Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Play Report from Pod Caverns of the Sinister Shroom

Below after my comments is a session report written by one of the players in our Castle Zagyg sandbox campaign. I placed the Matt Finch's Pod Caverns in the Little Hillwood, a side trek away from the Castle, and I've talked about how I've adapted it before in the changing sandbox world. It's acquired quite the reputation for toughness from the players. The session report and my comments contain spoilers.

They've really explored very little of the caverns, which has been personally disappointing. There's some old school goodness there that they've missed. In their first expedition they blithely found themselves on the 2nd level in the prison chamber/mulching room. After wards they took that same path - and further right to the Shroom's complex of rooms... skipping floating heads, glowing fungus and other such oddities. They may yet go back since they realize they've missed treasure.

The other entrance to the pod caverns, which they've not yet found, is connected to the series of underground rivers around Yggsburgh, based upon what is known about the original Greyhawk campaign. While my co-DM runs Zagyg (and recreated the Black Reservoir for us in an eerie and deadly session!), up river I have a whole mess planned, even an entrance to the Night Below and a megadungeon of my own.

I heartily recommend the Pod Caverns of the Sinister Shroom.

This was the third successive foray straight at the Shroom himself. This time they had an objective: rescue the characters that had been captured the previous session.
For each captured character, I made two determinations with a random roll. The first being if the Shroom thought the character was suitable for conversion to a pod creature or to be merely mulched. The determining factor was body size, but pod creature conversion is actually more survivable, so I wanted to make it random. The second was how far along in the process they were.
Each day they had been gone added a +1 to the roll. I gave them a -4 since they had left the troll in the cages (per Matt, the reason there is a troll amongst the prisoners is that the Shroom mulches him in bits, letting the troll regenerate.)
Prior to play beginning, I told each of the three players imprisoned to roll a d20 but I did not reveal the meaning of the results.
Poor G rolled a 1, so his character Vincent was mulched. K and C survived, but C's character Desy was not kept with the prisoners but was destined for a life as a pod creature if the party did not rescue her.
For the rescue session, they rolled up secondary characters (C already had one.) As you will find out, G may be keeping his secondary character.

Between each expedition, the Shroom had a few days to repair, recuperate and breed more pod critters.

The Shroom began posting guards protected by fungoid walls and accompanied by shriekers. The Mad Trees were moved, and a new creature was added: Fungoid Prowlers. With their six legs, I had them be extra creepy by swarming on the players, climbing on the walls and ceilings. Only really creepy things climb on the walls and ceilings - spiders, roaches, and fungoid prowlers.

The fungus wall and shrieker combo was an effective alarm system, allowing the Shroom to counter attack at choke points and attack the party on both sides, often with a round or two delay. The Shroom himself would pick and choose when to attack, using spells first and judiciously running away when threatened.

A few thoughts from myself on this last session:

It's fun to keep the players guessing. But the Shroom acted within capabilities and without knowledge of the player's plans. Matt, the author of the Pod Caverns, provided a lot of excellent material to use.

The players responded to the adversity. The email list had easily over a dozen posts on how to better survive and defeat the shroom. This is another joy of emergent play. The first two sessions were a near disaster and a near TPK with several party members captured. Yikes! This real defeat lead to the players meeting outside the game to plan strategy, go over the map, set up a wiki to keep track of equipment to purchase, etc. The game engaged their problem solving in a very real way.

I really wish I had worked on a voice for the Shroom and had either taunted or negotiated. As villains go, he will be missed.

Below is the what K wrote of the adventure:

Last night we made our daring rescue for our friends Etherlred, Desiderata "Desy" and Vincent.

Character playing (9! - DM's note. Nine players is a lot. I asked them to use a caller, mostly to keep things moving.)
Inara, Threnody, Anduin, Kolya, Danforth, Jane, Obelix, Dismas, Groktor

Kenny, Robert Redshirt, Raser, Tenius, Wolnicca, Leaf-loam

Rescued characters
Ethelred, Desiderata

Mulched characters
Arland (npc), Owen (npc), Vincent (pc)

Before leaving the Out's Inn, we picked up two new fighter's from the swordsman's guild : Razer and Tinnitis, both capable swordsmen. We also managed to get Danforth to convince the church to let us buy four potions of "cure light wounds". Best of all Lord Gaxill loaned us a fighter (Wolnicca). Armed to the teeth with glaive-guisarmes, ropes and flasks of oil, we set out, but not before picking up two new companions who were previously too uncool for us to even talk to : Dismas, a kind of creepy elf bowman who seems to like sneaking around and staring at people; and Groktor the epithet, a half-orc fighter who's low on pronouns but high on strength.
(Groktar was variously called Garnak, and Gronok throughout the evening though he didn't seem to mind).

