[D&D 4th] Chronicles of Prydain campaign notes

As I've mentioned a few times over the summer, we've been gearing up to play a full-length treatment of my Chronicles of Prydain microcampaign this summer. We've just now finished the first adventure in session #4, and I'm thinking that I might do a bit of logging of the experience for later review.

Technical Overview

The earlier thread describes the creative agenda and general technical strategy of the campaign pretty fairly. I've revised the campaign structure slightly, increasing the number of individual adventures to 13 (including three mostly made from scratch, rather than directly based on plot material from the novels). The GM prep has piled up quite a bit as I've developed campaign-specific subsystems - ways to handle travel, companion NPCs and other things important to the subject matter.

The start-up estimate for the length of the campaign is around 30-ish sessions, as each individual adventure is expected to take about two sessions. My preparations are very top-down in nature, and the prep will in practice be completed only on a per-session basis: while the general systemic conceits all exist at the start, and there is a firm campaign content overview, the particular details of the individual adventures will be roughed out closer to when those adventures will be needed. I'm advancing in this manner to maintain my own interest in the project, as my attention often starts straying once the design and development portion of a given project is finished; I want to still be discovering new things as the campaign progresses, to maintain my creative edge and surf the inspiration to the end. I also hope to hone my railroad princess adventure prep skills and miniatures combat capabilities as we go on, so as to apply the lessons learned to later content in the campaign.

As part of the pre-campaign prep I've created a "Pokedex" of the monsters featured in the campaign. Although I haven't written down the details on each individual adventure, I know their gist, and it's therefore easy to figure out the monsters. The campaign features 57 different monsters in 10 different factions, and roughly 40 named NPCs. I've given the players a Pokedex folder of sorts in which they get to add the monster stats as we go along - I write them up and provide representative illustrations, present them in play, and the players maintain our on-going reference for later need. As the same monsters recur quite a bit (some more than others), it's useful to have the notes on them organized in one place.

An interesting facet of the campaign prep is that a significant portion of the gaming group has started reading the Chronicles of Prydain alongside the gaming project. It isn't very usual for a GM to inspire players to actually read entire books, so I'm not complaining. I generally get the sense that reading the background material increases

Miniatures Skirmish Technique

After considering a number of alternatives, here's what I ended up selecting for our initial combat presentation tech:

A Chessex Battlemat: A vinyl mat with printed squares and water-soluble color markers fulfills certain requirements I consider essential. Most importantly, it removes the necessity for the GM to design combat environments in advance (which would be the case with printed combat environment posters of the sort that 4th edition publications favour), allowing us to negotiate the particulars in a much more fiction-fluid way. When combat occurs we can just figure out the terrain on the spot and draw it in.

imageAbstract monster tokens: I decided to use abstract tokens for monsters instead of representative pieces so as to remove the necessity to create individual pieces for every monster we feature in the game. I wanted nice-looking tokens, though, which is why I made a little of DIY of it: gluing together two bottle-caps in the appropriate color makes for appropriately sized pieces in distinctive colors and with a nice tactile feel. (Hint: adding metal scrap inside improves the weight, too.) I'll probably number these at some point as well, to make tracking easier.

imageIndividualized NPCs: Unlike monsters, I wanted to emphasize the NPCs on the battlemap. The solution I ended up with is an appropriately chunky bottle-cap wrapped in paper, painted over by an arts-inclined player - nothing too work-intensive, but enough to make the character distinctive. Using plentiful heraldic color in the pieces helps them stand out from each other when we have multiple named NPCs on the board at once.

Individualized player characters: We could do the player characters with the NPC technique, but there is some miniatures interest in the group, so we're doing custom miniatures for the PCs, instead. We've started with some generics from one player's collection, but I understand that there are plans for modding/painting something more specific to the characters later on.

The particulars of how we run the combats are subject to change as experience accumulates, but at least early on this seems like a pretty solid approach. The biggest issue has been cleaning the battlemat - the markers have a tendency to get stuck on it, requiring an alcohol rub to get it out. Using a different brand of marker pen might help for that.

More on the actual sessions later. I'm trying for a reasonable amount of detail in this log, in case I need to reference something later in the campaign.

  • A Chessex Battlemat: A vinyl mat with printed squares and water-soluble color markers fulfills certain requirements I consider essential. Most importantly, it removes the necessity for the GM to design combat environments in advance (which would be the case with printed combat environment posters of the sort that 4th edition publications favour), allowing us to negotiate the particulars in a much more fiction-fluid way. When combat occurs we can just figure out the terrain on the spot and draw it in.

    I have a large collection of combat environment posters from my 3e/4e days but these days I go with a Chessex battlemat, too (albeit for an OSR sandbox campaign), for the exact reason you mention.

    That said, set-piece battles with interesting, almost Roborallye-like terrain were a big draw for me when playing the official 4e campaign. Do you make the terrain interesting on the fly and if so, how?

    (I can easily imagine preparing cool environmental effects but that still does not allow us to have a fight on an iconic bridge-under-a-waterfall or whatever.)
  • Johann said:

    That said, set-piece battles with interesting, almost Roborallye-like terrain were a big draw for me when playing the official 4e campaign. Do you make the terrain interesting on the fly and if so, how?

    It's a process of dialogue, and we're still practicing it. As it stands, one of the players is pretty proactive about grabbing the markers and starting to draw when the scene resolves towards combat. I'll direct as necessary, pointing out the focal point of the battle (what to center on the mat), what matters should be in the periphery, and so on. Everybody is free to say their mind as to what we add in there, but I have my prep, so I can suggest specific terrain features thought out in advance. If I want a battle on a bridge, I can just tell the drawing player, or draw it myself.

    The combat scenes are, after all, setpieces. I'm just saving myself unnecessary work and retaining some tactical flexibility by limiting myself to an idea and a list of terrain features, rather than having a map. The map brings unnecessary friction, I feel; what if the party absolutely insists that they want to have the battle outside the cathedral, instead of inside? Sure, I can force the issue, but why not go with their idea on this minor issue? I still control the plot and the content provided by the plot, I should be gracious where I can.

    I'll document practical examples of what we've been doing for combat scenery as I write more log. Might be next week, as I have a busy weekend ahead, but I'll find the time.
  • If you're mostly going with the Chessex mat, you still might want to think about having at least something drawn up in advance for common area types and a few key locations players are likely to visit and have combat in/at.

    4e is deeply tabletop tactical at a fine mechanical level ( at a finer level than I personally care about) and benefits from some forethought when it comes to arena layout.

    Relying on an ability to simply come up with a typical area on the fly and produce an interesting space for combat under 4e isn't quite as simple as you might think, nor as quick a process. ( I was reminded of that last bit while playing 5e with a Chessex mat last week. Every scene change meant erasing and new drawing and moving everything about. It isn't exactly fast compared to just putting down a new location mat and setting up the minis, and the new printed mat usually looks better...)

    If you do consider printed maps, these downloadable ones offer a big catalog at pretty reasonable prices. If you've got players willing to go in on their own PC minis and seem amenable, maybe you can farm out some of the printing/assembly/cost to them.

  • I'm running my first OSR campaign (though we've got a hundred sessions under our belt now) but I'd still worry that plunking down a map of a cathedral would influence the players, however subtly. "Here is where we fight." or even just "We're going to have a fight now." etc. are just not reactions I'd like to see, whether conscious or not. What if the players would rather provoke the priests and slay them on the steps of the cathedral? What if they'd rather slink away?

    I've already mentioned environmental effects as a flexible way to spice up the battlefield, but here's another one: If the setting is sufficiently high-fantasy, use creatures which change the battlefield, whether by leaving a trail of slime, casting wall of fire or cloudkill, having the ability to break through walls and so on.

    Finally, it should be possible to make any battlefield evocative -- outside the cathedral, there might be throngs of diseased supplicants (not necessarily relevant tactically) and huge forbidding statues casting debilitating shadows etc. In the backalley behind it, precariously balanced boxes of trash etc. etc.

    For 4e, I'd try to think like a Hollywood director given parts of a script (like a location). The increased buy-in from the players having a say in minor issues should be worth it.
  • edited August 2018

    If you're mostly going with the Chessex mat, you still might want to think about having at least something drawn up in advance for common area types and a few key locations players are likely to visit and have combat in/at.

    I do have basic notes, it's just that they're in abstract short-hand and we adapt them to the mat in real time! The notes are stuff like this (a quick translation - my notes are in Finnish):

    The Kidnapping
    Combat Encounter Level 4
    Night-dogs Skirmisher 2 125 xp
    Strangler Brute 4 175 xp
    A kidnapping attempt at the royal quarters. Split map half inside and half in the courtyard, with the stables at one end. Interior has plentiful furniture (obstacles, flammable), doors, windows. Bedrooms on second floor (climb DC 15 with rope, 25 without; Acrobatics DC 15 to drop without injury, 1d6 damage and prone otherwise), moving between areas by stairs takes an extra round on top of moving outside map and back in. Exterior area has a wagon with hay. Characters start either indoors (in the quest quarters, next room to the kidnap victim) or outdoors (in the stables) depending on where the Chief Steward assigned them in the last scene. Magg (Elite Lurker 4) joins the scene on second round, on top of the scene xp budget (as he's not here to fight; just a quick pass-off of the kidnap victim, and off he goes).

    I'll readily admit that it's not extremely full of knick-knacks and gimmicks, but then that's sort of the general aesthetic I'm shooting for in this campaign: I want to focus on getting the vanilla miniatures skirmish interactions solid, particularly as regards maintaining a real imaginary space, before I confuse everybody with over-engineered scenes. Prydain anyway isn't the sort of fantasy world where I would be comfortable just deciding that a scene features "necromantic grass" or some such fictionally flavourful and mechanically exciting elements from 4th edition rulebooks.

    ( I was reminded of that last bit while playing 5e with a Chessex mat last week. Every scene change meant erasing and new drawing and moving everything about. It isn't exactly fast compared to just putting down a new location mat and setting up the minis, and the new printed mat usually looks better...)

    This I can concur with - cleaning the mat isn't exactly quick. We've managed so far thanks to the fact that it is apparently pretty unrealistic for us to fit two combat encounters into one session of play. I think that I'll need to get a second mat if the dynamics change so that we're actually playing two combats per session.

    Nevertheless, I don't mind the time it takes us to draw and set up the encounter, as I feel that participating in the drawing process helps a lot in increasing player engagement. Aside from the plotting inflexibility it would cause, I feel that just dropping a map I'd have made in advance would cause an information bottleneck as the players suddenly shift from free play to miniatures skirmish mode in a matter of seconds. Taking five minutes to draw the map gives them more time to orient themselves to the mapped space and the features involved in a given encounter space.
  • I suspect the influence isn't even slightly subtle, Johann.

    Players have been trained for a while ( and GMs, too) that the presence of a map inherently = "a battle will now occur".

    As for your other suggestions, I very much agree with all of them, both the evocative part and the use of abilities to alter the field of battle.
  • Character Creation

    We went into this campaign with a remarkably deliberate gearing up period - not only is it based on ideas and prep from last year, but we'd also been talking about starting it since the spring, several months before the actual first session in July.

    The two reasons for the slow start were as follows:
    1) I desired to build up clear prior commitment among the players about regular participation. As the game involves so much prep, I wanted to maximize my guarantees for actually having a stable base of players for a reasonably long run. The local gamer population is pretty thin as it is; it is not at all inconceivable for a campaign to run aground simply because a single key participant has to leave the campaign for an extended period.
    2) The 4th edition D&D premise is largely predicated on the players actually knowing the rules and being interested in if not optimizing their characters, then at least representing their character idea with mechanical choices. This is rather more realistic if we take our time learning the rules and building the characters. The players will supposedly be spending a long time playing the same, rather static characters, so if extra time can at all aid a player in developing a more interesting and comfortable character, then by all means, let's do that.

    We ultimately had I think three separate character creation sessions around midsummer, starting with two core players and then expanding to the rest of the crew. The sessions mainly consisted of rules mentoring, discussion about setting background and speculationg about character options. I had time to design an improved character sheet for the game, and the rule books had time to make the rounds among those players interested in home study. Despite this, the last characters ended up being created immediately at the beginning of the first session of play; such is the struggle of man against the scheduling book.

    After the usual merry-go-round with people's schedules and motivations we ended up boiling the campaign down to six participants - five character players and myself as the GM. This was judged as the more or less permanent quorum in early July, so we felt comfortable about doing the first actual session of play then. If somebody would end up joining the campaign later, they would miss the important early exposition and direction-seeking, meaning that they would start from a noticeable outsider perspective.

    The Player Characters

    I'll list the player characters we ended up with for an overview - helps in following the later notes.

    Deithwen Morgan - A son of Don (Dragonborn, mechanically speaking) Fighter. A bit of a black sheep among the aristocratic sons of Don, Deithwen prefers the company of common Pridonites to the more starch-bound members of the high royal elite.
    Francis - A human Cleric of Frankish origin, a missionary of the white Christ in Prydain. Francis starts ill-equipped for the adventurous life, and has no prior experience with magic, coming from a land where the supernatural powers are much weaker; he's catching up quickly, however.
    Eluned - An Enchantress of Llyr (an eladrin wizard, mechanically).
    Harald - A human Barbarian from the north.
    Gethwen - A human ranger from Prydain.

    You can spot the most experienced and pre-committed players from how they started with the germ of a princess play character concept - that is, their characters have a bit of established nature aside from the mechanical chassis. The game supports zombie players, so I'm not concerned about that, and it's not like I can teach without play - for the players to figure out how to develop an interesting character personality and use it to play with it, we actually have to engage in play.

    I was prepared to support more ambition in character creation, though, and did tell the players clearly in advance that this is going to be one of those games that welcome coming in with a complex backstory and a clear preconceived vision of what kind of character you want to play. Of course we don't have much tradition for playing that type of rpg around here, so in hindsight it's obvious that I'm not going to get any extreme jumps in that regard. Even the most creative, flexible and active players are being careful about not being too interesting, probably in fear of stepping on my toes as the plot authority.

    I have a bit of procedural backstop for the "these PCs are really boring" situation in this campaign, though, so I'm not particularly worried: the characters have time to grow into integral roles in the story if the players want them to, and the game will roll on anyway. To wit:
    * Every character class has a class-specific "iconic quest" that features prominently on the character sheets. Each quest is somewhat lateral to the general direction of the campaign, requiring players to keep their eyes open to take the initiative when an opportunity to fulfill their class scheme comes to the fore. As the reward for accomplishment is +1 to character level and immediate access to a Paragon Path (a 4th ed. thing, that), the players are certainly hooked about the idea. This simple mechanical gimmick naturally gives every character at least a little bit of personal nature compared to the others, as they each have an unique personal interest distinct from the rest.
    * As the campaign is based on a series of novels, it features plenty of strongly characterized NPCs with various interests. We can be flexible about using these not only as villains, but also companion characters. They can also take the primary role as the dramatic protagonists of the campaign, should the players choose to be comfortable as wall-flowers. Essentially: if it should happen that the players just want to play the combat scenes and otherwise listen to me narrate the story, I can make that work.
    * As I mentioned above, I'm prepared to work with the players over time to bring out what is interesting and exceptional about each character. If a player starts with a tabula rasa character, we can see what becomes of them as the plot twists them this way and that.
  • Tutorial play: The Heroes of the Quarrel Cliff

    We did the first bit of actual "roleplaying", or what passes for that in 4th edition D&D, at the end of our third character creation session. We had just finished chargen for Eluned, as well as put the finishing touches to Francis the missionary and Deithwen Morgan, but as there was a bit of free time left yet, the idea of running a combat tutorial was broached. At this point we hadn't yet tried out the complete miniatures combat paradigm I outlined earlier, so I was certainly eager to try things out. Eluned's player is also new to tabletop gaming in general, so giving them a practical taste of what play was like seemed to be indicated.

    I had the group construct the frame for the tutorial combat scenario by referencing the western/chanbara idea of dramatic dueling, and asking the players to tell me how and why their characters had ended up in such a dramatic, lethal situation - what brought it about, that champions who would come to be friends (as soon as we'd start the actual campaign) were here, instead threatening each other with lethal force?

    The scenario-inventing dialogue ended up painting an image of a lone roadhouse on the cliffs of Dau Gleddyn, and a drunken quarrel: horrible as it was, Eluned the Enchantress had egged Daithwen Morgan on, far beyond the patience of an ordinary man, until she succeeded in luring him to the Cliff of Quarrels behind the inn for her own nefarious purposes. Francis the Missionary, new to this land, had followed the two in an attempt to make peace and prevent Daithwen from making the horribly unchivalrous mistake of striking a woman in violence - drunk or not, it would be truly shameful to a true knight!

    (Francis, being a foreigner, had no inkling of Eluned's sinister nature. A local would surely recognize the elfin cheekbones and slutty dress for what must be an enchantress of Llyr - no ordinary woman, this.)

    I instructed one of the players in drawing the cliff and the tavern and a bit of other terrain, and added a herd of sheep for good measure to showcase my monster tokens as map decoration. Thus provided with tactical terrain, we were ready to run a few tutorial combats between the PCs.

    The conclusion we came to after a couple of quick run-throughs was that initiative matters quite a bit in this contest: if Eluned takes it, Daithwen is likely to go down due to an Acid Arrow, while if Daithwen gets the first move, Eluned is going prone from his charge, and is unlikely to be able to cast and survive the opportunity attacks from Daithwen. The overall sense I got from the couple of engagements we did was that Eluned has a slight edge, though, in part due to Fey Step. (I've been thinking of replacing this eladrin ability with something more specific to the people of Llyr, but inspiration has eluded me so far. While short-range teleportation is not particularly iconic for Llyrians, I can buy it for now.)

    Missionary Francis largely took the role of saving the life of whomever went down in the practice bouts by using his healing skills, which was of course appropriate. We even got in a bit of a character moment as Francis realized to his own amazement that God answers prayers in a rather more direct fashion here in Prydain - saving a man's life by the power of his faith surely shook Francis here.

    The one thing we didn't really get to here was using terrain in inventive ways - closest was when Eluned attempted to elude Daithwen by hiding behind a rock. I tried to bait the players to use the sheep herd, but the situation was obviously rather focused on trying out the character powers in a straightforward manner. A big part was played by the players' choice to keep their dueling relatively far from the cliff edge - I was rather hoping that they could end the meeting conclusively by somebody falling into the sea. No great loss, we would have more opportunities for specific encounter environments in the future.

    This initial encounter left us all with a good taste for this type of simmy fantasy princessing game, I'd say. While the fictional content was sort of uncanonical and sort of not (I mean, we did replay the duel, so who knows what the canonical outcome was), we established what the initial meeting between the three core heroes was like, and how they act in play: Daithwen is a blustering warrior, Eluned is mysterious-to-the-point-of-puzzlement (the player is still finding his feet as regards actually speaking at the table), Francis is a stranger from a more civilized land who finds the Celtic culture around him hopelessly confusing.

    I would come to reference the encounter at the Quarrel Cliff regularly in the upcoming sessions; as I awarded the party with their first Fame reward for the scene (very much according to campaign rules), the party has sort of been known as the "Heroes of the Quarrel Cliff" among the people they've met since then, as an amusing sort of "compliment" - I mean, they're essentially being complimented by Celtic barbarians for having been drunk enough to almost kill each other in a showy way, which certainly is a key element in how famous warriors have become famous in real history!
  • Very cool stuff, Eero. I especially like how you recruited the players in establishing the scene details and drawing up the battlemap. I only have two PCs currently in my 4E game so we've been going fully mapless/TotM but I would definitely borrow some of your techniques here when the situation calls for it.

    Also, I think its hilarious your players' first experience of 4E combat was PvP. Love it. :)
  • Hi Eero, you mentioned the characters getting a paragon path for completing a quest. Are these 10th level PCs or is this looking forward to the future?
  • It's an insane house rule I'm considering: you get the paragon path as if you were 11th level, because fuck game balance. The character would advance normally afterwards, except their "effective paragon level" would only go up by 1 each two levels until their real level catches up with their paragon level.

    Thus, if a say 5th level character managed to complete their class quest, they would go up to 6th level and simultaneously get a paragon path as if they were 11th level. (Paragon features would calculate their attack bonuses and such for 6th level stats, of course - the 11th level conceit would be only for the purpose of determining what features you get and when.) Their effective paragon level would then continue going up every two levels: 12th when they reach 8th level, 13th when they reach 10th level, etc. until at level 15 their real level catches up and the character continues normal progress thenceforth.

    The campaign is very focused on heroic tier, so aside from emphasizing the significance of succeeding in the class quest, this rule would also increase the potential time that a character could have to play with a paragon identity, which might be interesting. The default rule is, as you might imagine, sort of boring: the paragon path just comes to you, no extra work necessary. The campaign should top out at around level 8-12 or so, so the party might or might not reach paragon level collectively before the end.

    The only part where this might bite me in the ass that I can see is that a character who's both a level ahead of others and gets the action point shenanigans that all paragon paths start with could conceivably be "too powerful" in some way. I've only ever encountered the concept of a single character being too powerful in a party as an Internet legend - I have no personal experience with it - but perhaps it is a possible failure state for a princessing game like this. Like, the other players grow frustrated with how much cooler this one character gets to be for no good reason. I don't expect trouble, as disproportionate coolness is a fact of life anyway, but who knows.
  • I've never had issues with "disproportionate coolness", myself (outside of a dysfunctional social relationship/environment, anyway), but, in a framework as strict as D&D4, it seems to me that it would cause issues if the mechanical differential between two characters came to be such that it regularly invalidated other characters' choices and actions.

    A simple example is some kind of character whose attack powers grow so strong that they are more effective than, say, the Wizard's Fireball. Now, that character's special ability becomes more or less irrelevant in combat, since the other PC can do the same thing at will, and the player starts to feel that their participation in combat is barely cosmetic (and, therefore, unsatisfying).

    Once the other players' ability to contribute becomes sidelined or irrelevant, that's when this kind of thing can grow into a legitimate gripe and harm the game.

    I'm not familiar enough with D&D4 to know whether this is a risk based on the rule you're describing here; I'm just speaking in the abstract.
  • edited August 2018

    It's an insane house rule I'm considering: you get the paragon path as if you were 11th level, because fuck game balance. The character would advance normally afterwards, except their "effective paragon level" would only go up by 1 each two levels until their real level catches up with their paragon level.

    Thus, if a say 5th level character managed to complete their class quest, they would go up to 6th level and simultaneously get a paragon path as if they were 11th level. (Paragon features would calculate their attack bonuses and such for 6th level stats, of course - the 11th level conceit would be only for the purpose of determining what features you get and when.) Their effective paragon level would then continue going up every two levels: 12th when they reach 8th level, 13th when they reach 10th level, etc. until at level 15 their real level catches up and the character continues normal progress thenceforth.

