Out of the Abyss session 4: Approaching Blingdenstone

Last time, our heroes become embroiled in Gracklestugh politics, ended up allied with the powers that be, and were given directions to Blingdenstone, along with permission to leave the city. As usual, we had Navarre (a half-elf rogue), Barakus (tiefling monk), Varys (half-drow ranger), Zinaella (half-elf paladin) and Brynn (gnome wizard). Brynn was absent for the last session (a player was away) but she’ll rejoin the group this time. Also in tow was Topsy, a deep gnome wererat NPC.

The group left Gracklestugh, and had a few uneventful days of travel. The tunnels gradually became less organized and ordered, as signs of the duergar craftsmanship faded into the chaos of the Underdark. As they entered a broad cavern filled with a glowing mist (faerzress), they heard voices up ahead. Barakus and Navarre snuck up, and saw Brynn—who had left the group after Neverlight Grove to travel with the myconids—talking with a derro. This derro was well-dressed and calm (unlike others they had encountered) and appeared to be instructing Brynn in something.

The two revealed themselves, and Brynn introduced them to the Derro, Y. He was a member of the Society of Brilliance, a group dedicated to understanding all of the Underdark. The rest of the group joined them, and they all began catching up on their various adventures.

Suddenly, crossbow bolts shot out of the dark. Navarre and Zinaella were hit, while the others sailed over the group’s heads. Navarre collapsed, while Zinaella fought off what he soon realized was drow poison [the drow pursuit hadn’t really come up yet, so I wanted to use it here]. The group sprung into action [the drow scouts rolled high on sneak, and Navarre failed his Constitution saving throw against the drow poison]

Varys spotted four drow scouts crouched behind a ledge, and began firing arrows to give the rest of the group cover. Zinaella rushed to Navarre to try and wake him, while Barakus teleported through the shadows to reappear behind the drow [he used misty step]. As Navarre groggily opened his eyes, Brynn cast a ray of frost at the drow. The spell fizzled as she cast it, however, and she felt strangely powerful [I rolled on the wild magic table because of the faerzress, and the spell granted her resistance].

Barakus began attacking the drow, felling one. They managed to wound him in their counterattack, although one swung too hard and fell over the ledge, falling in front of the party [he rolled a 1 in his attack]. Navarre raced up to join the fight, while Zinaella rather unsportingly killed the prone drow [I considered penalizing him here as a paladin, but let it slide]. Suddenly a modron, a sentient clockwork being, appeared in the combat and began walking around in circles.

The group found this odd, but focused on their task and quickly killed the rest of the drow. Navarre gathered their poisoned crossbow bolts and grabbed one of the hand crossbows as Y ran up. He explained he had tried to summon the rest of the Society, but the modron appeared instead. Something in the faerzress had been interfering with magic lately.

Y tried again, and the remaining members of the Society appeared. They were a troglodyte, an orc, a mind-flayer, and a kuo-toa. The group didn’t have much time to learn more about this strange organization, as just then the drow priestess who had captured them burst into the cavern, flanked by guards and another priestess.

The Society of Brilliance demanded the drow leave, and not interfere with their business but the priestess was intent on reclaiming her captives. As the drow advanced, the Society worked together to cast a spell, teleporting the drow out of the cavern. Unfortunately, the faerzress caused the party to teleport as well. They reappeared out of sight of the cavern, and the Society.

They decided to continue to Blingdenstone. The group heading through zig-zagging tunnels sloping upwards till they came to a broad plateau. As they crossed it, they arrived at a vast cavern filled end to end with spider webs. Barakus recognized this as the famed Silken Paths [a set encounter]. The group then debated whether to try and cross the Paths, or to find a way around. Varys, Barakus and Brynn voted to cross, while Navarre and Zinaella voted to go around. As majority rules prevailed, they decided to head forward.

The group set out carefully across the webs, trying to stick to the stronger and thicker strands. After a short distance, the entire strand they were walking across snapped. Brynn, Varys and Barakus fell 30 feet, landing on and sticking to another strand of webs. Zinaella and Navarre managed to grab hold of the strands as they broke, but realized they were far from safe. Five giant spiders crawled towards the group, drawn by the vibrations in the web.

As they approached Zinaella and Navarre, they stopped, glanced back and forth between the two, and as one attacked Navarre. Three of them managed to bite him, while he dodged the other two. He was wracked with pain from the bites and the poison, but managed to stay upright. Varys, meanwhile, climbed up the webs to help as Zinaella killed one of the spiders. Once again, however, Navarre’s selfish nature won out and he dove for the lower strand, leaving Zinaella to his fate [he’s a CN character, so does things like this often, although no one called him on it]

The spiders were not interested in Zinaella, however. Two of the spiders leapt down after Navarre, while the other two fired webs at him. Too injured to dodge them, Navarre soon became completely covered in spider webs.

Suddenly, the group heard “Yuk-Yuk and Spiderbait to the rescue!” in goblin-accented Undercommon. Two goblins slid down a series of webs, hurling jars of fire at the spiders as they did. They managed to drive off the spiders, and freed Navarre.

The goblins introduced themselves as “web surfers,” who travelled up and down the Silken Paths. They offered to take the group through for 6gp a day [it was supposed to be 2gp, but the group rolled badly on charisma checks in conversation]. The group agreed, and they set off.

As they did, they discussed why the spiders had fixated on Navarre. Barakus remembered Navarre had stolen gems from the temple of Lolth in the drow camp. They realized they might be cursed. Fishing them out of his pack, Navarre dropped the gems into the ravine.

They traveled a day without incident, although there were a few near misses as party members almost slid off the webs. That night, they stopped in a spot where multiple webs came together, creating a sort of hammock. As he turned in his sleep, Navarre felt something jab him in the side; opening his pack, he found the gems he had tossed away. He did not sleep well that night. The next day was also uneventful, and they traveled carefully through the ravine until resting on filthy rags the goblins laid out over the webs. [I wasn’t rolling anything when I checked for random encounters]

The third and final day, as they neared the other side, Navarre noticed movement up ahead. The entire group hid among the webs, and watched as they saw a spectator—a minor beholder—float through the webs. The group waited till it had passed, they sneaked forward, avoiding its notice [I was a little disappointed, as this would have been a cool fight. Oh well].

Yuk-Yuk and Spiderbait brought the group onto solid ground, took their payment, and “surfed” back through the webs, disappearing from sight.

The group travelled on, eventually coming to a stream that was bordered by beautiful and bounteous mushrooms. They realized the stream must flow into Neverlight Grove. After stocking up on food, they moved on.

The paths they were following sloped downward, eventually opening up into a broad cavern. As they walked forward, the group began to feel woozy. Navarre realized it was natural gas, but Brynn thought the air felt fresh and they should travel on [she rolled a 1 on perception]. Navarre won out, and the group retreated into the tunnel. They decided to fire a flaming arrow into the cavern to ignite the gas, so they could continue [this was a very bad idea, but I thought it would be fun to see through]

The group backed up until they hit a curve in the tunnel, and Varys fired. At first the flame seemed to sputter, when suddenly the entire cavern lit up with flame. A fireball tore down the tunnel towards them, throwing the group against the wall and injuring all of them.

As they stood up, their ears ringing, they heard two things. One was the sound of shouting coming from behind them; they could hear the unmistakable criesof the drow. The other noise was a rumbling coming from above and in front of them, which gradually got louder. They realized the cavern was about to come down around them, so they ran forward just as the drow came into sight.

The ceiling collapsed, and the drow disappeared among the rocks and boulders. The group ran on for a short distance before the tunnel both ahead and behind them collapsed. They were trapped, until they noticed a crack had appeared in the formerly solid tunnel wall next to them. Zinaella grabbed his crowbar and began prying at the crack, and they found a passage beyond it. [this is the Oozing Palace set encounter, which I thought worked well with the cave in]

Moving into the passage, the group realized this was some sort of humanoid-made structure. The corridors were straight, and paved with stones. The walls were covered with decaying tiles. But everything was moist and slimy, with dripping noises echoing faintly around the group.

