Unexpected Twists – Plot Branches

From time to time over the course of a campaign, players will embark in a new course well away from the story arc that you’ve planned.  It is a product of role play and it is a large part of why role playing games are successful – they are adaptive and designed to work as guidelines rather than rules.  Being able to leave the rails and to go boldly in a new direction is exactly why role playing games are the preferred game of many.

The players are starting to discern that a malignant force might be sowing the seeds of chaos

Last night’s session was one such night, where the players decided to look much, much harder into one of the mysteries that they’d caught hints of earlier but had not acted upon.  The town that they are based out of is plagued by all manners of woes, with recent years being times of great turmoil and strife.  Having recently ascended to 5th level and having put an end to some of the woes, the players are starting to discern that a malignant force might be sowing the seeds of chaos.

So rather than going the direction that they’d been nudged, they decided to look harder at their employers – the Council of Six, the ruling council of town.  I’d already started thinking about a series of events and adventures for the church in town that had over the last three years lost more than half of its parishioners.  So, adlibbing like mad, they spoke with a council member – a priestess – and at her bequest began looking into why her flock had become increasingly disloyal.

The sigil of Cyric
The dark sun sigil of Cyric

The night became one primarily of role play and plot examination, with the players clearly seeing that the church of Cyric had been tempting, forcing, luring away the happy-go-lucky followers of Sune in great numbers and that the conversion had been transpiring for several years.  It was starting to look as though the town might be like a rotten apple, bright and shiny on the outside but rotten with worms within.

The players are forcing the growth of a new plot branch.

Is there a lesson here, something to learn?  Having considered a number of plot hooks and continuations, it was easy enough to reach out to one of half formed, half cooked plots and allow the party push off in a “new” direction.  They are still working within the over-arcing plot, but the players are forcing the growth of a new plot branch.

More importantly, this is the direction that they want to go.  No longer trusting the direction of the suspect council, they want to examine things that had been otherwise ignored or kept hidden.  They’ve uncovered several new leads and now have an array of paths that they might take.

Keep your notes at hand and hold close your unimplemented or discarded ideas and plans as they might serve you well when the party sets off exploring an unexpected tangent or reopens a thread of thought only lightly touched upon.  In this case, I really only had three semi-considered sub-plots and the one I chose was perhaps the least developed of them (another actually had battle maps and encounters built, albeit for a lower level group).

Finally, if your plot has moving parts (and it should, if you can manage it), keep the timelines and background events moving.  The players ignoring or electing not to follow breadcrumbs might later have unintended or dire consequences.

The sigil of Cyric was made with the Mischief software that I discussed earlier in the month.  A handy tool for sketching!

Night Fight (part 2)

Being a continuation of my player overload mega-encounter…

The list of encounters for the third and final map was as shown:

Encounter Map Three (burned Inn and home)

2x Priest, Shadow Demon - Total XP: 2,000 Adjusted XP: 4,000 Deadly

Bugbear Chief, 3x Bugbear - Total XP: 1,300 Adjusted XP: 2,600 Deadly

6x Bugbear - Total XP: 1,200 Adjusted XP: 2,400 Hard

There is a garrison of 6 Bugbears on the road which can call out to both of the remaining groups.  The chief and his guards will charge to the aid of the group on the road – the group with the shadow demon will be far more stealthy and hence a bit slower to engage.  Or at least that was the script.

As it happened, it played out a bit oddly.  The players took a long rest while this group of bad guys worked on the hapless populace and managed to do the stuff that bad guys do.  By the time the party was ready to press on, the handful of locals were deceased or had fled.

The group of bugbears that they were descending upon were satiated and perhaps a bit sleepy and in the half-light of dawn the players practically blundered into them.  The players charged in and engaged in battle, managing to keep things relatively silent, cutting down the hornsman of the group quite early in the fight and I pushed the arrival of the other two groups back by a round.