    The campaign is very focused on heroic tier, so aside from emphasizing the significance of succeeding in the class quest, this rule would also increase the potential time that a character could have to play with a paragon identity, which might be interesting. The default rule is, as you might imagine, sort of boring: the paragon path just comes to you, no extra work necessary. The campaign should top out at around level 8-12 or so, so the party might or might not reach paragon level collectively before the end.

    The only part where this might bite me in the ass that I can see is that a character who's both a level ahead of others and gets the action point shenanigans that all paragon paths start with could conceivably be "too powerful" in some way. I've only ever encountered the concept of a single character being too powerful in a party as an Internet legend - I have no personal experience with it - but perhaps it is a possible failure state for a princessing game like this. Like, the other players grow frustrated with how much cooler this one character gets to be for no good reason. I don't expect trouble, as disproportionate coolness is a fact of life anyway, but who knows.

    Nah, I think it should be fine. The main benefit of leveling up in 4E --- mathematically speaking --- are the bonuses to attack/defense/skills and by 6th level, PCs have enough encounter and daily powers that picking up the 11th level encounter power won't make *that* much of a difference. It will do about an extra die of damage compared to the Heroic tier encounter powers, but by 6th level most monsters have enough hit points that it won't unbalance or break anything.

    I actually don't think the 11th level action point feature will affect things much at all. The strongest thing you get at 11th level is your first Paragon tier encounter power.
  • Paul_T said:

    I've never had issues with "disproportionate coolness", myself (outside of a dysfunctional social relationship/environment, anyway), but, in a framework as strict as D&D4, it seems to me that it would cause issues if the mechanical differential between two characters came to be such that it regularly invalidated other characters' choices and actions.

    My experience with D&D style games is "disproportionate coolness" is exceedingly common unless you have a very experienced (and perhaps heavy-handed) DM to keep things in check. It was ridiculously common in 3E (and still so in Pathfinder) and you don't have to search very far through the internet to see issues cropping up often in 5E as well. There's a reason Linear Fighter, Quadratic Wizard is a trope after all.

    Its significantly less of an issue in 4E because of the unified AEDU structure and I seriously don't Eero's proposed rule change would affect that too much.
  • This thread has made me pick up the Prydain books! Damn, as if I needed more to read. However the concept of the RPG looks cool although I'm not at all a fan of 4e, so I'd use an earlier edition.
  • The Chronicles of Prydain are, I think, fine fantasy literature for teenagers. It doesn't score highest on literary style, world-building or plot, but I am uncertain as to whether I've seen a finer delivery of a growth story with a humanistic message, written in a way that a teenager can understand. I recommend giving every literate 12-year old a set. The books start as simple fantasy adventure, near simplistic, but they go deep fast, and the existentialist themes are important ones for growing children. The only stuff in the fantasy canon that come to mind in comparison are the Earthsea novels by Ursula LeGuinn.

    I also like using the novels as fodder for a railroaded high fantasy adventure campaign, for reasons I've explained in the past. Even the fact that the world-building is pretty cursory becomes a strength, as I can do my own to fill in - at this point I could well tell you all sorts of extremely non-canonical things about Prydain [grin].

    Regarding rules systems, I would actually largely recommend a non-D&D adventure fantasy system - something in the tradition of BRP or MERP or whatnot. D&D has its cachet in the minds of the gamers, which makes it easier to get player buy-in, but it has limited technical virtue for this style of gaming. It is particularly questionable whether D&D is good at all for roleplaying in the sense of expressing character, or if its presence actively mitigates any leanings the players might have in that direction.

    4th edition, though - skirmish battles on maps with miniatures. That's a selling point if it's an expressive medium one wants to try.
  • 4th edition, though - skirmish battles on maps with miniatures. That's a selling point if it's an expressive medium one wants to try.

    Interestingly, in my current 4E campaign we haven't used a battlemap once and done each battle totally TotM. As a veteran 4E DM I don't feel we've really lost anything from doing so, although we only have 2 PCs at the moment so that makes things a little easier.

    My personal opinion is 4E really shines with less frequent, more spectacular battles, which is also supported by its resource management system being decidedly more encounter-based than other iterations of D&D, as well as the fact that it provides for a rather substantial XP gain from non-combat activities (skill challenges, quests, and vignettes). In that way its paradigm is very different from other versions of D&D which seem to assume a relatively high number of combats in a day (the current edition's designers have called for 6-8 battles in a day on average) but those combats tend to be more trivial or mundane than what 4E seems to assume (and also account for almost all XP gains if we're talking about modern iterations like 3E and 5E).

    Because of all that, the skirmish battles (whether using a map or not) may or may not be a focal point of any given 4E campaign. The rules are in place so that when combat does happen it will be dynamic and quite involved but the game suffers in my experience if combat becomes a routine or common experience.
  • Session #1: The Council of Cadiffor

    Our first actual session of play in mid-July was attended by all six of us. We did the character creation for Harald and Gethwen, the last two characters, before the session proper. As the group had all arrived by the time that was done, we could get straight into it.

    By this time I'd gotten around to crafting an improved (and Finnish-language) character sheet, which most players switched to at this time. Otherwise my prep was coming along - I'd done detailed notes on "The Book of Three", the most likely adventure we might tackle first, as well as the "Council of Cadiffor", the sort of introductory campaign scene the session would start with. I didn't yet have much sense for how much we could actually get done in a single session, but I was ready to improvise in case we'd get further along than I expected.

    The point of the introductory scene in the campaign is to introduce the initial situation facing Prydain at the campaign start. The scene was set at the castle of Cadarn in Cantrev of Cadiffor, a prominent petty kingdom in southern Prydain. The conceit of the scene was that all the player characters happened to be in attendance by accident when a comparison of notes between the castle guests would lead them to a terrible conclusion, one that would launch them on an initial quest in the campaign. Which quest would depend on player preference.

    The formal parameters of the largely free play exercise in the initial scene were as follows:
    * The GM would introduce king Smoit, the lord of castle Cadarn, and Adaon, the son of Prydain's chief bard Taliesin, early on; these two NPCs were available to provide information and opinions, and to potentially follow the party wherever they intended to go.
    * I would feed the players with sufficient background information and accidental knowledge that their characters could conclude the following emerging fact: The southern lords of Prydain are plotting a great rebellion, likely aided and abetted by Annuvin, the kingdom of death. This is supposed to be the first moment in the timeline of events where a party loyal to the high kingship realizes the truth.
    * The party had an initial choice of three possible adventures to start the campaign with: "The Book of Three" (level 3) concerns a journey south to meet with Dalben the Enchanter, a wise wizard who could advice the heroes further; "The Black Cauldron" (level 4) concerns assaulting Annuvin directly to steal away a great source of the Deathlord's power; "The Castle of Llyr" (level 4) concerns warning the High King, and being thus embroiled in the high politics of Prydain.
    * If the players chose to delay because they felt that no action was necessary at this time, I would have prince Gwydion and a few other extra NPCs arrive at Cadarn to provide leadership and a sense of urgency.

    What I mean by formal parameters: while we did not experience the content of play in this scene in a list-wise fashion as above, that's what the content boiled down to. I would move on to one of the actual adventures once the players chose which one we'd do first.

    In practice I ended up relaying much of the necessary backstory through a dialogue between Deithwen Morgan, one of the player characters, and Smoit, the king of the castle. Deithwen had recently returned from a tour of the southern kingdoms himself, so rather than have king Smoit complain to the heroes about the other southern kings, Deithwen could rather be the one warning Smoit: Deithwen is ethnically a son of Don, and had faced significant harassment, anger and fear from the southerners who were in the process of preparing for an armed rebellion.

    Smoit and Deithwen between them could build a fair picture of their fears, but it was also ironically obvious to us that this picture could not possibly foresee the emergence of the Horned King, a horrifying demonic warlord that would come to lead the rebellion as per the book canon. As the heroes in Cadiffor could not, however, predict this turn of events, their general sense of the situation was relatively laid-back: Pridons after all like to rebel, and while a rebellion uniting most of the south against the High King was unusually large, it would still be a somewhat routine event for a dominion as unruly as Prydain. King Smoit's expectation was the while the rebel lords might raise their flags against the High King this summer, refusing their taxes in the fall, nothing much would come of that except an uneventful winter, followed by the High King having to journey south with an army next spring to negotiate and, if necessary, fight the rebels. Smoit would fight alongside the High King, of course.

    In between the two martial characters figuring out the military and political situation (and learning a fair bit of Prydain's geography on the side), Adaon the Wanderer arrived at Caer Cadarn as well. I depicted Adaon as a wise yet somewhat dreamy young man, well-versed in what passes for high culture in Prydain. He is also a man on a quest: Adaon is convinced, against the common wisdom, that Arawn Deathlord, the king of Annuvin, is plotting something against Prydain. Adaon's insight on the matter is largely theological and mystical in nature (Bardic lore and a gift for prophetic dreams, to be specific), but he also happens to be right, despite his somewhat sparse evidences in the matter.

    As Adaon was warmly welcomed to the company by Francis the missionary, he soon came to confide his misgivings to the party, and to tell them about his hopes of organizing a scouting mission to Annuvin. While Annuvin is generally imagined to be devoid of life and deserted, or at least in deep and lasting incohesion following the last war, Adaon thinks that he might find proof of Arawn Deathlord's continuing activity by going there and exploring the place.

    (All this is, of course, somewhat speculative or uncanonical to the Chronicles of Prydain; the intent of this material was to present a certain set of possible courses of action and see which ones the players would be most interested in pursuing. By making Adaon into something of a skeptic of Pridonic triumphalism I gave him an initial motivation to quest unknowingly after the Black Cauldron even before realizing what it is that he seeks. I played him as a young agent Mulder from X-Files, basically. "The truth is out there, and it is a grave problem that our government refuses to acknowledge it!")

    A single player's choice had a large impact at this point in the depiction of the scene, and therefore the choices the players would make later: After a bit of strictly-speaking meaningless dice-rolling I determined that Eluned the Enchantress, one of the player characters, could add to Adaon's narrative of the state of Annuvin in rather more concrete terms: she knew of Arawn yet being in charge in a quiet, "dreaming" Annuvin, and furthermore she knew of the Black Cauldron, the tool Arawn was using to slowly build up his armies of Cauldronborn, fearsome undead warriors he was hoping to use in renewed war against the sons of Don in the future. She knew of the rash of stolen bodies of great heroes from cairns all over Prydain, and she knew of what this portents.
  • My intent was obviously for Eluned to disclose these obscure and secret things to the council, as learned mystics tend to do in the genre, so it was a bit surprising when the player of Eluned chose instead to stay quiet. (All this in-character, you understand; the players all heard everything I told anybody about the matter of Prydain.) Eluned's player has no prior experience with tabletop rpgs, so maybe he was exploring his options, or just liked the idea that his character knows of secrets much more far-reaching than anybody else even suspects. Whatever the reason, Eluned's silence meant that in-character the party was rather partially motivated to quest for the "Black Cauldron" (one of the three adventures I was offering here); they knew not of any concrete threat, and had only Adaon's mystical misgivings to impel them forth; a paltry thing compared to having witnessed the intransigency of the southern lords with your very own eyes.

    From the start of the scene two player characters had an in-built interest in travelling north to Caer Dathyl: Deithwen Morgan was returning home after his southern journey, and Francis the missionary was planning to travel directly to meet with the High King and procure his permission for his missionary activities on Prydain. This type of roleplaying game encourages characterization like this when it does not contradict with the way the railroad is going, so when it came to "what are we going to do about it", the players had a clear (if ultimately frivolous) bias for going north.

    In hindsight I should probably have had an available NPC dedicated to the idea of doing "The Book of Three" in the mix in this scene. King Smoit was a proponent for "The Castle of Llyr", as he naturally hoped for the heroes to take the conclusions about the southern rebellion to the High King. Adaon, meanwhile, would have been obviously overjoyed if the heroes decided that the rebellion can wait, and had instead started to plan an expedition into Annuvin with him. While I did introduce the notion of consulting with the great sage of Prydain, Dalben, to the players, and they knew on a technical level that the adventure was available, it didn't really have the emotional depth of presentation that the two other possible courses of action did.

    (In my original version of this scene I do indeed have three NPCs, precisely so I could have each recommend a different course of action. The last one of those three was the troubled youth Ellidyr, however, and I'd dropped him from this version of my notes due to him being a bit of an extra wheel for the actual adventure he was supposed to introduce: it made no sense to have a character who does not appear in "The Book of Three" to be a main proponent for doing that adventure. I solved the issue by dropping the character, which lead to the scene we had. I'll have to revisit this part of the campaign prep if I ever end up doing another run of this.)

    This being the lay of the land, the party ended up opting for the course of action that we ironically knew would lead to "The Castle of Llyr" being our first adventure: the party would take up Smoit's request and travel north to bring warning of the rebellion to the High King, which would then after another twist end up landing them in the events of the third novel in the Chronicles of Prydain series. They did, however, also make half-assed noises towards Adaon, promising to accompany him on an expedition to Annuvin "later", after they first visit Caer Dathyl and deliver the warning. I didn't mind promising them that Adaon would follow them as far as Caer Dathyl; it's no blood off my nose if the players choose to "jump tracks" after getting to Caer Dathyl, after all. (Both of those adventures happen to be rather natural to start from Caer Dathyl, so if the players want to risk the travails of traveling there only to then switch to an adventure they could've started from Caer Cadarn, then by all means.)

    With all that sorted out, we could also deal with a little bit of side color: Harald the viking is as generic a murder-hobo as only a 12-year old can manage, so I didn't hesitate about including him in a little bit of a diversion when I got the chance. Harald was looking for "work" (the player missed the idea about the PCs being self-motivated "heroes", I think - and playing a sidekick works better for him anyway) at Caer Cadarn, so I had king Smoit promise him a chance to show his chops, and a chance to join his armsmen should he prove successful. Harald eagerly agreed. (Completely meaningless in campaign terms, you understand, as a player presumably doesn't want to leave his character behind to serve in a king's guard while the rest go on an epic adventure - but you'll see what I was getting at there.)

    Inspired by this development we closed out the session with some more combat tutorial: Deithwen, as a favour to Smoit, agreed to spar with the barbarian warrior and see what he's made of. We set up the king's training grounds, and had the two set up for a duel in the middle. The other characters got to cheer on the side-lines, and use covert abilities, as it played out - we found that some of those Cleric powers are rather subtle in practice. The main point was to get some more training in with the combat rules, for everybody involved.

    (Gethwen's player was AWOL at this time, in case you wondered, so I couldn't incorporate him into the training fight. He has shown some clear tendency so far towards taking off in the middle or skipping sessions altogether.)

    Harald the viking managed to indeed land a blow on Deithwen (bloody him, that is), so king Smoit did indeed offer him a place in his household, and the party of course gained another 340 points of Fame for putting up a remarkable show of swordsmanship for the court. Harald, cheap cur that he is, demanded that somebody would have to pay him in gold for him to accompany the party to Caer Dathyl (as opposed to not participating in the campaign at all, I suppose). While the party is rather short on gold, this was an opportunity for me to demonstrate how Fame points act essentially identically to gold: Deithwen as the natural leader of the party requested king Smoit for the boon of gold, and they traded 200 points of Fame for the equal amount of coin to appease the professional feelings of Harald (and Gethwen the ranger, who's player had come back by now).
  • edited August 2018
    EDIT: One thing I forgot to mention here is that this is where I introduced the concept of the "gifts of linen" to the players: whenever Pridonite kings welcome the heroes to their halls, they tend to give gifts of white linen (to make clothes out of, you know) and other things to their guests. The nature of the gifts depends on the relationship between the heroes and the patron figure, but generally it's an opportunity to pile on magical gear 1-4 levels above the level of the adventure. Because an adventure hadn't yet started properly, and because Smoit is a sort of poor king, I judged that he would start things off on the gift-giving front by giving items of level 1-4 to the heroes before they departed for Caer Dathyl. Relatively generic stuff at this point, +1 magic weapons and amulets of resistance and healing potions, that sort of thing.

    By this point the session was far enough along that we could call it quits, but the next thing on the schedule was going to be a travel skill challenge, so I seized the opportunity and taught the basics of skill challenge management to the players. Travel challenges are rather core to this campaign, so I have a bit of structured rules for how to calculate their difficulty levels and lengths on the basis of the geography. I expect that later on the players will invest in some rituals (martial practices, rather) that short-circuit much of the constant travel, but early on it's going to be central.

    (The key skills for a travel challenge are Nature and Endurance - and occasionally Seafaring, a new skill I added for the purpose. Traveling around Prydain tends to have challenge level 3-5 for the most part, with challenge length/complexity around 4-8 depending on the length of the journey.)

    The party inducted Gethwen the ranger as a natural guide for their journey north, as this particular player character had had little positional development so far. After some minor skill challenge maneuvering he promptly brought the challenge to a halt by failing an orienteering check on the road-less tracks of the Hill Cantrevs of Prydain. I had just immediately prior to the roll described the basics about the Hill Cantrevs, and how the area is nowadays largely a lawless wilderness ruled by outlaws and criminals. One of the players seized on that and asked/requested/suggested that perhaps these outlaws had then discovered the party as they traversed the area? I naturally acceded to the suggestion, it being in line with the travel and random encounter rules I'd developed, which meant that we would begin the second session of the campaign with traditional D&D content: a hostile random encounter.

    (The travel rules I'd put together do indeed include clear provisions for random encounters - or rather, "additional encounters". The travel skill challenge basically goes through an alternating cycle of special circumstance scenarios, half of which are various types of "encounters", while the rest are exotic skill use opportunities like river crossings and such - excuses to roll something else aside from Nature and Endurance for the skill challenge. When it's time for an encounter, the GM selects the specific encounter from a list of prepared possibilities.)
  • edited August 2018
    Session #2: Traveling to Caer Dathyl

    Everybody attended our second session, which started immediately with our first real combat encounter: the "heroes of the quarrel cliffs", as I call the party while a more appropriate name emerges, encountered some outlaws on the way to Caer Dathyl, the capital and seat of the High King of Prydain.

    The proximal reason for our having a combat encounter here was a bit of incidental word-play from the player of Gethwen the ranger at the end of the 1st session: they suggested jocularly that the consequence of their rolling a '1' on an orienteering check on their travels would likely be an attack by outlaws for which the Hill Cantrevs of Prydain are rightly known. While this isn't quite how it works (there's no critical failure rule, and even if there were, the occurrence of extra encounters is not really controlled by the roll results), this was a legal juncture to place an extra encounter, and I was eager to acclimate the players to constant combat grinding, so there we were: starting an epic fantasy campaign with a robber encounter.

    The nature of the monsters and the level of the encounter (with fixed-level monsters the encounter level mainly determines how many monsters there are, exactly) was already determined in my prep: ordinary outlaw encounters are level 3 in ordinary times, or level 4 during chaotic times (such as when a war rages in the province). The outlaw "monster faction" consists of six different monsters I could choose from to construct the actual encounter:
    Scoundrel - Skirmish 2
    Trapper - Elite Controller 2
    Hunter - Lurker 3
    Outlaw Brute - Brute 3
    Mercenary - Soldier 3
    Robber Ambush - Trap 4

    (Traps are sort of an abstract special case of a monster. For pokedex purposes each entry on a trap, such as "Robber Ambush" here, is itself a collection of a few different possible traps that I allow myself to choose from when building a Robber Ambush. I'm mostly using the rules as written on traps, except that I give traps that have a low individual chance to hit a hero during a given encounter a 75% price discount - essentially, I'll place one trap if the geography guarantees it a fair chance to hit, or otherwise I scatter four similar traps around the map and take my chances on having at least one score a hit.)

    In case I didn't mention it when describing my campaign prep: I'm writing up all the monster stat blocks myself, and often enough I'm doing it on the fly, starting from the above sort of one-line definitions that I'd prepared in advance. The players get to keep our notes on the monsters in the pokedex as we go along. I'm by nature more of a seat-of-my-pants GM, which shows even when running a prep-crazy game like this.

    What I wanted to do in this encounter from the first was something built around the Trapper: I'd put him into the list with the idea that he's got a 50% discount on placing traps into encounters, assuming he has the time to plan an ambush, so that's what I did: a "Trapper", two counts "Robber Ambush" and enough Scoundrels to fill in the XP budget.

    The combat map was quick to draw, I had the players help out with that: a narrow path going through a forest, with a hill on one side. About 50% of the field outside the path was covered in underbrush (difficult terrain), and trees (obstacles). I did secret placement for the Trapper's pit traps after the terrain layout, favouring seemingly easily-travelled places, and placed the Scoundrels behind the traps to encourage fools to run straight into them. The Trapper himself started hidden.

    The centerpiece of the combat encounter was clearly the Trapper and his nefariousness: he used his cunning "Ventriloquism" one-use attack at the start to lure a couple of the more morally responsible characters into running straight into pit traps. I asked the players specifically which members of the party were "morally responsible", and as both Deithwen Morgan and Francis the Missionary volunteered, off they went sliding towards the voice of a lady in peril.

    Deithwen went into the pit with a gratifying thump, but he spotted the Trapper himself on the hill slopes immediately after climbing up again. It was quite gratifying to take the Trapper's first turn to bull rush Deithwen back into the same pit! Admittedly he needed to use his action point to push Deithwen two squares, but I elected for this probably suboptimal tactical play for the comedy value - plus it was an opportunity to remind the players that they have action points, too, if they want to use them.

    I have the players roll monster lore checks as they witness monsters, and give them prepped monster art and box text to add to the pokedex as they succeed. As Gethwen the ranger was relatively local, it was established that he knew of the trapper, a particularly infamous outlaw who goes by the name of "ap Iver" (or McGuyver, I suppose, were he Scottish). I was oriented towards providing this improvised NPC with a background and motivation because he was an "Elite" monster - although in this case the elite status was outright bestowed by my monster prep, I still assumed that the elite traits should indicate a personal identity. We discussed apIver's particular exploits and the price on his head throughout the fight, alongside having him talk to the heroes.

    Aside from the dastardly apIver and what developed into a duel between him and Deithwen, the rest of the party were entertained by the Scoundrels and their own propensity towards choosing the most obvious paths through the battlefield - they were pretty good about running into the pits I'd placed without anybody needing to help them along. As the pit traps were level 4 and enjoyed a damage bonus for being essentially one-use (despite Deithwen's mishap of falling twice into the same pit), they hit pretty hard and thus helped the Scoundrels feel like more of a threat.

