Should we add more failure points to our adventures?

I’m currently trying Play-by-Post (on the site RPG Crossing), a system in which you play D&D and other RPGs by posting on a message board. I’m running a solo adventure to introduce me to the system and, well, I’m about to die. The likelihood of me failing this made me think about how rare this sort of experience is in modern RPGs. Maybe it’s something we should bring back?

What do I mean? Well, I have a few examples.

In a homebrew D&D 5e adventure I ran a year or so ago, “A Shadow in the Woods,” the group ended up in a castle sunk halfway into a swamp. After they defeated the boss, the castle started sinking all the way in, twisting as it went. The group had to navigate the swirling passageways, and–when they reached the entry–jump through a rotating window to get to the surface. One of the characters nobly waited till last, and failed his acrobatics check.  I felt bad letting him die, however, so I had him jump into mud, and be pulled out by the rest of the party.

Similarly, in a homebrew Star Wars: EOTE adventure, the party needed to gain information from an old lady about a lost Jedi temple. They had not been nice to her in a previous encounter, and didn’t try that hard this time, so she wasn’t cooperative. I realized that the adventure would end right there, so I had her give them directions, just bad ones.

And way back when, my old D&D group was playing Horde of the Dragon Queen (the first campaign for 5e) at our FLGS, Labyrinth Games. At the end of chapter 1, a half-dragon challenges the group to single combat. We were all level 1 at that point, and we knew there was no way we would succeed. But one player, running a halfling ranger, rushed forward (he later said he wanted to re-roll his character). The half-dragon only knocked him unconscious, however, and we later revived him.

What do these have in common? There was (or appeared to be) a clear failure point, beyond which either the adventure wouldn’t progress or the characters would die. And I worried about enforcing that failure point. It’s not just me; after the Star Wars adventure, the other players counseled me to avoid putting such failure points into my adventures (we did a constructive post-mortem after each session, no matter who GM’d).

This makes sense. It’s no fun if an adventure ends early, or if players have no chance of escaping a horrible fate. And since death is handled gently in the latest edition of D&D, players come to expect their characters will survive no matter what. Moreover, some failure points can feel arbitrary, like old choose-your-own-adventure books in which half of the options led to a horrible ending even though it wasn’t clear why that choice was bad.

But are failure points necessarily bad?

Failure points can make you try harder. Knowing my character may die in my play-by-post adventure makes me think over what I could have done differently to survive. Similarly, if my Star Wars party knew there was a chance they’d really need the old lady on their side, they would have put extra effort into developing a rapport with her.

Failure points can also make games more fun. I like to tell my players that RPGs aren’t about “winning,” they’re about fun, and sometime failing is fun. Now, by “failing,” I mean having an encounter not go the exact way it was planned. But more dramatic failure can be fun too. As my readers know, I play Crusader Kings 2 on my PC; some of the better games on this involve my characters losing their throne. Always winning gets boring.

This is apparent even in my almost-failure points above. In my homebrew adventure, the player later said he would have been fine with that character dying, and it would have made for a good ending. Likewise, seeing one of our party die bravely (but foolishly) in Horde of the Dragon Queen could have solidified camaraderie in my newly-formed group.

And D&D used to be like this (while some games still are). Veteran players tell stories about how horrendously hard certain dungeons were. My very first D&D adventure–the dungeon in the Basic Set’s rulebook–ended in a total party kill, after my dad and two little brothers rushed into combat with some giant rats (I was DM). And the point of RPGs like Call of Cthulhu is to see how long you survive, not to “win.”

But I think modern GMs are afraid to put failure points into their dungeons for a few reasons. One is that players may get mad. Another is that they’re kind of tricky to pull off. This isn’t just a tough boss battle leading to the death of the party. It’s an encounter or puzzle that will result in the adventure ending if players can’t solve or get past it.

There are a few ways to add them in without upsetting players, however:

  • One would be to just chat it over with the players. Asking people if they’re OK with their characters dying might seem strange, but it can get everyone on the same page about the stakes of the adventure.
  • Another is to avoid failure points that rely on dice rolls rather than player creativity or ingenuity. It can be frustrating if your best laid plans lead to the party being stuck in a locked room because someone rolled a 1. But if players failed to work together to find their way through a maze, well…
  • Finally, “post-victory failure points” can be effective. If, after the players defeat the evil forces and save the village there is still a chance they can die heroically, it makes their adventure seem more important.

They may not be for everyone, but failure points can really increase the stakes of our adventures. And they can generate great “remember that time…” stories. That’s what RPGs are all about, right?

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The Elder God’s cavern, level 3, concluded

Last time, the party explored the haunted house, finding demonic threats and hints of a Lovecraftian conspiracy. They decided to take a rest, to recover from these horrors. The group included Black Lotus, a drow monk; Uatu, a halfling warlock; Crohm, a human warrior; and Dri, a dragonborn barbarian.

When they woke, Uatu was gone. No one heard anything happen in the night, he just disappeared. In his place were Glim, a human rogue, and Tim, a half-elf sorcerer. The two explained they were exploring some ruins, an old temple dedicated to a forgotten deity. They stepped through a door deep in its recesses, and found themselves here.

The group introduced themselves, and explained their situation. Tim was eager to help, while Glim thought he didn’t have much of a choice [Glim was Neutral Evil, which led to problems later…]. They decided to continue exploring. Entering a room, they realized it was a privy; it was filthy, and dingy, with stains covering everything. Crohm poked around, and disturbed a colony of brown mold; he was overcome with pain as freezing cold shot through his system. He scraped it off, and limped along after the group.

The next room looked like a guest room. A nice, but tattered bed was in the center, surrounded by end tables and a wardrobe. The room also contained…four zombies. They shambled towards the group, who burst into action. Crohm and Dri charged, while Black Lotus hurled daggers at the creatures. Tim cast a fire bolt, while Glim snuck around behind them and finished them off.