 The group’s paladin was missing every time he swung his sword

After some early initial success, things took a bad turn for the players.  The group’s paladin was missing every time he swung his sword – he normally accounted for a great deal of the damage, but tonight he was merely doing a good job of not taking damage while keeping more than a few bugbears engaged.  He was basically a damage sponge and worked at keeping the opposing forces engaged.

TDwarven Warriorhe party’s Dwarven warrior was hitting, but his damage rolls were almost always in the lower quarter and he was receiving more damage than he was dealing.  The bard quickly realized that he wasn’t up to going toe-to-toe with bugbears and instead did a good job at keeping one bugbear or another at disadvantage, tossing the spare heal, and cleaning up weakened opponents.

The party was well and truly overloaded, facing a pair of DEADLY level groups

But the problem remained that the bugbears were not dying fast enough and this was a chained encounter – soon they were fighting two groups with a third group slated to arrive in 2 combat rounds.  Once the demon and his priestly controllers / healers arrived, the party was well and truly overloaded, facing a pair of DEADLY level groups at once as well as the battered remnants of the initial group of bugbears.

In truth, I considered further delaying the arrival of the outlying groups, but decided against it.  The party had managed to come almost untested to 4th level and they consisted of veteran players – I felt like they could probably handle it.  Probably.

The near-death experience seemed to serve as a wake-up call

Thus the fight degenerated into one of the more brutal, desperate melees that I’ve hosted.  The dwarf went down after a stunning 20+ point critical hit landed on the crown of his helm and the bard got him propped back up but still very near the edge of the grave.  The paladin laid hands upon himself and also caught a heal from the bard, but the near-death experience seemed to serve as a wake-up call because he started dealing damage again.  His run of ill luck was finally over, the streak broken by bardic inspiration.  It took the use of bardic inspiration to break the run of bad luck, and once broken, he would not miss again for the remainder of the encounter.

The ranger had found himself fighting almost alone against the priests and their enslaved demon minion.  But as fortune would have it, the demon was ineffective, only getting in one good strike in almost half-a-dozen attacks.  As planned, the demon was returned to his plane of existence once the last of the two priests was slain and the ranger stayed fairly well focused on the priests, largely because they stayed at range while the demon closed to melee range.  This was a happy coincidence for the players.

The battle lasted about 2 hours of game time was near thing for the players and they knew it, acknowledging that it was by far the hardest fight they’d had.  At the end of it, they got a little bit more of the plot advanced, picked up a squire-to-be in the form of the newly orphaned boy that they had at the very least been avenged, and the party advanced on to the glories and growing power of the 5th level.

So what is the take away here, what is the lesson?  Every now and again it might not hurt to exceed the recommended limits on encounter numbers, especially with the foot-troops of the evil empire.  Goblins, orcs, bugbears and such do not have dangerous powers that could make an encounter unpredictable.  For instance, overloading a party with poisonous opponents that potentially can do massive damage is not recommended.

Assuming the players come through it, they’ll probably have vivid memories of the battle and, justly so, feel a bit proud for having had both the skill and the will to overcome superior numbers.


Traps and Arbitrary Player Character Murder

Pits, poisoned dart shooters, pendulum blades and axes, gas bombs, acid baths, and falling blocks of stone all triggered by tripwires, pressure plates, magic powers, or by the actions of the victims themselves.  Traps are the cherry topping the sundae that are dungeons – you rarely see them anywhere else.

A dungeon really only exists to kill players, right?

trap_1As a DM, I’ve had a bit of a love-hate relationship with traps.  When I first started playing, I liked them because of the gradual sense of dread that they forced upon the players.  It made them realize that nothing could be taken for granted.  And why should it?  I mean, a dungeon really only exists to kill players, right?

Yet gradually I came to dislike traps.  Ok, roll Tommy.  A 3 you say?  Alright, you stumble, the toe of your boot getting hung-up briefly on something.  You hear some thumps as some darts strike you and the wall.  Two of the darts are stuck deeply in your thigh.  You can see a greenish liquid on the half-dozen or so darts on the floor.  I need you to roll another d20 man – add your constitution bonus.