    As I mentioned earlier, the NPC good guy Adaon ("The Finest Man in Prydain", as he's known to those familiar with the novels) was with the party here. He was, however, unmotivated as per my companion NPC rules (disappointed about the party not wanting to follow him into Annuvin, to be specific), which meant that not only did I run him in the fight, but I also had him act in an ironically genre-appropriate manner rather than being an effective combat machine. He didn't outright refuse to act, but let's say that his action use was often rather... peculiarly chivalrous and common sense. Stuff like "holding them off!" by declaring full defense and stuff like that. It was a good opportunity to demonstrate to the players how the relationship rules translate into not necessarily hostile NPC activity, but ineffectiveness anyway: they would be better off running the NPC companions themselves, ensuring that they spend their turns productively.

    Ultimately the party struggled themselves to victory, as they should under this rules set. As I've often described here at SG, I have had several experiences of total party wipes in 4th edition D&D, all while playing ready-made adventure modules. This time around, having built everything myself from scratch (following the encounter design rules and such reasonably closely, note), there never was such a danger despite the dramatic action choreography of the combat - the party faced a level+2 encounter and certainly got chewed some, but complete loss was never a serious possibility. It's probably no news at this point, but this campaign has been rather good about confirming my sense that the 4th edition game is much more balanced when you don't gamble on the WotC supplement treadmill having a good day.
  • edited August 2018
    The Trapper, apIver, got away, which means that he'll have an opportunity to become a recurring villain. He certainly fits the environment of Prydain, so I'm sure I'll have him show up when a logical opportunity arises. As per the campaign rules he'll be level 3 next time, having earned a level for encountering the heroes and surviving.


    After the combat we continued the travel skill challenge (which counted an extra success for the victorious combat encounter). The rest of it wasn't much of a difficulty, and the party soon found themselves arriving at Caer Dathyl, the ersatz Minas Tirith of Prydain. (Describing Pridonite things in LotR terms is often useful in giving the players an immediate sense of what's what.)

    The rest of the session was spent doing various sorts of character roleplaying as Deithwen Morgan offered hospitality to the Heroes of the Quarrel Cliffs, the party had a meeting with king Math ap Mathonwy, and so on. The crown prince Gwydion, a grand and important hero, was at Caer Dathyl at this time, which was an opportunity for the heroes to meet with him as well. I particularly liked the character moment when Gwydion visited with Deithwen Morgan at his home to discuss Deithwen's experiences in the south in more detail; we learned that not only is Gwydion deeply conflicted about the danger of a southern rebellion, but that he is not particularly fond of his cousin Deithwen - the latter's preoccupation with the trades, and other matters better fit for Pridonites than Sons of Don, have done little to favour Deithwen in the eyes of most Sons of Don. Gwydion isn't one to let personal dislike get in the way of duty, but he does have better friends than Deithwen.

    We also learned that Deithwen Morgan is a relative of king Morgant of Madoc, an important Pridonite warlord familiar from the Chronicles - while this was more of an interesting detail for now, it is something that will surely come into play sooner or later.

    High King Math himself greeted the news of the emerging southern rebellion with gravity. He took his time to consider the news and consult with his advisors before asking Deithwen for a favour, the one that would launch our first proper adventure: the High King wanted Deithwen, with his uncommon gift for Pridonite customs and diplomacy among the Sons of Don, to act as Math's envoy to the king of Mona, Rhuddlum. Mona has the most operative fleet in Prydain, and it is thus imperative for the High King to ascertain king Rhuddlum's loyalty and willingness to transport a northern army to the southern shores of the land. (Here's the map I use as the basis for the campaign in case I'm not making sense here.) The conceit here is that the High King hopes that Gwydion his son can convince the rebellious lords to put down their arms by surprising them with quick and decisive action: the High King would amass a host among the northern cantrevs of Prydain over the winter, and then in the spring the fleet of Mona can take the army south sooner than the southerners could possibly expect them.

    (This is the default entry point to "The Castle of Llyr" adventure in my campaign prep. In the Chronicles we see the heroes take an alternate entry that relies on them having done "Escape from the Spiral Castle" beforehand. Either way, the actual adventure occurs on the Isle of Mona, so that's where we're going if we want to do this adventure.)

    The real choice of the next step was with the players, of course, within the constraints of the campaign's framework: would they wish to honor their paltry promise to Adaon to go explore sleeping Annuvin, or would they rather get swept along into the grand preparations of war and courtly intrigue? As we remember, the party's nominal plan in the last session was to "take the warning about the impending war to Caer Dathyl, then start an expedition to Annuvin".

    With the political and military events proceeding apace, the party of course chose to be loyal (and useful) to the High King over other concerns. We ended the session with the party committing to the mission to Mona, and with the High King giving them some more white linen and magic items. Because this was already the first scene of "The Castle of Llyr" adventure, which is a level 4 adventure, the High King's gifts were magic items of levels 5-8; certainly useful additions in outfitting a 1st level party.

    EDIT: I forgot to mention that this is the first time the players made a serious commitment of Fame points - the money-equivalent of the campaign. Besides "buying" magic items from enchanters and kings, an important use for Fame is that players can invest it into deepening the relationship and improving the motivation of various NPCs they encounter: flip an enemy into an ally (as happens in the Chronicles several times), or simply strengthen an ally's commitment to the cause. In this case the players, impressed by the crown prince Gwydion (both his importance in the Chronicles and his factual presence in the campaign, I suppose) decided to invest the points necessary for him to decide to trust his new acquaintances. Consequently Gwydion chose to accompany the heroes to Mona to ensure that their diplomatic mission would go off without a hitch.

    Conclusion: We enjoyed the session. A few players were more detached and attentive of their own stuff, but the hard core, myself included, found all this entertaining. The creative activity worked exactly according to my theories of Sim princessing railroad play: the combat stuff produced fictional action choreography, the players entertained themselves by "roleplaying" as the activity is called, and I got to tell my story - the story of how the High Kingship reacts to news of southern rebellion, in the case of this session, plus some side stuff about sheep-stealing outlaws and whatnot.
  • I may be confusing my Eero stories here, but weren't you at one point toying with a system for the players to "negotiate" the difficulty of combat encounters? I thought you had meant to do that with this campaign...or perhaps I misunderstood, and it was more of an abstract or indirect thing, what with giving them different adventure paths to choose and that modular XP for benefits system you mentioned elsewhere.
  • Thanks to these threads, I've now bought the 5 Prydain books, read 2 of them already and now got the Prydain Companion too. Added to the very good Wiki pages, it makes a great background for role play. I've tinkered with Swords & Wizardry Light for my game rules (not being a fan of 4e), adding in some classes (Bard, Ranger, Druid). More or less ready to start, once our current "Other Dust" campaign has come to an end.
  • edited August 2018
    No, you're probably thinking of this campaign - it's just that the various elements are taking a while to get on line, and the system is not intended to be an entirely straightforward "whatever you want" deal - it's more interesting if the players are more in a position to expend limited resource to fine-tune things than just a raw responsibility to choose for themselves what they'll fight. I'm sure you can imagine how the experience could become boring if everything was just an arbitrary mass of options out of the Monster Manual. Most of the time the players want to be told a story, rather than having to decide for themselves what happens in the game.

    For example, in this fight from the 2nd session that my session log above discusses, the initial encounter level is determined by my notes - my random/extra encounter material, to be specific - which generally attempt to score things in terms of dramatic weight: there is an implicit range of "lethality" to things, and the more significant and lethal individual situations are, the higher their encounter level. This is the reason for why the default level of an extra outlaw encounter is 3. (For comparison's sake, there's a named outlaw NPC in the Chronicles, one "Dorath"; the encounter with him, should it occur, will be level 5.)

    Meanwhile, the monsters themselves have fixed levels, again determined by the same lethality logic. The various sorts of outlaws I listed above settle on a pretty narrow range, basically levels 2-3. This means that outlaw type monsters most naturally appear in encounters around level 1-5 or so; any higher than that, and I'll need to start transforming them into minions (+8 to hit and no hit points, basically) to keep them relevant.

    Where the player input comes in is, appropriately, in determining the circumstances of the combat encounter once it's been established in play that there's going to be one. In this particular case we were just starting the campaign out, and I had no desire to complicate it for the players, particularly as they didn't really have any Operative Points (OP) to spend this early into the adventure. In a hypothetical situation in which the players had saved up the points from earlier play, they could have chosen to expend those in the combat set-up to reduce or increase the number of monsters, to have a bigger impact in setting the terrain, and the other elements that go into making a miniatures skirmish scenario.

    We'll see later how the players choose to use their OP in later sessions; they have certainly grown into an awareness of how they have quite a bit of influence in how the game goes, in everything except the direction of the plot railroad, when they feel that they want to use it. (Some readers might remember my railroading theory treatise from earlier this year, the gist of which is that the players might as well have a say in everything that you possibly can give them, considering that the GM is monopolizing the determination of "what happens next".)
  • Great read as usual Eero!
  • edited August 2018
    Great stuff; nice to see this game under way after all!
  • Session #6 tomorrow, pleh... the campaign has enjoyable in play, but my natural disinclination towards prep definitely starts to show as I get the broad strokes of the campaign together and all that's left are the nitty-gritty details. Statting up NPCs is particularly boring, as ultimately the miniatures chess in 4th edition D&D is not particularly fiction-based; thinking up something interesting for a given NPC to do in combat is often rather unrelated to the other aspects of their character.

    Anyway, let's do a bit more logging - maybe that'll inspire me to finish the prep for tomorrow!

    Session #3: A Royal Kidnapping

    We've been attempting a particularly regular weekly schedule for this campaign, so the third session rolled around soon enough. By this point the campaign's mid-term direction was relatively fixed compared to the uncertainties at the start: the day's theme would be "The Castle of Llyr", an adventure based on the third novel in the Chronicles of Prydain. I'd prepared by doing a detailed write-up of the first half of the adventure; I didn't have time to think through the climax at the end yet, but at the speed the game seems to progress, that wouldn't be a problem - we wouldn't get there yet in this session.

    The novel, also named The Castle of Llyr, concerns itself with the heritage of the people of Llyr, a powerful race of sea lords and sorcerers. The canonical plot revolves around the relationship of Taran and Eilonwy, two characters who haven't been introduced into the campaign yet, nor moved to their initial starting positions at the beginning of the novel; my prep predicts this, so the adventure works without them.

    Furthermore, the novel includes an extended adventure sequence in the middle that has little to do with the main plot arc; this is not uncommon for either the Chronicles of Prydain or the genre of high fantasy adventure as a whole, so nothing special in that regard, but it does mean that I have essentially split the novel in twain for campaign purposes: the initial kidnapping sequence and the ending climax form one adventure, and the alchemical giant stuff in the middle becomes a second adventure that the players may opt to involve themselves in midway through - or elsewhere in the campaign for that matter, it's essentially a movable side-quest. I could be more inflexible about stuff like this, but I find that modularizing the material for maximum flexibility in rearrangement is a virtue: by focusing on the real plot arcs instead of arbitrary passages I minimize the amount of hard, linear rail-roading in the game. The way I do it, the players actually get into a "waystation" almost every session where it's possible to make some choices about the direction.

    With these modifications to the plot, the novel turns into a simply linear adventure. My Finnish notes are a bit more graphical and detailed, but the gist of it looks like this:

    Enter mission: Either diplomatic, or if Eilonwy has been introduced, then as per the novel. Either way, the party needs to travel to Mona.
    Travel to the Isle of Mona: 2nd level skill challenge, length 4. Key skills Streetwise and Seafaring. Introduce prince Rhun.
    Meeting with King Rhuddlum: 3rd level skill challenge, length 4. Key skills Diplomacy and Insight. Introduce steward Magg. Magg determines who sleeps in the castle and who sleeps in the stable. The skill challenge has time for four rolls before the evening, at which time it's over-run by the next scene.
    Kidnapping in the night: 4th level combat encounter. Strangler (Brute 4) and Night Dogs (Skirmisher 2) attempt to kidnap Eilonwy (or lacking her, prince Rhun). Steward Magg (Elite Controller 4) enters on 2nd round to spirit the kidnappee away under the cover of his position - he's not in the xp budget, as he does not intend to fight.
    Tracks over Mona: 4th level skill challenge, length 4. Key skills Nature and Endurance. An opportunity to enter side quest "King of Rocks".
    The Fate of Caer Colur: 5th level combat encounter. Introduce queen Achren, princess Eilonwy. Use Magg and Night Dogs to fill budget as necessary, but they count only for half, as Magg retreats from combat and drowns Caer Colur whenever the GM feels like it.

    Neat and linear, as you can see. The adventure works essentially as a sequence of twists and mysteries, as the initial diplomatic mission turns into exploring the betrayal of the king's steward, which in turn reveals a magical plot to revive the people of Llyr (and displace the kingship of Mona by implication). Much of the appeal in the adventure lies in presenting the main NPCs in a colorful manner; the climatic scene at the end is particularly important, as it brings in two characters who are only familiar from foreshadowing. (Achren is something impossible to ignore when discussing the history of Prydain, while princess Eilonwy is the fabled "lost princess" of Llyr, so both have been mentioned in passing to all players, including those who haven't read the novels.)
  • The third session was the first one where the player of Gethwen the ranger missed the whole session, I think; he's been missing the game since then, so it's possible that we'll not see him any more. (He's indicated continuing willingness to participate, but knowing how flaking works, I'm not counting on anything.) The other players, on the other hand, were conscientiously present, so I haven't been worried for the future of the campaign; losing some players at the start is typical of affairs like this. I'm confident that as long as Deithwen Morgan, Francis the missionary and Eluned the enchantress continue the adventure, there's reason enough to continue the campaign.

    In actual practice we started the session with the skill challenge to travel to the isle of Mona. I can already say at this point that skill challenges are really good for doing this high fantasy adventure travel stuff; it's just the right pacing and flexibility for inserting other materials so that the travel scene simultaneously have the travelogue feel the genre expects, but are also snappy enough to not stretch out the way they sometimes do when we do similar stuff with trad techniques. I have history with some alternate solutions for how to do this, and I consider Jonathan Walton's Caspian Adventures a better theoretical treatise on the technical principles, but the 4th edition skill challenge is certainly a fit implementation (with the few basic fixes discussed elsewhere).

    I particularly enjoy mapping the pace indicated by the success track to the real geography of the setting. For example, here the party was traveling from Caer Dathyl to the isle of Mona: the implication was that they would first take a short trip overland to the estuary of the river Dwyvyd and then hire a ship in a settlement (a heretofore unnamed town; I have my own ideas about the settlement patters in Prydain, of course), followed by a short sea journey to Mona. This meant that as we went along with the skill challenge, the changing milieu naturally shifted the necessary skills from overland travel skills to the seafaring set.

    What this meant in practice was that I got to foreshadow the West Domains of king Pryderi, a rather important and highly developed part of Prydain that gets minimal exposure in the Chronicles. I thought that we did a good job here in doing one of the core creative activities of a railroaded sim adventure game: a bit of dialogue with the locals, some first-person observations as the characters traveled in the province for some, and so on. There were details memorable enough so the players will remember the West Domains when they come into play again later in the campaign. (For example: they met some local knights who were dressed in plate mail. This type of armor is generally not available in Prydain, but the West Domains are simply a rule to themselves in many ways.)

    The players also got to buy a magic wand for their wand-specializing wizard in the coastal town of Dwyvydlech, which was something the wizard had been wanting since the start, as their wand-specialization class feature doesn't work without. 360 gp for the basic wand, and you only get 100 gp to buy equipment at first level, which is why they didn't start with one. Not a major expenditure by any means at this point, as the Heroes of the Quarrel Cliffs had already garnered considerable Fame over the foregoing scenes - easily enough to have a local acquaintance "loan" them the funds for a purchase.

    (The merchant lady doing the sale was a person of Llyr, in case you were wondering about the presence of "magic shops" in a literary setting like Prydain. I tend to interpret things here with D&D gameability in mind, so the coastal settlements of Prydain tend to have minor enclaves of the people of Llyr capable of supporting the most basic needs of a travelling Wizard. I assume they mostly do business in foreign goods and the trades, but are surely also capable of providing the essentials of their ethnic religion - wizardry - to their compatriots. More playable than assuming the opposite, on a matter where it could go either way insofar as setting design goes.)

    There's a lot of Streetwise training in the party (for seemingly little reason, as this isn't exactly an urban campaign), so the heroes had no trouble finding a ship in Dwyvydlech as part of the travel challenge. As a fortuitous "coincidence" would have it, they stumbled upon a Monaide ship in harbour, one that was happy to take an envoy of the High King on board. The ship was mastered by an experience seafarer and "captained" by the teenage prince Rhûn, a comically incompetent fop of a prince. (Think Mr. Bean - we did.) Francis the missionary was immediately taken by the prince, perhaps recognizing something of his own youth in Rhun's awkwardness (plus, perhaps recognizing that a 1st level NPC with the status of a prince would be both a cheap and useful friend to have).

    We arrived in Mona after minor mishaps (saving a drowning prince from the sea and such - routine stuff), at which point prince Gwydion, who'd followed the party quietly so far, took off to do some information-gathering on the island incognito, paralleling his actions in the original novel. Meanwhile the heroes were thrust into another skill challenge over their reason for being on Mona in the first place: they would have to make a good impression on the king, ensure his loyalty to the hig kingship and secure his promises for naval resources come spring and time for the high king's planned campaign in the southern territories.

    Unknown to the players, this latter skill challenge was even more of a ritualistic routine than the typical skill challenge in the game: the challenge would be cut short by nightfall and the disruptive events of the night, after which the initial diplomatic concern would fade into irrelevance in the face of new events. Despite this ironic context, the skill challenge did its job of providing an interactive interface through which we learned more about king Rhuddlum, queen Teleria, and the foreboding steward Magg, who took an instant dislike to most of the party, but accepted the noble-born Deithwen Morgan as a peer - and clearly feared the wrath of the Llyr-born enchantress Eluned.

    (A fun detail about king Rhuddlum: we learned that he's a former common-born Rogue. Apparently Rhuddlum was a hapless companion of High King Math and Dalben the enchanter in their youth, when the trio - probably accompanied by some sort of cleric - formed a D&D adventuring party. After clearing the Eye of the Beholder adventure in the city of Waterdeep - something all NPC parties in my games seem to have done - the party ended up arriving on the isle of Mona around the time the castle of Llyr, Caer Colur, shattered, and Rhuddlum was just sort of left behind by Math to keep order on the island during the ensuing chaos. An interesting fellow, this king Rhuddlum.)

    The party spent the night split into two by the steward's whim: Deithwen Morgan as the envoy deserved to have a guest room in the castle, as did Eluned of Llyr, while the rest of the rabble got to stay in the stables. One of the players who'd read the novel asked me about meeting with Fllewddur Fflam, an important supporting character here; I'd completely forgotten about him myself while prepping the adventure despite him indeed making an appearance at this point in the novel. A quick thing to fix, no doubt.
  • The main meat of the session was, of course, the combat encounter at the end: unknown to everybody in Dinas Rhydnant, steward Magg had been plotting with the witch-queen Achren, and now that prince Rhûn had returned from his sea journey, Magg intended to seize the opportunity and kidnap the prince for Achren's nefarious magical purposes. The heroes, who were taken to be hapless delegates by Magg, would have an opportunity to foil his plans.

    (These events differ in logical detail from the novel a tad, but those familiar with the work will probably recognize how it doesn't really make much difference to the flow of events as to why Magg escapes into the night, and with whom, as long as it's something spectacular enough to motivate the heroes, and preferably something that makes some sort of sense in the context of Achren's plans. My basic magic lore assumption here has been that an Achren who attempts to restore Caer Colur with Eilonwy nicely in hand, yet lacking the Book of Llyr, is forced to attempt a blood rite of some sort to transfer ritual kingship over the island from the House of Rhuddlum to Eilonwy, and thus back to the house of Llyr. Thus the adventure itself occurs regardless of whether the party has saved Eilonwy before - as in the novels - or not.)

    The combat encounter here had some pretty nice complex features: the battlefield was essentially split in two parts by the castle's wall, upon which were 2nd story windows into the bedchambers. Because the kidnappers attempted to capture the prince and hoist him out of the window to the yard, there was opportunity for action in both halves of the map. As the party was split in half at start, and the heroes inside the castle were alerted to the kidnapping in progress earlier (one combat round, to be specific) than those in the stables, the party had to deal with a far from optimal arrangement of their forces at the start.

    Furthermore, the goals of the combat were somewhat complex in that while preventing the kidnapping was certainly the primary concern, the party also had an opportunity to capture the mastermind behind the event: steward Magg joined the combat on the 2nd round with his horse, ostensibly to "take the prince to safety"; should the heroes see through the ruse and prevent Magg from spiriting the prince away, they might also be able to capture Magg himself, which would certainly simplify the rest of the adventure.

    A word about Magg, because I'm pretty proud of the way I mechanized him. Magg was a 4th level elite "Lurker", which tactical role in 4th edition D&D indicates a monster that has a qualitative defense: instead of high AC or hitpoints it has something that limits opportunities to attack it. The simple core example is a monster that turns invisible every second round and attacks enemies every second one. Lurkers generally speaking have strong attacks that they do not use every round.

    So anyway, how is Magg, a treacherous official, a Lurker? I gave him a hilarious special quality named "Always an Explanation": Magg cannot be recognized as an enemy combatant unless the character succeeds in an Insight check. In other words, Magg's Lurker status relies on social obfuscation instead of more conventional means. What's worse, during the chaos of combat every character would need their own Insight or Perception checks to realize Magg's treachery (or plain see him stabbing an ally), so it wouldn't all be over for him the minute one character figures him out. I also gave Magg a few covert attack abilities that can be used without automatically blowing his cover, and an encounter power to quickly change his appearance (for further covert hijinks) if he has an opportunity to disappear from view at some point.

    (Those familiar with the novel might notice how I'm treating Magg as a pretty serious villain here. While he's more pompously stupid in the novels than deviously evil, I'm going with the assumption that this is the circumstances talking, not inherent character nature: I'll give Magg a fair chance to be the villain he wants to be, and if he ends up a sorry loser like in the novels, then that's on him and not me stacking the deck against him. It's like I was running Grima Wormtongue - again with the LotR comparisons here - and trying not to predetermine whether he's a senator Palpatine or the awkward wretch we know from the canon. I believe this to be the more sensible route for a game like this: if I predetermined a villain to be a clown, we would lose too much dramatic tension. Better to have the events in play determine who's ambition is scary and who's ambition is ludicrous.)

    The actual scut-work of the kidnapping, climbing into bedrooms and such, was done by Magg's hired muscle: foreigner rogues and assassins. Magg had also arranged for the security of the whole castle wing to be lessened to make the kidnapping operation feasible, which was easy to do for the castle steward; loyal guards would only start making an appearance after round 3, at which point things should be well in hand. All in all, Magg had a good plan, I think - a fair chance of success. This was just fine with me, as the Plot dictates that Magg should succeed at this juncture: his treachery is the motivating dramatic factor for the second half of the adventure.
  • The execution of the battle went well, I thought: as befits the purpose of miniatures chess, the various dice rolls helped us paint out the particulars of the action choreography.