They continued, and came into another tattered bedroom, but this showed signs of being maintained. Unlike much of the house, this room was lit by pleasant sunlight. The furniture had been pushed up against the doors (the group had to shove a few times to get in), and in one corner, warily holding out a mace, was a man.

He introduced himself as Marinus Willett, and asked what they were doing here. The group hadn’t paid enough attention to the letters they found [Marinus was discussed in them], and treated him as hostile. He realized they meant to harm the ghost [his friend Charles] and refused to help them. Black Lotus tried to smooth things over, and explained what the ghost was doing to the village, and why they were after him. Marinus was partially mollified, and told him a bit about the house; Charles had performed experiments in the basement, and loved to sit by a window in the attic to watch the sunsets. He also mentioned a silver key they had found, which they thought was an ancient relic. [he would have been a lot more helpful if they’d been nice…]

The group moved on. They found what appeared to be the master bedroom. It had a large, nice bed, expensive tapestries, and a bar set. Looking around they found expensive jewelry, including a silver key on a chain. They also found a magic longsword and a journal. Suddenly, the shadows lengthened, and rose into a demonic form. The shadow demon attacked.

The group realized their attacks were doing little damage, except for Tim’s spells. Glim was hurled across the room, crumpling against the wall. Crohm pulled out the magic greatsword he’d found, and tossed the magic longsword to Black Lotus. The two of them charged, and finished it off. Reading the journal, they learned that this house was Charles Dexter Ward’s, and that his esoteric studies—in search of a great Elder God—led him to meet a man named Carter, with whom he travelled to a different world. He also met a man named Curwen, who convinced him that Carter was using them. He and Carter decided to conduct a ritual that would connect them directly to the Elder God, over the objections of Carter’s friend Marinus.

After taking a short rest, they continued up into the attic. As they got to the top of the stairs, they saw a group of skeletons arranging boxes. The group waited to see what they would do, but Glim snuck forward and tried to grab a statue out of a box. The skeletons turned, and attacked. The rest of the group reluctantly rushed forward to destroy the skeletons.

They began exploring the attic. Several of the rooms were servants quarters, with little of interest. As they opened one of the doors, an arrow shot out from a trap at Black Lotus but he ducked out of the way. In a storage room, a swarm of rats suddenly appeared as Dri opened the door. He closed it quickly.

Continued up into attic. Saw skeletons arranging boxes, didn’t react. Glim tried to take a statue, skeletons attacked him until he walked away. Dri tried, same. Killed skeletons. Explored rooms in attic. Empty servants quarters. In one storage room, swarm of rats attacked Dri, closed door. In other, arrow trap shot at Black Lotus, missed him.

At the far wall, they found a door with a large keyhole in it. They opened it, and walked into a huge ballroom in what should have been the outside. The ballroom was full of strangely-dressed people. A buffet was on one side, on the other a bar. The group felt a strange sensation as they walked in, and Crohm found himself in a large manor, surrounded by attendants. Pleased that his greatest dream, to be a lord, had come true, he embraced the vision. To the rest of the group he disappeared. [everyone had to tell me their character’s greatest dream, and succeed on a Charisma check or fall into it]

As they passed a buffet, Tim was overwhelmed with hunger, and began eating ravenously. He disappeared. [also failed a Charisma check]

The group made their way through the crowd, and noticed both Tim and Crohm dressed as the other guests. The group stopped to try and retrieve them, but Glim moved forward. He came to a well-dressed man who introduced himself as Charles Dexter Ward. He told Glim the group’s mission was none of his affair; if he agreed to kill them, Ward would give him all his treasure. Glim, failing to see why he should risk himself for this group, agreed.

He drew his weapons as the group approached. Black Lotus convinced him he would lose the fight [which was probably true] and turned to Ward. He told Ward he was being used by Curwen, and can’t be happy living in this state. Tim added to this, attempting to convince him. They managed to persuade him [successful checks], and Charles agreed he had been misled.

Here is the prepared text:

Yes, I see now. I was promised so much, and yet I’ve spent decades trapped here, in this dream world. Occasionally I can see the real world outside, my family home, decaying and full of monstrosities. This wasn’t what I intended. I truly thought we could grasp the powers we sought, and use them for the good.

I was right about one thing, though: Randulf was hiding something from us. He may be convinced what he is doing is right, but he is not above using and corrupting others to achieve his goals. I would be careful around him.

The house dissolved, and the group appeared on the ground.  The passage to the basement was still visible; the group went back in, and found the locked doors were opened, revealing treasure. They collected the magic items and gold, and came back up.

Glim decided it wasn’t worth trying to apologize, and headed off into the hills. The rest of the group, including Tim, went back into the cave (into which they had descended from level 2) and found the previously locked door, heading deeper into the hill, was not open. They headed in…

[If the group had been nicer to Marinus, he would have warned them, and given them tips on how to turn Charles back. In turn, Charles would have given them information on the next level. They kind of turned Charles, so I let them avoid the final fight. We were also running out of time, so I wanted to resolve the session.]

The Elder God’s Cavern, level 3, part 1

This is the latest in my ongoing multi-level D&D 5th edition dungeon (delayed a bit by my new baby). The group re-convened to explore level 3. It was Uatu (Halfling warlock), Crohm (human warrior), Dri (dragonborn barbarian), Black Lotus (drow monk), and a new character, Althea (half-elf ranger).

Last time, the group took the submersible down through the river, getting out in a cave that had a locked door at one end and an opening to the outside at the other. Stepping out into the sunlight, the group saw they were in a narrow valley surrounded by steep hils, with a strange, creepy looking house tucked into one corner.