They moved forward into a larger chamber when suddenly Zinaella screamed out in pain. A grey ooze had dropped onto him, burning his armor. Navarre rushed forward to scrape it off, dissolving his dagger in the process. As the ooze fell on the ground, Zinaella and Barakus—both of whom had magic weapons—hit it until it shriveled up.

The group moved on, but stopped as they saw what looked like a skeleton floating in the passage ahead of them. Suddenly, they heard “who am I? what are you?” in their heads. They soon realized they were looking at a gelatinous cube, but one that could apparently communicate telepathically.

They tried to be friendly, and struck up a rapport with the creature. It called itself Glabbagool, and only recent became self-aware. It told them of its “friends” in the tunnels ahead, and their hunger. When the group mentioned they were heading to Blingdenstone, it said it felt a “call” to that city. [I tried to roleplay this a bit, having Glabbagool act confused about the creatures he was talking with. After one of the group said “like us,” Glabbagool used “us” as a signifier- “you-us,” “me-us.” I think it had the desired effect]

The group moved on. As they entered another larger room, a grey ooze tried to drop onto Varys but missed. They quickly killed it. After that, Glabbagool offered to travel ahead of the group to protect them.

They came to a dead end cavern that was slowly filling up with water. After searching it and finding nothing, they backtracked till they found a narrow passageway. Glabbagool went first. After travelling halfway down the passage he suddenly sunk into the ground. They realized he had fallen into a pit. Glabbagool told them of his “hungry friend” in the pit. Interpreting this to mean another ooze [it was actually a black pudding] they decided to jump over the cube, them have him follow them to block the ooze.

It was a good plan, in theory. Everyone jumped safely over except Brynn and Varys, who fell short and landed on Glabbagool, taking acid damage. He was very apologetic.

Moving on, they found a room with a crumbling fountain in the center and statues in niches along the wall. The group searched the room and found a magic dagger, some gold, and potions in the fountain, but no way out. Thankfully, no one touched the “statues” [which were actually oozes].

They went back to the cavern and saw that it was now knee deep full of water. After deliberating for a bit, Varys boosted Navarre up to look at a crack in the ceiling where water was coming in. He reached his hand through the crack [kind of a risky move, but I decided not to mess with them] and felt more water up above them. The group decided to try and break open a passageway in the ceiling and swim away, hoping they could find dry land. After chipping away at the ceiling, the group members swam up—Glabbagool floated—and realized they were in a gently flowing river. They came to the bank, dried off, and moved on.

Tune in next week for the group’s adventures in Blingdenstone…

Origin Stories: Arkdo

My gaming group just finished their latest session of D&Ds’ Out of the Abyss (see latest walkthrough here). They made it to Blingdenstone, and discovered even in this relatively safe city, threats still abounded…I’ll have it up soon. But first…

In this installment in my ongoing Origin Stories series, I want to discuss a character I made for a non-D&D game. As I’ve mentioned, I played Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars RPGs with an old group. These are really fun games that capture a lot of the flavor of Star Wars. This character was for Edge of the Empire, a game setting focusing on the seedier side of the Star Wars Universe (see my walkthrough of an adventure I wrote here). Other settings include Force and Destiny (focusing on force-users, as I’ve discussed) and Age of Rebellion (where you play as part of the Rebel Alliance).

This post is a bit shorter, so I’ll include it all as one post, instead of putting it up over two weeks.

The character I created was Arkdo, the Duro archeologist.

Arkdo grew up on Dantooine; his parents, originally from Duros, fled when the Empire took over and made their way to the Outer Rim. His parents were pilots, helping move cargo through the system and nearby systems and shuttling passengers around. Arkdo helped them out, learning how to fly and astrogate, but he spent most of his time exploring the Jedi ruins on Dantoiine.

During one exploration, he met an old man, who befriended him and taught him much about the ancient Jedi. The man turned out to be a Jedi in hiding, which Arkdo learned when a bounty hunter hired by the Empire found him and killed him. Arkdo then decided to strike out on his own. Getting his parent’s blessing and the meager inheritance they had set aside for him, he set out to make his way in the Outer Rim.

His talents at astrogation and piloting, as well as the skills he gained in Old Republic lore, exploration and archeology, helped him get steady work with the salvagers and treasure hunters who exist at the edge of the Empire [see what I did there?]. Arkdo eventually joined a steady crew hunting for ancient relics to sell to wealthy buyers. On one expedition beyond Subterrell, they found a long-lost Jedi outpost. Among the relics were data on other Outer Rim outposts, which the crew realized would lead them to vast stores of treasure. The crew’s commander knew the Empire had begun collecting all remaining Jedi relics, and thought they could sell this information to the Empire for a lot of money.

Arkdo decided then he would rather be principled than rich. Remembering his Jedi mentor, he resolved to never let this information or the Jedi relics fall into the Empire’s hands. He stole the information and crippled his crew’s ship, before escaping by offering his astrogation services to a smuggler who had landed on the planet. He disappeared into the Outer Rim, his forbidden knowledge guarded carefully, constantly looking over his back for the crew he had betrayed…

Character Creation: Arkdo

This character came about through some good interactions with my GM. When we started playing EOTE, I created a Scout character from the base EOTE rulebook. After playing a session, the GM thought I was going more the route of an archeologist, a character from one of the EOTE expansion books. I checked it out, noticed the illustration was a Duros, and decided I’d play a Duros archeologist.

Character creation is a little complicated in EOTE. It’s a mix of Shadowrun or Firefly/Serenity—when you have a number of points you can use to create customized characters—and D&D, with its set character classes. You start with a career and specialization, like Bounty Hunter-Assassin or Explorer-Scout. Then the race you choose starts off with beginning characteristics (for example, Wookies have high Brawn), and a set number of XP. You choose these XP to build your character through characteristics, skills and equipment.

For Arkdo, as I mentioned I wanted him to be a Duros, and used the Archeologist specialization for the Explorer career (which is part of an expansion pack). I knew I wanted him to be smart and cunning, and also able to use a weapon, so I bumped up his agility (which is used for ranged attacks), intellect and cunning. Most of his skills would go towards his knowledge of lore and the Outer Rim, as well as perception (useful for finding ruins and relics) and survival, for exploring. I gave him a few skill ranks in ranged-light (for things like blasters) as he likely had to defend himself a lot while exploring. Finally, after buying his weapons, I got him equipment appropriate for an archeologist, like macrobinoculars and scanners.

The other cool thing about EOTE character creation is the obligation mechanic. The idea is that everyone exploring the edges of the Empire has some complications in their past. It could be a family they left behind, a debt to a crimelord, or a cause they’re devoted to. These give characters resources, but also lead to complications. At creation, characters choose an obligation, and can add to their obligation value in order to gain more XP or credits to buy equipment. But at the start of every session, the GM rolls dice based on the party’s total obligation value; if the roll comes up right everyone faces some adverse consequences. It’s a cool way to introduce risk into the creation process.

I chose the betrayal obligation, and bumped it up a bit for more equipment. As I was creating Arkdo, I was thinking of his backstory, and the betrayal option inspired me to come up with his introduction to adventuring I discussed in the previous post.

Arkdo ended up being fun. He was not as cutthroat or mercenary as others in the party, since he saw himself as a noble figure trying to gain knowledge of the past. And he was obsessed for searching every market or ruin for relics of value. But his knowledge of ancient sites and Outer Rim societies and governments came in handy pretty frequently.

This was a good example of coming up with a general idea for a character, and then letting the mechanics flesh it out.

Controlled randomness as a tool in adventure/character creation

Last night, I was working on the first level of a multi-stage dungeon for an upcoming D&D 5e session I’m running (I’ll be sure to put up the walkthrough after it’s over). I realized I was turning to a tool I’ve often leveraged at other times I create adventures or characters in RPGs: controlled randomness. I thought it may be useful to have a post on this tool for others, and I apologize if this is incredibly obvious to everyone but me.

What is controlled randomness? It is the use of random decisions with a general pre-determined framework to add depth and flavor to a RPG creation. That sounds like a line from an academic article, but I think it gets the definition. In many RPGs there are tables of adventure elements, character backgrounds and the like, in which the player rolls a dice to determine what detail to use. Controlled randomness uses these, but re-rolls as needed to find something that generally fits with the pre-determined framework.

