Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Swarm of Sea Devils

"I've been looking forward to this more than Christmas."
-P@, my longtime friend and one of my players

Yesterday was the D&D Next playtest that I've been planning for about a month now.  For those that are just joining us, I took various aspects of the adventure Evil Tide, by Bruce R. Cordell and brought it into my home campaign for a larger than life game session.  In the end, we probably played for about 8 hours.

Before anybody showed up, I laid the first batch of tiles, put the plastic sheet over them to keep them in place, and got the basement ready for all six players.


The strangest part of the group that I brought together for this playtest was that most of the group was strangers.  Myself and my fiancee were the connection between everybody.  While that can create some confusion as to how to get the characters to connect with one another, I spent a lot of time with everybody beforehand discussing their motivations and past.  So, even though some players were meeting each other for the first time, there were various motivations in-character for them to interact.

The story started off in my home campaign world in a city of Genkar.  A misty rain was falling as the group spent the night as the establishment known as Sharleena's, waiting for their ship to leave at dawn.  The group all had various goals as to why they wanted to leave the city.

Here's the breakdown of the players.

Nizumo Misoka - played by P@ (@patwalter07). An elf pirate, Niz was a former slave who escaped and ended up with his own ship, only to lose it to the pirate lord of Genkar.  Arrogant and brash, his only real motivation is to take revenge on Janubiz, the pirate lord and reclaim his ship.

Vivianne Shearwater - played by Sara (@VivianneLight). A human pirate, Vivianne has connections to the pirate lord Janubiz.  She is searching for her missing father, and seems to have more of a moral compass than Niz.

Krenlor - played by Kyle. A high elf wizard, Krenlor is fleeing Genkar after being tasked with destroying the red dragon whose wrath he awoke.  Krenlor specializes in fire magic.

Ekbert - played by Rob. A human monk of the Order of Godescalus, Ekbert is simply looking to travel the world and help those in need.

Frenzy Forgestoker - played by Paul. Frenzy is now affiliated with  House Sierett of Genkar.  He is boarding the ship in order to explore the various isle in the Genkar region.

Caitrisanna - played by Shannon. Caitrisanna is seeking a group of fallen paladins who slew her family.

And so, all the heroes met at Sharleena's.


The next morning, they boarded their ship.  The adventure was pretty straight forward from here as the group sailed to Trawlers' Isle.  On the way there, they spotted a sea elf being chased by sharks.  They rescued her and learned of a sahuagin in the area.  The sea elf said she saw a monstrous four-armed sahuagin speaking about returning the Stone Which Abides to the Throne of Teeth, per the command of the Deep Mother.  The heroes knew nothing about any of this.

When the ship reached the docks of Trawlers' Isle, they were ambushed by sahuagin.  While putting this map together, I got the wrong half of the ship at the docks.  My players just told me they were ready to play and we didn't need to fix it, so I let it go.  This was probably my favorite map of the adventure.  I unloaded 16 sahuagin miniatures.  The players thought it was bad when I put down 8, and continued to groan (Vivianne had a small scream), as all 16 got placed.


As D&D Next has proven, combat moves fairly quickly.  Several sahuagin were killed, yet Ekbert and Krenlor collapsed.  Krenlor almost died, but his companions managed to drive the rest of the group off.  

After that, the dock captain Marly brought the party to the Potentate of Trawlers' Isle, Kara.  From there, the group learned more about the sahuagin attacks and some missing villagers.  The group went and met with the Fathomer who dwelt at the northern point of the isle and learned more about the sahuagin.

The group then went back to the city to investigate the collapsed excavation site where a number of villagers had disappeared (one of them was Lychelle, an acquaintance of Vivianne's).  At the Salty Fish, an inn on the island, Niz met a tiefling named Viigill who was seeking a new crew.  The pirate captain told Niz that if the elf could drive off the sahuagin raiders, the pirate would be able to bring his ship to the island and set sail.  Niz was able to motivate the entire group to follow the raiding sahuagin back to their lair.


The sahuagin were dwelling in a mass of shipwrecks.  It was apparent that the sahuagin did not live here, making some of the PC's question the authenticity of the attacks.  From there, the group sought to subdue the sahuagin Lieutenant, Jaagisertan, which they eventually did.  From him, they learned that the sahuagin were carrying out the raids on Trawlers' Isle under the orders of Baron K'thstraam.


