Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Increasingly Inaccurately-named One-Shot Campaign

I'm going to talk about another one of my one-shot campaigns, since it was really fun and it looks like something similar is about to happen again with the evil campaign. I was living in a town called Montegut in high school. It was kind of the middle of nowhere, but it was a quiet little town and most of my friends lived nearby. Or with me, in the case of my friend Chahlz (actually Charles, but we say it as if the word were one syllable).

My friend Ethan would sometimes come visit to play Magic or just hang out with me and Chahlz. We got tired of that one day, so we figured, why the hell not, let's play D&D instead. Yeah, just the three of us. I figured that might be a little rough, since the game is designed for four players, but I could balance the challenges somewhat and maybe add in an NPC helper of some kind. Or, because I'm actually okay at this DMing thing, a helper that is part of the plot. So they set to making characters and I set to making the game.

For my inspiration/blatant thievery, I looked to Vagrant Story, my favorite video game of all time (unless I've played Final Fantasy Tactics recently). I didn't steal the plot or characters or anything like that, but I did blatantly steal the whole idea of an abandoned magical city. And a bit of the city itself - the city was surrounded by a violent river, so they had to pass underground to get to it. By the way, play that game if you haven't. It's a one-man dungeon crawl and it's awesome.

So I made a small town for them to exist in, and I designed the whole city and top ground layers and bottom layers, with an eye for Vagrant Story's aesthetic.

This game was the closest to a straight hack and slash game I've ever run. But Ethan and Chahlz have great chemistry together, so they were constantly role-playing, even while they were looting abandoned bedrooms and such. And their characters would get really excited over the loot, even if it was just a well-preserved tapestry of some kind.

I can't quite remember what Ethan made (some kind of spellcaster, I think), but I know Chahlz was a spear-focused Fighter. Their NPC guardian who led them there was a Paladin on a crusade to discover the secrets of the city and to eventually invade the abyss, to find some way of stopping the frequent demon invasions. Probably somewhat foolishly, but it didn't actually make it that far. I know I eventually wanted to expand into a campaign that traveled between the planes frequently.

Anyway, the first time they played, they had a ton of fun and got through about half of my dungeon. And we picked it up again the next week they were both free. For a little over a month, they'd call and say, "Hey, do you wanna get together and play that one-shot campaign again?" I commented that it wasn't really a one-shot anymore, since we had played it like three times. So, with a nod to Douglas Adams and his Hitchhikers Trilogy, I dubbed it the Increasingly Inaccurately-named One-shot Campaign.

Still, all good things must come to an end. As we kept playing it, we told stories to our friends about it and our inside joke about what to call it, and they eventually wanted to play, too. It was fun and this little dungeon-crawl was on the verge of turning into something awesome. Once again, I figured, why the hell not? So we added my friends Blake and Charlie. And for some reason, the session they were introduced was the last one. I know it's not their fault directly. They're very fun people to play with and they always make interesting characters.

I think the introduction of the other people changed the dynamic we had, though. The party doubled in size and it wasn't the same. That might have ruined some of the appeal for Ethan and Chahlz. The new characters also took some time to get invested in the story, and they were simply absent for some of the formative events.

I think the bigger killer was the complexity creep, however. I had gotten to the point where I was comfortable eschewing a battle map when the encounters were fairly simple. And with a two-person party, that was all the time. I'd describe the room so they have some positioning, and as long as there was only one monster, the battles could be like, "Am I close? I swing at it," or "I charge at it". Positioning doesn't really matter when all they need are yes and no answers to these few simple questions. But adding in a third and fourth really required a battle map. We had one really big battle in that session that drove this point home for me.

Yet another problem was that by adding people, it was just harder to get everyone together for it. That wasn't as much of a problem in high school as it is now, but people still had jobs and other things they wanted to do with their time.

So, that's the story of my Increasingly Inaccurately-named One-shot Campaign, a game that started simple and was ruined by complexity. I'm not sure what the lesson is here. Games may not survive drastic changes to the party dynamic? This is consistent with my other experiences. Try to run with the minimum number of people? Well, maybe. Steal from video games for successful games? Well, obviously!