I first systematized this when my old group and I were creating characters for Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. This is a fun character creation process (which I’ve discussed before), and involves detailing the motivations and complications behind the character. I was creating Arkdo, a Duros explorer I’ll discuss in a future Origin Stories post. I rolled for his motivation, didn’t like the result, and re-rolled it. One of the fellow players teased me for doing this, so I explained my reasoning.

As I envisioned him, Arkdo was basically a good guy who ended up on the wrong side of the law because of his ideals. I wasn’t sure how to flesh that out, so I rolled on the tables until something useful came up: dedication to the Jedi. Now, Arkdo wasn’t a Jedi, but he did admire the order and attempted to preserve their memory.

Thanks to controlled randomness, I had a cool backstory for my character. I knew generally what I wanted, but if I had just picked the most obvious motivation I wouldn’t have gone with his dedication to the Jedi. By re-rolling on the table within a pre-set idea, I was able to add more layers to this character.

Another example was my creation of Fonken, a gnome wizard in D&D 5e (this will be another future Origin Stories post). I wanted a LG gnome with a sage background, but beyond that I didn’t have much. D&D 5e includes tables to rolls for different aspects of the character’s background, including bonds, motivations and flaws. For flaw, I rolled something about reacting to a horrible monster’s appearance by trying to study it. With this roll, the character clicked, and I envisioned him as a cross between Ray Stantz from Ghostbusters and Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks. He was a lot of fun to play, and I even revived an older Fonken for one of my own adventures I created.

This reveals another reason to value controlled randomness: adding flaws. Fonken’s inquisitiveness led him to take unwise risks. This added some complications to my group’s adventures, but overall made things more fun. I’ve talked before about the value of adding flaws to D&D characters, and this is one good way to do it.

Controlled randomness works for adventure creation as well. In The Shadow in the Woods–one of my home-brew adventures–I had a general sense for a dungeon the group would explore. It was the subterranean dwelling of a hag who had summoned a beast from the Shadowfell. But that was it. So I used the encounter and dungeon creation tables in the DMG. I rolled up a castle submerged in a swamp as the setting. This gave me a lot to play with, as the corridors and rooms twisted at odd angles thanks to the castle sinking at an odd angle. I also was able to use this to create a dramatic escape challenge at the end. And I used the random dungeon tables to create a confusing series of passages and rooms that, thanks to my pre-conceived idea, followed the basic form of a multi-level tower connected by oddly-angled corridors.

I used controlled randomness to even greater effect in the dungeon I’m currently finishing (I don’t want to give too many details in case any players read this blog…). In this case, I knew the first level of the dungeon would be the basement of a ruined wizard’s tower. I wanted it to feel like part of a ruined structure, so I planned out the corridors and rooms myself. I also came up with a general idea for what each section would be: a cluster of rooms to entertain guests, a cluster for research, machinery, etc. I also had an idea of the combat encounters, traps and hazards the group would face so I placed them accordingly.

This is where controlled randomness came in. For each cluster of rooms, I rolled on the DMG random dungeon tables to determine the specific nature of the room, re-rolling when the result didn’t fit. I also rolled on the table for the rooms’ current states. This added some nice randomness, as I pictured certain rooms crumbling or becoming overgrown with vines, while others were sealed up and lest in a pristine state. The DMG tricks and obstacles tables were also useful; I had a few rooms that would contain some non-combat encounter, and these tables helped me come up with surprising challenges for the players. In this way, controlled randomness gave me a fleshed out dungeon that still felt coherent.

So new players and DMs may find this tool, controlled randomness of use. Come up with a basic idea for a character or dungeon. Then roll on the appropriate table. Re-roll if the result makes no sense with your idea, but push yourself to keep results that are unexpected or complicate your plans. I’d love to hear from anyone who tries this.

 

Out of the Abyss Session 3: Embroiled in Gracklestugh

Last time, the group made their way to Gracklestugh and realized something was amiss. Chaos was spreading in the orderly duergar city as they tried to find information on how to escape the Underdark…

The next day the group headed out into the city, in the hopes of finding some information on a way out of the Underdark (as well as a way to get out of Gracklestugh…). While walking around the market, they bumped into another group of orcs. The orcs, eying the half-elves, tiefling and deep gnome, decided to try and pick a fight. They didn’t have much luck until they made a crack about tieflings, at which point Barakus stepped up to the orc and deployed his monk martial arts, felling the orc in a flurry of blows. Suddenly 6 duergar appeared out of thin air, and ordered both groups to come with them. [I thought about warning the group that any fighting would lead to arrest, but this was more fun]

Navarre immediately began plotting an escape, but they agreed to go with the guards. The party was shackled, and led through the market. After a short distance, a horrid shouting interrupted their arrest. A two-headed stone giant was rampaging through the streets, crushing any duergar who got in its way. The group suggested the duergar release them so they can help, and—after assuring the group the punishment they would receive if they tried to escape—the duergar removed the restraints.

The group leapt into action, trying to counter the giant’s advance. As they began to fight it, Zinaella [thanks to a good insight check] realized that something was wrong; not only do giants not often have two heads, but this one seemed terrified, not angry. He informed the rest of the group, and they agreed to try and subdue it without killing it. The duergar were not interested in this course of action, but thankfully the group was able to get in several good hits before the duergar could mobilize. They brought the giant down without killing it.

After it fell, another giant (this one one-headed) came into the market, and bent over its fallen comrade. He informed the party that the giant had suddenly sprouted a second head and went mad, rushing out of their haven. The giants lived in the southern part of the city, helping the duergar secure it in exchange for maintaining their separate abode [the group didn’t ask why the giants were here, so I didn’t tell them any of this]. He expressed appreciation for the group’s mercy towards his comrade, and informed the guards that he wanted the group brought to see his leader.

The duergar grudgingly agreed, leading the group towards the giant’s enclave. They passed through strong gates into a furrow in the ground, with residential areas visible at each end of the furrow. The party then moved into the southern, secluded section of the city and were eventually brought to the giants.

Their restraints were removed, and the guards warned them they should not try anything funny, as they were being watched. The group moved inside, whispering to each other about how to escape as they went [I think they were over confident after their relatively easy escape from the drow]. They were brought before the giant’s chief, who thanked them again for their help and told them of his concerns for the Underdark. He spoke of horrors emerging from the shadows, and madness spreading. He also told them of a vision he had of a elven temple near the city of the Deep Gnomes that could guide them to the surface [they have been getting pieces of this information since their escape from the drow]. Finally, the chief gave them a stonespeaker crystal as a sign of thanks, and bid them farewell.

When they left the audience chamber, the duergar guards were waiting for them, so the group thought it best to cooperate. They were restrained again, and brought to the dungeons in the city government building. After waiting a few hours, they heard a group of duergar approaching.

Out of the gloom appeared several duergar guard, and a woman who was obviously their leader. She introduced herself as Errde Blackskull, and offered to release the group if they would do her a favor. They immediately agreed, and she told them of her concerns about corruption spreading throughout the city, which she attributed to the derro leaders. She wanted the group to find a derro she believed was their agent—named Droki—and track him to his compatriots. Agreeing, the party was given insignia that would grant them free movement throughout the city. Finally, after a long and eventful day, they grabbed a few more drinks at the tavern, then returned to their rooms at the inn.

The next morning the group headed into the market to look for Droki. They attempted to question a few merchants, but had little luck and experienced more of the strange behavior. One merchant kept talking to what he claimed was his invisible twin brother, who advised the merchant to not help the group out. Eventually the group got frustrated, and began to search for themselves [the book instructed the DM to not have merchants tell the party about Droki, and I just told the group this after a few tries as I didn’t want them to get annoyed].

After walking around a bit, the group noticed a shifty looking derro with a strange tentacled hat darting through the stalls. They tracked him through the crowd until he noticed them following him and took off. The group decided this must be Droki [they were right] and ran after him. They lost him in the crowd for a bit, but managed to circle around possible exits and find him again as he went through the gates into the furrow.