If poor Tommy doesn’t save, he takes all that poison damage and half if he makes the save.  Arbitrary death, perhaps, killed by nothing more than failing to make a pair of die rolls.

I hate that crap.

trap_2I prefer traps that create situations.  Sometimes, the situation can be the trap itself – how to I get out of this sealed room before it floods?  Or the trap can be designed to put the party as a great disadvantage during an encounter – just image a hallway spinner that spins one of the party members in to a room alone, cut off from the party.  Or another that knocks everyone down just before the orcs arrive.

Plan out some large-scale mayhem, move entire rooms, spin entire hallways….

Pits are so… unmemorable.  Darts shooting from the wall…so over used. Plan out some large-scale mayhem, move entire rooms, spin entire hallways, make your players have some terrible concern that maybe, just maybe they were teleported a great distance.  There are so many things that traps can do that are much more entertaining for everyone involved than merely killing player characters.


Card Hunter has a familiar look and feel

Card Hunter is a web-based card game that has very, very strong ties to D&D and fantasy role playing.  If you want to check it out, just head over to their web site and have a look around – the game will play out of a modern web browser.  Optionally, if you use Steam, it is can be added to your Steam account and involves a ~200mb download and you get Steam achievements and updates.

Raid on Ommlet - sounds tasty
Raid on Ommlet – sounds tasty

The game is actually kind of nice in the sense that it wants you to play a little bit each day, with dungeons and encounters awarding less each time you return to them – it encourages you to come back the next day after the 20-some-odd-hour play timer has reset.  The game is a grinder, to be sure, but it also doesn’t demand overly much of your time.

The challenge of the game appears to be simple risk management.  I pressed  into a difficulty level 2 tomb with my 1st and two 2nd level characters and came close to losing a character.  I elected to back out and will go back through the starter dungeons in order to get my 1st level character caught up.

When you are playing, you are encouraged to subscribe by each treasure chest opened offering two treasures to anyone, and a third treasure to subscribers.  Seems fair enough to me – 33% more loot for supporting the game does not seem excessive.  At the end of a month, who is going to be better geared?  Probably the paying customer.

The art work in the game often time reminds me of some of Erol Otis’s classic stuff and that is very high praise indeed.  The game itself plays nothing like D&D, but the vibe is faithful to OD&D and it is well worth a look.

As far as the game goes, I’ve scantly explored it, only having a group of three 1st to 2nd level characters.  It seems very gear dependent which is understandable as different pieces of loot provide different cards for you to utilize.  It can be played cooperatively online, too.

Anyhow, if you like casual card games and D&D, take a peek!

Stock art acquired

Earlier in the week I got a promotional email from Fat Goblin Games which read…

Fat Goblin Games enjoys the charity work we do. It means a lot to us to be able to give back to those who need it and we appreciate our customers and fans allowing us the opportunity to do so. Yesterday, we found out that a friend in the industry is going through an extremely difficult time, as his daughter has just been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. This brave young lady has taken up arms and is ready to fight this cancer till she is healthy again. We want to help her do this.

The family is struggling right now with bills, work, and being there for not only their daughter – but their other children as well. If you ever had serious illness strike your family, you understand the immense stress of these situations. Fat Goblin Games will be running a $1 sale this weekend. All product are marked down to a $1 and all profits will be going to this family. Please help. Spread the word, tell others, and lets get a good donation together to help them. We know how awesome our customers are, and this time we need you to step up and help us make a difference.


In truth, I had been wanting some fantasy artwork and this seemed like a good cause, so I picked up a sizable portion of their catalog of stock art on sale.  Thank you Fat Goblin Games!  I hope you make a difference.


Night Fight

I had a couple of strange turns of events in the meta-game of the weekly campaign that I am DMing.  One of my players could not play this week due to work obligations and I had a plot branch that was centered around him going to a town, back to home base as it were.  We also had added a new player and most of my encounters were a bit off as a result.

