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.

Origin Stories: Dorn, part 2: mechanics

Last week I discussed the backstory of Dorn, a Neutral Good Oath of the Ancients Paladin for D&D. This week I’ll go over how I created the character.

Dorn was a lot of fun for me. My group was rebooting with new characters, and I wanted to play a paladin. But I was excited to try out some of the new paladin options in the 5e PHB, and settled on the Oath of the Ancients paladin. This is kind of a Green Knight paladin, a mix of the regular paladin and druid, and seemed interesting.

Dorn is an example of the stats driving character backstory, rather than the other way around, so may be an interesting model for players who are struggling to come up with a good character concept.

For this character, I tried rolling the stats instead of using the fixed numbers—you roll six sets of four six-sided dice, drop the lowest for each, add each remaining set of three up and and then assign them. This can give you great stats if you roll three sixes, but also pretty mediocre ones. I ended up with some good stats, but also a pretty low one (a 6).

As he’s a front-line fighter, I prioritized Strength, and also had a high Charisma (as this is the most important stat for a Paladin). My lowest stat was intelligence, as I didn’t think I would be using it much.

I then thought about the kind of character with these stats. He’d be a powerful personality and strong, but not incredibly smart. The default background choice for paladin—noble—didn’t really fit here, so I went with folk hero. This is a villager who does some great deed, like saving his village or overthrowing a tyrant, before going out adventuring. I thought a well-meaning but simple villager sounded right for Dorn.

For race, I chose variant human—which gets two bonus points for stats, an extra skill, and a feat. I knew I wanted him to be a human, and it’s hard to turn down that feat. For the feat, I chose charger; this cool-sounding feat gives you an attack bonus when you charge an enemy. Since I envisioned him as an attack-first-ask-questions-later kind of guy, charging into battle seemed appropriate. For skills, I mixed regular paladin ones—medicine, athletics, perception—with some outdoorsy one from his folk hero background, specifically survival and animal handling.

Finally, I had to choose spells. I picked a few of the standard paladin ones—cure wound, sheild of faith, protection from evil, and aid. But I wanted to make use of the extra nature-themed spells that come with the Oath of the Ancients build, so I used things like speak with animals (which sounds cool, but I never used it), misty step (which lets you basically teleport through mist), and moonbeam, a kind of laserbeam that shoots down from the sky.

So you can kind of see how I put Dorn’s backstory together. I knew I wanted an Oath of the Ancients Paladin as a front-line fighter, and when I rolled the stats I had a powerful but dumb fighter. So I came up with the idea of a simple folk hero. One of the options for his defining moment is defeating  a monster, which inspired me to think of the goddess granting him her favor when he stood against the destroyer of nature.

Even though I didn’t go in with a fully-fleshed out character, I made sure to come up with a three-dimensional background for Dorn as I created him, which made him a lot of fun to play.