    Both Deithwen Morgan and Eluned the Enchantress were in minor trouble inside the castle, wrangling with the ninja assassins; Deithwen due to bad rolls, Eluned because a wizard is not exactly a natural soloist. They never managed to hook up effectively so Deithwen could protect Eluned. In fact, they were only truly left to recover themselves because the battle moved outside, and castle guards (2nd level Soldiers) started belatedly appearing in the halls.

    Meanwhile, the black horse of the scenario proved to be prince Rhûn himself: despite having the most severe mechanical penalties I dared to grant a character of his nature, the prince bravely put up a resistance against the kidnappers. The decision of the players to befriend him earlier was decisive here, as it meant that I'd given his character sheet to the players and let them play him: had I been doing it, Rhûn would have been too timid to fight back. As it was, it took some solid dice luck for Rhûn to delay his capture usefully.

    The second factor in the victory of the heroes was that they had earlier specifically convinced prince Gwydion (who'd gotten into the castle disguised as a cobbler earlier) to spend the night at the stables with Francis the Missionary and Harald the Viking. Gwydion, being a 5th level Defender, was instrumental in the courtyard skirmish.

    Despite the work the companion NPCs did in the battle, Magg's plan could still have succeeded simply because it had a pretty good failsafe: while the battle was raging in the yard and the prince was being roughly lowered to the ground, Magg himself approached the fracas with full intent to just get in there and "save" the prince, who would surely come with an old family retainer without resistance. Nobody had any reason to expect Magg himself to be the ringmaster of the kidnapping ploy.

    The players of course were rather skeptical of Magg, and one had outright read the Castle of Llyr novel, so it was no secret whose side the Magg figure approaching the fight was. The technical facts were clear, however: the players could not treat Magg as an enemy without first piercing his social mask. Pretty interesting ironic level in the fight in that regard, a sort of a social challenge embedded within it.

    As it happened, the party's human relations expert, Francis the Missionary, had read the combat's course rather far ahead, and he was in position to keep a close eye on Magg as he approached. While Francis failed in his first Insight check, he was blatant enough about eyeballing Magg that the latter took the opportunity to knife Francis in the back covertly. Magg was all like "oh damn man, somebody just shot at you! There's a sniper here somewhere!" while hiding his dagger and proffering the arrow he "drew from the wound" [grin]. An example of solid action choreography there, Magg had some moves.

    Francis of course figured things out in short order and started warning the other heroes verbally about Magg's treatchery. (A +2 to their own attempts at figuring it out - trying a check was a Minor action, so not entirely free.) Magg had managed to maneuver himself around the skirmish by then, and was in the process of mounting the prince in front of him on the horse, but then prince Rhûn had his own brainstorm and realized the depths of Magg's treachery. I probably should've given him an extra -2 to the check, thinking back, due to their long personal acquaintance. Either way, the prince managed to resist his "rescuer" at the last moment.

    Francis was in general something of a MVP in this fight, as he laid down his Daily power at a pretty good moment to bolster the heroes and ensure that they got a handle on the chaos in time to cut short the kidnapping attempt.

    While the knowledge (rather, astounded realization) of Magg's being on the side of the enemy swept over the party, Magg himself tried one more blatant action point -powered attempt at wrestling the prince on board, but as that also failed, and his men were clearly losing the fight, Magg opted to escape the field while he still could. The 4th edition retreat rules are rather rotten, but we managed to determine that despite the PCs doing a bit of half-hearted pursuit, Magg on his horse could get out of the castle and away pretty neatly. (I'll have to write down explicit, precise and functional alternate retreat rules soon; I've been getting by with sham improvisation so far.)

    The battle took a reasonable bite out of the party resources - healing surges and Dailies, the two forms of resource that the game has. I also declared that the players would now have a choice: they could join king Rhuddlum's men in trying to find Magg, who escaped to the inland hills of Mona, or they could call it quits and exit the adventure now; having prevented the kidnapping, the heroes were still in the dark as to why the steward acted this way, but they had certainly stopped the immediate threat and won the gratitude of king Rhuddlum. The initial diplomatic motivation was obviously cleared, it wasn't like Rhuddlum would refuse the high king's reasonable requests after the king's envoy had so benefited his own house.

    The players deliberated the choice for a while at the end of the session. Ending the adventure now would be the quickest way to level 2, but it would mean leaving Magg to continue on his mysterious way, and the party wouldn't have an opportunity to see the second half of the adventure. The players were clearly a bit conflicted and confused by getting to choose whether to continue an adventure that had already succeeded (in terms of gaining a level out of it).

    Ultimately the decision swung in favour of continuing on, simply because the party had amassed so many Operational Points by now that they could afford a range of advantages for the next stage: they opted to "camp" for the next day at Dinas Rhydnant to heal the party with a better surge efficacy (double healing, essentially), and while they recovered from the night, they would gain some initial scouting information from the king's men who'd followed Magg's tracks inland. The players purchased "advance warning" of the next combat scene, which at this point was the climatic scene at Caer Colur, so that's what I told them about. They also purchased initial surprise for the combat, I think, and some other stuff to zero out their Operational Points. A bit premature, as we would come to see in the next session.
  • The 4th edition retreat rules are rather rotten, but we managed to determine that despite the PCs doing a bit of half-hearted pursuit, Magg on his horse could get out of the castle and away pretty neatly. (I'll have to write down explicit, precise and functional alternate retreat rules soon; I've been getting by with sham improvisation so far.)

    D&D 4th edition has retreat rules?
  • We did session #6 yesterday, and it was great - probably my best rpg session this year, all things considered, and that bar's not very low if I may say so myself. It'll take me a while to get there with my campaign logging, but I'll try. Been having a busy time (in a good way) this week, so haven't had time for ancillary writing.
    Simon W said:

    Thanks to these threads, I've now bought the 5 Prydain books, read 2 of them already and now got the Prydain Companion too. Added to the very good Wiki pages, it makes a great background for role play. I've tinkered with Swords & Wizardry Light for my game rules (not being a fan of 4e), adding in some classes (Bard, Ranger, Druid). More or less ready to start, once our current "Other Dust" campaign has come to an end.

    Huh, I missed this earlier. That sounds great, and please tell us more about your campaign plans later. Also, if you want to talk Prydain setting detail, I've got some pretty good insights that keeps slowly amassing as the campaign continues - historical time-lines, lists of different monsters and other enemies, theology and arcane mechanics, and other sorts of fanon cosmology that I find useful in portraying the setting dynamically in my GMing. My setting take is not 100% canon, but that's mainly because I attempt to glorify and update the thematic ideas, and expand the setting in various logical ways that a rpg campaign naturally needs.

    Also, I do have notes for like 14 adventures (I added one, will write about it later) at this point, in case you're doing the relatively linear railroad thing and would find the break-downs useful for what you're doing.
  • I'm currently in the planning stage (having finished all the books as well as The Foundling). I plan to set it after the chronicals - there is a new threat to Prydain and magic is coming back. The Sons of Don have set out from the Summer Lands to lend their aid against the new threat. This won't be a major part of the game yet as characters will be youngsters starting at 0 level - they won't have a class yet just a background (Assistant Pig Keeper, Shepherd, Potter etc.) - probably based in The Commots. I think the first adventure will follow the first book initially - one of the farmers now owns the Black Piglet (one of Hen Wen's) which has gone missing. However, it is five goblin-like "Fair Folk" that stole it and have taken it to their camp to eat. One of them has found out that it might be valuable though and feels they're better off keeping it for ransom and another |goblin has sided with him. When the PCs actually find the goblin camp there are opportunities to either attack the goblins or role-play it as they'll hear the argument about whether to eat or keep the piglet. That's the plan anyway. Once they've recovered the piglet they can choose a class and lead on to further adventure.
  • Simon W said:

    I'm currently in the planning stage (having finished all the books as well as The Foundling). I plan to set it after the chronicals - there is a new threat to Prydain and magic is coming back.

    Sounds good to me. An opportunity to start fresh.

    An interesting cosmological question is whether Fate is coming back to Prydain as well - whether it's an intrinsic part of magic or not. A lot of what occurs in the Chronicles is pretty clearly fated in the sense that it's romantically stylized - coincidences are common and events fall just so that the heroes have opportunities to fulfill their destiny. The Chronicles tell us that Fate "ends" as magic retreats, leaving mankind fully free. Makes one think on what happens when magic comes back - one possibility is that the immense power vacuum will be filled by competing pretender Fates, for example. Or, maybe the three sisters just come back.

    Another issue that I would expect to play a big role in a post-Chronicles Prydain would be England - or Logres, rather. Does it exist - does Prydain have any neighbouring nations in the first place? Prydain's role as a fantasy Cymru makes me expect this theme to come up sooner or later.

    Anyway, time to write some more log. We're done with session #10 at this writing, so we're playing faster than I'm logging - need to speed up if I'm not keep abreast of the developments over the next few months.
  • Session #4: Facing Queen Achren

    Fourth session was the first one in which we had major player input into the actual content of play. As per my railroading theory, the campaign's plot is predetermined (with the occasional cross-road and switchback), but while I as the GM am solely in charge of the session-by-session content planning (as in, what scenes we will have), the other players have major say in everything else that goes into a roleplaying game. This was the point where they started to see what that's like in practice.

    The plan for the session, as outlined in my Castle of Llyr adventure notes, was to start with a skill challenge as the heroes track the dastardly Magg from one end of the Isle of Mona to the other. On the way, as per the novel, the party would stumble upon a side adventure that doesn't have a separate name in the novel but which I call The King of Stones for a major support character featured therein. We wouldn't be likely to finish the side adventure in one session, but it is technically, like all side adventures in this campaign, an optional event - the party could pass on it for one reason or other, in which case would move directly to the climax of the Castle of Llyr adventure.

    The session prep was both work-intensive and conceptually somewhat tricky: I needed to finish prepping the climax of Castle of Llyr, featuring a big fight with the sorcerer-queen Achren, in case the players would short-circuit their way there; a big fight with a major support character implies trying to make it memorable and interesting as a miniatures combat. Aside from Achren herself the fight featured princess Eilonwy, Magg, some minions and a half-sunk magical fortress with dangerously usable sluice gates - good stuff.

    What retained most of my attention in prepping the session wasn't the climax, though; rather, the side adventure, King of Stones, required solving two separate challenges. One was that I needed to expand on the novel's material somewhat to make for an adventure with appropriate pacing, and the other was that I needed to fit a long rest into the adventure somehow. Adding more flesh into the side quest was largely a matter of creative writing, so no big deal, but I needed to give it a few days before I figured out how to make the rest logic so beloved by D&D hang together naturally. (The solution involves some pretty fresh takes on the setting - we'll come back to this at some point, I expect.)

    The actual session started with a retread of the discussion from the end of the last one: the treacherous steward Magg had escaped Dinas Rhydnant after failing in kidnapping prince Rhûn. The heroes did not know why Magg had gone to this drastic length, but technically speaking they didn't need to - they could just let things be and return to Caer Dathyl instead of seeing the latter half of the adventure (as a conceptual pre-determined content framework, I mean). The debate was a bit opaque from my perspective, which I think was because the players took to it from a sort of character-based operational perspective - they were concerned with "what would my character do", which is fine, but also "what are the consequences of this choice", which is something that I try to consistently downplay in this campaign: the only real consequence of choosing to go on an adventure should be that you get to see that adventure, and the only consequence of not going is that you get to do something else instead.

    (If you're wondering why this was even a question in a railroad game, it's simply because I chose it to be: the fictional logic of the adventure happens to be such that the combat encounter in the last session rewarded the players with an early exit - and consequent loss of an opportunity in the climax - that they could take if they wanted to. Because I'm working superlinearly in this campaign, sketching out and filling in an entire campaign's worth of adventures at once, I'm not quite as invested as your average railroad conductor might be in having every single scene in my plans played. The railroad as a whole is much more about presenting material than nitpicky linear causality from one scene to the next, so I can afford to present stuff in different order or skip some if we want to.)

    Ultimately the same logic held sway as last time, though, so the heroes got themselves into gear and moved out to experience the hills of in-land Mona. King Rhuddlum, their host, asked the party to take prince Rhûn with them, as per the novel; he saw little danger in the hunt for the traitorous Magg, and wished for the prince to gain some little experience with manly pursuits this way, with trusted companions. Well enough, particularly as Francis the Missionary had been eyeing the naïve boy with spiritual goals in mind - befriending the prince of Mona would be useful for his long-term Christian missionary plans in Prydain. The party also took a few soldiers with them for the sake of nominal security.

    As the party had already gotten word from scouts about the likely direction of Magg's travel, their main concern at this point was reaching the ruins of Caer Colur on the northern end of the island as quickly as they could. Said ruined fortress used to be the political capital of Mona during the rule of the sea-people of Llyr, but it sunk disastrously about a generation back due to the tragic defection of Angharad, the lost princess of Llyr. King Rhuddlum had then moved in some 15 years back with the support of the High King to bring order to Mona. I made sure that the players were aware of the story of Llyr well in advance, as it would become relevant in the climax of the adventure.

    In between exposition on the history of Mona, the travel skill challenge was distressed by the ineptitude of prince Rhûn, who had a tendency towards getting into trouble - losing control of his horse, getting lost, that sort of thing. Unknown to the heroes (but presumably understood by at least some players) there was a fateful meaning to this: the prince would, by "coincidence", stumble upon the unrelated side-adventure King of Stones later. (Coincidences are sort of the bread and butter of plot in Chronicles of Prydain. I make the constructive assumption in this campaign that the majority of these ridiculous happenstances are due to Fate's active interference. This excuse may become relevant later in the campaign.)

    When the party got to the little-traveled hills of inner Mona, prince Rhûn managed to get lost altogether from the rest of the party. The heroes (and their soldier companions) split up to seek the lost prince. A bit of dice-rolling determined that Francis was to discover the prince; as his player expected, having read Castle of Llyr, he found Rhûn at a seemingly abandoned hermit's cottage in the middle of the thickest woods, where the young prince was resting up while waiting to be found.

    Due to prior events and PC reactions, the prince was rather disappointed in himself by this point, visibly frustrated with his continuous incompetence. Francis had words with the boy, encouraging him to seek his own way of kingship, rather than trying to futilely fulfill the staid expectations of his father. Rhûn had his own strengths that he should groom, even if they were less martial and leadership-oriented than Prydain expects of its kings.
  • The character drama was cut conveniently by the arrival of a new encounter: an unnaturally large cat padded curiously onto to clearing. It was the size of a horse, unnatural beyond doubt. As the beast was obviously dangerous, Francis had the boy prince hide behind him, and perhaps try to get inside the hermit's hut while he distracted the beast. Francis himself would approach the creature and try to calm it down.

    The way the scene progressed from here had some important nuances that can only be understood by referring to the original novel: the monstrous cat is called Llyan, and while he is an appropriately vanilla phantasmagoric foreshadow of plot stuff to come, his real meaning for the novel is that one of the prominent companion characters - Fflewddur Fflam - ends up befriending the big cat and bringing him forward in the story as a new companion and a prominent coolness factor. From this perspective there's a lot of expectation about how this scene might go.

    Meanwhile, I as a co-player don't feel like Francis's player is having a very good day here: he's been a bit snippy and grumpy, and clearly it's just one of those days when you're tired and impatient with things. He's also recently finished the Castle of Llyr novel, so he's familiar with what we're playing through. Unfortunately, we seem to run a little bit at cross-purposes on how this kind of ironic foreknowledge should contribute to a "GM's story" sort of game like this: while I'd wish for the players to be able to enjoy an increased understanding and appreciation of the story thanks to being familiar with it, the player here has tended to skip ahead on minor things, express impatience and generally be a bit of a downer about letting others enjoy the story - and letting the GM tell the story at his own pace.

    Anyway, we both know what the original scene is like, so Francis goes for an entirely reasonable twist on it considering that he's not a Pridonic bard with the gift of music, but rather a Christian priest - so he's going to do a trial of faith and roll Religion as he approaches the big cat carefully, hoping that it is not aggressive. However, the player calls this in the trad style, action first and goal not at all, which means that I throw a loop on the intent for a second. The impression that I get is that he's looking for an unspecified miracle to carry him (instead of the specific and culturally very appropriate miracle of taming wild beasts, well attested in medieval hagiography), which sends me mentally searching for adjudication. I judge that it's possible but "Difficult", ask for the roll, he rolls, I adjudicate, and only afterwards the player explains to me what he was shooting for with that Religion check, adding one more step to his annoyance quota for the day if I'm any judge.

    Francis aced the Difficult Religion check, but what I was thinking about here was Fate, which is a big theme in the Chronicles of Prydain in general. When Francis asked for that Religion check to deal with the superficially unrelated threat of a giant wild cat, my first instinct was to ask myself how we're dealing with divine intervention in this campaign anyway, and my answer was, well, Fate: it's a major theme, and it's one of the like three or four different default solutions for fantasy games I'm familiar with, so I made snap decision here (which is always a fun thing to do in a game like this - getting to learn more about the setting through play activity) - a character of great piety could use a Religion check to actively invoke Fate for a specific GM audit: the GM brings in a Fate-based (God-based, specifically, from a Christian perspective) intervention if one is available for the current situation. A new and interesting rule made, jolly good, I can't wait to see how the players will use that in the future for dialogue with me over Fate-based dramatic management.

    Unfortunately for our mind-reading purposes, I still wasn't thinking in terms of just letting Llyan the giant cat flop over for the holy man. That would totally have been a legit Fate-based move to occur, because the original "coincidence" of the cat being a great music lover when threatening to eat a person who just happens to be a bard is so very obviously such, and because taming wild animals totally is a saint move. (Francis is, for all intents and purposes, a saint. 4th edition D&D allows no less.) So if we'd talked about what the player actually wanted, I'd have had no personal problem with giving that. Instead, what I - or God - gave him was the cavalry: the rest of the party happened to find their way to the hermit's cottage just then, allowing them to help Francis and Rhûn with the dangerous situation.

    Francis continued trying to calm the big cat down, which I think I took as an excess of optimism - the player was essentially insisting that the scene would have to go in the same general direction as in the novel, no matter that he was clearly phoning it in in terms of taking the situation seriously and showing proper respect for cat-based mortality. The other characters did some interesting maneuvers to keep their mounts under control (Llyan having the passive ability to freak out horses), crowded in and quickly drove the cat away. We did a bit of light miniatures chess on this, but it wasn't so much a fight as a big bunch of people scaring away a wild animal.

    The next sequence after the cat encounter was influenced by our social confusion/aggravation with Francis's player, I think. I can't blame him in the abstract, as I'd have wanted to tame the cat myself, too. Dice are dice, though, and the situation didn't quite grow tense enough to stop play, so I let the group take the game as they would. The big choices that Francis essentially made for the otherwise pliable group here were as follows:
    * He explicitly gathered the group together and continued on without exploring the hermit's hut any further. This is something of a passive-aggressive move for somebody who knows perfectly well that this is where you could discover the Book of Llyr, a major artefact and key quest item in the Chronicles. But hey, not a problem for my style of railroading, so I'm not going to stop them.
    * Afterwards Francis specifically chose to pay extra-close attention to prince Rhûn to avoid him delaying the party any more. The next event had the prince almost fall into a non-descript hole in the ground that would just accidentally happen to begin the King of Stones side quest. Francis took special pleasure in easily preventing the fall, avoiding the whole sequence.

    This was, incidentally, my worst-case scenario for how this whole King of Stones stuff would slot into the campaign at all: my campaign prep decision to separate this material into an independent side quest was specifically because Llyan the giant cat and the accidental dungeon stuff in reality has nothing to do with the Castle of Llyr, and therefore it would make good filler stuff for wherever the campaign would go. For example, if the players had skipped Castle of Llyr altogether by their campaign choices, I could still use King of Stones as a side quest wherever else in the campaign. So although I started throwing this stuff out in a very canonical place, on the Isle of Mona, I could've done that practically anywhere.

    However, the legit player choices had now left me in the annoying position of having shot my bolt without forcing the quest: placing Llyan and the hermitage had constrained the rest of the adventure to occur nearby, and the player refusal to play along and get into the adventure meant that it wasn't going to happen here and now. This meant that I had essentially wasted the whole adventure: it could not be entered later (no motivation or hook), and duplicating it in some other place wasn't possible because the giant cat was such a specific encounter.
  • I would solve my issues with this railroading conundrum before the session was over, but that's the sort of stuff I was thinking about as Francis's player was being courteously difficult. I obviously wasn't going to turn my problems into problems for the other players, so I took them at their face value: I made sure that the entire group knew that they were explicitly choosing to skip a side quest, and if that was fine with them, we could just move on to the rest of the Castle of Llyr stuff.

    (Because social stuff can be difficult to visualize precisely without context on the people involved, I'll give our dysfunction here a numerical score: on a scale from "perfect boyfriend" at zero to "aggravating asshole" at ten, I'd characterize our social and creative difficulties that day at something like one or two - I might not even notice if we hadn't played regularly together for over a decade at this point. So the above's not a description of some sort of meltdown, but rather a nuanced observation about the way the creative interaction can bounce in a game with this specific type of player role allocation.)

    The rest of the skill challenge for discovering the ruined, half-sunk castle of Caer Colur passed without incident, which meant that the players could now enter the climax of the story: they knew from their advance legwork (part sensible situation-exploration, part light dicing, part Operation Point expenses) that witch-queen Achren, the immortal former High Queen of Prydain and premier Llyrian Sorceress, was present; what steward Magg had done in Dinas Rhydnant had some sort of a plot with Achren, but the heroes didn't know what it was.

    (The players who'd read the novel - which I think was just Francis's player at that point - of course knew exactly what was going on: Achren had been grooming young Eilonwy, the last princess of Llyr, to prepare her to take the queenship rites of Llyr in the hopes of restoring Caer Colur and bringing back the scattered remains of the strength of Llyr. Things occur in a different order in the novels, but there's no reason why Achren couldn't be doing this stuff right now in our campaign. Magg's betrayal of the throne of Mona was, as canonically, about naked ambition. Achren had specifically asked him to bring prince Rhûn because I have arbitrarily decided that a blood sacrifice of the heir of the ruling house would be one of the possible range of magical cornerstones Achren could use to properly concecrate her ritual. After all, Magg needs a motivation to play his part.)

    The heroes were rather hesitant about approaching Caer Colur, convinced by Achren's fearsome reputation to be careful to the utmost. They did more advance operations to scout the terrain (sending some of their own to the ruins at night to sneak about) and generally embolden themselves about the whole affair. The discussion over the whole affair was relatively lively. Eluned the Enchantress, the one player character with deep cultural ties to Mona and Caer Colur kept rather quiet about the significance of the place insofar as the other characters were concerned - the players got to hear all the juicy lore, of course, but as always Eluned enjoyed preserving her secrets.