So, I tossed my prepared materials and decided to wing it with an outdoor mega-encounter.  A chance encounter with a lad riding for help that would pit the players against a small goblinoid army.

The heavily themed encounter list appears as:

Encounter Map One (woods and pasture)
6 x Orc, Orog - Total XP: 1,050 Adjusted XP: 2,625 Deadly
Orc Eye of Gruumsh, Orog, 3x Orc -Total XP: 1,200 Adjusted XP: 2,400 Hard

Encounter Map Two (wooded roadway ambush)
Goblin Boss, 5x Hobgoblin, 4x Goblin - Total XP: 900 Adjusted XP: 2,250 Hard
12x Goblin, Goblin Boss - Total XP: 800 Adjusted XP: 2,400 Hard
2x Bugbear, 2x Hobgoblin, 6x Goblin - Total XP: 900 Adjusted XP: 2,250 Hard

The gaming group  pushed through the encounters which were chained together one after another after another on each map.  They got no breaks and pushed on hard, trying to save the lad’s family.  I chained the encounters so there was almost no rest and to create a sense of urgency to get the groups down quickly before the next one arrived.

It was night fight, so they could hear the enemies drawing near, but had no sense of the composition or numbers of enemies.  Instead of the players assaulting the monsters, the monsters were ambushing or attacking them and it made for some wild fighting.

The warlock was down to shocking grasp and was all but dry-humping armored opponents

By the end of the second battle map, they were spent, almost every spell fired off, hit points low.  They had to take a long rest or be at risk of not surviving the next map.  The warlock was down to shocking grasp and was all but dry-humping armored opponents, for pities sake!

Anyhow, the players had really nuked the first couple of encounters and frankly wasted a few spells.  I think that by the time the evening of adventure was drawing to a close, that the casters might be a bit more hesitant to commit the big stuff in future fights, but we’ll see.

Good mages knew when to toss darts or daggers and when to unleash the big spells.

As a guy that played OD&D and AD&D 1e and then pulled a Rip Van Winkle until D&D 5e, it seems like spell casters have much more spells to cast these days.   Way, way back in the day when I actually had hair on the top of my head, the timing of a fireball, for instance, was critical.  Good mages knew when to toss darts or daggers and when to unleash the big spells.  Maybe those days are long past, and perhaps good mages today know what the right spell is to cast.  Regardless, there has been a major shift in active magic casting.

Next week the players will advance on to the third and final map of the encounter chain.  After a long rest will the boy’s mother and grandpa still be among the living?  Will they survive what might be a lethal encounter with the forces of evil?


Mapping with Mischief

A company called The Foundry is based around a piece of drawing software named Mischief.  I found Mischief while casting about for sketching software to use with a Microsoft Surface Pro 4 and was enamored with the promise and potential of the software.  In a nutshell, Mischief promises infinite zoom, digital paper with no borders, an endless level of detail, an unlimited range of choices unhindered by anything even marginally resembling planning.

Simple sketch made with Mischief
Simple sketch made with Mischief

Originally, I was only interested in being able to sketch and play with line and color.  The pen is extremely accurate and responsive – a joy to use!  I sketched and played happily with the new tools – both the tablet and the software being almost equally unknown to me.

As I played around with the software, I discovered that it had a wide range of background ‘paper’ that you can use and that some of the paper was graph paper which made sense because you needed something to gauge scale against.  Well, for a guy like me, a piece of graph paper is meant that perhaps I could use this software for mapping.

Simply drawn structure outlines waiting to be painted
Simply drawn structure outlines waiting to be painted

I started very plain-jane, with simple overhead line-art for village mapping.  No need for a lot of detail – I would place the buildings, rotate them as needed, and then color in the shadow.  So I started creating a wide range of what would be copy and paste structures – the more the merrier.  After a few hours I had a goodly selection of structures and had even put together some fences and rounded buildings.  I put together a test page and started placing buildings and then tried coloring and toning them but discovered a missing tool.