[This is my version of a haunted house; I wanted to keep the dungeon interesting, so I changed the format of this level. I also added a few mechanics to make it creepy. In each room, I roll a dice to determine whether footprints appear in the dust (as if someone is walking through) and which way they were going. I also changed the lighting in each room; some times it is sickly yellow, some times bright sunlight, other times darkness (even though it’s day when they entered]

Before they could investigate, they hear a moaning. They found Althea, a half-elf ranger, lying on the ground. After helping her up, and applying some first aid, she explained she had been exploring the hills and fell off (I tried to come up with a way for a new character to suddenly appear). The group explained what they were doing and she decided to join them. They prepared themselves, and entered the house.

They came to a foyer, with faded tapestries on the wall and beaten up old furniture arranged around them. It glowed a sickly yellow light. As they entered, Crohm noticed footprints appear in the thick dust as if someone was walking through. They disappeared before anyone else noticed. Uatu used his mage hand to explore a tapestry, and a violent fungus burst from behind it and attacked. The group quickly took care of it, but were a little shaken up.

They headed north, coming into what looked like a room for entertainment, also lit in a yellow light with no discernible source. There was a harpsichord and various string instruments, with chairs arranged around them. There was also a bar cart with an old bottle of wine. As they all entered, the instruments rose into the air, played an eerie tune for a few minutes, then fell back to the ground. Footprints reappeared in the dust, heading to the east; this time everyone saw them. Before moving on, Uatu decided to try some of the wine; he promptly vomited on the harpsichord.

Following the footprints, the group came into some sort of supply room that was dark. It was packed with chairs, end tables, and various barrels and boxes. Suddenly, zombies appeared and attacked! The group was particularly unnerved that they seemed to appear out of the walls. One even appeared behind them, even though the entertainment room was empty when they left. Dri and Crohm were bitten, staggering back. Uatu, Dri and Black Lotus managed to kill six of the zombies, and the rest disappeared.

Patching their friends, the group headed north. They found a library. Rows and rows of old books lined the walls, while chairs with end tables were set up around the room. Bright light streamed in from windows. Uatu began examining some of the books, and found them confusing. They were written in common, but the words didn’t seem right. It wasn’t a dialect, it read like someone using their alphabet but writing foreign ideas. He found a vial by the books, and grabbed it.

Meanwhile, Dri and Althea sat down on some chairs to relax. They were suddenly lifted up into the air and tipped over, while the rest of the group began getting shoved around. No assailant was visible, and they moved back to back to protect themselves [it was a poltergeist]. Dri made a sarcastic comment about the library’s contents and was suddenly hit really hard in the face, nearly knocking him out [a critical hit for 20 damage]. Black Lotus guessed it may be some malevolent force, and they decided to leave the room.

They headed to the west into a sun room. Ceiling to floor windows covered one end, with chairs arrayed for guests to sit in. Surprisingly, it was night outside, even though it was mid-morning when they entered the room. More footprints appeared, heading west. The group was tired of following this unseen force, and headed to the south.

As they were walking, they passed a closet. Crohm decided to open it and a shadow burst out. The group was caught by surprise, but killed it before it could harm them. Inside, Crohm found a magic longsword and took it.

They continued into another sort of sitting room. Inside where a quasit and dretch (two demons). The quasit locked eyes with Uatu, who was filled with a sudden horror. He ran from the room, and the rest of the group followed [it used its scare action, and Uatu failed his saving throw].

The weary group decided to take a short rest. They packed into the closet they’d just passed, and closed the door. As they were resting, they heard voices muttering both in the closet and outside. It was not very comforting….

Tune in next time for more…

 

Don’t be Anakin: dealing with bickering PCs, continued

Last week I discussed the problem of PC bickering in RPGs, and suggested two models for players to follow. The bad model is Anakin and Obi-Wan from the Star Wars prequels. The good model is Frank Castle and Microchip from Netflix’s The Punisher.

So how can we push bickering PCs away from the Anakin/Obi-Wan model? There are a few options, for both GMs and PCs.

GMs:

  1. Tie characters’ backgrounds together. I often have at least two of them know each other, maybe working together on a mission. This gives them a reason to try and cooperate.
  2. Give the group a reason to be together. Chance encounters make work for the first adventure; e.g. characters all hear about a dungeon that needs clearing, and decide to work together. But why wouldn’t the LG paladin leave the bickering CN party to find better friends after they clear the dungeon? They need to be forced to stay together; options include a divine command, a threat that strikes them before they can disband, etc.
  3. Be willing to mess with difficult players. I have a post planned for how to deal with chaotic neutral players, and this is part of it. When players act out of character to try and be funny, have NPCs respond as they would in real life; if a belligerent and irritating man tried to buy a beer from my bar, I–at the least–wouldn’t tell him any of my town’s secrets. And if a player’s teasing is harming another player’s experience, make that player fall into a pit or get splashed by mud; something harmless that lets them know they need to stop.

Players:

  1. Put some effort into your characters’ backgrounds. Just like the GM should tie characters together, players can think about how their characters know each other. Are they childhood friends, business partners, etc? Beyond that, fleshing out your character’s background and personality is important. “I’m a loner,” lends itself to disruptive behavior. “I pretend to be a loner because I’m hurting over my family’s death,” gives us a character who may seem unpleasant, but does care about something.
  2. Be a team player. It might seem more fun to try and pick-pocket your party’s wizard than keep watch for monsters. But the point of this game is cooperation. A lot of bickering comes down to players trying to create a fun situation for themselves without thinking of what the party needs to accomplish its goals. If your character isn’t interested in working with the others, and finds their planning and rules irritating, maybe they should leave the party… 
  3. Be sensitive to other players. This is more on the meta-game side. Some players may enjoy “giving crap” as we used to say where I grew up. Others find it annoying, or may think they’re being picked on. Try and be aware of how the target of your bickering or teasing is reacting. If they aren’t laughing, then stop. Again, the point of this is to work together and have fun.