    It was a truly comical capstone to a slightly troubled session of play when the group decided to call it off: the heroes decided that they didn't actually need to find out why the woman who might be the second or third most powerful sorcerer in Prydain, and the right-hand woman of Arawn the Deathlord, was in Mona. It probably wasn't something nice, but hey - they should be sensible people. Let's all go back to Dinas Rhydnant and tell king Rhuddlum about Achren puttering about in the ruins of the magic sea people, surely he'll do something about it. Truly a moment of sheer heroism there if I'm allowed to say so - and I am, of course, being as much a player here as everybody else.

    This being a major example of the sort of authority that I believe that players should have in a railroaded game, I certainly allowed it to happen: after I made sure that the players really wanted to skip the actual climax of the adventure, and that the choice has nothing to do with smart tactics at all, we proceeded to doing adventure wrap-up for our first adventure. I would have been overall a bit disappointed in this session (in which we spent most of the session gearing up for the dramatic climax, only to back down at the last moment) if a major character-based flash of brilliance didn't strike: I realized over the player patter that I really should ask Eluned the Llyrian wizard what she thought of this whole business.

    I'll note that the player of Eluned is one of those really quiet ones, happy to sit and watch for much of it. Getting even simple answers about character actions unrelated to combat is like pulling teeth; you need to prepare to wait patiently as he considers Eluned's actions in quiet, and almost always the choice tends to fall on any option that most resembles doing nothing at all. This being only the fourth session of the game and only his fourth session of roleplaying at all I had yet to take his measure: was he unable to relate to the free-flowing story talk, or merely hesitant and learning?

    So, I ask Eluned's player: what does Eluned think about this Caer Colur business, Achren business, the decision to step down and go back to Dinas Rhydnant without finding out what Achren is doing here? Remembering that the immortal sorceress Achren, the youngest daughter of Llyr Half-Tongue, is a most divisive character for Llyrians: Eluned would, as all the people of Llyr, surely have an opinion. Is Achren a fearsome witch fallen from the balanced Laws of Sorcery upheld by the people of Llyr, or is she the legendary epitome of magic, an example to look up to? Can Eluned afford to just leave, or should she sneak away from the party and go encounter Achren on her lonesome?

    (Yes, that's a tremendously weighted question. I promise you, anything less than this would not even get an answer - I'd realized by this point that if I wanted the player to contribute, I needed to explain very clearly and carefully why the storyteller right here, right now, needed him to make a characterization choice for his character. We could not go along without a choice, the game would wait for him to make up his mind.)

    I'm really happy with my inspiration here in hindsight, because asking that question right there opened the campaign in a decisive way that we're still definitely starting to feel the implications for a half-dozen sessions later. Being put to the spot also allowed the player to show me that he's on board with all this: he understands what we're doing at the table, he's playing his character (in a very understated way, with little external communication), and he's eager and excited to have his character develop into an unique role in the campaign.
  • For now, though, we did a wickedly fun one-character twist on the Castle of Llyr climax: Eluned hired a boat to take her to the ruins, and was met there by steward Magg and his armsmen. Magg knew very well that Eluned was a Llyrian sorceress, and therefore rightly assumed that she had come to meet his erstwhile liege in betrayal, Achren. An interview could be arranged, yes indeed.

    The players were obviously rather tense about what might happen, but for me the outcome here was obvious: I would do my best to put Achren forth as a person rather than an evil Big Bad Boss, and I would resist any sort of combat encounter in strongest possible terms: it would clearly be a major procedural error for 4th ed to have a solo side scene like this devolve into combat. Eluned was as safe as safe could be here.

    A peaceful encounter between two amoral sorceresses was a fine opportunity for me to reveal Achren's plans and introduce Eilonwy, a temperamental teenage girl that "aunt Achren" was preparing for her magical queenship. Eluned's naturally taciturn style ensured that she would never, ever actually protest or complain about Achren's plans: she was free to wax poetic about the lost grandeur of Llyr, and about how she and Eilonwy would save their heritage - and how she would appreciate Eluned helping them out.

    All this obviously turned the big-picture story of the Chronicles upside down as Eluned was seduced into alliance with the strong-willed, majestic Achren. Resurrecting Caer Colur (and its magical queenship) was a bold dream, but one that Eluned could get behind (if not in so many words - the player plays it really, really close to the chest when it comes to what he hopes for his character to accomplish). Eluned came to spend two weeks as Caer Colur, helping Achren with her project and planning for future cooperation.

    (Mechanically speaking I'm treating Achren's project as a skill challenge that requires 12 successes and runs at whatever the current adventure's level is. Most of the opportunities for skill checks take several days at the least, and Achren herself basically advances the ritual one point per long rest the party takes, so it's not going to get finished quite yet.)

    Aside from helping Achren a bit in her research (the player really likes doing Arcana checks, it's Eluned's best skill - I assume she'd do it for Arawn Deathlord if he asked her to), Eluned learned that there were a number of possible short-cuts that could speed up the process. This was why Achren and Eilonwy were in this dismal place now, when the rite was still far from complete: the disgraced Magg was supposed to bring them a ritual cornerstone in the form of the prince of the house of Rhuddlum. Oh, well - they could get by without. Any of the following can give them an instant +4 successes to the project, in fact:
    * The blood of the pretender house of Rhuddlum.
    * Any of the lost artifacts of Llyr - the Book or the Pendant. They already have the Golden Pelyndryn.
    * The bones of Llyr Half-Tongue, the progenitor of the Queenship of Caer Colur.

    That last one was my new pitch for the King of Stones, by the way - I'd coincidentally happened to plan the adventure in a way that makes this totally make sense as an adventure hook. No surprise, Achren encouraged Eluned hard to take on a commission in the finest tradition of D&D adventure: should Eluned take her party of adventurers (heroes, supposedly, but D&D players have difficulty distinguishing these concepts as we know) to a dungeon (really rare in this campaign, those) to seek the bones of Llyr, she would reward them most generously. I was really happy with being able to pitch the adventure anew, even if from a very weird and unlikely angle.

    All in all, it was a great ending to an otherwise somewhat difficult session. I rather liked that Achren got to keep doing her thing with no opposition whatsoever, and got to keep Eilonwy to do it with - horrible for her as an innocent girl, obviously, but great for me and Eluned, who got to rub shoulders with a mighty role model in amoral wizardry. I find the moral erosion of the party greatly entertaining in general (a big theme of high fantasy, that), so Eluned's being about as moral as your average Melnibonean, perfectly in tune with Achren, is great fun for me.

    I'll note this here, because it's going to come up again and again later as the campaign evolves: my character take on Achren is that she's "utilitarian evil", and my campaign take on ethics in general is faithful to the existentialism of the original work: death magic is truly corrupt, but people are complex and imperfect, and there's actually no objective "Good" in the setting (even if it is admittedly easy to miss on a simple read-through). Even Achren for all her flaws (made immensely worse by her magical history) could conceivably do good, or at least great, deeds. Flirting with this whole idea of allying with her is not some sort of auto-fail welcome to the dark side sort of thing as much as it is a political catastrophe: even if the players decided to accept what amounts to transhumanist fascism, the good peoples of Prydain (monarchist fatalists that they are) might not take to it without some epic diplomacy scenes.
  • edited September 2018
    As I mentioned earlier, Eluned's player is rather deliberate in his participation, which means that we had a lot of slow time waiting for him to ponder over how to respond to various details in the social scene with Achren. I used the time constructively to run the rest of the heroes through their first downtime activities of the campaign.

    The way I've figured things to work, Long Rests are a big deal in this campaign: they last a few weeks at least, they're an opportunity for stuff to happen off-screen, and they're an opportunity for the characters to advance their personal projects. Level-ups occur during long rests, obviously.

    While Eluned was spending her long rest with Achren, the rest of the heroes enjoyed the hospitality of king Rhuddlum, ever grateful to the heroes for rescuing prince Rhûn from Magg's plot in the last session. The more martial heroes, particularly Deithwen the Son of Don, made a point of reviewing Rhuddlum's bare-bones army and preparing Dinas Rhydnant's defenses in case Magg really did have allies among the islanders - allies willing to assault the capital.

    Meanwhile, the truly ground-shaking work was accomplished by Francis the Missionary: with the gratitude of Rhuddlum on his side, nothing prevented him from sermonizing among the people of Dinas Rhydnant. He discovered that the busy port town (Prydain's greatest in that regard) already boasted a few Christian foreigners, and he acquitted himself well in debate with local bards with his exotic doctrines. Some people were intrigued by his teachings, particularly the virtue of humility - but also the doctrine of eternal reward in the thereafter. As the heroes ended up spending two months on Mona, Francis had the opportunity to start up a small congregation among the most eager townspeople. It was a first step, but important, in bringing the Lord's gospel to Prydain.

    As the characters rested up, the players did their leveling (everybody got to level 2 for finishing their first adventure), but also chose the next adventure we would tackle. My task in this was to remind them of the options (formally accessible in a sort of visual campaign map - I'd link it, but it's in Finnish) and think up new hooks to encourage one adventure or another.

    What the choice boiled down to in this time and place was as follows:
    * The peace and calm of the heroes' rest in Mona was broken by news from the mainland: the southern rebellion had broken as king Smoit and high king Math had feared, but unlike predictions, the rebels refused to let common sense and the winter limit them! The rebels were led by a Horned King (a name with deep mythic resonance in Prydain), under whose flag most of the southern lords had gathered into a fearsome host that insisted on marching north to contest the fate of Prydain. (The event is directly from my time-line for the war: this would have happened regardless of which adventure the party chose to start with, whenever they first took a long rest.)
    * Having the allegiance of king Rhuddlum, the heroes could have the ships of Mona drop them anywhere on Prydain's coast they should desire: this is an explicit advantage of starting a journey from the home of the mightiest fleet in Prydain.
    * Should the heroes choose to return to Caer Dathyl, to report back to the high king in person, they would have an opportunity to enter the adventure Secret of the Collegium (level 5). Alternatively, they could see if Adaon son of Taliesin was still as ready to tackle The Black Cauldron (level 4) as he was at campaign start; Adaon was presumably at Caer Dathyl, whence the idea that going there would be an opportunity to start with that particular adventure.
    * King Rhuddlum asked the heroes for a small favour: he wanted to send his happless son Rhûn to learn wisdom from Dallben the Enchanter, the greatest sage in Prydain and Rhuddlum's old adventuring pal. Choosing this harmless-seeming option would entangle the characters in the adventure The Book of Three (level 3).
    * Eluned the Enchantress returned to find the party preparing for their journey. She told the rest little about where she had been, but she did reveal that she'd discovered clues to an ancient tomb of a powerful Llyrian wizard - the fabled Llyr Half-Tongue himself - and she wanted the heroes to accompany her to unearth powerful magics that would aid them in their further quests. Taking this option would, of course, start The Tomb of Llyr (renamed King of Stones, level 4) adventure.

    I enjoyed the discussion over what to do next here. The Secret of the Collegium was not really present diegetically (in the story - theory jargon FTW) yet, as it would only be truly hooked once the heroes next come to Caer Dathyl; this no doubt contributed to it garnering little interest, as making decisions from a character perspective is certainly one of the great joys of roleplaying. The other reason for ignoring the adventure for now was, of course, that it's 5th level; the players were clearly gun-shy here about high-level adventures, having just backed down from facing the climax of a 4th level adventure.

    The other adventures got a fair shake, though; the players were particularly concerned about how they were effectively blowing off Adaon and his expedition to Annuvin, this having been something they'd promised to help with before leaving for Mona. Events were progressing apace of course, so maybe Adaon would forgive them for thinking that an outright rebellion lead by a demonlord from beyond the Pit was more of an overall concern.

    Eluned's mysterious dungeoneering expedition saw a surprising amount of support, but the group finally got strongly behind the one true choice: The Book of Three was the actual first story of the Chronicles of Prydain, it was the lowest-level adventure on hand, and it was the one that actually leads to stopping the war in the campaign map - plus player characters naturally desire all NPCs to like them, so of course the players wanted to do the favour to king Rhuddlum when he asked so nicely. Next session, we would be off to meet Dallben, the greatest loremaster in the land.

    Ah, also, the player attendance for the session: everybody was present except Gethwen the Ranger's player - seems like he doesn't really have the time to play regularly after all. The others were surprisingly cohesively committed in the fourth session, though, so no worries about the health of the campaign.
  • edited September 2018

    Unfortunately, we seem to run a little bit at cross-purposes on how this kind of ironic foreknowledge should contribute to a "GM's story" sort of game like this: while I'd wish for the players to be able to enjoy an increased understanding and appreciation of the story thanks to being familiar with it, the player here has tended to skip ahead on minor things, express impatience and generally be a bit of a downer about letting others enjoy the story - and letting the GM tell the story at his own pace.


    Francis continued trying to calm the big cat down, which I think I took as an excess of optimism - the player was essentially insisting that the scene would have to go in the same general direction as in the novel, no matter that he was clearly phoning it in in terms of taking the situation seriously and showing proper respect for cat-based mortality.


    * He explicitly gathered the group together and continued on without exploring the hermit's hut any further. This is something of a passive-aggressive move for somebody who knows perfectly well that this is where you could discover the Book of Llyr, a major artefact and key quest item in the Chronicles. But hey, not a problem for my style of railroading, so I'm not going to stop them.


    * Afterwards Francis specifically chose to pay extra-close attention to prince Rhûn to avoid him delaying the party any more. The next event had the prince almost fall into a non-descript hole in the ground that would just accidentally happen to begin the King of Stones side quest. Francis took special pleasure in easily preventing the fall, avoiding the whole sequence.

    I was relieved to read how you were able to handle these bumps but I can't help but shudder at these very familiar problems with railroading: A player fast-forwarding through situations he knows or suspects he has no input into, blatantly (ab)using his knowledge that his character can't die, deliberately ignoring plot crumbs (and even shielding other players from the choice to follow the crumbs) and guarding against being further drawn into the plot.

    Your awareness of the dynamics, your specific 'enlightened railroad' prep and your willingness to accomodate the player on ultimately minor points make all the difference though.

    I think many a less confident and less aware DM would have panicked and punished the player by hurting or humiliating his PC (The giant cat bites off your hand!) and used a ton of force (A magical storm forces everyone to take shelter in the hut!).

    Another great read!
  • My reaction is very similar - this is a great read, and really fascinating to see how the parts come together and how you handle unexpected outcomes. It's pretty tricky to separate the methodology of principled railroading ("here's what I prep, here's what's set") from the GM's role is a dictator and controller, and you're doing a very interesting dance there. Have there been any moments where you wished to act differently, but forced yourself to stick to your goals and methods, instead? If so, did it have value beyond curiosity/experiment, and what did you learn?

  • edited November 2018
    Session #4.5: A Historical Aside

    After the fourth session there was a bit of an interesting diversion in the campaign: a friend from Oulu visited for some cabin-based weekend relaxation here in naturally endowed Upper Savo, and him being a nationally acknowledged roleplayer, I ended up showing off our on-going project. A visiting one-off player in an extra session - an omake session, one could say.

    My omake strategy was to set a short adventure in the distant past of Prydain, such that whatever occurred during the session would become background fodder for the campaign proper. The guest player would get to play an important historical figure statted up as a companion NPC (4th edition monster rules are superior to PC rules in many ways - doing a full PC write-up would have been both unnecessary and boring), while any regular players would play distant ancestors of their own player characters, who just happened to have character sheets identical to their descendants in the main campaign.

    As the adventure was set in the "ancient era" of Pridonite history, of which the Chronicles tell us only a little, I had the interesting opportunity of exploring the nature of the setting here. My choice is to assume that because Prydain is a one-step-removed ersatz of medieval Cymru, its own ancient history revolves around being a Roman (or fantasy-Roman, anyway) province: the ancient Pridonite high king Rhydderch Hael was essentially a Roman commander who seized kingship when the empire abandoned Prydain, leading to several generations of Pridonite nation-building before his line was extinguished and Prydain fell into its own dark age. All this occurred before the coming of the Sons of Don, before the coming of the sea-peoples of Llyr, and before the creation of Annuvin, so it's an interesting and different Prydain in many ways.

    The main protagonist of the adventure was young prince Rhitta son of Rhych; he is known as a tragic figure in Pridonite lore, the last king of the house of Rhydderch Hael, but for our purposes he was a young 1st level prince seeking adventure with his boon companions. To be specific, I intended for Rhitta to marry: after some superficial leafing through the Mabinogion and such (basically the same process that Lloyd Alexander used originally in authoring the Chronicles of Prydain) I took a few plot points from Culhwch and Olwen and planned the adventure around that:

    Rhitta is the son of Rhych the Godlorn, the High King of Prydain. He is of an age to marry and is leaving to journey to the Northlands (Cumbria, basically), to the giant kingdom of Taeg Nelwyn, the foremost of the northern lands. The attraction in Taeg Nelwyn is nothing less than Rhiannon, the singular daughter of the giant king, known for her beauty and wisdom - and an appropriate match for the prince of Prydain as well, for an alliance would strengthen both realms.
    Journey: skill challenge
    An ordinary travel skill challenge. A basic combat of some sort in there to introduce the combat rules. Basically, a warm-up.
    Arriving in Elmet, the royal court of Taeg Nelwyn
    King Gog Jacob proves a jealous father and demands Rhitta to prove his worth by no less than 40 heroic feats before being allowed to marry his daughter. The party learns that the king has been prophesied to know no death as long as his daughter remains unmarried, which obviously makes him a rather biased judge of marriage suits.
    The 40 feats: a skill challenge
    To keep in the king's good graces, Rhitta will have to meet the challenges, one by one. The skill challenge requires a ludicrous 40 successes, and should Rhitta seem to be handling things too well, the treacherous king is not above sending him and his companions on outright suicide missions, or on tasks that take absurd amounts of time and toil to finish. This whole affair isn't really a survivable proposition.
    Courting Rhiannon: a skill challenge
    Rhitta will learn that the real trick to his presence in the dangerous court of Elmet is that he will have opportunities to meet with the king's daughter in between the heroic tasks. Playing his cards right, he will be able to run a courtship and earn the advice - and perhaps love - of the wise Rhiannon.
    The Face-off: a climatic fight
    Finally things will come to a head, as with the aid of Rhiannon the party succeeds in tricking king Gog Jacob to break the laws of hospitality, allowing Rhitta to assault and slay the evil king in his court. Being released from the toil of the 40 tasks, Rhitta will be free to finish his courtship and other business in Taeg Nelwyn before returning home to Prydain.

    Unlike my uncharacteristic carefulness in prep for the main campaign, this adventure was just something I threw together casually; I don't even have paper notes for it, nor did I prep monster stat blocks or anything - this would be more of an improvisation exercise. As you can see from the above outline, it's an attempt at fitting the minimal 4th edition D&D adventure in a single session of play; pay particular attention to the idea of having two combat encounters in there just so the Daily combat powers can have some distinction from Encounter powers.

    We played the actual session at a local cabin with a minimal crew: aside from my questing guest we got the players of Deithwen Morgan and Harald the Viking to bolster the ranks for a three-player party. The other players of the main campaign couldn't make it for an irregular session - or rather, our choice of playing Prydain-D&D that day instead of some of the other options we were considering was ultimately determined by the fact that this was the specific crew we attracted to hang out. Tales of Entropy or a Castlevania hack of the Mountain Witch were both pretty close to becoming reality, but D&D won over them because we couldn't quite reach a quorum of drama-qualified players that weekend.

    Due to my being a lazy git about game prep at best of times, I hadn't prepared prince Rhitta's character sheet in advance. It was quick to create at the start of the session, though, as monster/NPC math in 4th edition D&D is rather simple: you determine character level and role, write down the combat stats (which all derive from those with simple formulas) and then throw together some combat Powers that match with the tactical role. The 4th edition Powers are usually rather dull in the sense that they don't do anything really amazing, so I'm already more than capable of improvising them: mostly it's just trivial arrangements of minor effectiveness bonuses (hit/damage), attack range, movement powers and status effect raiders, with the appropriate numbers slotting in directly from the stat block.

    The benefit to doing the character write-up in real time was that I could ask our visiting player for direct input on what the prince was like - his character class, if you will. Prince Rhitta proved to be a warlord type, as befits a future great king, so his stat block reflected that.

    I found the actual play this time rather entertaining due to two reasons. One was that our guest player really is a charming roleplayer who didn't hesitate to breathe life to a barbarian prince in a princess play situation: he was clear about expressing prince Rhitta's reactions to various events, and played along with the simple plot, being generally keenly aware of "what we are doing next", the bare minimum that railroaded D&D requires from the players as part of the game dialogue. The celtic-type barbarian fantasy setting was well familiar ground to our guest star from prior experiences, so if anything I needed to explain the milieu less than usual to communicate various fine points.
  • edited November 2018
    The other reason for my enjoyment was that although my prep was rather cursory, my improvisation worked well and allowed me to discover all sorts of interesting things about Prydain. This consequence of successful exploratory play is one of the prime rewards of simulationist Right to Dream play in the first place, and this session delivered on that in the way that a GMed fantasy adventure game can; the constant interaction of the other players, including all the micro-communications, forced me to stretch my creativity in a way that would not occur in lonely creative writing. I now know a lot more about the culture and nature of Prydain's secret giant-ish history than I did before, and it is a valuable holistic type of subjective knowledge that generally surpasses mere academic speculation.

    The first combat encounter of the session came about when the heroes decided to hire a guide to help them reach the giant kingdom in the travel skill challenge. Because of a failure on an Insight roll in hiring the guide, I decided that the man they chose was a treacherous outlaw who would lead the party to peril. To foreshadow the latter part of the adventure, he was a giant, of course - not in terms of size, but as a magical ethnicity. I named the giantkin "Alderheart" for reasons that would become evident - the adventure took on a distinctive fairy tale fantasy vibe early on in a way that has not been the case for the campaign in general.

    The combat occurred deep in the woods, on a narrow path, starting as the heroes spotted Alderheart's partner in crime. This second giant was actually an inhumanly Large elite brute called "Bignose", clearly more of a giant among the two. Of course Alderheart was magically more powerful as befits a giant of an otherwise lesser stature.

    (The giants were around level 5-ish while the two PCs were level 2 and prince Rhitta himself was level 1, which meant that there were only the two giant foes.)