Following behind, the group saw him heading towards one of the derro settlements at the end of the furrow. He knew they were behind him, and took off running but the group generally managed to keep up. At one point Zinaella tripped and fell in a pile of muck he hoped was mud, and Varys got slowed down by obstructions but Barakus and Navarre kept up with the derro. [I ran this as a chase with complications, although few came up so I tried to provide a narrative when characters rolled badly]

Suddenly they found themselves in a cramped, dank, filthy residential area. Crude huts were carved into the cavern walls and hundreds of derro milled about, screaming at each other when they bumped into another derro. Nearly as one, the derro noticed the interlopers entering their home, and followed them with their eyes as the group advanced, gradually closing in around the group.

The group tried to push through to keep an eye on droki, but were struggling thanks to the derro who now crowded around and occasionally pawed at them. They managed to carefully make their way through the district until they saw Droki disappear into a crack in a wall that leaked a strange glowing mist. Navarre suggested returning to Errde Blackskull to let her know where Droki went and get reinforcements, but when they turned around they saw the entire population of derro were now in the streets watching the group. They decided to press on, and figure out what to do about the derro later, so they went into the caves.

As they entered they saw Droki look back and notice them still behind them. He shrieked, ran to a crack in the wall, picked a mushroom and—after eating it—shrunk down to the size of a mouse and disappeared into the wall. The group moved forward when they heard a familiar sounding cackling behind them. Buppido stepped out of a side passage, thanked the group for coming to worship at his ascension, and asked them to join him in his haven.

The group was not interested, and ignored Buppido. He flew into a rage and attacked. The group rushed away from him in an attempt to follow Droki. They grabbed the mushrooms he ate, shrunk to his size and followed him into the crack. [once again, the NPC twist reveal didn’t work out]

The group ran through the crack behind Droki and emerged into a broader tunnel. He ran forward into a dense thicket of fungus and disappeared again. The party ran after him through the thicket. As they went, they inadvertently disturbed a swarm of centipedes who attacked.

This was a bigger danger than it would have been if the group was normal sized. The centipedes scored numerous hits, with Zinaella and Navarre in particular taking serious damage. Barakus and Varys managed to push their way through the thicket; once they were clear the centipedes stopped following them (focusing on their friends instead). Navarre soon made it out, injured but alive. Zinaella—about to fall to the centipedes—cast “misty step” and teleported past the thicket, landing on top of Droki.

The rest of the group caught up to them, helping to restrain the derro. Suddenly they felt a tingling and they all burst back to their full size. In the confusion, Droki broke free but the group grabbed him quickly and pummeled him until he submitted [I think they enjoyed that]. The group tried to get him to talk, slapping him a bit, but he wouldn’t say anything besides squeaks and snarls [bad intimidation rolls]

Eventually, the group decided to go through his pack. This set him off, and he became panicked when they found some strange pieces of rock and a sack of giant skin flakes and fingernails. He begged them to leave the objects alone, as “the cult” would kill him if anything happened. Realizing they were making progress, the group suggested they take the bound Droki and his objects to the cult themselves to see if they would talk. This scared him and he told them everything. He admitted to working for a cult of duergar attempting to corrupt and spread madness in the giants and eventually the city itself.

Satisfied, the group left the caves [there was a much bigger dungeon to explore, but we decided to move past it as we were running out of time in our session]. As they were leaving, they noticed a disembodied gnome hand crawling on the ground. The ghost of a deep gnome then appeared. He told the group he had been killed by Buppido and asked them if they could return his hand to Blingenstone so he could rest in peace. They agreed—although they were a little unsettled to have an animated hand in their packs—and headed out with Droki.

For the sake of time, I narrated the rest of their time in Gracklestugh. They made their way past the derro crowds, and returned to Errde. They told her of the cult, and she ordered her forces to arrest all suspects, and to prepare plans to get rid of all the derro [this was meant to be some hints of Errde’s own madness, but the group didn’t focus on it]. She then gave them exit papers for the city and general directions for Blingdenstone, thanking them for their help.

The group, now accompanied only by Topsy (and a disembodied hand) headed back into the Underdark, hoping they were getting closer—and not farther away—from escape…

And that was session 3. I am a little torn on whether or not skipping past random encounters is a good idea. They provide a lot of flavor for the journeys through the Underdark, but do take up a lot of time. I’m anxious to keep the story going (as we’re not even halfway through the campaign) so I think the approach I used this time works, but I’ll continue to adapt in the future.

The hook horror hunt was a good set encounter. Just a straight up battle, but it had some foreshadowing of more serious developments later, especially after the group rolled history checks to identify “Yeenoghu…”

And Gracklestugh was a lot of fun. I’ve seen others complain about it, and it was rather complicated (this site even had a flowchart for the chapter). It was basically the characters being forced into adventures, and there was little they could do with the stone giants (although being merciful did help them out, even if they don’t know yet what the crystal can do…). That being said, there was a bit more to do than with Neverlight Grove.

My only complaint would be clearer evidence of demonic corruption in Gracklestugh. There are hints of madness spreading, but nothing as dramatic as seen in Neverlight Grove or Sloobludop. But it was still a lot of fun, and I think my group enjoyed it even without a dramatic boss battle (thanks to us skipping most of the Whorlstone Tunnels dungeon).

Next time the group will be heading to Blingdenstone, and hopefully freedom from the Underdark…

Out of the Abyss session 3: Entering Gracklestugh

Last time, the group travelled through the Darklake and escaped the horrors of Neverlight Grove with the remaining myconids, heading ultimately for Gracklestugh. Between the two sessions we had some personnel changes- Varys (half-drow ranger) was back, and Kerasa (dwarf fighter) and Brynn (gnome wizard) were away. We also had Barakus (tiefling monk), Navarre (half-elf rogue), and Zinaella (half-elf paladin). The only remaining NPCs were Buppido, the derro, Topsy, a deep gnome, and a kuo-toa the group rescued from the Darklake.

The group had been travelling with the myconids for a few days when Sovereign Basidia announced it was time for them to part ways, as the myconids had to find a new home. Kerasa had left shortly after fleeing Neverlight to continue on her mysterious mission. Brynn told the group the myconids were allowing her to travel with them, which she saw as a great opportunity to learn more about the Underdark. She said she would catch up with them in one of the major Underdark cities.

Barakus, Navarre, Zinaella and the NPCs set off, hoping to find more information on escaping the Underdark in Gracklestugh. After about half a day, the tunnel they were travelling through began to slope upwards, and they heard a commotion ahead. Sneaking forward, they saw a group of orcs on a rope bridge that crossed a ravine, arguing with a familiar half-drow- Varys.

The group came forward as the orc leader was challenging Varys to fight. He noticed the rest of the “weaklings,” as he called them, and accused Varys of an ambush. The orcs wanted the group to back off and let them cross first. The group agreed, so the leader came across, with the rest of the orcs following on the bridge and their shaman waiting on the other side.

As the discussion continued, Barakus leapt forward and smashed one of the posts holding the bridge up with a well-placed kick [a great acrobatics and attack check]. Several of the orcs tumbled into the ravine, and the orc shaman was trapped on the other side. Combat broke out.

The orc leader managed to score a few good hits on Zinaella and Navarre, but Varys’ archery backup helped them take him down. The shaman’s spells weren’t helping much, so she fled. The group then carefully made their way across the one rope holding the bridge up and continued into the Underdark after catching up with Varys.

They travelled for a few more days [I skipped over a lot of the random encounters to keep the story going] when they entered a narrow, winding tunnel. Suddenly, two hook horrors burst from a side passage, and ran past the group down another narrow tunnel. The group heard the distinctive cries of a pack of gnolls behind the hook horrors, and tried to get out of sight.

Several gnolls rushed past the group and ran after the hook horrors. They group followed carefully behind them. The passageway ended in a broader cavern where the gnolls had the hook horrors cornered. As the gnolls moved to attack, the group attacked them from behind. One of the gnolls wounded Barakus pretty badly, but the rest fell.

As the group tried to decide what to do about the two hook horrors, they heard more howling behind them, including one distinctive word, “Yeenoghu.” The group readied themselves for another attack. Two gnolls burst into the room and fell under the group’s bows and blades. The remaining gnolls were more wary, and managed to break their way in and provide cover for their leader. The leader severely wounded Varys, while Navarre took a few more hits. Eventually the group picked off the weaker gnolls, and killed their pack chief. Exhausted, they all jumped as a mist rose from the gnoll leader, and a haunting voice filled the cavern, “Yeenoghu will remember this…”

The hook horrors were wary but didn’t attack, as they could tell the group wasn’t chasing them. So the party carefully backed away from them, found their way through the twisting tunnels, and continued to Gracklestugh [this was the set encounter “Hook Horror Hunt”].