D&D and other RPGs are supposed to be fun. You don’t have to take them seriously as you would your job. You’re not an actor in a play; there’s no script. But sometimes “having fun” can make the game less fun. When in doubt, just think: am I being Anakin, or Frank Castle? Don’t be Anakin.

So there are my ideas. Any thoughts? Is this not as big of a deal as I think? Other suggestions to deal with this issue?

Star Wars EOTE: The Lightsaber, conclusion

Last time, the party entered into the Jedi ruins lost in the swamps. They progress further into the dangerous ruins…

This is the conclusion to The Lightsaber, part II, an adventure I wrote for Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. This system lets players partake in the seedier side of the Star Wars universe. The party is Bint (a Draal doctor), Sarek (a Chiss big game hunter), Alex (a human mechanic) and Changkaishk (a Wookie brawler).

The group continued in the direction the Yarkura indicated, coming to a room whose floor had partially collapsed. Beyond the chasm, the wall to the west had collapsed and the saw a shaft going down. They tried to jump over the chasm, and mostly succeeded, although Sarek took some strain when he nearly missed his landing. Looking down, they saw a moderate drop into darkness.

Sarek had climbing gear, so he hooked it up and headed down into the shaft. He made it to the bottom, but the rock he’d attached the gear to came lose, and it tumbled down after him [he rolled a despair on his check after I used a destiny point]. He scoped out the area, and with another great perception check heard more metallic stomping to the north, a wet, musty smell to the south, and nothing from the passage to the west. The other characters flipped a destiny point to find some rope-like wire and climb down, although Bint slipped and took some damage.

Following the Yarkura’s directions, the group headed west along a curving passageway. As they got close to an opening, the datapad started beeping, indicating a hazard up ahead; the computer program identified it as an intruder. Creeping up to the doorway, the group saw a shaft like the one they had climbed down, although this opened to the sky. In the center were piles of boxes and sacks beside an ancient airspeeder. Changkayshk decided to toss some stun grenades into the room [I rolled randomly to see if they would hit anything]. One exploded with no effect, the other exploded and was followed by a loud shriek.

The group burst into the room and saw the Rodian who had attacked them on Chordaan, although he looked much worse than before due to the critical hit he’d received. The Rodian called out, and everyone rolled for initiative. First up was the Chiss bounty hunter from Chordaan (who was hiding at the other end of the room). She fired but missed. Some of the group opened fire on the Rodian, while Changkayshk ran to the center of the room and tossed a grenade at the Chiss. It hit her, seriously wounding her, while the Rodian went down under the group’s attack. The Chiss bounty hunter then activated her jetpack (she had a spare) and flew into the center of the room to attack the Wookie. She managed to stab him with her vibroknife, but he killed her in his counterattack.

Before she died, she pressed a button attached to her backpack, and the group heard an explosion as the temple started to shake and tumble. [she had destroyed her ship, causing the temple to collapse]. The Wookie rushed to load the crates (which they identified as Jedi relics) onto the airspeeder, while Sarek and Bint tried to repair it. They got it running and took off just as the temple collapsed. Outside, they landed by their speeder although Sarek wasn’t sure how to land and the ship crashed, causing everyone to take some strain and the ship to be destroyed.

At this point, we had five minutes left before we had to end for the night, so I concluded the adventure in cinematic fashion, just telling them what happened. They returned to the old lady and gave her back the lightspeeder, as they’d asked to do. The group then returned to the city and met Oparro the next morning. He told them to stow the relics on their ship, and they’d head separately for Subterrell, where they would meet his buyer.

As they were leaving they saw crowds gathered, being shepherded by Stormtroopers. They found out that the new Moff for the system was landing for an inspection. As they saw an Imperial shuttle heading towards the surface, Sarek’s datapad started beeping; it was the surveillance tracker he put on the Rebel speeder. They then saw a speeder burst past Stormtroopers and race down the street. Directly underneath the shuttle, a flame burst from the back of the speeder and it shot up into the shuttle, exploding and destroying it. [this is what the Rebels were doing—designing a speeder that could fly into the shuttle as a makeshift bomb. The Rebel leader hoped to provoke an Imperial crackdown that would cause the populace to revolt].

The group rushed back to their ship, took off, and escaped TIE fighters to jump to hyperspace. We decided to shift gears and start playing the Force and Destiny Star Wars game (which allows players to create force users) so we didn’t finish my story arc. I sent the group a writeup on the conclusion, though, so they would know what happened.

[This was an interesting exercise for me in adaptability. I didn’t think they’d go with Oparro in part 1, so I had to adjust the plot. I was initially going to have them do a random job for the Rebels/Donaldo/Deg-Lilek (whoever they ended up with) that would get them further embroiled in the search for Jedi relics and lead to the mysterious “other buyer.” Working with Oparro made the connection to the other buyer more obvious, so I decided to work in Deg-Lilek and the Rebels in a more secondary manner.

A few things worked well. My players really liked the overland exploration mechanic, and it added some fun randomness. This is before I read The Angry GM’s great post on overland travel, and I may tweak it based on his recommendations if I run this again. The players also liked the NPCs they encountered–even when they tried to kill them–and got pretty excited with the quick start of the adventure (being attacked by a bounty hunter in a bar). My takeaways are to throw players right into the action (especially in middle-place adventures), and put a lot of work into the world they travel through.