My friends should feel free to comment on the details they remember from this game, because many of them have slipped my mind.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Pathfinder: Evil Campaign

We finally got to play D&D again. Well, technically Pathfinder, but this is D&D 3.5.5, pretty much, so it counts. It was my first experience with Pathfinder, and I have to say, I like it a lot. It seems like most classes and races are pumped up quite a bit, some things rebalanced, some things simplified. I love what they did with the skill points. I think I'll enjoy playing around with Pathfinder.

When I was in high school, I used to run a lot of one-shot campaigns - short campaigns that were intended to be finished within a single session, as opposed to the long running ones me and my friend Charlie kept going. Sometimes we wanted a break. Sometimes we just wanted something different - new setting, new characters to play around with. I've run some pretty famous ones - Easter D&D (a tradition that has officially outlived my involvement), The Increasingly Inaccurately Named One-shot Campaign. I may write about those later. But for my first Pathfinder excursion, I decided to revive another of these concepts - the Evil campaign.

It's pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Most of us were inclined to playing good-aligned characters, so one day a long time ago, I decided we should all play an evil adventuring party. It went well. I may write about that party's exploits a bit later. If there's one thing I won't run out of anytime soon, it's D&D stories, man.

In my experience, there are two major hurdles that an evil adventuring party needs to overcome. First, evil is self-interested in general. There are very few reasons not to pillage and rob and kill your own party if you are so inclined. Second, a naive idea of evil can make characters seem one-dimensional. To try and solve these problems, I made sure that the players made characters with clear motivations and goals. I reminded them that evil can be both complex and calculating. Evil characters can still love and feel, and have relationships. I demanded a little more background story than I usually do for a one-shot campaign, but it's necessary if we want a game that isn't all hack and slash.

What I wanted was a game where we imagine the villain of a fantasy story - and then play that villain.

Below, I recount the story of our evil one-shot campaign:

A half-drow Paladin named Tristan sought out each of the adventurers for an unusual request. Although he would normally be their mortal enemy, he had a use for their unique skills - an astral deva had been cast out of the Celestial realms, and he had tasked himself with eliminating the fallen angel. In return, he offered to keep the authorities off of the adventurer's backs for a short while, and also to give them some artifacts his church had confiscated over the years. Suspicious, but willing, the party gathered for the first time at a tavern known as the Second Darkest Corner. The adventurers included:

Voss, a human cleric of Tiernach, the god of tyranny and war. He prayed to the Dread Lord before agreeing, asking if accepting this mission from this Paladin would advance his divine plan. The Dark God had replied with a resounding, "Yesss." Voss was an intimidating sight in his black full plate armor - a dark man with a bloody past.

Nissa, a human sorceress, who used her beauty and her magic to bend others to do her bidding. Her magic was subtle when she wanted it to be, but she tended to leave a trail of destruction in her wake. She desired riches and power, but to manipulate and dominate other people was also its own reward for her. She was an otherworldly beauty with purple eyes.

Darius, a half-elf Summoner, a former mercenary who had glimpsed (or at least thought he had glimpsed) one of the Elder Horrors. He then started his own religion, and sculpted his Eidolon to reflect the horrifying vision he had seen. He was a charismatic speaker, whose ravings had attracted a following. Experienced initiates in this cult would often find themselves devoured by his creature, Karnak - and would love every second of it.

Esme, a ruthless mercenary and talented archer. She seemed to have no moral compass - she only followed the money. She had fought side by side with good people, and had also fought against those people when the money got good. As an old friend of Darius, she served as a guardian for his cult, though she was ambivalent about his goals and beliefs.

After terrifying half of the bar, the half-drow met them at sunset, and they began their trek to Castle Stormhome, where the angel had crashed. Darius had converted yet another new follower, who enthusiastically accompanied them on the journey.

On their way, a group of bandits ambushed them, and demanded their valuables. Nissa tried her best to use her looks to get past them, but when that failed, she unleashed a fireball upon a portion of the bandits, setting the forest on fire in the process. Darius, who had elected not to summon his Eidolon yet that day, instead summoned a tall, clawed demon to attack the leader instead. Voss prayed to his deity and wounded another group with negative energy. Next, he used Tiernach's might to command the leader to attack his friends. Unable to comprehend what he was doing, the leader charged at one of his friends and killed him with his short sword. Confused, the last remaining bandit attempted to retreat while firing arrows at his former leader. Esme finished him off, causing the leader to drop his sword and surrender. Esme put an arrow between his eyes without mercy, earning a glare from the Paladin.