When you have infinite zoom, it evidently is impossible or impractical to have a paint bucket tool.  It would fill the page…infinitely – or when memory ran out which would happen quickly.  I had intended to fill the buildings using a paint bucket tool, and that was not possible.

When you have infinite zoom, it evidently is impossible or impractical to have a paint bucket tool.

Instead, the buildings became rather cumbersome.  I would have to use layers and start by putting a white layer under the building, then I would have to apply color in tones based on how the light was falling.  All in all, it was going to be so clunky that I felt that I might as well render isometric structures rather than overhead.

Going 3d with isometric structures
Going 3d with isometric structures

Well, the first problem is that none of the graph paper is designed for isometric drawing.  I was able to download an image of that type of paper and you can then set the entire Mischief application to be transparent – it allowed me to sketch the linework loosely and to roughly get the effect that I was hoping to accomplish.  It wasn’t perfect, but it seems to show what is possible.  It again became evident that layered approach with an opaque white layer was going to be mandatory.

Proof of concept image for isometric mapping
Proof of concept image for isometric mapping

So I put it all together and created a single building and then placed it firmly on the ground.  To this point, I had been working lightly, not really trying to achieve a finished look.  To this point, I had been experimenting, looking for the best path to take.

The opaque white was colored in such a way as to suggest lighting and form – shadows were made on the grass to give the building some solidity and the hint of a path to the door to ignite the imagination.  My only unhappiness being that it was more than a little labor intensive, but once I had created several dozen structures, they could be copied and pasted with ease.

Copying and pasting mountains is dangerous business
Copying and pasting mountains is dangerous business

It occurred to me that campaign mapping icons were far less detailed than the buildings it would take to make a village or town.  So I started out with mountains.  Lots and lots of different mountains since variety is mandatory when you intend to copy and paste (and still look good).

These were all three layer creations.  The highest layer being the dark work, the middle layer being color (largely gray), and the bottom layer being pure white, drawing neatly inside the lines and blocked in with a large pen.  Each one took a while – say 10 or 15 minutes, perhaps a little more.  They are also faded via transparency at the base so that they will sit rather than float.

Then I turned my attention to the hills, drawing them exactly as I had the mountains.  Three layers each, with the bases being gently feathered.  Green with a hint of earthy brown, each hill was shaded to have shadow just as the mountains.

As I had worked, I compressed the layers.  Mischief can only have 24 or 25 layers.  As I made each hill or mountain, I was forced to merge it down until the item was all on one layer – then I placed it and compressed it into the larger store of items.

I started dropping mountains and hills like a mythic god of old

Campaign mapping test
Campaign mapping test

Finally I put enough of it together to play!  I painted out a huge patch of green – the green, green ground – and then I started dropping mountains and hills like a mythic god of old.  In a short time I had a range of mountains surrounded by hillocks and valleys.  With a bit of sketching, I added rivers, road, and trail and the demo map was very much suggesting some epic old-world-that-never-was sense of fantasy adventure.

It was at this point that Mischief decided to be…mischievous.  It blasted an error message onto the screen and refuses to work with the image beyond loading it.  It will not export it as a jpg, will not allow me to add to it, to zoom, or to do much of anything.

So I sent the people at The Foundry my work so they can perhaps correct the error, fix the thing that is wrecking my document and perhaps restore some of the trust lost when I watched more than a few hours of work become unusable.  Then I ordered real isometric and graph paper – I’ve got things to do and trust my scanner.

I am not abandoning Mischief – not yet, anyhow – but I am unwilling to invest further time into mapping with the software.  Sketching, yes, still doing that and love it.  But mapping – no, it doesn’t seem stable enough but the potential still leaves me starry-eyed and hopeful.  Being able to draw an epic-scale campaign map in my own hand is just too much to give up on.