But I ran into a few problems. One was a clear failure point: if the players couldn’t convince the old lady to help them, the adventure stopped. They weren’t able to do this, and I had to improvise on the fly. It’s good to always have a back-up path for essential tasks. I also added a few too many “red herrings,” as they called them; the Rebels being a main one, and some of the other overland encounters (one was a TIE fighter patrol overhead). Finally, I think it dragged a little; the set-up plus the overland exploration plus the dungeon all on the same plot thread was too much.

Overall, I think the issue was ambition. This was one of my first home-brew adventure and first time GM-ing EOTE. I tried to pack too much open-ended choices and plot complexity in, before getting a sense for how it would work in practice. That’s why later adventures–like the ones I posted on this site–were a bit narrower.

So that was my EOTE adventure. Hope you enjoyed it, and it gave you a sense for this great game. I am hoping to get the Age of Rebellion game–focusing on Rebel operatives–and run some more games in the future, so be on the lookout for future work on this topic.

Star Wars: EOTE- The Lightsaber, part 3

For a previous game group, I had written up an adventure for the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire game system. This system lets players partake in the seedier side of the Star Wars universe. The party is Bint (a Draal doctor), Sarek (a Chiss big game hunter), Alex (a human mechanic) and Changkaishk (a Wookie brawler). Last time, the party agreed to search out a hidden Jedi temple in the swamps of Atzerri, to recover relics for a mysterious buyer. They had just arrived at the temple after a perilous journey through the swamps…

[I had designed the temple as basically a D&D dungeon crawl for Star Wars. I actually made use of some of the random dungeon generator tables in the fifth edition D&D Dungeonmaster’s Guide, adapting them for Star Wars. I decided the temple would be stocked with ancient droids, as well as other denizens that had moved in—a few monsters as well as some scavengers. Because the droids were so old, they might malfunction—whenever the group encountered a droid, I rolled a d100. On a high roll, there was a chance of the droid attacking a random target, exploding, or shutting down.]

The group approached the broken down protocol droid they found outside the temple, and Alex reactivated it. The droid at first thought they were his masters, but soon realized they were new and introduced himself as part of an Old Republic expedition, made up of scientists and a Jedi. The temple was built by the Kwa, which Bint’s lore knowledge revealed was an ancient race that helped to discover the Force and gather the first Jedi. The droid said his masters  went into the temple to investigate and never returned. When the group revealed he had been waiting for hundreds of years, the droid agreed to accompany them.

The group, with the protocol droid in tow, entered the temple. The first chamber was long, stretching into the darkness, with columns along the edge. They saw the remains of a camp halfway down the room and approached. As they did, an astromech and two maintenance droids came out of the darkness. The astromech and one of the maintenance droids were so excited to see people they short-circuited. Alex fixed them, and the group decided they wanted what they called a “droid army,” so he reprogrammed all of the droids to follow him. They then explored the camp. They found some records on an old datapad, pointing to a shaft in the center of the temple that would lead down to an important area. They also found that the Jedi and scientists decided to split up and explore the temple. That was the last recorded information.

[Even though their GM helpfully directed them towards the center of the temple] the group decided to take the door to the east. An incredibly successful perception check from Sarek helped them hear what sounded like metallic stomping far up the tunnel they’d entered [a security droid they’d encounter]. As they headed up the tunnel, they came to a door on either side, while the passage continued. The group entered the door to the north, and found a kind of audience chamber, with a podium and rows of pews. They began exploring the room, and found a satchel but noticed it was covered with a kind of mold. An investigation with their scanner revealed it was toxic. The group tried to be careful opening the satchel, but caused the mold to puff into the air, choking them. All members successfully passed a resolution check, however, and they were fine.

They continued down the passage and, sneaking towards the room from which the stomping noise originated, saw a security droid patrolling back and forth in a type of kitchen, with two maintenance droids buzzing around. ChangKayshk took a shot at the security droid, injuring it. The security droid spun around and fired, but missed. Then Sarek finished it off. This enraged one of the maintenance droids [I rolled the appropriate number on my random table] and it attacked them. It wasn’t able to do much besides bouncing against their feet, however, and Bint turned it off.

The group explored the kitchen but found little of value and took a door to the north. Sneaking in, they saw a kind of trophy room, with a Yarkora poking through the treasure. They decided to try and chat with him, and walked in, introducing themselves. The Yarkora told them he was searching for treasure, and asked what they were here for. At this moment, ChangKayshk got tired of talking [or his player did] and fired on the Yarkora. In the initiative roll, the Yarkora went first, so he noticed the Wookie raising his blaster, and fired at him, the bolt grazing the Wookie’s shoulder. The Yarkora also called for help to the room to the northwest. ChangKayshk fired, hitting the Yarkora. Bint and Sarek hid, not wanting to take part in this. The Yarkora fired again, missing the group, and Changkayshk threw a grenade at the Yarkora, seriously injuring him. Two humans arrived in the doorway and fired at the group, missing. Changkayshk then threw another grenade, nearly killing one of the men and wounding the other [just an aside, grenades are kind of  underpowered in EOTE].

At this point, the Yarkora had enough, and surrendered. Bint patched up the treasure hunters, and demanded they turn over everything they found. The Yarkora offered instead to help them in their search. The group told them they were looking for a Jedi treasure, and the Yarkora directed them to a room in the lower level they noticed, but hadn’t explored. The treasure hunters limped away, and the group explored the next room, a library. They found a computer terminal, and managed—with a successful computer check—to activate it. This let them download information on security systems and hazards to their datapad before the console shorted out.

They moved deeper into the ruin…Tune in next time for the conclusion!

Star Wars Edge of the Empire: The Lightsaber, part II, cont.

In a previous post, I presented a home-brew adventure I made for the excellent Star Wars: Edge of the Empire sessions. This game system lets you play in the seedier side of the Star Wars universe, as bounty hunters, smugglers and the like (for more on character creation, see this post).