After several more days of travel, the ground they walked on began to change. The tunnels became more orderly, and paved stones started appearing on the ground. One night while they were preparing camp in an alcove to the side of a passage, the group heard something approaching. They hid, and soon a wagon driven by two deep gnomes, full of carts, passed by them. The group called out, and the wagon stopped. The deep gnomes were wary at first–and Topsy tried to remain hidden, so wasn’t much help–but realized the group wasn’t a threat.

Navarre hoped to sell some of the items they had, or trade for useful goods but the deep gnomes weren’t interested. They had a shipment of weapons that were needed for the defense of their home Blingdenstone. Barakus asked about the rumors they’d heard of a way to the surface, and the deep gnomes said some of their scouts had found accessible paths, but as they were traders they didn’t have much information. After sharing a pleasant meal, the gnomes moved on and the group went to sleep.

After about another day, they came to massive gates, and realized they were at Gracklestugh.

Buppido had claimed to be a person of some importance, so the group urged him to secure their entry [the group claimed he said this at some point, I couldn’t remember but played along]. He confessed to having lied, and said derro tend to not be very popular with the duergar gate guards. So Zinaella approached the gate to discuss.

They claimed to be fleeing the drow and wanted passage into the city; the group also mentioned returning one of its citizens. The duergar warily let the group in, but warned them not to cause any problems. They also told the party they would be unable to leave without official approval. Not given much choice, the party agreed.

As they passed through the gates, however, a side passage opened and a duergar walked out. This was Gorglak, a corrupt duergar guard. He claimed to know they were lying, and demanded something to keep quiet. The group offered gems they had found—including some gems taken from the eyes of a Lolth statue in Chapter 1—and he agreed [after a successful persuasion check] but passed on the Lolth gems…He told the group to take the gems to his contact, Werz, in the docks, and disappeared back into the wall.

They entered the city, and were immediately hit with a wall of heat and noxious fumes from all the furnaces running inside the city walls. Buppido guided them towards the docks, travelling through the city market. On the way they saw many odd occurrences—they watched a duergar become insanely angry with a deep gnome after he offered to sell something to the merchant, then inordinately polite as he attempted to sell something to the gnome. The group stopped to unload some of the merchandise they’d uncovered, but the merchant’s first counteroffer was to “chop off the tiefling’s head” and take all the gear. Because this was said in a friendly, rather than hostile, manner, the group was confused, and continued negotiating with the merchant till they had sold their wares.

The party began pressing Buppido to help in some way, as he’d been the one pushing them to come to Gracklestugh. He said he would need some time to find his contacts, and would return in about a day, then rushed off into the crowds. Meanwhile, their kuo-toa companion said he noticed a kuo-toa boat at the docks, and wanted to talk with them so he left as well.

The group continued on to the docks when they saw two masked duergar appear out of thin air, pull out glowing daggers, and begin to viciously stab a duergar walking along the docks. Topsy urged the group not to intervene, but Navarre was interested in the glowing daggers [it’s not the most noble of parties] so they tried to help. They easily fought off the attackers, and revived the victim. It turned out to be their contact, Wertz, who asked them to take him to the nearby tavern.

Inside, the duergar bought the group a round of ales and shots of some fiery liquor that several of the group struggled to keep down [bad constitution checks]. The group told him of their deal with Gorglak, and he took the gems, then offered them some money if they could take another bag of gems to Blingdenstone. The group agreed, and began asking Wertz for more information on the city. He suddenly became rabidly hostile, screaming at the group for their rudeness, and stormed out. As he did, two of the other patrons attacked each other. The group separated them, and neither of the duergar could remember what they were fighting about.

The bartender was appreciative of the group’s help, and gave them another round of shots. Varys became a bit ill, but managed to hold it together. The bartender was impressed with the group [good charisma checks] and tried to help. He mentioned the city had been getting more chaotic and tense recently, which was strange for the orderly duergar. He also told them he’d heard rumors of demon attacks on nearby settlements.

Stumbling out, the group thanked the bartender and headed towards the only inn that would serve outsiders. As they were walking there, their kuo-toa friend returned and said the boat would be leaving in a few days and they may be able to escape on it; he then left the group to return to the boat. The party secured rooms and food, partnered up and went to bed. Topsy tried to get a room to himself, but the group laughed at him, and made him room with Varys [I wasn’t sure if this was supposed to be a punishment- I pretended Varys was particularly flatulent].

In the middle of the night, Varys heard a noise coming from the closet, and saw that Topsy was gone. He opened the closet and saw a wererat that resembled Topsy. The wererat asked him not to tell anyone, and to just let him stay in the closet for the night. Varys told him to get out, and then went back to sleep [this big reveal of Topsy’s lycanthropy was not as shocking as I’d hoped].

Next week, the group becomes more embroiled in the growing turmoil of Gracklestugh…

The moment it clicks: Getting new players into RPGs

If you met my brother (the middle child of 5 in my family), you wouldn’t think he is into tabletop games. And he never thoughts of himself as someone who likes to game. He thought of me as the intellectual (when we were getting along) or nerdy (when we were fighting) brother, and those games were for people like me. But I finally convinced him to try Settlers of Catan on one family vacation and he loved it. On a later visit, the two of us played over and over, even trying some of the expansions. He loved Munchkin and Dominion just as much when we tried those out.

Even though he loved these tabletop games, pen and paper RPGs seemed a bridge too far for him. Maybe it was the lack of a board to ground the experience. Maybe it was memories of childhood, when our other brother and I would play D&D and exclude our younger siblings. Whatever the reason, he’d just chuckle and shake his head when I asked about trying a RPG. I’ve encountered this attitude among other gamers—they love games like Catan, but just don’t think they would ever like something like D&D.

But one recent Christmas, I finally convinced him and a few other family members to try one out, Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars: Force and Destiny (see my discussion of it here). This game focuses on force sensitive characters learning how to become Jedi. I think part of it was the recognizable Star Wars universe, while the inclusion of a map and character icons in the F&D starter set I owned helped too. I also explained how the rules for this game differ from D&D, and are more inclined to story-telling rather than math (see my recent walkthrough of an adventure from a related Star Wars game for more on this system).

The adventure included in the starter set was pretty basic; the characters had to find a temple and rescue their mentor. My brother and the other players picked their character, and I GM’d. It started out kind of slow, everyone was pretty tentative when I asked the infamous GM question, “so what do you want to do?” But then, suddenly, everything changed.

The characters needed to cross a bridge blocked by a few bandits. As starting characters they were pretty weak, and had already been through a few tough fights. Charging the bridge directly would probably have led to a few of them dying in their fragile state. The party was deliberating an alternate path when my brother looked at his character sheet and saw he had a force power that could lift and move objects.

“So,” he asked me, “could I lift up the bandits and throw them off the bridge?”

“You can try,” I responded. And he did.

He rolled the required dice, got the necessary successes, and both bandits flew off the bridge. The reason why these games were so fun finally clicked for my brother. He started getting really creative with his force powers and other character skills, finding ways to deal with all other obstacles they encountered without resorting to melee combat. I’m not sure if he’ll ever get a D&D or Star Wars group together on his own, but he’d probably be open to playing another session when we get together again.

This is the moment we need to replicate if we want to get more people interested in RPGs like Star Wars: F&D or D&D. They need to realize these games aren’t just people running around pretending to be wizards, or completing complex mathematical calculations (although some games get close to that, as I’ve discussed). They are vehicles for translating creativity into open-ended gameplay. Of course, as I am writing I can see that sentence turning some potential gamers off. So what can we do to help new gamers realize this?

I think the scenario my players encountered in the F&D starter set adventure is one way to do this: a non-obvious puzzle requiring a creative solution. This wasn’t a locked room with various levers that had to be pulled in a certain order; such a puzzle may be fun for some players, but could end up rather tedious for others. But because the players knew they would struggle with a frontal assault on the bridge, it became a puzzle; they were incentivized to be creative.