    The encounter was made memorable by two tactically relevant monster traits that I gave the giants. Firstly, Alderheart had the well-known folklore ability of having removed his heart into a phylactery, which in practice meant that he couldn't be permanently put down: he'd just jump up after spending a round "dead". The ability worked nicely as a surprise, as Alderheart was quickly put down at first (he was much closer to the PCs at the start of the combat, after all) only to surprise the heroes by stabbing them in the back later. Or rather, that was his plan; prince Rhitta was sufficiently keen-eyed to notice the ploy before the Lurker-statted Alderheart got its opportunity. Rhitta spent the rest of the battle basically encouraging his companions and kicking Alderheart in the head so he'd stay down.

    The second trait was something that I just threw in there to make Bignose a proper elite, but that worked very well to define what it is like to fight a large giant in Prydain: Bignose had an "immediate reaction" action that allowed him to attack opponents out of turn when they moved next to him. This combined with his own long reach and the ability to hit two adjacent squares at once made him a superb melee combatant capable of punishing enemies reliant on melee. The party consisting of a Morgan the Fighter (forefather of Deithwen Morgan) and Harold the Barbarian (forefather of Harald the Viking) in addition to prince Rhitta could appreciate this type of strength.

    After the companions dispatched of the treacherous giants, though, they got into the business of seriously resolving the travel challenge and actually making their way to Taeg Nelwyn. I described the mythic Cumbria as a land of wind-swept moors and a Cymric hybric culture influenced by its giant overlords. The royal town of Elmet was set in the equivalent of the Humber Estuary in Yorkshire. (I've tended to equate the geography of Prydain and its adjacent lands with real-world Britain for simplicity's sake; "Prydain" proper is essentially Wales, while these "Northlands" in which this adventure takes place are in Northern England, or Cumbria.)

    The companions had no difficulty learning about circumstances from the human peons of Taeg Nelwyn, even before they entered the court itself. They'd come this far with little but the idea that the princess would be a worthy match to prince Rhitta. The locals were keen to verify the rumours about the unsurpassing beauty and wisdom of Rhiannon the royal daughter, but they also warned prince Rhitta about king Gog Jacob, Rhiannon's father: he was a giant king who knew that he would not know death as long as his daughter remained unmarried, for which reason the king was exceedingly strict about any marriage proposals: he could not outright forbid suitors for reasons of honor, but few dared to ask for the hand of the princess, as doing so was a certain way to end up killed by the cruel and cunning king in a way that would not break the sacred laws of hospitality.

    Having explained the gist of the situation to the players I let the companions enter the court at Elmet. Painting the word-picture here was entertaining simply because the adventure was brimming with classic fantasy imagery: we had the beautiful yet subdued Rhiannon, the foreign court, and Gog Jacob, the frail king who had clearly lived far past his natural time.
  • Prince Rhitta did not shy away from the king's challenge when he was told that winning Rhiannon's hand required no less than 40 great deeds worthy of a hero. It was certainly amusing when I told the players that this would naturally mean attaining forty successes in a skill challenge; a ludicrous requirement in the context of the rules system. I suggested to the players that keeping their eyes open for ways to short-circuit the process might be preferable to trusting their luck.

    The skill challenge system worked to its advantage in this adventure in general, and it was a good fit for dealing with the 40 deeds as well. The implication was, of course, that the scope of the rolls was rather expansive. For instance, the first deed demanded by the king was that prince Rhitta would have to travel to Iwerddon (Ireland) and bring back the Cauldron of Danu, a treasure of great enchantment; Rhitta proceeded to do that forthwith with a single successful check of the appropriate skill, as befit the skill challenge rules.

    After the first challenge prince Rhitta got an opportunity to meet with Rhiannon via illicit subterfuge initiated by the princess herself, as befits the genre of courtly romance. Rhiannon wanted to gauge the man bold enough to seek her hand for herself, of course, and thus arranged to use the disruption of a local festival for opportunity. This was an opportunity for me to introduce the conceit of a concurrent second skill challenge: the prince could, if he dared, attempt to court Rhiannon behind her father's back, trying to win her heart directly. Proving his heroic nature, Rhitta did not hesitate to tackle this secondary challenge. I think this one required something like six or eight successes, presumably signifying that it was actually supposed to be finished at some point.

    Next I simply took turns between the two skill challenges: Rhitta would travel away from Elmet on some ludicrous task from king Gog Jacob, and then use any opportune moments in between the travails to date with Rhiannon on the sly. He couldn't simply ignore the king's demands either, as breaking off the tests would surely be taken as an excuse to put the prince to death. As the romance challenge progressed Rhiannon revealed much of import to Rhitta: she explained how the king would ramp up the difficulty of the challenges until Rhitta would surely not return from one challenge or another.

    The scenes with Rhiannon were rather fun, and a good example of the nature of creative dialogue in a railroaded adventure game: prince Rhitta's player was proactive and skilled about playing a well-spoken and valiant prince, which I answered with an intelligent yet sceptical and pessimistic princess. The chemistry made for some entertaining thespian sparring, which helped breathe further life into the story. I would characterize the relationship of the two as having a clearly pragmatic edge, despite them being obviously made for each other as far as the audience was concerned.

    As the romance challenge approached completion I also had the heroic tasks become more impossible, until Rhitta was faced with the seemingly harmless one of "travelling to my brother's court to enjoy his hospitality", as the king expressed it. Rhitta was at a point in his relationship with the princess that Rhiannon did not hesitate to warn him: the king's brother was none other than the Elder Wind of the North, and his was a palace that none had as yet returned from.

    I wasn't really committed to this being the final task, as that would depend on when the players decided to whistle off the process; as far as I was concerned, we could go see the Elder Wind, have some inhuman hospitality (I was planning to have Rhitta and his companions be in danger dying of over-eating in the mythic giant court or something of the sort) and come back for another round in Elmet. However, prince Rhitta aced his romantic side quest by asking Rhiannon for advice on how to avoid his certain death; success indicated that the challenge had run its course, which signaled to me that I would freely allow the players to move to the final scene of the adventure.

    Rhiannon had at this point decided that she rather preferred the clever Rhitta to her unnatural and creepy father, and believed in the might of his companions sufficiently to advice him on a bold gambit: the only way for the prince to get out of the deadly rat-race would be to do nothing less than slay king Gog Jacob. While this would ordinarily be a suicidal course of action for a hero in a foreign land, Gog Jacob was not a well-liked king, and it was likely that if properly managed, such a slaying would be just what Rhitta needed to win over the people of Elmet.

    The key to the undertaking would be to trick the king into breaking the laws of hospitality first, as this would allow the locals the honorable political leeway to forgive the foreign prince. This being a barbarian fairy tale, matters of hospitality are of extreme importance; just like king Gog Jacob found it impossible to slay the impertinent prince directly, so the prince realized that his only chance of attacking the king without the entire northern host turning against him was to let the king attack him first.

    Following Rhiannon's advice, we did the set-up for the final battle. The players made a point of utilizing the "Operational point" system I run in lieu of the Milestone rules of 4th edition, which gave them some considerable leeway in setting up the final confrontation to their liking. We drew out the royal hall during a feast as the battle-ground, with the PCs being seated in the high tables close to the king; his most loyal supporters would be seated slightly further away, such that the heroes would have a chance at ganking the king without excessive blood-bath in the way.

    We were running a bit tight on time by now, but there was still time to finish the climatic battle, which also went well to cap off a surprisingly enjoyable fantasy story. When king Gog Jacob for the first time rose from his throne, it proved that he truly was a giant, even if a debilitated one: he had the decrepit body of an old man combined with the long, thin limbs of an unnatural giant, making him somewhat spidery. As an Elite Controller the king was a big hit: as a giant he also had an immediate interrupt to react to people trying to come close, except his pushed away his enemies, which even elicited some groaning from the players. The king also had a single-target attack to blind his foes with a clever axe trick, and an area attack to assault everybody around him at once, so he was reasonably well-rounded and capable of defending himself.

    I made all the king's supporters Minions so as to have nice numbers of combatants for this final fight, which certainly made the party Barbarian happy; Barbarians are very proficient against Minions with their area attacks and bonuses for felling foes. Overall, though, the fight made it clear that the heroes were wise to position themselves carefully at the start: the king would have been a much more difficult foe had he been able to hide behind his numerous armsmen instead of having to desperately run around the great hall to avoid the party Fighter.

    I suppose that it was a bit of a flaw in the overall high quality session that we couldn't give the story a proper epilogue, but I don't think that it was very difficult for anybody to conceptualize how the story ended: this being fairy tale fantasy stuff, once the giant king was dead there was really just one way for the story to finish. It is, I understand, a tale as old as time.
  • This is really fun to read, Eero!

    It's very interesting to see someone write up a very classically Participationist adventure. Reminds me of the early days in my gaming career; this is pretty much the way I ran all my games back then.

    Did you ever have to wrangle the players into a different course of action? If so, how?

    What would you have done if the prince had been stubbornly committed to the 40 deeds, for example?
  • That particular problem would be obviated by the rules system: the skill challenge rules are very transparent about how close characters are to "winning" or "losing" the contest, and a single choice would hardly be enough to derail anything. Every time a character failed a skill check in this challenge they had to pay a healing surge to represent their struggling with the task. A player committed to the 40 tasks would presumably see their healing surge resources dwindle slowly as the tasks turn more and more insurmountable, while the world around them hints ever more aggressively at this being the wrong way to go about it. Presumably the player would sooner or later get it that continuing with the tasks was a self-destructive path to take.

    (Although the romance skill challenge with Rhiannon was the intended way to discover the truth of the matter, as Rhiannon advices the hero, it wouldn't have been that difficult to impart the necessary advice in other ways if Rhitta had for some reason refused to play nice with the princess. One way or another, I would communicate both diegetically and on the meta-level that this skill challenge was a sham they were supposed to lose, and playing along would only benefit the evil giant king.)

    My experience with railroads in general is that players cannot really deviate from them by choosing a direction that presents them with a slow and steady incline that naturally turns impossible to achieve. Because they can turn aside from something like that at any moment, it's not so much a derailment as a willful refusal to accept the facts and move on. If a player were to hypothetically offer a course like that, wouldn't it be a case of blatant creative rebellion, best handled with overt discussion about the procedure? If the prince had a moral objection to how they could avoid the 40 deeds, then perhaps we could invent another way to go about it. Or if they were so morally inflexible that anything was impossible once they'd committed to the course, then perhaps they were doomed to tragically lose? This was a oneshot after all, no reason why it needed to end in victory. This is definitely the sort of game where we could storyboard all we want if it was necessary.

    This campaign has not really seen any gross failures to follow the railroad after the players decided at the end of the first adventure to not participate in the adventure's final scene, so we don't have any real concrete examples of what would be done in that situation. I expect that I would improvise as per usual participationist GMing, or discuss the storyboard overtly if the players managed to derail us so thoroughly that I was at a loss as to what to do.
  • Thanks, Eero!

    I look forward to hearing more about this.

    Are any of the players also people who have participated in wildly different styles of roleplaying with you?

    If so, what do they think of this? What do they enjoy, what do they find lacking (if anything)?

    How explicit are you with them about the structure of the game and it's limitations? Your comments about "well, we will have the conversation about the storyboard if we need to" suggest that there hasn't been much need to discuss the structure all that explicitly, so I'm curious what they know and what they don't know.
  • edited November 2018
    Paul_T said:

    I look forward to hearing more about this.

    I'm intending to do write-ups for the entire campaign before I forget something that might be relevant to my later studies (there'll be some weird follow-ups for this, if I'm any judge). Our next session will be number #17, so I'm running sorrily late on documenting it, but I'll get there.
    Paul_T said:

    Are any of the players also people who have participated in wildly different styles of roleplaying with you?

    Francis the Mercenary is played by a player with whom I've played together regularly for like a decade and a half - he's one of the most experienced roleplayers in Finland in general, with plenty of expertise on... well, all styles and schools, really. Less academic depth than myself partly due to younger age, but he's got some serious larping experience, which I don't, so for all I know he might be the most widely experienced roleplayer that I've played with.

    Deithwen Morgan is played by a relatively new gamer whom we introduced to the art a couple of years ago; he's had a serious grounding in old school D&D, a few experiences with Forgite narrativism, and some trad games, all in our Upper Savo circles. I'd characterize him still as new, but oriented enough to actually play and contribute.

    Eluned the Enchantress is played by an entirely new player, this is his first roleplaying game experience. Seems like he's finding it interesting, if I'm any judge.

    Harald the Viking is played by my teenage nephew. He's been a pretty regular participant in our games over the last two years (mostly old school D&D and some trad experiences), although also a very passive one; time will tell if this is something he'll grow out of, or what. He's coming out of childhood and into an age of great changes, after all, so things might change quite quickly.

    I'll discuss the forthcoming new players when they become relevant to the campaign log.
    Paul_T said:

    If so, what do they think of this? What do they enjoy, what do they find lacking (if anything)?

    The players seem to generally like the game. We originally started on this project because Deithwen's player expressed a preference for playing a more mechanically elaborate form of D&D, and so far it seems to me that it's very much to his liking. He does more charop than anyone, but also does increasingly competent princess play, enjoying his character in the various roleplaying situations the campaign brings out.

    Francis's player has a more theory-based enjoyment of the exercise, as he has experience with stuff and understands my campaign goals well. He's read the Chronicles of Prydain on the side, for instance.

    The rest are pretty green rpg-wise, but seem to be interested in the new experiences and challenges that the campaign offers.

    I think that Francis's player shares my own skepticism about the fun-to-effort ratio of the miniatures combat scenes, but aside from that I don't think that the players have any definite dislikes about the campaign so far.
    Paul_T said:

    How explicit are you with them about the structure of the game and it's limitations? Your comments about "well, we will have the conversation about the storyboard if we need to" suggest that there hasn't been much need to discuss the structure all that explicitly, so I'm curious what they know and what they don't know.

    I am very explicit about things, but I generally only reveal the plot structure as we go along. I will straight out tell the players what the next scene is "supposed" to be, for example, if there's any confusion about that.
  • Ah. Fascinating, Eero!

    What's your own enjoyment of the process so far, curiosity aside? Would you do it again for pure pleasure? Would you want to be a player in such a game?
  • [D&D 4th] Chronicles of Prydain campaign notes - Page 2 - Story Games

    [D&D 4th] Chronicles of Prydain campaign notes



    • Thanks for writing all this up, Eero. I really enjoyed reading it, seems like a fun time was had by all.

      I think that Francis's player shares my own skepticism about the fun-to-effort ratio of the miniatures combat scenes [...]

      I share that skepticism, as well. I feel miniatures combat gets way overused in typical 4E campaigns (which is understandable to a certain extent since its so good at it) and the system really shines when combat is relatively infrequent but extremely spectacular, cinematic, and over-the-top. Unlike other modern editions of D&D, 4E doesn't really assume an X encounters per day attritional model or anything like that, so it can handle 1 encounter a day vs 6 encounters a day pretty well (whereas in say the current iteration of D&D consistently having 1 encounter a day would absolutely wreck the game's paper-thin balance between casters and non-casters).
    • If it was good at minis-usage, the fun-to-effort ratio wouldn't be so badly off.
    • Session #5: The Search for the White Pig

      We congregated for the fifth session with a full crew again. By this time it's pretty clear who the regulars are:

      Deithwen Morgan, a brave yet somewhat alienated Son of Don Fighter
      Francis the Missionary, a Frankish Christian Cleric
      Eluned the Enchantress, a deceptive and mysterious Llyrian Wizard
      Harald the Viking, a faithful yet silent companion

      We had dealt with most of the downtime activity in the last session, so the new one started immediately on the new adventure: the heroes had agreed to escort prince Rhûn to Caer Dallben, the grandiosely named homestead of the great Pridonite sage. Dallben the Enchanter is a famous wizard and wise advisor who chooses to live in remote seclusion.

      King Rhuddlum deciding to send his son to Dallben was, of course, a superficial adventure hook; the heroes would get mixed up in other events once at Dallben's house. The heroes were aware of grander designs being on the move, and certainly intended to consult with Dallben about the rumored Horned King and other events related to the rebellion of the south.

      The adventure at hand is called "The Book of Three" in my notes as per the first novel of the Chronicles of Prydain. The name is misleading in that the titular book of prophecy has literally nothing to do with the events of the story. Rather, it all revolves around a certain magical pig. Here, as per my adventure outline:

      The Book of Three (adventure level 3)
      When the heroes arrive at Caer Dalben they are introduced to the denizens: Dallben, his boyfriend Coll ap Collfrewr and their adopted son Taran the swineherd. After the regular pleasantries Dallben decides to call on the oracular powers of the white pig Hen Wen in an effort to advice the heroes on the matter of the Horned King (or other excuse, should this adventure occur later in the campaign).
      Seeking the Pig (skill challenge level 3, 3 successes)
      Hen Wen senses the approach of the demonic Horned King, and as the stupid pig that it is, decides to escape the danger into the wilderness. Other animals react as well; the chaos aids the escape. Once the pig gets into the woods it has a 50% chance per skill challenge round of increasing the challenge length by one success as it gets further away. There's a set encounter chart for what occurs as the party tracks the pig through the wilderness, paralleling the novel.
      Cauldron-Born in the Wilderness (Combat level 4)
      After around half-dozen rounds of pig-searching, or on the way back to Caer Dallben if the pig is found early, the heroes encounter a scouting party of Cauldron-Born, the monstrous undead servants of Arawn Deathlord. The encounter is bolstered by minor events during the search, causing it to almost certainly have an effective level of 6 by this point. Hen Wen might be present if it's already been found. Ideally the heroes lose the fight and are captured, leading directly to the adventure "Escape from the Spiral Court" and leaving the fate of Hen Wen uncertain.
      Gate to Fairy Land (skill challenge level 3, 4 successes)
      After the party loses track of the white pig, they will have a chance at an implicit skill challenge: the characters do not realize it, but they are being drawn by Fate to enter Tylwyth Teg, the kingdom of the fair folk, whence Hen Wen has disappeared since it was seen last. Use of Religion or Arcane skill can perceive the hand of Fate here; otherwise all skill checks used to fulfill the challenge are subconscious in nature, occurring at any time the party has an opportunity to veer closer to the Black Lake (the location of the fae realm). E.g. an Insight check might be called for at any time a character is pondering what to do next, success indicating a flimsy justification for traveling towards the goal.
      In the Court of the Dwarf King (skill challenge level 2, 4 successes)
      The heroes have to negotiate with the king of Prydain's fae, the Dwarf King Eiddileg, if they wish to regain Hen Wen from the fae. Excess success brings gifts and advice from the fae.
      Challenge of the Dwarf King (combat level 3)
      As an option, any aggressive or rude characters in the skill challenge may be drawn into judicial combat with Doli, the champion of the Dwarf King, and the necessary number of fairies and goblins to make up the encounter. Others may continue the skill challenge while the combat rages, or opt to join in. Winning the combat grants successes equal to number of participating PCs to the skill challenge.
      Speaking with the Pig (skill challenge level 4, 4 successes)
      Once the heroes have recovered Hen Wen, they can either return the pig to Caer Dallben to have Dallben query it, or they can, if they wish, attempt to construct their own magical ritual for communicating with the magic pig. Either choice grants the goal of the adventure: the True Name of the Horned King.

      As you can see, the adventure outline is a bit more complex than what might be strictly necessary: not only are there flavourful special circumstances, but the whole adventure is by default a two-parter, as the heroes fail in the middle and then stumble upon the second half later in the campaign. It's all inspired by the original novel, of course.

      In case you're wondering about the weird phrasing in the "The Gate to Fairy Land" skill challenge, that's because the novel's plotting is nigh non-existent: it never actually cares to justify in any way why the heroes stumble upon Tylwyth Teg and Hen Wen therein long after they've stopped actually looking for the pig. The books are full of this stuff, and I've generally chosen to interpret the amazing coincidences as an explicit admission that Fate (a force that certainly exists in Prydain, as we'll come to see) is manipulating the events in certain junctures. Doesn't mean that everything is fated all the time, just that where the novels lack plot causality it's made up by magic.

    • So anyway, I had a clear agenda for the session. However, at this point in the campaign we are also starting to have some serious character-based interference in the basic plot framework, which certainly makes the game more interesting all around. We actually spent a fair amount of time at the beginning of the session roleplaying the initial encounter between Dallben the Enchanter and our heroes, for reasons pertaining to the side adventure I wrote about earlier. Let me explain from the beginning:

      Because we had an adventure with prince Rhitta, occurring some 500 years in the past, and some adventuring loot was certainly found and earned as a result, I decided to have this loot make an appearance with Dallben: the sage has been holding onto this stuff for years by this point as part of his sagely duties, waiting for the rightful heir to come claim it. This heir is, of course, Deithwen Morgan, who we now know is descended on the distaff side from one of prince Rhitta's Companions, the so-called Good Fellows of Rhitta - a prestigious chivalric order, sort of like the Paladins of Charlemagne or the Knights of the Table Round. (In fact, considering the antecedents of everything in Prydain, the Good Fellows are the Knights of the Round Table, but just like everything else in Prydain the names are welsified and falsified to protect the innocent.)

      OK, so Dallben is holding onto some loot that from the PC perspective comes as a random boon, even if the players are aware of the amusing fourth-wall-breaking campaign circumstances that are going on. He also knows about Deithwen Morgan's unique parentage, him being half a Son of Don and the other half arguably a reincarnation of a Companion. This is, however, not everything that's going on with this encounter. You see, Dallben is a rather unique individual in Prydain in that he literally knows the future.

      Without going into Dallben's personal history in depth for now, it happens to be the case that he owns the Book of Three, a rather peculiar book that after careful consideration has been determined to include the complete history of Prydain until the very end of the Chronicles of Prydain. It is an artefact of Fate; not necessarily all-revealing, and apparently somewhat vague at times, but nevertheless it is implied that Dallben knows everything that happens during the Chronicles in advance.

      However, here's the rub: the entrance of the player character heroes into the campaign has irrevocably changed the path of history. Now, I can see how some other GM might judge this to also be Fate, such that Dallben always knew how things would turn out, but, well, we actually know that this is not the case, don't we? I mean, the players are ridiculously free-willed compared to Pridonite people, and we certainly know that the exact degree of free will that they are allowed is not in the hand of Fate, but rather in my hand as the campaign designer. The Fate is a personalized character in Prydain, and I have definitely not designed this campaign from an in-character viewpoint. Therefore: should the player characters cause events to deviate from what Fate has written in the Book of Three, the book will appear to be wrong. And that's interesting, because Dallben hasn't been in the position to be surprised for the last twenty years of his life.

      This being the circumstance, the first scene of the adventure was rather interesting: Dallben was surprised by the arrival of the heroes at his home, of course, as they are literally not mentioned anywhere in the Book of Three. However, he nevertheless knows one of the heroes, this Deithwen Morgan, due to his being trusted as the holder of an inheritance: Deithwen is a man with a dangerous familial connection to what Dallben knows is a core ideological premise of the southron rebellion. And while Dallben knows that the rebellion is backed by the dark lord of Annuvin, and that it used to be doomed to failure by Fate, these days he knows much less.