This adventure is the sequel to my first home-brew adventure for this system, in which a ragtag group is hired by a crimelord (Deg-Lilek) to steal a lightsaber. In this adventure, after allying with the crimelord’s treacherous former agent (Oparro), they agree to help him find more Jedi relics to sell to a mysterious buyer. Last time, the group escaped (barely) a Chiss bounty hunter, and headed out into the swamps of Atzerri to search for a Jedi ruin. The party is Bint (a Draal doctor), Sarek (a Chiss big game hunter), Alex (a human mechanic) and Changkaishk (a Wookie brawler)

The group  headed out into the swamp. They succeeded in their survival checks [a mechanic I’m using to approximate exploration, see the previous post] and soon found the old lady’s hut. Wary of traps, they searched for any hazards but, not noticing anything, sped through her clearing. Unbeknownst to them, the old lady’s protectors had rigged a stun grenade as a trap. Their speeder tripped it, and it exploded, frying some of the speeder’s circuitry and causing it to tip off course.

Alex managed to right the craft, but just as he did blaster bolts rang out from two snipers in the trees. Sarek was hit in the shoulder, as was Alex, although he noticed the attacker’s blaster rifle short out after the bolt was fired. Changkaishk and Sarek returned fire. Sarek killed one of the snipers, and the other—whose blaster shorted out—attempted to get down from the tree in which he was hiding. He tripped and fell, spraining his ankle, and ran behind the hut.

Alex maneuvered the speeder behind the hut to catch the man, where he had pulled a vibroknife and was waiting for them. Changkaishk tried to jump out of the speeder at him but tripped and fell back in his seat, causing the speeder to hit the ground. Bint was successful, tackling the man and knocking him out.

At this point, the old lady appeared. She was understandably angry the group had attacked her, and even more angry when she recognized them from the last time her home was attacked. After a few failed attempts to mollify her, she agreed to give them the information they wanted if they would heal her protector and agree to leave her alone. She told them her husband was a fugitive Jedi who ended up on Atzerri after the purge. They fell in love and married, and he helped out other swamp settlers when he could while also travelling to nearby systems to find Jedi artifacts before the Empire was able to get them. When he died, the settlers he’d helped swore to protect his widow (these are the people that have been trying, unsuccessful, to disrupt the group’s quest). And he hid the relics in a ruined temple to the north, to which she directed the group. The group secretly decided, once this was all over, to return the lightsaber to her to make up for the trouble they’d caused.

They set out for temple, and after a few hours of travelling came to a deep and wide pool of water. [one of the random wilderness encounters I came up with] Their speeder didn’t work over water so they created a makeshift pontoon and sped across. Unfortunately, they got stuck on a submerged log just as a giant aquatic beast was heading towards them. They managed to dislodge their speeder just in time and get to the other side.

The group traveled on, with Bint in the front keeping watch as Alex piloted. Bint was not paying great attention, however, as the speeder burst out into a clearing full of heavily-armed people. Alex managed to reverse the speeder into the cover of the trees before they were spotted, however. Sarek snuck up to the treeline to investigate. [this was a set encounter]

He saw about a dozen people, some patrolling around, some working on a speeder and loading crates into. And he saw a Twi’ilek woman who appeared to be the leader, as she was giving orders, and a Sullustan beside her. Sarek recognized the Sullustan as the rebel leader they betrayed last time. Using his electrobinoculars and knowledge of explosives, Sarek realized the Rebels were loading explosives onto the speeder. The group didn’t want to get sidetracked with this encounter, but before they left Sarek fired a tracking dart at the Rebel speeder so they could tell if it was approaching.

The group continued on to the ruined temple, succeeding in their survival skills and getting there quickly. The ruins were the bottom two levels of a step pyramid. As they approached, the ground rose and they saw hints of civilization in the trees and plants—bits of metal and plasteel. The temple itself had no overgrowth at all, as if the swamp had pulled back. They saw an opening on the ground level, and a crumpled droid sitting there….Tune in next time!

 

Star Wars Edge of the Empire sessions: The Lightsaber, part II

Awhile ago, I posted a walkthrough of an adventure I wrote for the excellent Star Wars: Edge of the Empires RPG. This great RPG is set in the seedier part of the Star Wars universe. PCs play as smugglers, scoundrels, and fugitives exploring the Outer Rim. It’s a really fun system that lends itself to narrative gameplay.

Well after my group finished the first adventure, they were excited enough that they wanted the story to continue. In the first Episode, the group was hired by a crimelord to retrieve an item from Oparro, a wayward employee. Along the way they learn the item is a lightsaber, and that both the Rebels and an Imperial officer want it as well. The group ends up deciding to ally with Oparro, who found another buyer for the lightsaber. They agreed to help him turn the Lightsaber over to his “other buyer” in exchange for lots of money. They found the lightsaber in the possession of an old lady, the widow of a former Jedi. The group retrieved it from the old lady’s guards, ambushed the Imperials and Rebels, and escaped an Imperial cruiser. Oparro took the lightsaber, gave them some collateral, and asked them to wait for him on the nearby planet Chordaan.

As with last time, the group was Bint (a Draal doctor), Sarek (a Chiss big game hunter), Alex (a human mechanic) and Changkaishk (a Wookie brawler).

I introduced a new mechanic for this episode—planetary exploration. Since the group had to find the ruined temple as part of the quest, I thought it’d be fun to explore the swamp on the way there. So I decided the group would make difficult survival checks with a setback die. If they succeeded they made it to their next stop. If they failed, I rolled for a random encounter on a table I created. Encounters included impassable terrain, a pocket of exploding swamp gas, a hive of biting flying ants, an escaped Gundark, high ground that aided their search, buzzing TIE fighters, an area of Light side force energy, and a possibly hostile encounter with some smugglers.