We can see various versions of this in advice for new GMs. One example is The Angry GM’s guidelines for creating adventures, with an emphasis on “decision points” for characters that requires them to solve problems, and not just kill monsters. Another is the advice in Roleplaying Tip’s discussion of 5-room dungeons.

So when designing introductory adventures, we could be sure to include encounters that are open-ended and disincentive face-to-face combat. What do you think? Do successful intro adventures you’ve run or played as a character include this sort of situation? Have you seen anyone suddenly “get” RPGs through other means?

Crusader Kings 2 walkthrough: Reclaiming Charlemagne’s Empire, part 2

Sorry for the delay in this post–I was busy with 4th of July celebrations. My group ran its third session of Out of the Abyss, and I’m working on the walkthrough, but here’s a post in the meantime. I made it a little longer than usual to make up for the delay.

In a previous post I presented part 1 of a walkthrough for Crusader Kings 2, an excellent PC historical strategy game. This is the second part, as Raymond-the son of Clotaire, Duke of Valois, the last descendant of Charlemagne-continued his father’s efforts to restore the Karling family to glory.

Raymond returned to the Duchy of Valois from Germany with high expectations. His father had tripled his family’s lands, and Raymond was a skilled diplomat ready to further increase the Karling prestige. He followed his father at first, consolidating the family lands; specifically, he revoked the County of Orleans from his half-brother—as the land had been divided after his father’s death—and gave him a barony in compensation. He also maintained the trade route his father had started and built new cities and a bishopric in his lands.

But then Raymond became distracted. As he had been among the Germans during the religious strife in France, he had not absorbed his father’s cautious approach to the conflict. A pious Catholic, Raymond decided he would return France to the true Church. This seemed to come to fruition when a Crusade was called shortly after Raymond became Duke; France fell to the Catholic armies, and the Pope installed Hugh Capet—the brother of Philippe who had remained loyal to the Pope—as King.

This success was short-lived as the former Bourges King was returned to power shortly after the Crusading armies left [there was a faction that organized and the King gave in]. Raymond then became even more devoted to his cause. He first tried to gain support among the lords to become the next King, as Philippe had instituted an electoral succession rule in response to his subjects’ pressure. This went nowhere, as—despite his great diplomatic skill— Raymond was seen as an outsider.

Raymond then began to organize behind Hugh. He supported him as heir and tried to gather support for his claim. He also tried to assassinate the King’s son, thinking this would open up the election. This failed, but earned him the enmity of the Prince, which became problematic when he ascended to the throne. Raymond persisted in his attempt to get rid of Fratricelli rulers in France, a struggle that ended suddenly when he was assassinated at age 50. The list of enemies he had made was long, but most suspected his half-brother, who never forgave Raymond for revoking his county.

The inheritance process grew complicated on his death. His eldest son inherited Franconia, and thus could not inherit lands outside of the Holy Roman Empire. This left his second son, who became very skilled in intrigue. He was actually in line to become the next spymaster of Valois after the retirement of the Duke’s close confidante currently in that position. But Raymond’s eldest son had two sons of his own, and because neither were landed (the oldest being 4), they could inherit Valois.

Raymond thus left the Karling name at best the same as when he received it, and at worst in an uncertain situation. Karlings now ruled two Duchies in two realms, and Valois had developed into a thriving commercial center. But the family lands remained divided, and Valois was in for some tension as a 4 year old German became the Duke, pushing aside his bitter and scheming uncle. Raymond turned away from his father’s single-minded focus on expanding the Karling name in an attempt to shape France’s political stage, and, to be blunt, failed.

Clotaire II: Clotaire II became the Duke of Valois at the age of 4 during a time of stability for France. The realm was still divided among Roman Catholic and Fraticelli Dukes, but the King ruled peacefully and focused on rebuilding the land. Clotaire II grew up surrounded by his grandfather’s loyal councilors, who trained him well, and also made sure he knew of his grandfather’s struggle to retake France for the true Church.

Clotaire II came of age shortly after the old King passed away [I was a little disappointed his uncle with high intrigue did nothing to take power- scheming uncles are rarer in this game than they should be]. He began following in the steps of his namesake, focusing on expanding his lands. Clotaire II had his chancellor fabricate claims to the counties in the Duchy of Orleans—which had been split between several Dukes—and, seizing them, named himself Duke of Orleans in addition to Valois. He also followed his namesake in another way, having a series of affairs, including, shamefully, the wife of his eldest son and heir [this was an event that fired randomly, I didn’t initiate it]

The new king, nearly as young as Clotaire II, then appointed him his spymaster, in an attempt to avoid the trouble his father ran into. This proved to be a mistake.

Almost as soon as he arrived in the Bourges capital of Rennes, Clotaire II began plotting against the King. He proved successful, having the King assassinated—but word spread quickly that Clotaire was the culprit. This led to an escalating series of plots and rivalries between the Karlings and the Bourges, although Clotaire II had the upper hand as many of the Bourges were scattered throughout Europe in strategic marriages.

Several Kings later, the throne passed to the young prince of Gwynedd, son of the Duke of Gwynedd and the eldest Bourges sister. The thought of an underage, Welsh King—who would likely absorb France into his father’s lands once he inherited them—did not sit well with the French Dukes, and series of rebellions broke out. Clotaire II saw this as his chance. He launched a rebellion in favor of the last Capet—now Duke of Burgundy.

This did not succeed. In a disastrous battle, Clotaire II’s troops were routed and he was arrested. He spent the next several years in jail while the remaining rebels were defeated. The young Welsh King did not enjoy any peace, however, as he died from a wound suffered in one of the battles shortly after coming of age.

Now released from jail, Clotaire II reevaluated his plans. The throne passed to another underage Bourges nephew, this time the son of the prince of Scotland. Clotaire II realized his family’s scheming was doing more harm than good; indeed, much of the chaos engulfing France in the last 100 years was because of the Karlings. And Clotaire II felt guilty about the late King, who was taken from his home as a child to a land he did not want, and spent his entire life fighting rebellions.

Clotaire II thus swore loyalty to the new King, and was soon appointed his steward and regent. Clotaire II raised his armies to fight alongside the throne’s when the inevitable rebellion broke out, helping to defeat it. He raised the King well, betrothed his eldest granddaughter to him, and excitedly awaited his entry into office.

Shortly after the King came of age, however, he was converted to the Fraticelli faith by a courtier [this happened way more than it should, and I think it was a bug in the new patch in the game]. He also renamed France Brittany—in solidarity with his Celtic culture; the King’s grandfather had incorporated Brittany into France, but maintained the title as a separate administrative unit.

Clotaire II was devastated, seeing it as a personal rejection; he broke off the betrothal, even though he remained the King’s Steward. This paid off when the King retook Toulouse from the Holy Roman Empire and Clotaire II maneuvered to have his son and grandson gain some of the conquered lands.

Clotaire II died at 70, well-loved by all, including the King he had raised. He learned from the mistakes of his youth, helping to bring stability and prosperity to his family lands and all of France. But the outlook of his line was still uncertain; he was no closer to regaining Charlemagne’s glory, and France was still ruled by a heretic, foreign King. [this is another issue—it really should be harder for a foreigner to rule France]

Out of the Abyss, session 2: Neverlight Grove

Last week, I presented the first part of our second session of D&D 5e’s “Out of the Abyss.” The party escaped the destruction of Sloobladup and made their way through the Darklake, coming ashore near Neverlight Grove.

Sarith figured they were a few days from Neverlight Grove, and Stool became excited. Their journey there was uneventful, although the ground changed as they got close. The dry, dusty soil they’d been walking on became damp and spongy. At one point they saw two creatures harvesting fungus; Stool explained that they were drove spore servants—drow who died and whose bodies were animated using myconid techniques to serve the community.

Finally, the group arrived at Neverlight Grove. After the horrors of their journey this seemed like a paradise. Multi-color mushrooms, some glowing in a pleasant light, grew everywhere, even from the ceiling. A forest of giant tree-like mushrooms was in front of them. Beyond, they could see terraces rising to the north and south, and to the east a broad cavern continued opening up before it narrowed into a ravine far to the east.