After picking up Wolnicca (who met at at the castle track road where we camped), we got to the cave entrance. We found that our way was blocked by a six inch wall of living wood, but that was no match for our many fighters and their axes.

- Broke through, killed two mushroom doggies and a shrieker, two mushroom doggies (hereinafter referred to as prowlers) then retreated.
- Broke that same goddamed valve for the ... third? time.
- Attacked by four prowlers (dead), one walking tree (dead) and four pod people (dead, but not before one of them pressed a button which covered the damned valve again and nearly swept many of us to our deaths in the rushing stream (Jane was swept off, because she rolled two ones in a row. This is a one in four hundred chance and I've seen her do it three times in the past couple of months). (DM's note: while Jane fell, neither the roper nor the person holding it failed their rolls. I think she dropped her sword in the water... another bad habit of hers.)
- We made it down to the cages, were we rescued Ethelred, who told us of the sad fate of Arland, Owen and Vincent. He, in fact, witnessed their horrible demises and will undoubtedly need some crisis counseling. He never saw Desy and has no idea what happened to her. We found the last bits of Vincent in the mulch machine, which we can all split up like Victorian keepsakes.
- Kolya and Threnody escorted the shaken Ethelred to safety while the rest of the party pressed on to rescue Desy, or what was left of her. We think they may have tried to turn her into a large pod person.
- Our usual entrance to the Shroom room was blocked by a wall of fungus.
- Inara helpfully cast invisibility on Dismas so that he could go be creepy out in front to scout another way around. He found a bound tree ent and some grasping vines (which we crisped), but didn't notice the vampiric moss on the ceiling.
- We all went to rescue the ent, and, after accidentally lighting him on fire (goddamn it, why can't Jon roll this many ones!), then dousing him and apologizing profusely, we continued on, now with a 17 foot barkshield called Leaf-loam who was looking to avenge himself on the Shroom for stealing his zygotes.
- We found Desy in the next room, whimpering and incommunicative (stupid will save) and strapped onto a needle chair ("bed of thorns"). We freed her (upon which time she became the first of many bodies stacked in a corner) and then burst into the next room.
- After all that racket, the Shroom was unsurprised by our appearance. We consistently damaged the shit out of him, however, with Inara's "fuck you ones" never-miss Magic Missiles and Obelix's swarm of bats, while at the same time. He was also lit up with faerie fire, which prevented him from disappearing effectively. Our front line fighters mowed methodically through the pod people (though we still forgot about bottlenecking and had four on two for a long time. Leaf-loam reached over the heads of the fighters to
destroy the plant abominations. (Dismas sat in the tree and studied the Shroom, hoping for his chance)
- Finally, the Shroom beat a cowardly retreat and we were attacked by a few prowlers in the rear. Thankfully, Inara pivoted quickly and sent an illusion of the enraged ent after them before they could engage our waiting rear guard.
- The Shroom came back (after the swarm had mowed through a few more of his pod people and just after Dismas gave up on invisibility and started taking pot shots) and we killed his ass with more swarms, more magic missile and one flaming arrow. With the demise of the Shroom, the pod people fled and our hearts lifted.
- We found the Shroom's bedroom, and adjoining library and one door that we didn't open (at least then I left) because it looked like it might be trapped. Leafloam poured out the blue cauldrons. We found a goblin in the dangling pod, but we didn't keep him.

On the way out, we destroyed the bed of thorns (with extreme prejudice), the mulcher, and the valve mechanism both at the bottom of the cliff and at the top of the cliff.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

A family friendly hobby

In honor of the controversy and the locked threads and the moralizing, I would like to quote from the 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide, page 192:

Harlot encounters can be with brazen strumpets or haughty courtesans,thus making it difficult for the party to distinguish each encounter for what it is. (In fact, the encounter could be with a dancer only prostituting herself as it pleases her, an elderly madam, or even a pimp.) In addition to the offering of the usual fare, the harlot is 30% likely to know valuable information, 15% likely to make something up in order to gain a reward, and 20% likely to be, or work with, a thief. You may find it useful to use the sub-table below to see which sort of harlot encounter takes place:

01-10 Slovenly trull
11-25 Brazen strumpet
26-35 Cheap trollop
36-50 Typical streetwalker
51-65 Saucy tart
66-75 Wanton wench
76-85 Expensive doxy
86-90 Haughty courtesan
91-92 Aged madam
93-94 Wealthy procuress
95-98 Sly pimp
99-00 Rich panderer

An expensive doxy will resemble a gentlewoman, a haughty courtesan a noblewoman, the other harlots might be mistaken for goodwives, and so forth.