Episode II opens as the group has gone broke while waiting and Oparro has asked them to return to Atzerri. They gathered in their favorite cantina for one more drink, when a mysterious stranger walked up to the table…

The stranger was their waiter, bringing them drinks sent by an attractive Chiss woman. The Chiss woman walked over, and announced herself as a bounty hunter sent by the crimelord (Deg-Lilek). She was joined by two Aqualish and a Rodian and asked them to step outside.

Bint becomes aggressive and decided to kick her in the shin then punch her to set up an escape. His player rolled an athletics check for the kick but failed; he managed only to annoy her and enter into structured time. The Chiss woman went first, shooting Bint for moderate damage. Alex then flipped the table up for cover, while Bint, Ecks and Sarek opened fire. They killed the two Aqualish, but the Chiss and Rodian were unharmed.

Back at the top, the Chiss woman stepped back, pulled out a heavy blaster rifle, and fires at Sarek (who she sees as the obvious threat). She did (I rolled) well, hitting for lots of damage and two critical hits. Sarek was wounded and hit his head, making it more difficult for him to perform intellect or cunning checks for the time being. Bint rushed to heal Sarek while Alex tossed a grenade at the Chiss woman (before using a destiny point to ensure all innocent bystanders have fled). The grenade exploded, tossing her behind the bar. Meanwhile, the Rodian fired but misses; he was then severely wounded when a revived Sarek shoots him. At this point, I decided it’s time for the NPCs to flee. The Chiss woman jumped over the bar and runs outside (thanks to a well-rolled athletics check) and the Rodian ran into the crowd.

Outside, the Chiss woman took off in her jetpack just as the police arrived. Sarek managed to shoot her down—doing enough damage to completely destroy the jetpack, causing her to fall into a dark alleyway—before the police surrounded them. The group tried to talk their way out of it but the grizzled police sergeant (whom I had to make up on the fly) had none of it, directing his men to tase the characters whenever they talk back. He eventually had them leave the planet, not wanting to deal with the paperwork, and they took off. [In contrast to the first Episode, this adventure nearly did the group in as the Chiss was more powerful than I expected. I had to make it easier subtly, such as by having them run away.]

The group arrived back at Atzerri, and headed to meet Oparro. They were rather suspicious—thanks to the near-miss with the bounty hunter on Chordaan—and tried to get as much information as they could before meeting him. They even worked out a plan where one person would stay outside the meeting point (a private room in Dak’s Cantina) and listen in through custom-made Bluetooth-like comlinks. I wanted to tell them they could relax, since all they were doing was receiving their mission, but I thought I’d let it play out.

Oparro told them if they do one more job he’ll give them double what he’d offered (a total of 30,000 credits). He said his buyer wants more relics from the Jedi, and heard there’s a stash on Atzerri; the old lady from the swamp is a likely source of information, so he asks the group to visit her. They agreed, in return for an unspecified favor on top of the 30,000.

[This was a basic interaction designed to give them their task, but I think I spiced it up in a few ways. They were nervous after the bounty hunter incident, so they saw the possibility of danger. And I had them pick up a few signs that something was up—there were increased Imperial patrols on the planet and Oparro seemed to have a lot more money and power than he did before (both of which will be explained eventually).]

Next week, the group heads out into the swamps of Atzerri…

Why the Sunless Citadel is a great adventure, part 1

As my readers probably know, I recently finished a run through the Sunless Citadel with my D&D group. This adventure was originally released for 3rd edition D&D in 2000, and it was updated as part of the Tales from the Yawning Portal dungeon crawl book for fifth edition D&D. The adventure takes character from level 1 to 5, and is considered one of the best dungeon crawls released for the gaming system.

I certainly agree. My group had a lot of fun running through this adventure. It had great combat, interesting social interactions, and tricky exploration. It also gave us a chance to get to known our characters before we started the longer Tomb of Annihilation campaign. But why is it so great? Can we identify its characteristics, and maybe use this to improve our own adventures?

I believe we can. There are several generalizable features of this adventure that make it such a joy to play. Five, in fact.

  1. Pacing: The adventure took us from level 1 to level 5 at a good pace. It took us three 4 hour sessions to run through the entire thing (rushing a bit through some parts).  So that was a little over an hour of gameplay per level. This was enough time for us to get used to our characters at each level so we appreciate the change of leveling up, without getting frustrating by being stuck with the same abilities for too long of a time.

This is easy to mess up. Some adventures feel like they zoom through early levels. This can be nice, as players get to the more interesting higher levels more quickly. But there is little sense of accomplishment, and you don’t feel your character growing organically. A few of the introductory adventures for 5th edition campaigns have suffered from this problem, including “Death House” from Curse of Strahd and “A great upheaval” from Storm King’s Thunder. By contrast, leveling up too slowly would be boring. There is only so much you can do at level 1, and characters would quickly lose interest. Sunless Citadel had this pacing down perfectly.  

2. Amount of story: The adventure had a story motivating the characters’ actions, but it didn’t determine them. We had to investigate the source of strange apples and rescue some villagers. As we made our way through the citadel, we picked up hints of a darker plot behind these events (although we weren’t interested in exploring them). Beyond that, we were free to do what we wished. We could explore the dungeon any way we wanted, and interact with its inhabitants as we saw fit.

Some adventures suffer from too much story. The plot is so intricate, and future episodes depend so much on characters resolving problems in a certain way, that it feels like you’re just watching a movie. Some refer to this as “railroading.” I think this was an issue with the Horde of the Dragon Queen, with several episodes giving little choice to the character as they had to advance the story. It also came up, to a lesser extent, with some of Out of the AbyssSunless Citadel, by contrast, provided players a rather simple problem to solve, which they could do in any way they could think of.