The party took their sahuagin prisoner back to Trawlers' Isle.  The Potentate thanked them for their help, and the group decided to venture into the forest east of the city so that Caitrisanna could find some answers she sought.  In the forest, Caitrisanna learned of the fey connections the wood had, and met with the Lady of the Wood (a dryad).  She was led there by a unicorn.

  The dryad led Caitrisanna to a ruined keep of fey origins, then activated the fey crossing due to the dryad's connections with the forest.  Caitrisanna and the unicorn stepped through to the Feywild, leaving the rest of the group on Trawlers' Isle, determined to find out what happened to the excavation team.

And that my friends was the 8 hour game.  So much story, debate, and exploration in a short time.  And the group still has no idea what the Stone Which Abides is.  When the game ended, I was a little shocked myself.  I spent most of the last month figuring out how to map and making all the locations in the game exciting.  I expanded on a couple of things in order to give the players some hooks/depth (this is our own campaign world after all), but I simply imagined that the whole story would be done and over with.  I now have a player who has ventured off on her own story (Caitrisanna in the Feywild), but that's ok.  In fact, I almost think it's better.  Life is crazy, and people get busy, so I never know if I will be able to get this exact group to sit and play together again.  Having Caitrisanna pursue her own goals means that I can do a Feywild adventure in the near future and help drive that story (something Shannon really wants to happen).

As for the others, they all felt the story had good closure....for now.  I will have to do some thinking when the time comes as to what happens on Trawlers' Isle from here.

Encounter-wise, I was an extremely lazy DM.  I re-skinned the Lizardfolk in the playtest packet to make them sahuagin.  They fought one sahuagin spellcaster, and , since it was on the fly, I just turned some of her attacks and made them ranged.  She wasn't even firing "true" spells.  Shame on me, but the players never knew.  In fact, the whole group was drawn more into the story that nobody was rules lawyering/worrying about how the game was played.  They simply told me what they wanted to do, and we worked around it from there.

I ran the most basic form of the D&DNext rules.  When I run the next session, I plan on stepping things up and experimenting with he new healing rules.  I enjoyed the new skill system of having a skill die.  The players told me they really didn't notice it one way or another (except Krenlor, who rolled bad the entire session).  I think at this point I still want skill dice as part of the game.  It just seemed more fun to me.

I ended the session with a number of story hooks, so the group can split and go into whatever new adventures we can come up with.  Since I can't run giant campaigns at the moment, being able to leave off the single session games and create easy ways to start up again is vital.

I hope you all enjoyed reading about the adventure as I had planning it and running it.  As always, leave your comments below and be sure to follow me on Twitter @artificeralf

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Blood in the Water

"The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can't do."
-Captain Jack Sparrow

SPOILERS for those who are playing in my Christmas game.  This means you!

I've got exactly (almost to the minute) one week until my Christmas D&D game will kick off.  As I've continued to write about before, I will be customizing Evil Tide, by Bruce R. Cordell for my group.  Like all D&D modules, I've done some adjustments to the module to suit the needs of my own campaign world and for my players.  The result?  I have a lot of excited players ready to throw down.

For the longest time, I was worried/confused about how I was going to produce the Upper Caves, a network of caves/underwater passages that the sahuagin have taken over.  The Upper Caves lead to the Lower Caves, which are the ruins of a long lost underwater civilization.  Mapping the Lower Caves was no issue, I was just going to use tiles from the Essentials Dungeon Set and Cathedrals of Chaos.  The Upper Caves were a whole other story.  They were flooded, with mazes and all sorts of twists and turns.  Trying to map them seemed almost impossible.  I don't have any cavernous Dungeon Tiles, and I felt that trying to draw every single cavern and allowing the players to explore wouldn't have looked half as cool when compared to the sweet other terrain pieces that I've created.  Here are two for reference, the first Sharleena's, a large tavern in the city of Genkar (where the adventure will start), and the second is the docks of Trawler's Isle (the island's name was changed for my own campaign world).


I also spent some time worrying about how I would portray the ship that takes the players to the island.  In my games, ships have been a major factor.  Ironically, our campaigns never started off as a huge ship adventure with pirates and things like that.  We eventually just found ourselves on the sea on time, and I DMed an adventure I made up on the fly about exploring an old pirate fortress.  From then, most of the characters wanted ties to the sea.

I thought about purchasing the Pathfinder Pirate ships map, but for some reason couldn't bring myself to do it (I was already buying minis and all sorts of other stuff).  Dungeon 208 had two really solid pirate ship maps, but I couldn't find a way to re-size them correctly.  The squares weren't the size they needed to be, and stuff like that drives me crazy.  So, I was under the impression I was just going to draw it.