      Dallben understandably interviewed his guests quite carefully to figure out their intentions. He also went full Gandalf in an effort to advice the heroes to the best of his ability. A difficult success in a Diplomacy skill check after a bit of warm-up even got Dallben to confess most of his concerns to the PCs. Particularly, the fact that as far as he knew, the rising of the southon cantrevs (and the elevation of the Horned King into war kingship) should have occurred half a year earlier. Time was changing, and Dallben knew not why.

      (The asshole still didn't warn the heroes about the possibility that the Horned King might attack Caer Dallben any day now. I guess Dallben thought that the attack might not occur at all, as apparently the events of The Book of Three novel had been bypassed entirely: the Horned King had risen, the armies were on the march, yet clearly the Horned King's first act of office was not a daring raid against Dallben. Little does Dallben know how they all, even Fate, dance as puppets on the strings of my rpg campaign logic...)

      It was a minor thing, but I'll note it nevertheless as a harbinger of more to come: Dallben chose to trust his deeper insights to Deithwen and Francis only, being as how Eluned the Enchantress was characteristically off-putting and Harald the Viking was characteristically passive. Eluned attempted to sneakily spy on Dallben's confidential counsel, because that's how she is.

      So anyway, Dallben was an intriguing character who impressed Deithwen and others greatly with his wisdom. I think that him deciding to give Deithwen's magic item inheritance to the party played a big part in that - as we know, NPCs who give you magic items are the good NPCs as far as players are concerned.
    • After that was all taken care of, Dallben shared what he knew (and found wise to share) of the southron rebellion with the party. Him being a hermit wizard, this mostly meant counter-temporal knowledge of an alternate timeline: what the Horned King is, how it came to power, what it is trying to accomplish as a leader of the rebellion, and so on. Most significantly: that it is a 10th level solo encounter accompanied by an army, so good luck with that. Key fact for quest progress: a demonic being such as the Horned King could be defeated by unearthing its True Name. The Horned King being an ancient demon (predating the arrival of the seapeople of Llyr in Prydain, at the very least), unearthing its name would be impossible except for the convenient fact that Dallben has Prydain's most powerful oracular device in his possession - the white pig Hen Wen.

      And that's how we got this adventure under way. As the plot railroad tells us, the heroes were soon swept into the swine-herding adventure as it just so happened that Hen Wen panicked when its pigsty was approached. Taran, the doughty youngster that he is, tried valiantly to stop the pig, and the PCs obviously got into the act as well, but it would have taken considerably more effort than we saw to stop the pig right then and there. (Reasonable, as there wouldn't be an adventure at all if the pig didn't escape.)

      Taran the naive teenager had been introduced with a few deft impression already, and the players didn't oppose taking the young man with them to scout and deal with the pig once it would be found. Deithwen naturally liked him, as Taran at this point has a bad case of hero worship, so he was obviously man-crushing on the big knight who found his way to Caer Dalben. (The fact that Taran's the main character of the Chronicles of Prydain didn't hurt - I guess we owed him a chance to impress us, plus he might be important later for all the players knew.)

      The actual pig-search was relatively densely scripted in that I saw no reason not to replicate the exact events from the novel. The first quarter of the Book of Three novel is essentially a string of minor wilderness encounters as Taran searches for the lost pig, so that's what we did here. Perfectly serviceable pacing content for a tracking skill challenge: the players get to try some skill roll, then an encounter occurs, then they get a turn, back and forth.

      It is worthwhile to note that the heroes got an outright opportunity to meet with the Horned King and a half dozen of his Good Fellows (death knights, essentially - rebel kings who summoned the Horned King in the first place), as that's who rode directly towards Cair Dallben only a short while after the pig's escape. The heroes had ample opportunity and easy checks to hide from the encounter, and chose to do so, apparently lacking confidence in fighting the Big Bad Boss at this point. Let's just let Dallben deal with - running after an escaped oracular pig is more our style. (I was so confident of this choice in advance that I hadn't even prepped a stat block for the Horned King yet. It would have been a suicidal choice to face a paragon level combat encounter with level 2 characters.)

      The Horned King thing was a good example of a lively info dump, though - precisely the sort of thing that this kind of campaign lives for. Imagine it: the heroes hiding in the bushes, spying on the hurrying party of eldritch enemies, and most importantly, making a fat bunch of lore skill checks about what they see and experience: the various characters got to observe and explain the details of various setting things ranging from tattoos to social history. (For clarity, this being SG: the GM got to explain and the players got to listen.) For example, this Good Fellow stuff: we'd earlier learned that the Companions of ancient Pridonite kings were called "Good Fellows", but now sorceress Eluned also had the opportunity to tell us about how this same name (coincidence, yeah, let's go with that) is used as the highest cult rank in Annuvinist death worship, and how Good Fellows are basically magical knights dedicated to building up their own spiritual House of Death in preparation for their inevitable demise. Good stuff.

      Aside from the atmospheric near-miss with the Horned King, the party also encountered prince Gwydion, the son of High King Math, who was "accidentally" (guided by Fate, rather) on his way to consult with Dallben about the rebellion. The heroes were already familiar with Gwydion who'd accompanied them in their last adventure, so the meeting was a glad reunion. Gwydion naturally chose to accompany the heroes, judging that securing Hen Wen before forces aligned with darkness could capture it was paramount here.

      Gurgi, the weird comic relief mascot thing (think Gollum except basically well-meaning) was also encountered, and to nobody's surprise quickly shooed away. I won't say that it's an useless character, but Gurgi clearly struggles to justify himself in a D&D context. I do have plans for reintroducing him at an opportune time in some later adventure, but this time around the players didn't see much point in interacting with it. This - choosing the focus of play - is very much their privilege, I'm not going to force-feed stuff they don't want.

      An interesting encounter in the theme of Fate and fourth-wall-breaking was had with Gwyn the Hunter, or rather his horn sounding ominously in the distance. Gwyn is the Welsh king of the Wild Hunt, and a mysterious figure mentioned in passing in the Chronicles - essentially a pagan god whose appearance foretells battle and death. I did drop some rather cool theology on him, expanding on the vague book depiction. As far as this campaign is concerned, Gwyn's role is rather clear, though: he appears before every combat encounter the heroes are "supposed" to lose, and increases said encounter's level by +1. Sometimes I'm so clever I poke myself with my wit.

      As can be seen in the adventure plan, this pig-tracking skill challenge involves a fair bit of randomness, as the required number of successes has the chance to bloat rather quickly even if the heroes do not get side-tracked. As it happened, though, Hen Wen wasn't extremely fleet of foot this time around, and it appeared that the heroes would actually capture it soon after crossing the great river Avren. Nightfall caused a natural break in the exhausting search, allowing for one more rather cool scene.
    • Deithwen Morgan was clearly the lead drama guy of the session, as he had an opportunity to have a character moment with prince Gwydion during the night watch. The two witnessed a massing of the southron armies across the river from a hill-top, paralleling the scene Taran had with Gwydion in the novel. This time, however, Gwydion was with an estranged cousin, a supposed member of the Sons of Don. When the two witnessed the cruel lighting of the wicker baskets that the rebels performed, burning their prisoners alive in pagan rites predating the arrival of the Sons of Don, the shared grief became a bridge: Deithwen for the first time in his life realized what was the abstract "darkness" the Sons of Don supposedly stood against, while Gwydion for the first time understood that Deithwen, too, has a heart that recognizes the wretchedness of the dark when he witnesses it. The casual cruelty of the bold celebrants of the far shore did not come as a surprise to Gwydion as the elder Son, but it did prove to him beyond the shadow of doubt that the Idea driving this rebellion was of Annuvin born. For Deithwen this was a moment that has not left him since, I think; ever since then he has been relentless in his opposition to Annuvin and all it stands for.

      (In case the reader forgets: Deithwen is a Fighter by class, a point that characterizes him as a particularly estranged and lackadaisical Son of Don. Most members of the clan/family/race are either Paladins or Paladin/Warlords, as they consider communion with Danu, their mother-goddess, of utmost importance. Deithwen's abnormal class choice constantly drives the way his station among the Sons of Don develops.)

      To clarify a technical point, scenes like this are built out of a combination of free play, oracular dicing (various skill checks to provide hints and inspiration) and GM chairmanship of discussion. As plot (in the sense of "what matters are dealt with during play") is not under fire here, I don't really care as the railroad conductor about what happens. Basically it's just important to showcase setting and the characters as best as we can, then move on.

      GM chairmanning of discussion was particularly in force as I asked a question on an important point: did Deithwen wish to take this opportunity and reveal to Gwydion what Dallben had told him about his distaff parentage? I consider this sort of chairmanship or dramatic coordination a laudable technique because it facilitates PC princess-hood: it is not uncommon for individual players to miss out on interesting opportunities to showcase their characters, which is why I follow actively and dig this stuff out when possible. It is always a joy when a player beats me to punch, of course.

      Deithwen decided to take the leap and did indeed talk with Gwydion about his curious connection to the rebellion: as a particularly "close" descendant (in a spiritual sense more than number of generations) of a genuine Companion of Rhitta, an original Good Fellow, Deithwen might be in an unique position to outright defect to the rebellion. A political movement that idolizes the old native kingdom predating the Sons of Don might be very keen to seize the opportunity to raise a man who combines the bloodline of Don with the blessings of the ancients. Deithwen wisely decided that it would be best for him to talk this out with Gwydion now, rather than letting him learn of the possibly pertinent fact on his own later. Gwydion, the wise man that he is, listened to Deithwen and thanked him for the confidence. This meeting did much to mend the relations between Deithwen and his prince-cousin.

      After the RP scene we rounded out the skill challenge and indeed captured Hen Wen out in the wilds - a feat that Taran never managed in the novel. That was followed by the return trip that was destined to be disrupted by the fight with the Cauldron-Born. There was a minor encounter with Gwythaints, Arawn's spy birds first, and then after those could carry word to the Cauldron-Born, an encounter was all but a certainty. The only question would be how the party would deal with the dangerous situation. They had Hen Wen with them, after all - should they let the pig escape again, or split the party to continue escorting the pig home while also slowing down pursuit, or what?

      We weren't going to get the fight done in the same session, so this was a good point to stop for now. Next time we would see whether the party could short-circuit the adventure: because they had the pig in hand here, they would miss out on the whole second half of the adventure if they also managed to win the fight. (If they lost, the pig would presumably escape again and get back on track to Tylwyth Teg.) While indubitably a victory in the short term, this would mean that the heroes would miss out on the one of only two guaranteed fair folk encounters in the entire campaign; a fact that would certainly have implications later when we get into the whole army-marching phase of high fantasy epic.
    • Trent_W said:

      I share that skepticism, as well. I feel miniatures combat gets way overused in typical 4E campaigns (which is understandable to a certain extent since its so good at it) and the system really shines when combat is relatively infrequent but extremely spectacular, cinematic, and over-the-top.

      Agreed. At this writing I identify two major issues with that, though:
      1) Daily power economy needs to be rethought if adventures do not routinely involve at least two fights in between long rests. The whole concept is obnoxious if there's actually only one fight per adventure.
      2) Player familiarity with the combat rules and their commitment to character building correlates directly with the regularity of combat. Every degree of reduction in combat implies a loss of player motivation in learning and using the combat rules. I find it entirely realistic for the sharper and more story-oriented players to start seeing through the facade - the pretense that we even should care about the combat stuff.

      If it was good at minis-usage, the fun-to-effort ratio wouldn't be so badly off.

      Yes. I am convinced that this miniatures part of the game could be done so much better. Who knows, maybe I'll develop something leaner and meaner myself at some point. It's very non-trivial, though, compared to many difficulties plaguing roleplaying.

      I have to say that I genuinely enjoy the painted playing pieces that one of the players produces for the NPCs - those seem worthwhile to me as an aesthetic side element of the campaign in a way that actual miniatures have rarely been for me. At this writing he's started making them for the player characters as well, having given up on ever getting around to painting actual miniatures for them [grin].
      Paul_T said:

      What's your own enjoyment of the process so far, curiosity aside? Would you do it again for pure pleasure? Would you want to be a player in such a game?

      I am enjoying the game. I enjoy the creative storytelling opportunity this format offers the GM: there's world-building, various philosophical ideas getting wrangled, art of presentation to consider. It's a fun artistic exercise. I totally understand why and how being the storyteller-GM can be the most boring thing ever, but I find that choosing your topic super-seriously in a personal way helps. You have to care about the subject matter of the campaign on a level where figuring out new revelations about it is entertaining in itself, and the small things the other players do help you out in clarifying your internal vision of it. It's far from a given that a young GM could even have this kind of relationship with their material, and often we're encouraged to GM extremely generic material we don't have an emotional connection for, which is a recipe for growing bored.

      (For example, how do I care about the Chronicles of Prydain? Not only is it a book series I have nostalgia for, but I also think that it's existential themes - in the last two novels - are top-pick stuff. Furthermore, it being relentlessly vanilla as high fantasy becomes an interesting task of expression and involvement, helping me re-appreciate what makes these themes and ideas enchanting in the first place. The lack of contemporary genre glitter makes this an extremely minimalistic exercise in conveying high fantasy on its own merits. I have rediscovered Celtic folklore again in this project, for instance, coming back to it from a fresh perspective after a time.)

      I also enjoy seeing the other players engage, learn and succeed in the imagination arts. The princess player is in full control of their own capability of understanding what the GM is conveying, and of constructing their own character vision, and of engaging a relevant dialogue. It's great when the other players are excited by e.g. the way I convey the Horned King. Sure, it's all vanilla fantasy here, but it's like the theater: it's immediate in a different way from the distance of a novel or a movie when there's a living person shouting in your face. I root for the other players to improve, and try to find the words and approaches that help me connect with them.

      I can easily imagine myself enjoying this sort of thing as a character player as well, but the GM is really a meaningful quality bottleneck for a game like this. You might remember how I've occasionally been playing trad fantasy and Call of Cthulhu with another local GM here over the last few years, and his campaigns are essentially in this same bailiwick: princess play GM's story. I am entertained on occasion in those games, but it starts and stops unexpectedly, often due to procedural faults inherent to trad GMing methodology. The GM also is somewhat uneven with his material: the game is clearly the most fun when he's delving into something he actually cares about himself, while sometimes he's just phoning it in, and that shows.
    • I really like those insights into the GM's own attachment to her material and the themes therein. (Although it makes me scratch my head a little; it's been a VERY long time since I've seen someone GM a game where they weren't interested in their own material - that sounds like a very strange thing to be doing! Can't you just come up with more stuff that excites you? You're the author of the thing, after all.)

      I'd love to hear more about the "procedural faults inherent to trad GMing methodology" which cause you to stop enjoying the Call of Cthulhu campaign you're playing. (And how do you avoid these - if you do - in your Prydain game?)

      Finally, I hope you don't mind if I ask you two (Eero and Trent, that is) a question about your discussion of D&D4 combat.

      You see, you are describing the qualities of the rules and their interactions, and, it seems, in very glowing terms. It's exciting, it's full of strategic depth, and it's presumably at least somewhat rewarding.

      But then you turn around and say that it's "overused" and "best when it's infrequent".

      How do you reconcile these two things? What does that actually mean - that something is so good and yet shouldn't be "overused"?
    • Paul_T said:

      I really like those insights into the GM's own attachment to her material and the themes therein. (Although it makes me scratch my head a little; it's been a VERY long time since I've seen someone GM a game where they weren't interested in their own material - that sounds like a very strange thing to be doing! Can't you just come up with more stuff that excites you? You're the author of the thing, after all.)

      It is a conundrum, isn't it? I'll note that I'm describing what I perceive and not an analytical conclusion as such. It may well be the case that when I see a GM being not that much into their stuff it's not because the material selection is wrong, but rather because the GM lacks the artistic and presentation skills to really expose their passion. Maybe the stuff they're showing really is the stuff of their heart's desire, but what does that matter if I never found out because don't know how to present it in a way that communicates the excitement?

      I'll describe a common type of traditional play experience to clarify for those who might not follow what we're talking about. By "common" I mean that I've seen several GMs over the years do the same exact thing.

      When you read the Call of Cthulhu rulebook and decide to run a game, it is rather understandable if your first attempt (or the first ten attempts - it's a very difficult game, as I've discussed elsewhere) ends up being something that I like to call the "Deep One adventure" (as in, "another one of these fucking Deep One adventures"). Those who have played CoC probably know what I mean here: the Investigators arrive at the adventure location, poke around for a bit, and then find some Deep Ones, or the Deep Ones find them. There's a firefight, and then the adventure ends. It's not always Deep Ones - I remember a couple years ago participating in a Deep One adventure with Mi-Go, for instance.

      The dominant feature that the Deep One adventure has from my perspective is that it does not possess emotional merit; at best it may be described as a GM training session. It is not scary, the investigation is just a pacing device while waiting for the monster to pop, and there's nothing actually going on in the scenario except the "there be monsters here" bit; no interesting philosophy, no detailed psychological drama, no surprising phantasmagoric imagery (except I guess if you don't know Lovecraft, I suppose), no insightful historical milieu. I only ever see a GM be emotionally engaged if they're struggling with the technical maneuvers of running the game or suffering from stage fright.

      Now, getting back to Paul's observation about how it's easy to be interested in your own material. Assuming you have a history with Call of Cthulhu, imagine yourself into the boots of that GM who decides to run a Deep Ones adventure, and perhaps you'll have an inkling of why you might end up doing it. The way I see it, the game text conspires with the GM's desire to simply run an adventure, any adventure, and the end result is that the GM lays down what amounts to a monster of the week episode. They don't want to get too personal with it because they're inexperienced as an artist and fear to commit, and because they don't have the skills to commit properly anyway, and they might not understand the importance of being authentic. That's how you end up putting together a Deep ones adventure.

      (For those well-versed with CoC, you might wish to compare the Deep One adventure with something where the GM obviously engages with their material. I recommend John Tynes's Hastur Mythos, for example. The old Dreamlands book is good, too. There are more and less authentic examples peppered through the game's published oeuvre.)
      Paul_T said:

      Finally, I hope you don't mind if I ask you two (Eero and Trent, that is) a question about your discussion of D&D4 combat.

      You see, you are describing the qualities of the rules and their interactions, and, it seems, in very glowing terms. It's exciting, it's full of strategic depth, and it's presumably at least somewhat rewarding.

      But then you turn around and say that it's "overused" and "best when it's infrequent".

      How do you reconcile these two things? What does that actually mean - that something is so good and yet shouldn't be "overused"?

      I can't really answer this because after 18 sessions I don't think that the 4th edition combats are exciting, strategic or rewarding [grin]. The best I can say for the combat system is that once you remove fake complexity, it's relatively simple (although the fake scaling makes the math unnecessarily complex). I guess you could also say that it's reasonably usable, and that it's not a godawful mess. There are worse things out there.

      I am not willing to make the call at this point about whether it's possible to do better as regards a miniatures skirmish combat system for a GM railroad story game. I would be surprised if this was as good as it could go, as the game evidently suffers greatly for having to conform to what D&D is supposed to look like.

      It is, however, entirely possible that this type of game (fantasy adventure railroad) would be better served by not using miniatures skirmish combats at all. I understand that this is a topic where it's difficult to actually get anywhere, as everybody has so much experience and so many hopes entangled with it.
    • Apologies for the delay, @Eero_Tuovinen and @Paul_T , been busy with family stuff.

      1) Daily power economy needs to be rethought if adventures do not routinely involve at least two fights in between long rests. The whole concept is obnoxious if there's actually only one fight per adventure.

      Yes, but this is a pretty trivial hack. There's lots of options out there already:

      1) If one desires an "official" optional rule for decoupling player resources from the "adventuring day", one need look no further than the DMG2 (p. 55) which prohibits the PCs from gaining the benefit of an extended rest until they have reached 2 milestones (or 4 encounters). This is basically identical to 13th Age's full heal-up rule that @Adam_Dray referenced in another thread.

      2) A dead simple option is to simply change an extended rest from a day to a week. This was a very common house rule during 4E's zenith.

      3) Another common house rule was to change "per day" to "per level", so PCs wouldn't refresh their "daily" resources until they gained another character level. If one is upfront about how skill challenges, player-authored quests, and roleplaying vignettes (DMG2) feed into the game's XP reward cycles this can be a major incentive for more player-directed, story-focused play. Otherwise, I'd just half the amount of XP needed to level up (which was done in WotC's Gamma World hack of 4E).

      4) A more experimental house rule I've seen (but never experienced firsthand) was to roll PCs' daily power resources into the action point subsystem. PCs can use an action point to take an extra action OR use a daily power. The first time you're bloodied in an encounter, your action point usage in the encounter refreshes. Basically, this rule changes "daily" powers into "action point" powers.

      5) A house rule I used in my own 4E games years ago is to leverage 4E's milestones to trigger "medium rests". At each milestone, the PCs regain 1d4 healing surges and can make a saving throw for each expended daily power (a success refreshes that power). I combined this with Option 2 above (extended rest = 1 week) to great effect in my games.

      2) Player familiarity with the combat rules and their commitment to character building correlates directly with the regularity of combat. Every degree of reduction in combat implies a loss of player motivation in learning and using the combat rules. I find it entirely realistic for the sharper and more story-oriented players to start seeing through the facade - the pretense that we even should care about the combat stuff.

      If that's something that's communicated upfront to everyone at the start of the campaign, I fail to see how it's a problem. I've run both combat heavy and combat light 4E campaigns. 4E's encounter system (including both combat and skill challenges) as well as its XP reward cycle are both robust and diverse enough to accommodate different play agendas.

      Honestly, if one desired he or she could run every encounter in 4E as a skill challenge. There are guidelines in the DMG2 for utilizing action points and combat powers in skill challenges so these PC build resources do not become invalidated.

      Yes. I am convinced that this miniatures part of the game could be done so much better. Who knows, maybe I'll develop something leaner and meaner myself at some point. It's very non-trivial, though, compared to many difficulties plaguing roleplaying.

      What do you perceive to be the major shortcomings of 4E's combat system? I have been working on my own hack to 4E so there may be some overlap here.

      ~ Trent
    • Paul_T said:

      Finally, I hope you don't mind if I ask you two (Eero and Trent, that is) a question about your discussion of D&D4 combat.

      You see, you are describing the qualities of the rules and their interactions, and, it seems, in very glowing terms. It's exciting, it's full of strategic depth, and it's presumably at least somewhat rewarding.

      I can only speak from my own experiences, Paul. I have run or played games of 3E, 3.5E, 4E, 5E, Gamma World,13th Age, Dragon Age, Spirit of the Century, Dresden Files RPG, Apocalypse World, Blades in the Dark, Otherkind, and a few other games. Of these, 4E by far had the most dynamic and engaging combat system for me.

