels de rigueur and forced.

Take Isaac. He’s supposed to be a loveable manchild a la Starlord. But without Starlord’s competence, because that would threaten the status of resident-badass not-a-queen Elida. So he’s a stupid, not-a-badass manchild. So what makes him loveable?

Er… he’s from Canada?

The show really doesn’t know what to do with Isaac. In the opening of episode 2, much is made of his inability to hit what he’s shooting at. By the end of the episode, he’s sniping baddies through the brainpan with his pistol. He’s all over the place. He’s a jerk from Elida’s past, only he’s sweet (kinda sometimes), he’s stupid and inept except where the script needs him to actually hit what he’s shooting at. Since they don’t even try to justify the mad swings, it just comes off is disjointed, messy, and distancing. He’s clearly intended to be comic relief, but the show doesn’t need him for that because the baddies are all comic relief (even when they’re supposed to threatening). So he’s basically reduced to needing to be rescued and providing the (again) de rigueur post-modern pop culture references.

The heart of the show (and by far the most interesting character) is Amae the mechanic, who wears her heart on her sleeve, believes strongly in the Power of Friendship (and a good plan) and risks her life to do the right thing with barely any hesitation at all. She’s your classic Alan Dean Foster hero and the show really wants to be about her, but its not, so it feels horribly unabalanced.

But it can’t be about Amae because the principle hero is supposed to be Elida. But she’s really, really hard to invest in. When she finally does “save the cat,” about halfway through the first episode, it feels, once again, de rigueur. Her principle virtue is loyalty to a fault. Kinda. Because she feels absolutely zero loyalty to the partisans of her conquered homeworld. I mean, I kinda get it, but it comes off as very selective and even kinda selfish.

It’s just clumsy and poorly written. And before we even get to that point, we see Elida torture-murder a pair of scavengers who, admittedly, were going to rob her and leave her stranded, but they were clearly not going to murder her. (It doesn’t help that their bumbling comic-relief shtick and the ease with which Elida dispatches them completely undercuts any sense of threat that might have justified her cold-blooded reaction.) And then we see her putting up with getting ripped off by the buyer for the thingus she’d been scavenging.

And I get it. We’re supposed to empathize with her plight. But that’s not easy to do. This works for Rey in The Force Awakens because Rey is clearly trapped on a dying world on the ass-end of the galaxy. She has to take the buyer’s quarter-portions of food because she’s got no choice.

But Elida has a starship. And it’s made clear she’s been cheated by this asshole before. So why is she still doing business with him? Why didn’t she fly somewhere else to sell her salvage?

That level of worldbuilding is something the show can’t be bothered with. There’s a lot of WTF worldbuilding in this show. Like the way no spaceships have weapons. I’m serious. Not only do we never see a weapon fired from a spaceship, there are at least two situations where our big bad evil Space Navy guys could easily destroy Elida by shooting her out of space, but they don’t. So we can only assume they don’t have guns on their ships. Which is so very WTF.

It’s cute and silly in the way we expect a TV show starring Bruce Campbell to be. And, on that level, it’s entertaining. It’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer (every flashback involving Elida’s mother ends with the woman saying, “You can never have friends!”). It’s surprisingly gory. It’s internally inconsistent and soooo much happens because the plot needs it to. That said, the leads have charisma (even when their characters don’t) and the set and prop design is fun (the costumes are so generic you’ll hardly notice them but for a few stand-out outfits of the otherwise eyeroll-inspiring villain Lazaro). If they release the third episode on YouTube I’ll probably check it out to see if it gets better. Otherwise…