I typically like to browse ebay and Amazon.  There have been times in the past that I've found exactly what I need, and then I feel like the luckiest guy in the world.  I guess fortune was smiling upon me again, for I found exactly what I needed.

The Lair Assault adventures have always been impossible for me to get, as they only put them out for stores.  Some I didn't care too much about owning, others I wanted like you wouldn't believe.  The maps were always pretty cool, and I wanted certain monsters' stat blocks, as well as new tokens.  And so, for the longest time, I've been looking at the Lair Assault called Talon of Umberlee.

Art by Tyler Jacobson
 I was able to find an unopened copy of Talon of Umberlee that was up for auction (and compared to some of the other prices, it was at a pretty good rate).  I was also fortunate that there was about 24 hours left on the bid, meaning I wouldn't have to wait another week to see what was going to happen.  I placed a bid and waited, and in the end, I won!  So now I have an awesome pirate ship map, and sahuagin tokens soon to be arriving in the mail.

This still didn't help the Upper Caves situation.  I continued to wrack my brain, and thought about the other advice I've read before.  Mike Shea, of Sly Flourish, preaches the wonders of poster maps (found here).  Taking some of his advice, I decided to peruse my poster map collection.

At Gen Con this summer, I picked up Vaults of the Underdark.  I wasn't sure if I would ever use the maps, but I'm also of the opinion that more poster maps are never a bad thing.


Perusing the maps brought a few thoughts to mind: 
  1. Most of the maps were caves
  2. They had a greenish tinge, making it look like there was some glowing algae/fungus in the water
  3. Who said you can't pretend that a lot of the maps are underwater?
  4. Who says I have to keep the Upper Caverns exactly as the map portrayed them?
 With those things in mind, I pulled out two of the huge maps to join them together.  My Upper Caverns were complete.

The first part of the caves (towards the bottom) will have small pools and little water.  The table and "living area" is home to a sailor who possesses at item that has cursed him with lycanthropy.  While his furnishings look almost too nice, describing them as crafted from driftwood and crude supplies will make it believable.

The entrance to the Lower Caves will be the pool in the center of the Mushroom section of the map.  While all the greenish areas will be underwater, the pool represents going deeper and having to take a tunnel to get down to the Lower Caves.  This room will be swarming with sahuagin.  I plan on having some other sahuagin patrolling various areas of the caves as well.

I also found a poster map from the Book of Vile Darkness.  This map has some greenish areas that look like water.  Whether the characters swim through the hidden tunnel by the waterfall of enter through the excavation site, I plan on having them starting their underground journey here, discovering the bodies of the lost excavators.

The sahuagin sometimes possess bladders of octopus ink, which they can use to blind their enemies in the water.  To convey when a sahuagin uses the ink, I'm using the smoke tiles from the Cathedrals of Chaos dungeon tile set.


While my Upper Caverns is smaller than the adventure originally has, I feel that it works out better in my case.  I'm trying to run the whole adventure in one sessions (which could possibly be about 7 to 8 hours).  I'm starting at 1pm, and plan on taking a break for dinner and then having my players finish after dinner into the evening.  I believe that with the dynamics of the story and the group that I'm bringing together, it will be a perfect amount of time.

I'm going to flesh out Trawler's Isle a bit more as well.  They have a forest to the east, which has access to an inert fey crossing.  The Isle also has a lot of open plains and things of that nature, so I think that horse raising would be ideal.  The Isle raises horses and then ships them to Genkar for trade and use.  This ties the island to Genkar in a much bigger and vital way, and fleshes out the world a bit more too.  Due to the importance of the horses, if the players decide to try and explore the forest some more, they will see a unicorn at some point as well.

The adventure divides the sahuagin into two groups: those that are attacking the island, and those at work in the Upper Caves.  The groups know nothing about one another, though the players will have to discover this for themselves.  I foresee the players attacking the raiding sahuagin at some point and maybe trying to find their lair.

Due to Genkar's history with piracy and things of that nature, I think that the sahuagin will be nesting out in an abandoned fortress and ships that have crashed together.  This is the second map from Talon of Umberlee that I will be getting, and I would rather use it than have it sitting and waiting.  So, if the players decide to try and pursue the other sahuagin raiders, this is where they will end up.  I think this will impress the players either way.