My own review of the subject at hand: porn stars aren't that different from their audience, when unsupervised they are prone to mayhem and blow job jokes. Also, porn stars are people. When they play games the games they play aren't all that different from games you play or might have played. Full Story at 10.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Sandbox in Action

An Example of the Sandbox in Action

It is frequently said that there are no plots in sandbox campaigns. This is a misconception. There are no DM-imposed plots. That is true. But instead of one uber plot, there are many plots. Each and every actor/NPC/organization has their agenda; that's what makes the world feel real.

How does that square with the other sandbox rule: player freedom? The ethos of the sandbox is that the game is about the players' plots. The various NPC plots aren't going to force the players to make one choice or the other.

Simply put: many of other plots counter act each other

But that doesn't mean that the world doesn't change if the players don't act.

An example:

The characters have of late been confronting the Sinister Shroom from Matt Finch's The Pod Caverns. In our Yggsburgh/Castle of the Mad Archmage campaign, the Pod Caverns are in the Little Hillwood. After getting his Shroomy nose bloodied in raiding traffic on the Menhir Hills road (by the PCs no less), the Shroom set his sights upon terrain more to his advantage: corrupting the vegetation of the Little Hillwood itself.

But this is a sandbox with character freedom, so the players were free to choose to ignore the threat. Finicky players that they are, they sometimes seem to scorn DM given hooks on purpose. The consequence: the Castle Track (a road through the Little Hillwood that led to Zagyg's Castle) became over run with constricting vines, giant venus fly traps and other incarnations of malevolent flora. Ever headstrong, the players decided instead to find other routes to their preferred source of mad lootz. They went up the Urt river.

So the players ignored the Shroom. But there were other actors in the Little Hillwood, which is the home of a bandit clan, a tribe of carnivorous apes and at least one tribe of goblins. None of these were going to let the Shroom take over.

That doesn't mean that the Little Hillwood is going to be the same. Player choice still effects the world, even as their choice isn't forced. When next traveling up the Menhir Hills road, the party observes many small fires burning throughout the Little Hillwood. And the next time the party encounters the carnivorous apes, they may unfortunately discover that the apes have found a source of pitch within Grey Pools Mire and have a habit of using it to set their enemies aflame. The goblin tribe Double Daggers (do you know your goblin gang signs?) are following a new shaman that has druidic powers. The Little Hillwood is not at all the same.

This is fun kinda stuff that co-DMs get to geek about over beer.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Story and Drama in the Sandbox

Some of us see 'emergent story' and we look for it even while we're running sandboxes and dungeons like Castle Zagyg.

Take one of our players, C. C played a human fighter named Hengist. In true old school fashion, the low level fighter died at the hands of some orc slavers. Hengist's role in the story was now over - but wait.

The orcs were using slaves to mine. As we're playing an old school game, C is able to roll his six attributes, pick a race and class at the table. Thus Ethelred is introduced, a human ranger, joining the adventurers that freed him from a short life of slavery.

What is to become of Ethelred?

Months later, the party finds a trail of a different band of orc slavers. Instead of other options like the plant creatures that the party had set out to kill, Ethelred insists that they track the orcs back to their lair in the Menhir hills.
The random encounter of the orcs becomes a plot element that's more important to Ethelred than the original objective of the party. His choice at the table in that moment.

They over come obstacles and other monsters, but Ethelred refuses to leave the trail. Within the dank caves, Ethelred is battered to unconsciousness by an orc lieutenant. The orc is out numbered and will soon be dead. He knows it. He can run if he fails a morale check, but he knows he's cornered.

As the DM, I hold up an 8 sided die and announce to the group. "The orc knows he's going to die. On a 7-8, the orc will call out a sacrifice to Grummsh the orc god and bash in Ethelred's head in a coup-de-grace."

Everyone watches the die roll. It's a 7.

The orc yells out for the glory of Gruumsh and swings his hammer down.

By pure accident, by choices made in game at the table, we've got a bit of pathos to the too short story of Ethelred. I'm no writer and this wasn't poetry, but there can be story in dice and choices if you look.

And yes, after he and the group mourned Ethelred, C got out his 6 sided dice to make a new character at the same table.