After taking time to loot the bodies, the party arrived at Castle Stormhome, a large walled castle whose tall spires were visible against the moonlight. Inside the courtyard, a Cleric of reidman and her husband guarded the entrance in a makeshift camp. The cleric was attending to a lantern that glowed with a green flame - apparently an artifact that prevented travel to other planes. Tristan left them there, and implored them to kill the angel at any cost. He also gave Voss a powerful item that he said could take out the angel - the Sword of Tiernach, the Dread Lord's unholy weapon. 

Darius took a moment to step outside the courtyard and summon Karnak, his own little dimensional horror, and fed his new follower to him. Afterwards, the party stepped into the castle.

After exploring a few rooms, they came to a door and heard whispers on the other side. After failing to be stealthy, they instead formed a battle plan. Darius commanded Karnak to storm into the room, where the creature was pelted with fiery arrows. They had happened across a pair of Erinyes, who had come to the castle to try and recruit the angel to the armies of the Nine Hells. Seeing that Voss was a cleric of Tiernach, they halted their assault and began to speak. However, they were unable to come to a compromise and were unwilling to bow before a mere mortal, and so the fight resumed.

The winged creatures were firing arrows from the safety of the air, but Esme pelted one with several well-placed arrows. Voss then commanded one to fall to the ground, where the wounded creature was promptly attacked and devoured by Karnak, who spit up the creature's magic longbow. Nissa then cast a powerful charm spell on the remaining one, and despite the fact that her companion was dead, the new Erinyes was now magically compelled to be friendly. She then assisted the party as they explored the rest of the castle, introducing herself as Kara.

When they entered the throne room, they could see a huge hole in the floor, and a matching one in the ceiling. The angel had literally fallen from the heavens. The hole was quite deep, and the adventurers could not see the bottom. They eventually went down a long spiral staircase to the bottom level of the castle, which contained both the crypts and the dungeon. They happened upon a lantern archon, who was trying to redeem the angel. However, as they opened the last door to the chamber where the angel fell, the fallen angel known as Eranah simply slashed through the small creature.

The fallen angel was a beautiful ruin - the armored angel carried a great flaming sword and was bathed in white light, which grew brighter as she raged. She had huge, feathery wings, but they were cracked and bloody. She likewise cried bitter, bloody tears and raged at Lucia, the goddess who had thrown her out. Once she acknowledged the party's presence, she instead persuaded them to help her to gain revenge by helping her become as powerful as a god. After much debating about the specifics of this arrangement, the party agreed to help. Eranah's first task for them was to eliminate the Paladin and his friends, who held her bound here. She used her powers to restore their spent strength, and also granted her blessing.

The party journeyed back upstairs and formed a battle plan. Rather than confronting them directly, they elected to catch them by surprise. They used their newly recruited Erinyes to fly them, one by one, through the hole the angel's fall had made in the throne room ceiling. Voss cast Airwalk on Karnak, who was too large to be carried. They were quite a distance in the air on top of the castle, but still in range for their spells and archers. Tristan, the cleric Mara, and her husband Kent were taken completely unaware by the assault. They sat around the fire, waiting for the adventurers to return, save for Mara, who was focused on maintaining the green flame.

Nissa started the assault, pouring her energy into an especially powerful Fireball spell, which took them all completely unaware. Voss followed shortly after with a well-placed Flame Strike. Mara and Kent were taken out by this barrage of spells, and Tristan had yet to climb to his feet. Esme and the Erinyes both unleashed arrows at the Paladin, and Darius caused black tentacles to erupt from the ground to grab the Paladin. The Paladin was determined, but was not strong enough to fight them off, and after a short discussion, they decided to take him alive. 

After descending to the ground, they stripped the Paladin of his belongings and clothes and chained him up in the castle's dungeon. They then claimed the artifacts he had promised them, as well as the lantern the cleric had used.

Eranah praised their handiwork, and said she must go and find out some things on her own, but she'd be back with a plan of how to proceed.