And that's where I'm at!  Leave your thoughts/comments below, and be sure to follow me on Twitter @artificeralf

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Quest Begins

"Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start"
- Julie Andrews, The Sound of Music

SPOILERS abound for those playing in my Christmas game.  You have been warned.  I've also been having issues with pictures.  The way I put them in last week isn't working this week.  Still need to figure that out.  I'll try and tweet the pics that I've wanted to use for this blog.
I believe that HOW you start an adventure is just as important as the specific adventure you play.  The beginning needs to give players a reason to dive into their characters and care about what is going on in the world around them.  In some cases, the characters need to be introduced to one another, while in others, they need to give each other some in-character interactions.

As I plan to run Evil Tide, I've started to figure out how this adventure will begin.  Here are the issues I've found myself with.
  1. Many of the players don't know each other in real life.
  2. Their characters don't know each other either.
  3. Somehow, they will all have to get on the same ship for the adventure.
So now I've found myself tackling these problems.

For issue number one, I've come to the conclusion that it will be impossible for everybody to meet one another before the game.  So, I've ignored that issue and decided to focus on issues number two and three.

For issue two, I've spent considerable time with various players exploring their characters backstories.  I'm going to give the examples on how everything has worked out so far.

The adventure will start off in the city of Genkar, specifically in the Docks area, in a bar named Sharleena's (my players name it this back in one of our adventures, and so I've kept it.)

My friend P@ is playing Niz, a pirate.  My other friend, Sara, is playing a human female pirate named Vivienne.  They two have never met in real life.  Niz is not aware of Vivienne.  Yet through my own questioning of Sara and figuring out her role in the game, the two characters already have a history.

Sara has informed me that Vivienne is from Genkar.  This already gives her involvement and an interest in the starting city.  As a pirate, she also has connections to Janubiz, one of the major power players in Genkar.  When Niz was last in my group, he had earned Janubiz's wrath by not paying to dock his ship at Genkar.  Niz came off as too arrogant, and has made himself an enemy.  Vivienne is ready to get the jump on Niz.

At this point in time, P@ has absolutely no idea what is being planned.  He, like Niz, has no idea about Vivienne or anything about what Janubiz has in store for him.  I did all this without giving away any secrets to Sara, or telling her, "hey you should do this".  It was all a matter of discussing character building with her, and the story grew from there.

The conversation went something like this (via texting).

Me: The story will start in Genkar.  There's a pirate guild of sorts.
Sara: Vivenne would definitely have connections there then.
Me: So she would know Janubiz, the head of all the privateer activities?
Sara: Definitely.  Would she know any other pirates?
Me: There are definitely those she would have heard of.  Would she know Nizumo Misoka?
Sara: Yes.  She's probably not his biggest fan.
Me: So she would eagerly report his whereabouts to Janubiz?
Sara: Yes

As you can see, the entire thing plays out pretty simply when all you have to do is prompt your players.

As for issue number three, I've pretty much told everybody that we need reasons for why their character would be boarding a ship.  Many have given solid answers.  With that, I will be ready to start.

With the various maps that I've been constructing, I also feel like I will have various breaks/pauses in my sessions.  For example, the players will start in Genkar, then we will have a break while I put together the map of them landing on Angler Isle and battling sahuagin.  I will have to make more maps for when they explore the caves, and once again for the deep waters where they face the Baron.  I think those breaks will help the players stay focused, as well as converse amongst themselves about the game.

As always, be sure to leave comments below, and follow me on Twitter @artificeralf

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Council of Genkar

I'm late, I'm late!" - the White Rabbit

With the holiday season upon us, I spent the weekend with friends and family doing some of the great traditions that we do around here.  Because of that, my weekend was occupied and I didn't update.  

As I've mentioned before, I'm getting ready to run the adventure Evil Tide in a couple of weeks.  I have some brand new D&D players going to join in the fray, so it's been my duty to help them create characters and feel involved in the story.

I've given them the information that the adventure will start in Genkar (which is where I base most of my adventures around).  I like to ask them questions like "Why are you in Genkar?"; "What do you like about the city?", etc.  However, in order to get an idea of some of the people of Genkar, I've put together a small document that presents some of the movers and shakers.  With this, I'm hoping some players will tell me of an affiliation they would like to have with one or more of those Council members, which will give me a good way to hook them into the story.

In my experience, you can never have enough ways to hook your players.

So, I present to you my document, the Council of Genkar.  Images belong to their owners; I simply did some searching until I found pictures I liked.