3. Diversity of encounters: This adventure was never boring, because we never repeated an encounter. We dealt with a goblin ambush, a tough battle against hobgoblins and goblin magic-users, a twig blight attack, and a standoff with bugbears. There were also numerous non-combat adventures. There was the social part. We negotiated with kobolds, emptied a common room of goblins with telepathic warnings, and traded barbs with an evil druid. There was exploration, as the twisting corridors of this incredible dungeon (see below) caused us to be on the verge of being lost the entire time. And there were some puzzles, like a fountain with strange red liquid (solved by our dwarf barbarian who drank some, discovering it was a potion of firebreath).

It’s very easy for adventures, especially low-level ones, to become monotonous. There’s only so much you can fight at first level. This has led some to become frustrated with the ubiquitous “goblin fights,” and others to suggest tips to ensure encounters remain interesting. For level 1 of my D&D dungeon (still ongoing), the Elder God’s Cavern, I struggled to come up with a diversity of encounters for adventurers to deal with. I dealt with this partly through general guidelines–like the “five room dungeon”–and partly by reading through low-level dungeons like this one.

I’ll continue with the final two reasons next week.

 

The Elder God’s Cavern, level 2, part 1

As I’ve discussed, I am working on a multi-level dungeon that will take characters from Level 1 to 5. Each level is an open-ended dungeon crawl with the objective of getting to the next level, but there is a storyline connecting them as the group progresses (I don’t want to give away any details in case my players read this).

Last time, a group of new adventurers were hired by a mysterious stranger to figure out why a river had gone dry. The town the river supplied was suffering, and he offered a rich reward for their help. The group entered the ruins of an ancient wizard’s tower and discovered a group of bandits had blocked the river. Along the way they found signs the wizard had worshiped strange, tentacled beings that seemed to threaten the world. After releasing the river, a ghostly voice emerged from the depths, and the group fled in terror…

The group from the first session of the Elder God’s Cavern re-gathered to being the next part of our journey. We had Uatu (Halfling warlock), Black Lotus (drow monk), and Crohm (human warrior). Nailo—the elf ranger—wasn’t able to make it.

After returning to the village in triumph, the group were cheered as heroes for restoring the river. They then proceeded to celebrate for the next week, spending much of the loot they found in the cavern on fine food, drink and clothing. Unfortunately, Nailo spent a bit too much, and skipped town in the middle of the night to avoid a bar tab (which Black Lotus had to pick up) [this is how I explained his absence]

As the group finished up another night in the pub, they heard a horrifying scream from outside. Rushing out, they saw a ghost grabbing a man, and flying up into the air with him. The ghost wailed, and the group recognized it as the same voice they heard as they freed the river.

Uatu panicked, and jumped headfirst into a rain barrel, but the rest of the group maintained their composure [he failed a Wisdom check]. As the ghost disappeared with the man, the cowering villagers turned on the group. They shouted at them for bringing this evil upon them, and started threatening their lives.

The group gathered back to back (after Crohm fished out Uatu), and thankfully Randulf appeared—in a burst of smoke and brimstone—to calm the crowd. He reminded the villagers that the group had saved them by freeing the river. If that indeed caused the ghost to appear, he was sure the group would fix it. He nudged Black Lotus as he said this. Taking his hint, the group offered to leave immediately and investigate.

They hiked through the night towards the hill with the river flowing through it. As they got closer, they realized an eerie silence hung over it, the normal nighttime sounds of insects and animals were missing. They slept fitfully by the side of the mountain, and entered the cavern the next morning.

As they travelled through the level they’d recently cleared out, they noted it was just as still and quiet as the outside. They stumbled upon the body of an elderly wizard; there were scorch marks around her, as if she’s used all her spells, but she seemed to have died of fright. Shaken, the group moved on, and found the stairs they had uncovered their last time here.

Climbing down the stairs they came into a damp cavern full of ankle-deep water (waist-deep for Uatu). The group moved out towards a closed door at the other end, when suddenly two constrictor snakes attacked. One managed to wrap itself around Uatu and drag him into the river, but the rest of the group freed him and killed the snakes before moving on.

They came on a forked passageway. One path looked relatively well-maintained, with a smooth floor and corners cut into the rock. The other looked like a natural cavern, worn and twisting. They chose the artificial path, which took them along a rushing river. Uatu noticed that the river flowed uphill, eventually bursting into the level above them in a sort of reverse waterfall. The group made a note to investigate that further.

As the group crept along in darkness, Black Lotus snuck ahead. He came upon a goblin peeing into the river. He snuck up behind the goblin, grabbed it, and held his knife to his throat. He then called for the group to catch up as he interrogated it.

The goblin—who introduced himself as Hoggle—tried to convince the group he was friendly, and just lived in these caverns. After Crohm smoothed things over, Hoggle told them a bit about the level. A group of “frog people” lived to the south, and they fought with hobgoblins across the river. The “frog people” had taken the controls for the bridge, leaving it submerged in the water, to defend against hobgoblin attacks. When asked about a ghost, he said something horrible flew through the cavern about a week ago, but he hid. He knew of a way down to lower levels, a weird machine floating on the opposite river bank; he didn’t know much about it, besides the fact that the hobgoblins took something from it.

After the rest of the group treated him nicely, Hoggle agreed to take them to his lair, which has a secret door into the “frog people” camp. He tried to keep his distance from Black Lotus, though.

The group passed a fountain flowing from a wall, but decided not to investigate it. They then arrived at Hoggle’s lair, a small cavern set high up above the river bank. He showed them the secret door, but asked that they promise not to tell the “frog people” about him. [this was meant to be an ally for the group, so I found it funny they nearly killed him.]

I’ll post the rest of our first session on level 2 next week.