Stool excitedly rushed forward, and the group followed, picking their way through the fungus of the grove. After a short while, a tall myconid walked out of the wilds. This was Loobamub, the head of the Circle of Hunters. He greeted the group and thanked them for returning Stool to them. He was concerned about recent events, but directed them to talk to the grove’s two sovereigns for more information.

The group continued on, meeting with Sovereign Phylo and Sovereign Basidia, who jointly led the myconid community. Both were pleasant, although Basidia seemed reserved. Phylo kept discussing a Great Celebration that was coming soon, but was hesitant to talk about it. He did offer to bring the group to meet The Great Seeder the next day, but asked that they stay out of the Garden of Welcome until then. The group agreed, confused, and Basidia offered them a tour of the grove.

The group saw the rest of the Grove, including a myconid elder who was obsessed with building surface structures and another who wanted to sprout as many myconids as possible (both of which, Stool told the group, were not normal). They then met Rasharoo, head of the Circle of Explorers, and one of Basidia’s allies. While they were talking, Basidia remarked that Sarith seemed to contain spores he did not recognize, which was concerning; Sarith claimed to have no idea what the myconid was talking about. The two myconids then told them that Phylo and another elder myconid had been acting strange lately, cutting themselves off from group communing and gathering some of the community around them. They were working on something suspicious in the Garden of Welcome, and Basidia hoped the group could help.

The group agreed to check it out. They were shown a secret path to the Garden of Welcome along a ravine. They climbed in, snuck past the guards, and were met with horror and shock as intense as the joy they felt when they first arrived at Neverlight Grove.

The Garden of Welcome was more of a Garden of Horror. Humanoids of varying races were trapped in the decaying fungal ground, being absorbed into the decay. One drow, a member of a patrol who had stopped by the Grove, saw the group and begged them to kill her. She told them that Phylo had been working in service of Zuggtmoy, and to get our while they could. Before the group could react, she and the other trapped humanoids began screaming.

The reason was soon apparent. Yestabrod, the other myconid elder working with Phylo, appeared, but he had mutated into a larva-like creature. When he saw the party, he summoned several drow spore servants as well as two other myconids. Suddenly, Sarith started screaming, and turned into an additional spore servant.

The group leapt into action. Bryann hurled a fireball from her necklace at Yestabrod, while the others in the group engaged its followers. Navarre then closed with Yestabrod. The fight was going well, with the myconids falling easily, when Yestabrod released a cloud of spores. They hit Navarre and wounded him with an acid splash. Yestabrod then caused several of the corpses to explode, severely wounding some of the party members with further acid damage.

The party rallied, focusing on Yestabrod, with Kesara delivering a killing blow. As Yestabrod fell, they heard strange murmurings further on past the Garden, through a narrow ravine.

They entered the ravine and were overwhelmed with even more horror. This area was filled with even more rank decay, and they witnessed a captured drow being absorbed into the muck. The group then watched as two groups of spore servants reenacted a bizarre wedding in front of a giant mushroom tower. The group, barely maintaining their sanity, ventured inside. Floating in the mushroom was Zuggtmoy, the demon lady of decay. At this sight, the group screamed, with Brynn and Zinaella becoming incapacitated with madness. The rest of the group grabbed their fallen comrades, and ran, screaming…

And that was our second session. I thought it was great. I was a little more prepared than the first time, which helped. I also rolled all random encounters, and planned them out—along with terrain descriptions—to ensure that part of the adventure flowed smoothly. I added the Lost Tomb of Khaem fixed encounter as I wanted the group to get the magic sword, Dawnbringer, early. I need to work more of the sword’s personality (it’s a talking sword) into future sessions. I was a little worried we took too much time up with random encounters and not enough with the plot, so I’ll see what the group prefers for next time.

One issue, though, was Neverlight Grove. Like Slubladoop, a lot of the chapter involves characters walking around talking to people but not really affecting things. They’ll be asked to go investigate the Garden no matter what they do, so taking them to each of the Circles kind of felt like a waste of time. Based on my reading of the other chapters in part 1 of this campaign, that shouldn’t be as much of an issue moving forwards, though.

Our next session is coming up pretty soon (the summer throws off scheduling) so be on the lookout for more parts of my Out of the Abyss Walkthrough…

Out of the Abyss walkthrough: Session 2-The Darklake

My group recently completed the second session of Out of the Abyss, the great D&D 5e campaign set in the Underdark (here are writeups for session 1). At the table we had returning players Zinaella (a half-elf paladin), Navarre (a half-elf rogue), Brynn (a gnome wizard), and Barakus (a tiefling rogue). Because of scheduling conflicts, Varys (half-drow ranger) couldn’t make it, so he was replaced by Kerasa (dwarf fighter).

In the last session, the group escaped from drow captivity thank to a well-timed demon attack. They fled into the Underdark with some NPCs in tow, heading to the Kuo-Toa city of Sloobludoop. While there, they were embroiled in local politics, but this all fell apart when Demogorgon, the demon lord, rose from the depths of the Darklake and attacked. In the chaos the group stole a boat and sailed away from the destruction…

As they were sailing into the Darklake, Varys—who had been stricken with madness when Demogorgon arose—started shrieking about “tentacles in the deep” and leapt off the boat, swimming to shore. The group didn’t have time to react, and lost sight of him in the gloom. Shortly after that, they saw a dwarf floating in the lake, holding onto a barrel. They pulled her aboard, made some introductions, and she decided to stick with them [this is how I handled the player changes]

The group now had to decide where to go. Stool—a myconid sprout—wanted to return to his home, Neverlight Grove. Sarith, a dour drow, agreed, suggesting that would be a good place of refuge. Buppido, a derro, wanted to return home to the duergar city of Gracklestugh instead. Topsy didn’t speak up. The group deliberated, and decided to head for Neverlight Grove first to recover, then they’d move on to Gracklestugh.

Sarith knew the Darklake well, so he headed to the bow of the ship to navigate, while Zinaella—formerly a sailor—took the tiller. The rest of the group manned the oars or headed down to the cargo hold, where they found a recent catch of quippers—a kind of edible piranha. Barakus tried to preserve some of them as supplies for the journey.

Sarith guided the group into a tunnel in the general direction of Neverlight Grove, and they sailed for the rest of the day, dropping the anchor at night. They took turns with the watch, and during Brynn’s shift three darkmantles hiding on the cavern ceiling attack. Two managed to land on sleeping party members, while the third—heading for Brynn—missed spectacularly and landed in the water. The group woke up, dislodging the darkmantles from their friends, although Barakus fell into the river while trying to get one off of his face. Kerasa attempted to hold on to one for a snack [I was a little unsure if they’re edible, but I like to encourage creativity] but the beast broke free of her grip so she had to kill it. The group fished it out, killed the darkmantles, and they moved on.

They sailed on for another day or so till Sarith told them they’re reaching the end of this tunnel. The current picked up, and up ahead they saw whitecaps, indicating shallow rocks that could damage the ship [this is the random encounter ‘stoneteeth’]. As they were preparing to enter the rough passage, they noticed a ship capsized halfway through the stoneteeth, and a kuo-toa standing on it calling for help. Zinaella, being a good paladin, wanted to help, and the group agreed.

They managed to steer the boat through the stoneteeth and help the kuo-toa, who had fled his city after the demon attack. He was grateful for their help, and climbed aboard. The group then had to steer the boat back into the channel and out of the tunnel, while avoiding the stoneteeth. They managed the first navigation, but faulty rowing by Barakus and Brynn led them to hit some of the rocks on the way out, damaging the boat.

The group then entered a broad lake, and found a good spot to anchor for the night. The next day they crossed the lake, approaching an island near the mouth of the next tunnel they’ll need to enter. As they drew near, Zinaella heard a female voice calling out for help, and got an image of a tomb on the island. He said nothing, and the voice appeared to Kerasa as well. She told the group, and they decided to investigate.

They pulled the boat up on shore, and ran into a problem. Topsy wanted to join the group, leaving Sarith, Buppido and a kuo-toa they barely knew to watch over the boat and Stool. The group didn’t really trust them, and considered leaving someone behind to keep watch. They thought they may leave them too weak to explore the island, though, so they tried to convince Sarith and Buppido not to try anything, and set off. Sarith, who was already getting tired of the group’s lack of appreciation for his navigation skills, became a little more hostile after this.