To many, the coastal city of Genkar is a great trade hub where countless merchants gather to trade and barter over items they have crafted, stolen, or traded for.   In reality, Genkar is something much greater.  Its noble history is mostly forgotten by the average commoner, despite all the reminders throughout the city.  This document gives a brief outline of the city, in hopes that this might give players ideas for their characters.
                Emblem: Gold Dragon
                Leaders: Steward (Aadris) and the Merchant Council (House Sierett, The Fabricators, Janubiz, Mixximaggi, Voenn)
House Sierett
Leader: Camilla Sierett
                House Sierett is responsible for the collection and manufacturing of goods in the Genkar area.  They had earlier been working to create a logging complex, bringing wood and raw materials from the forests surrounding Genkar back into the main city to use for the construction of lodgings and war machines.  However, a Cult of Orcus has ransacked the site and were performing rituals, scattering the workers.  Voenn of the Merchant Council hired a group to take care of the cultists, allowing House Sierett to continue their business plans.
                Sierett Manor lies along the northwestern end of Genkar.  It has its own private docks and an artificial harbor of sorts. 
                House Sierett has a strong affinity with Shadowborn, the name given to those who original hail from the Shadowfell.

The Fabricators
 Leader: Entaroh Gebung
                The Fabricators are a guild of alchemists, artificers and engineers.  They specialize in the construction of numerous magical items and machinery.  Many of the airships in the world are built and maintained by the guild, though rumors of airship piracy has led many to believe that the Fabricators cannot control their creations as well as they would like.
                It is also known that the Fabricators are expert construct makers, effectively giving themselves an army.  A high ranking warforged (magical construct) named 138 is said to be the overseer of the constructs.
                Many Fabricators products, such as alchemical items and magically produced weapons are exported from Genkar.  Crates bearing their sigil are loaded onto ships bound for far off continents, while the captains of such vessels are constantly on the lookout for mercenaries who would escort the goods to their destinations.

Janubiz the Whirlpool Rider
                Janubiz is an ex-pirate, or privateer as he likes to refer to himself.  It is well known that he spent much of his early life exploring various planes and places of the world seeking treasure and wealth.  As time went on, the wily githzerai realized that he could create even more profit if he was able to sell his wares and create various outposts and bases throughout the planes.  And so, on the continent of Aradove, in the city of Genkar, Janubiz has risen to prominence through his uniting of many of the ‘treasure hunters’ than have already been established through the region.  Rival gangs have been united under him, and a great decline in petty thefts was seen.
                Janubiz also commands a large fleet of ships, used, as he puts it, for trade.  In reality, some of these ships are used for various pirating excursions along Aradove’s coast, sometimes sailing to the far end to do business with Bloodsand.  Others sail farther west, only to return with exotic treasures one can only find in other lands.
                His sigil is only as a means of identification of Privateer’s Papers, documents that allow a ship to enter and leave Genkar at-will.  Visiting ships must pay a hefty fine, and those that choose not to pay suddenly find their ships confiscated.

Mixximaggi (Mixxi)
Somewhat of a commoner, the tiefling Mixximaggi (known to many as Mixxi) acts as a voice for the common people of Genkar.  From her small clothing shop in the Council District (called Mixximaggi’s Boutique), she mingles with the people, giving them a bit of her life and they give her theirs.  Because of the sheer number of citizens that admire and respect her, a few on the Council see her as somewhat of a threat.
It is unknown what Mixxi’s true motivations are, but she is not above meddling in the affairs of others.  In fact, she seems to do so quite openly, sometimes sending adventures into the affairs of others on the Council.
                A soft spoken, quiet man, Voenn has seen many years and has studied long in the history of Genkar.  He thinks before he acts, and seems to grow impatient with many of the bickerings between members of the Council.  At times, it is by his own doing and involving others that issues become resolved. 
                Voenn is a valuable ally to any who seek to navigate their way through Genkar.  Many believe he possesses some skill in the arcane arts, as some of his abilities seem out of place for a man of his age.

Descended from the founders of Genkar, Aadris now sits on the ruling chair of the Steward.  A man of action, he is quick to declare blame and demand retribution.  Many of the other council members see him as a pawn that they can work to get what they want.
                As Steward, Aadris controls much of the Genkarian army and guard.  Before his ascension to stewardship, he served in the army as well.
                He has no sigil, as his emblem is that of Genkar, the Gold Dragon.