The group climbed up a hill on the island where they saw a structure. They approached it, and no one noticed Topsy slip away. It looked like an old tomb, with a bronze door green with age. The group went inside.

Descending into the tomb, they found carvings reminiscent of Netherese design [Brynn rolled a history check], some of which had been defaced. They then found two rooms—one with four sarcaphogi and one with one large one. The group split up to investigate.

Brynn and Kerasa were investigating the room with the four sarcophagi when Brynn found one was one rollers, concealing an exist. She pushed it aside…and four specters rose out of the sarcophagi and attacked.

Kerasa struggled due to the normal weapons resistance of the undead, but managed to distract them enough to allow Brynn to cast some spells. The rest of the group rushed in after hearing the calls for help and engaged the specters. It was a struggle, thanks to the damage resistance and the specter’s ability to lower hit point maximums; Barakus fell and Brynn nearly did as well before the undead creatures were defeated. Zinaella made liberal use of his divine smites, which helped.

The group healed their wounded, and looked at the moving sarcophagus. They found it opened a passage leading further down into the structure, so they headed in. The passage ended in another room with an ornate tomb. Navarre went to investigate (and possibly pocket any treasures he found) when a female elf wraith rose out of the tomb, cried out that the party would soon join her in death, and attacked.

This seemed like it might be it for the party, as their normal attacks weren’t working and Brynn and Zinaella had used up most of their spells. But then everyone heard a female voice calling on them to look in the sarcaphogus for help. Navarre reached in, and found the hilt of a sword. When he grasped it, a beam of light shot out. He struck the wraith with it, and she recoiled in horror and pain.

With this newfound help the group defeated the wraith, although they still struggled; many were near death by the time she dissolved. They searched the room, found some useful treasures—particularly a necklace of fireballs, which Brynn gladly took—and returned to the boat.

The group continued on into the Darklake, entering another narrow tunnel. At one point during the night a swarm of quippers swam by, and Barakus—who was on watch—caught a net-full for more food. They continued through the tunnel, out into another broad lake, and then a final tunnel that Sarith said would lead them to the shore near Neverlight grove. They ran into a little trouble here, as there were few of the spring-fed streams they’d relied on for drinking water, and the group became dehydrated [they took one level of exhaustion]

After about a day, the river broadened into a pool that was rather shallow. As the group worked the boat forward through this, the water rose into a terrifying form and a water weird attacked. It grabbed Kerasa and pulled her towards the water, but she managed to break free while the rest of the group wounded the elemental. The water weird snatched Barakus, though, dragging him under water. Thankfully it was nearly destroyed, and he swam up after it disappeared.

Barakus noticed something under the water, though, and he and Navarre swam down. They found a tomb, with a sarcaphogus inside. The two managed to open up the sarcaphogus; inside they saw numerous gems, but were more focused on the mummy that opened its eyes and reached out for them. Deciding the gems weren’t worth it, the two swam back to the surface, shouting for the group to keep going.

After another day, Sarith said they should be nearing the passage to shore. Suddenly the current picked up, and some of the group heard a roaring noise they knew could only be one thing: a waterfall. Sarith started insisting this waterfall wasn’t there the last time he came this way, but no one really cared. They tried to figure out how to survive.

A quick scan of the area showed there was no way around it; they needed to figure out a way to get the boat over the falls. The group began debating the best way to do this, and decided that emptying out their water barrels and riding them over would be the safest [I didn’t quite agree, but that ended up not mattering, as you’ll see…]. But they took too long to decide, and the boat tipped over the edge [as I did in the first session, I set a timer during time-sensitive moments when the group was dithering]

Zinaella used his expertise in sailing to instruct the crew, but his leadership qualities suffered a bit and they didn’t completely follow his directions [I had the player roll for survival—to know how to control the ship—and charisma to guide the others; he failed the second roll]. The group failed to keep the boat steady and it capsized on the way down. [the encounter in the book mentioned giving the group a chance to find another path, but I thought this was a good climax for their Darklake journeys]

Everyone managed to swim to safety except for Barakus, the kuo-toa and Buppido, who were all trapped by debris as the boat broke up. Kerasa and Zinaella swam in to save them, while Navarre tried to gather what treasure he could. After everyone was safe, they saw they were in a waterfall-fed pool by a narrow beach. The group swam ashore, gathered their wits, and headed out into the Underdark….

Tune in next week for the conclusion of our second session of Out of the Abyss.

Issues with Star Wars: Force and Destiny characters

This is a wonky post, but hopefully it illustrates a broader point about character design in games.

My former gaming group had for sometime alternated between D&D 5th edition and Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. Edge of the Empire focuses on the shadier side of Star Wars, with characters wo are smugglers, scoundrels and explorers. Recently, Fantasy Flight released Force and Destiny, which is focused on Jedi-esque characters using the force, which is only a minor part of Edge of the Empire.

Character creation in these games is rather different from D&D. Players start with a set amount of XP based on the race they chose. The player then chooses a career and specialization; a career is similar to a D&D class like paladin, while specialization is like the specific oaths that paladins can take. In Force and Destiny, for example, one career is Guardian; specializations include peacekeeper, protector and Soresu defender (a Jedi training).

After choosing race, career and specialization, a player must buy attributes and skills. This where the career and specialization come in. The specialization and career you choose gives you certain “career skills,” which a player can “buy” relatively cheaply with XP. Players can also buy “non-career skills”–other skills not included in their career–for more XP. And players can buy “talents”–specific upgradeable powers–that depend on their specialization.

Hopefully that’s kind of clear. Basically, the classes are very customizable, but career/specialization push you in certain directions.

Ok, now to the game. Force and Destiny (F&D) has an interesting set-up. You aren’t playing as parties of Jedi Knights, although this may be possible at higher levels. Instead, player characters are “force sensitives,” people with some affinity for force use. They have a variety of careers—pilots, scouts, warriors—and can add force powers and eventually Jedi-like lightsaber training as they gain XP.

So far so good. But as we were putting together a party we kept running into problems. None of us could find a character we were completely comfortable with. And we kept running into issues with party balance. We always tried to calibrate character creation so everyone’s PC has a unique role and nothing important is left out. But we kept struggling. No one was really specialized enough in information gathering. Those of us with combat-focused characters, like me, found ourselves with little to do outside of combat.

And this wasn’t just a rookie mistake. We’d all done this before, and we tried to work out a good party. It kind of felt like there was something with the character creation process that was causing complications.

So we looked into this, and found it. The characters were just a little off.

First, a lot of the career-specialization skills were either oddly mismatched or redundant. The Starfighter specialization had every piloting-related skill as career—piloting, of course, but also astrogation and gunnery. This makes sense if your PC is flying an X-wing, but that barely ever happens in the game. And when you’re on a freighter-type vessel—the usual way to get around space—one person has all the skills needed but can’t use all of them at once. So you either have redundancy—two astrogaters—or are missing important skills.

The Guardian specialization has career skills related to melee combat and medicine. This kind of made sense, but the attributes needed for melee and related skills (brawn, discipline) are not at all complementary with the skill for medicine, intellect. So you either have a character with weak stats in both or who isn’t making use of their character’s full potential.

One more example, the Peacekeeper. The Peacekeeper’s career skills make use of Brawn and Willpower attributes. But all the talents in the talent tree related to leadership checks, which depend on Presence. So again, characters will have trouble balancing this out.

Of course, the Star Wars RPGs’ process lets you customize your character. If you want piloting skills but that isn’t a career skill for your character, you can still take the skills, they just cost more. And you don’t necessarily need to make use of all the skills and talents for a specialization. So all these downsides could be overcome by spending XP for non-career skills or ignoring clashing elements of character design.

But that kind of defeats the purpose of the class system. If we can just have infinitely customizable classes, let’s use a system like Shadowrun’s or the Firefly/Serenity RPG’s. If there are classes, they should be playable. Star Wars character creation system is kind of halfway between D&Ds—with little customizability outside class options or multi-classing—and the games I just mentioned that are very customizable. Maybe in the end it’s an uneasy balance.