      However, I don't have any real experience with wargames or the like so coming more from that perspective, I really don't have a point of comparison.

      Now, as to the "rewarding" part, I think its important to point out I don't feel 4E does Step On Up play very well at all. The "reward" of 4E combat isn't really to challenge the players as with more conventional iterations of D&D but more as a platform for PC characterization and producing compelling action scenes (I think Eero earlier referenced these as "action choreography" which isn't a bad way of phrasing it).

      As to what I personally find compelling about 4E combat:
      * Relative parity of PC build options, so each player can contribute meaningfully in each encounter. This isn't really all that innovative outside of D&D (where symmetric player resources is the norm not the exception), but in D&D style games its pretty damn unique.
      * Meaningful choices for players to make each round, as mediated through the at-will/encounter/daily power and action point resources suites. One thing that definitely turned me off from combat in FATE games was the feeling that I was just doing the same 2 or 3 things over and over.
      * The "heroic comeback" narrative built into the game's PC and monster design. Monsters have more hp than PCs and powerful 1-shot abilities that will give them an initial advantage, but the PCs through use of healing surges and limited resource options will usually mount a counteroffensive that lets them overcome.
      * Means of overcoming combat other than simple hit point ablation. Traditionally, this has been restricted to spellcasters in D&D through save-or-suck type abilities but in 4E this is distributed among all character types through inflicting conditions and effects as well as the use of in-combat skill challenges to affect combat outcomes.
      * A very deliberate design toward using combat powers to produce "story" within the encounter. A great example is the Paladin whose lay on hands power uses his or her own healing surges to help others ("I give of myself...") and valiant strike power gives the PC greater effect the more enemies he or she is engaged with (so the Paladin is actually mechanically rewarded for facing overwhelming numbers). There are tons of examples of this in 4E that emerge organically through play and aren't necessarily evident from a casual read-through.
      Paul_T said:

      But then you turn around and say that it's "overused" and "best when it's infrequent".

      How do you reconcile these two things? What does that actually mean - that something is so good and yet shouldn't be "overused"?

      By this, I mean that 4E is best utilized when you don't have combat for the sake of combat --- whether its Step on Up challenge-oriented play or random encounters that serve no purpose other than to drain PC resources. 4E is poorly suited to these sorts of play.

      A lot of official 4E adventure design had problems with this, inheriting adventure design principles used in 3E. The best example of this is Mike Mearls' Keep on the Shadowfell, probably one of the worst written 4E official adventures, which featured fight after fight after fight of the "5 goblins in a room" variety. That may have worked okay in 3E buts its terrible adventure design in 4E and is totally contrary to its design principles.

      Combat in 4E should have fictional stakes other than "not get killed by the monsters". Otherwise it should be run as a Complexity 1 skill challenge, in my opinion.

      ~ Trent
    • Trent,

      That is a fantastic overview. Thank you very much! Looks like I may need to actually play this game sometime. Your list and suggestions look a solid guide to consistently fun play.

      I hadn't realized that it was possible to handle combat as Skill Challenges, which is additionally interesting. Hmmm!

      One question:

      How does "not really suited to challenge the players" interact with "combat should have fictional stakes"? You seem to be implying that combat is exciting tactically but generally always a win for the players (if I'm reading you right).

      Doesn't that devalue the fictional stakes somewhat - if you almost always or always win?
    • Hi @Paul_T ,

      Yes you can totally run a combat scenario as a skill challenge. If you're familiar with the countdown clocks and progress clocks in Blades in the Dark, it could play out very similar to that. As I mentioned to @Eero_Tuovinen there are guidelines in the DMG2 for using PC build resources like powers and action points so they still matter in a skill challenge.

      As an example of what I'm talking about, lets say the characters want an audience with the Elf Queen but they have to earn the right to do so by besting her champion in combat. Here's how I'd play that out as a skill challenge:

      - Level 5 Skill Challenge, Complexity 3
      - Primary Skills (DC 14): Acrobatics, Athletics, Arcana, Nature, Religion, or Other. The characters can use their physical abilities or skill with magic to overcome the Champion. He is a skilled and canny adversary however, and once a skill has been successful against him it cannot be used again in this challenge. A success counts as a success toward the challenge. If a character beats the DC by 5 or more, it counts as 2 successes.
      - Secondary Skills (DC 19): Bluff, Diplomacy, History, Intimidate, Stealth or Other. The characters can use their abilities to distract, outmaneuver, or outwit the Champion. A success either grants a +2 bonus to a Primary Skill check or "unlocks" an additional use of a Primary Skill check in the encounter.
      - Success: After 6 successes, the Champion has been bested and the Elf Queen agrees to the audience.
      - Failure: On any failed check, the Champion retaliates and can choose to deals 13 physical damage with his fey scimitar to that character OR increase the DCs by 1 for the rest of the encounter.
      - Special: At the end of each round, the Champion summons his arcane powers and automatically deals 6 force damage to every character in the challenge.
      - Special: Whenever a character takes damage in the challenge, another nearby character can choose to make a DC 19 Endurance check to take the damage for them.

      That's just a guideline, of course, and in actual play I tend to be more flexible and organic with which skills are allowed and how the player's approach can influence the DC of the action.
    • One more thing...
      Paul_T said:

      One question:

      How does "not really suited to challenge the players" interact with "combat should have fictional stakes"? You seem to be implying that combat is exciting tactically but generally always a win for the players (if I'm reading you right).

      Doesn't that devalue the fictional stakes somewhat - if you almost always or always win?

      I think I should clarify my previous statement here, @Paul_T , in that 4E has relatively little in the way of long-term strategic deployment of resources which is more of a stronger emphasis in other iterations of D&D. This is actually a major strength of 4E if you embrace its design ethos, in that it supports as little as 1 and as many as 12 encounters per day without the game breaking or the balance of the various player characters falling apart. Compare this to the current edition D&D, which is pretty delicately balanced on the 6-8 encounter paradigm (with 2 short rests in between), and that fragile balance between PC loadout options tends to fall apart without some serious hacking and/or house ruling.

      Given that, any major challenge the players face in 4E will be within the microcosm of the encounter itself rather than the macrocosm of the "adventuring day". This is by design as the game is pretty strongly tilted toward hard scene-framing and zooming in and out as suits the group's agenda.

      So, yes, by the numbers and in a straightforward contest of hit point ablation the players should almost always win if the only thing at stake is beating up the guys on the other team. I would argue, however, that is a pretty terrible way of playing 4E and pretty contrary to the advice in both of its DMGs (of course, that didn't stop people from running it that way or from WotC employees who didn't grok the system writing terrible adventures for it). Something should be at stake other than depleting all the monsters' hit points, however, and the DMG2 discusses encounter objectives at some length in regards to this.

      I'm not sure if I'm communicating my point here effectively. I can discuss this at more length if you'd like but its time for lunch. :)
    • Thanks, Trent!

      Regarding the combat as skill challenge, you've basically designed a small combat mini-system for the encounter. But I see your point: once you're familiar with the game, it's not too hard to do.

      However, that's the easy part, isn't it?

      What do you do with all the combat abilities and powers - I mean even your AC doesn't affect the Challenge in any way, which could be frustrating for some players.

      Is there a way to account for these in these combat Skill Challenges? That sounds tricky, but you've hinted that there are optional rules for this somewhere.

      On the subject of combat with interesting failure stakes, you're making perfect sense to me!

      Let me see if I got that right:

      The PCs tend to be able to win just about any fight, so you should make sure to include stakes in any fight which can be lost without losing the entire fight. (That is, before the PCs are taken down and by killed.)

      For instance:

      * Can you protect this object, position, or NPC from being targeted or damaged by the enemy?

      * Can you keep so and so from escaping?

      * Can you disrupt the ritual before it is completed (in 4 rounds)?

      If that's the model for good D&D4 combats, I can imagine that setting up the setpiece battles would take a lot of work, but the payoff is that it sounds like it would make for an exciting and dynamic game.

      Is that what you're talking about?

    • Paul_T said:

      Thanks, Trent!

      Regarding the combat as skill challenge, you've basically designed a small combat mini-system for the encounter. But I see your point: once you're familiar with the game, it's not too hard to do.

      However, that's the easy part, isn't it?

      What do you do with all the combat abilities and powers - I mean even your AC doesn't affect the Challenge in any way, which could be frustrating for some players.

      Is there a way to account for these in these combat Skill Challenges? That sounds tricky, but you've hinted that there are optional rules for this somewhere.

      You're quite welcome, @Paul_T !

      So, in regards to how the various crunchy combat stuff --- feats, powers, armor and arms, defenses, action points, etc --- can factor in skill challenges, the DMG2 and other sources give us a few ideas and suggestions:
      - Grant a re-roll to a check you just made (action points).
      - Grant a bonus (usually a +2) to the next roll you or an ally make (encounter powers).
      - Grant an automatic free success to the challenge in addition to whatever else you might get from the skill check (daily powers and rituals).
      - Grants you another use of a skill or approach that has been previously "locked out" of the challenge.
      - Removes a failure from the challenge.

      My personal preference, though, is to treat them the way I would tags in Apocalypse World and use them to guide the fictional consequences of both successes and failures. So, for example, I might give the option of a Fighter wearing scale armor to "crack" his armor to avoid taking any damage from a failed check (which he would have to repair afterwards) or something to that effect (I probably wouldn't give that same option to a PC in light armor).

      As always, though, one should begin and end with the fiction.
      Paul_T said:

      On the subject of combat with interesting failure stakes, you're making perfect sense to me!

      Let me see if I got that right:

      The PCs tend to be able to win just about any fight, so you should make sure to include stakes in any fight which can be lost without losing the entire fight. (That is, before the PCs are taken down and by killed.)

      For instance:

      * Can you protect this object, position, or NPC from being targeted or damaged by the enemy?

      * Can you keep so and so from escaping?

      * Can you disrupt the ritual before it is completed (in 4 rounds)?

      If that's the model for good D&D4 combats, I can imagine that setting up the setpiece battles would take a lot of work, but the payoff is that it sounds like it would make for an exciting and dynamic game.

      Is that what you're talking about?

      Yes, something to that effect. There is an actual list of sample encounter objectives in the DMG2, including:
      - Protect a person or object
      - Make peace
      - Sneak in
      - Stop a ritual
      - Retrieve an object

      As to setting up these encounters entailing a lot of work, it depends. 4E has a lot of rules architecture for supporting DMs here, including skill challenges, terrain powers, traps/hazards-as-monsters, an actually functional encounter building matrix based on XP budgets, MM3-on-a-business-card for setting up improvised combat antagonists on the fly, and so on. I've found it relatively easy to prep, especially for someone inexperienced at creating content whole cloth without any kind of mechanical support.
    • That makes a lot of sense, Trent.

      I see some potential for miscommunication and disappointment if a player's effectiveness in a combat "Challenge" is all up to GM judgement (e.g. "does my Flame Strike give me a free success, or allow me to reroll, or a +2?"), but that's not a deal-breaker for every group, I suppose.
    • Hi @Paul_T , for skill challenges I absolutely recommend being up front about the scope and consequences of an action before the dice ever hit the table. I also think it bears pointing out that the consequence of a failed skill challenge should move the story forward (and, as per Rules Compendium updates, award the PCs full XP even if they fail the challenge) whereas the consequence of a failed combat encounter in D&D is often a TPK.
    • Interesting! That's an important detail.
    • edited December 2018
      My being slower at documenting the campaign than playing it continues; we'll be playing session #24 after the Christmas break. Bad GM!

      Session #6: Fight for the Pig

      The sixth session started immediately with the fight that had been set up in the last session: the heroes had tracked the white pig Hen Wen through the wilderness and managed to capture it, but the army of the Horned King was immediately on the opposite bank of the river Avren, and a chance (fated, actually) encounter with Gwythaints, the slave birds of Annuvin, meant that the enemy would not be far behind.

      All the regulars were again with us here, meaning that this was our party:

      Deithwen Morgan, a brave yet somewhat alienated Son of Don Fighter
      Francis the Missionary, a Frankish Christian Cleric
      Eluned the Enchantress, a deceptive and mysterious Llyrian Wizard
      Harald the Viking, a faithful yet silent companion

      The heroes were also accompanied by Taran the swineherd, prince Gwydion of Don, and the titular white pig Hen Wen. I think that prince Rhûn was also around, although as occasionally happens with these NPCs, his presence didn't matter much. The party was keenly aware of the plot goals in the situation: the white pig needed to be brought back to Caer Dalben where Dalben could protect it, and use it to divine the True Name of the Horned King, the warlord of the rebellious southern lords.

      What the heroes did not know, however, was that they were not being hunted by mere rebels. No, the combat encounter they were forced to engage was to be with the undead Cauldron-Born warriors kept in thrall by the necromancies of Arawn Deathlord. Largely believed to be in torpor, this was the first concrete sign the campaign had of the Deathlord being active in Prydain one more.

      Half of the players knew the score here from reading the books anyway, and openness never made railroading more difficult, so I was rather open with the players about the the basic concept of this fight: it was nominally a 4th level encounter (in a 3rd level adventure), except that Fate (as forewarned by the horn of Gwyn the Hunter in the last session) bestowed it with +1 level and the Gwythaints leading the enemy to the heroes bestowed it with another +1, which meant that I would be populating the enemy board for a 6th level encounter. Considering that the heroes were at 2nd level at this time, it was going to be a difficult fight that they weren't even intended to win, story-wise.

      The situation was further worsened by the novel-famous unkillability of the Cauldron-Born: the players didn't know how this would be mechanized precisely, but they knew that only Radiant damage (something very rare in Prydain) would actually put downa Cauldron-Born permanently. Otherwise the only way to decisively triumph against them would be to force them to stay away from Annuvin for an extended period of time so as to make them go into torpor for lack of the proper death magic ambience.

      Not being able to win in the conventional sense did not mean that nothing could be done, of course: the heroes discussed the situation and concluded that their duty required them to delay the Cauldron-Born as best as they could while Taran the swine-herd and Francis the Missionary took the white pig back to Caer Dalben.

      The actual combat set-up was rather routine by now; I had the other players draw up a sample of forest milieu on the battle-map, complete with obstacles, some elevation differences and so on, while I myself calculated the enemy force composition. Aside from a large number of basic Cauldron-Born (Soldier 3) I also fielded a Cauldron Abomination (level 4 Brute) and a Cauldron Revenant (level 5 Leader Controller) for some variety to the zombie horde.

      Those variant Cauldron-Born are a good example of how the original novel material intersects with the D&D systematics, by the way. In the source material Cauldron-Born are represented in a rather undifferentiated horde, but 4th edition D&D obviously benefits from having a given monster theme represented by a few different critters. I think I did pretty well in expanding the concept a bit with the Abomination and Revenant subtypes - they worked well as part of the overall narrative of what the Black Cauldon and the Cauldron-Born even are.

      The base dramatic goals of the fight were two-fold: firstly, I might be able to seize the white pig from the heroes, in which case the adventure could get back on track with the pig showing up later in fairyland. Secondly, the Cauldron-Born should be able to hold the field given their entirely unfair regenerative qualities, which meant that I might be able to take some or all of the heroes captive. This would be desirable, as it's what happens in the novel, and managing that provides a natural entry to the side quest Escape from the Spiral Castle.

      In hindsight I'd say that while having the white pig in the fight is an interesting addition (that only occurs in the adventure flowchart if the pig is reached before this fight occurs), I could probably have tried more to make its presence a tense dramatic problem. The heroes admittedly did a good job about keeping the pig under control, leveraging Taran's pre-existing working relationship with the swine, so I never had an actual fair opportunity to have the pig run off in the wrong direction or whatever. Evacuating it from the battlefield was rather routine, in other words. I'm going to add some notes to this encounter about fielding some of the Gwythaints as well if the pig is present, just so as to have something with superior mobility harassing the evacuation.

      The other goal worked pretty well, though: the heroes committed their front-line to delay the Cauldron-Born and were forced to fight quite hard given the superior numbers and robust strength of the monstrous enemy. Francis the Missionary made a point of delaying his own exit from the field enough to lay down his Turn Undead, which did much to put the enemy into disarray and enable the rest of the party to keep them at bay for the half a dozen turns we arbitrarily agreed Taran to require to firmly get away from the danger.

      I'll make note of one of the fundamental weaknesses of this type of miniatures skirmish combat game chassis here: large combats with many participants are very quick to grow exhausting, with imminent danger of being boring, even if you do everything correctly. This is a well-known feature of 4th edition D&D, of course, and I do my best to avert it in various ways, but here it was pretty unavoidable considering the concept of the fight that it would be an exhausting grind: the game simply doesn't offer any other way to determine whether PCs lose and get captured in a fight they are not quite strong enough to outright win. It was a whole session of dice rolling minutiae, when all's said and done.
    • edited December 2018
      While the players in the campaign are generally very good about following the lore and engaging the roleplaying scenes, they are merely mediocre tactically, with the occasional flash of fiction-based competence (that may or may not pay off when it comes to the actual combat rules). This showed well in how Harald the Viking went down early in the fight; the party has this habit of sending their melee Strikers running around on their own while the Defenders stick to the Controllers and Leaders, and this often means that Harald goes down against a focused assault on round two or three of the fight, leaving the others to finish it on their own. This fight was one of the big early examples of how that habit works for the party - not very well.

      (Knowing that the players read this log occasionally, a direct note to you: the only reason I feel comfortable criticizing your tactical play is that I've had to think far too much about how the 4th edition D&D combat system even works, just so I could run this thing. Being the GM seems to give a better overall sense of combat flow in general; I can only imagine that the things that seem obvious to me are far less so when you're actually only in control of your own actions, and have to constantly juggle the stupid power selection minigame on top of deciding where your character moves on the battlemat. I would probably make the same sorts of tactical plunders you do if I was in your shoes.)

      Meanwhile Eluned the Enchantress followed her already characteristic play of conservative positioning, using the Wizard's range (typically 10 squares on most moves) fully to stay out of trouble while clearly constantly flirting with the notion of leaving her companions to their fates. She has been entirely consistent throughout in inspiring no confidence whatsoever in her loyalty.

      In terms of visceral action the fight ended up being a two-man show for the two Sons of Don: both Defenders, and together perfectly capable of being drowned in a zombie horde and fighting on for a long while nevertheless.

      The fight took several hours to resolve in all, but at the end we got the decisive results we needed: the back row of Francis, Eluned and Taran escaped while Harald, Deithwen and Gwydion were captured by the Cauldron-Born. To the surprise of the heroes (if not the players) the Cauldron-Born did not cruelly slay their foemen, but rather tied them securely and forced them on horses (which Cauldron-Born apparently can use with no trouble) so as to take them quickly to directions unknown.

      Meanwhile the escapees returned to Caer Dalben and learned therein that the household was assaulted by the Horned King yesterday (an event that the heroes had witnessed from the distance), but that Dalben had forced the demonic warlord away with his superior magics; while Dalben is probably not an epic-level combatant (I haven't even given him a statblock due to his non-combat role), he clearly reigns supreme in his own home to such an extent that he can solo a paragon-level encounter like that off-screen.

      At this point the Book of Three adventure was essentially concluded; single-mindedness and dice luck had enabled the party to essentially skip the second half of the adventure, the part where they would've discovered Elfland. Not doing this second half obviously has massive alternate history possibilities on an already tortured story, as the fair folk of Tylwyth Teg perform precisely the sort of tie-breaker role you'd expect of them in the Chronicles; a Prydain that has never rekindled its relationship to the elves may find certain future challenges darker and more difficult.

      The next challenge was also clearly determined here: half of the party had been taken by the Cauldron-Born, and Dalben obviously encouraged Francis and Eluned in their instinct to follow the trail as best as they could to save their companions (and the crown prince of the realm, of course). As I've discussed before, Dalben the NPC has some pretty unique insights into future knowledge (namely, he's read what amounts to the Chronicles of Prydain in advance), and while much of this lore has already lost its currency, he's not dumb: Dalben was perfectly capable of recognizing the storyline from the Book of Three, and how it was imperative for Taran (or, perhaps, these new heroes) to get to the Spiral Castle to fulfill his destiny. He really should've been the one captured alongside Gwydion, but perhaps things could still work out here.

      We broke the session at this point; might have been a bit early, but that fight really was like two normal fights in length, and the new adventure would feature new concerns, so we didn't exactly like tackling that right then.
    • edited December 2018
      Interesting business, as usual.

      How do you plan to handle the "split party" in this instance? Will there be a rescue effort, combining the action, or two separate storylines?

      Is this kind of thing negotiated explicitly, or do the players simply play their characters and we see what happens?
    • edited January 24
      Paul_T said:

      How do you plan to handle the "split party" in this instance? Will there be a rescue effort, combining the action, or two separate storylines?

      Is this kind of thing negotiated explicitly, or do the players simply play their characters and we see what happens?

      Let's just say that the campaign has since then become a masterclass exploration of this very topic, and it's going swimmingly. I'll just continue doing these write-ups (hopefully with a better pace at some point, or this campaign log is going to take the entire 2019 to finish), and you'll get to see some rather ambitious variations on party splitting as we go along.

      Everything is negotiated openly, but the framing tools are, as we'll come to see, so powerful that the very most that the players have to compromise on their character motivations seems to be delaying their stuff now and then.

      Omake: The Campaign Flowchart

      In an effort to motivate myself to write down my campaign notes before I forget them (I'm 20 sessions behind by now), I'll try if translating some of my campaign prep notes might inspire me.

      imageFirst, here's the Master Chart for the campaign, showing the available adventures - how the original five novels break down into these mini-adventure arcs that I prioritize in structuring the campaign. Each adventure has an assigned level that determines the mechanical challenge difficulties in it in a top-down fashion, basically as per the 4th edition rules (excepting that the rules assume me to level to the party level instead of an arbitrary number, of course - I can't quite do that without puking, makes the number circus too arbitrary for me).

      (I published an earlier version of this a year ago, in the earlier thread. I've since expanded it a bit and made the adventure unlocking process more visually explicit.)

      The chart consists of 13 adventures, 11 of which are based on the five Prydain novels - two adventures from each novel, mostly, excepting "The Book of Three" which turned into three separate affairs when deconstructed into adventures. Two of the adventures are original work based on ideas implied on passing in the novels.

      It is theoretically possible for the players to "reveal" new adventures that are not on the chart, and it is theoretically possible for them to miss out on some adventure by producing a state of the fictional campaign story that implies either situation. This is, however, a purely optional and emergent possibility, not prepped in advance of the campaign in any way.

      At this writing we've played seven of these adventures, with four more that are probably going to happen, two that will probably be skipped altogether, and one extracurricular adventure that may or may not happen, but that I should probably prep for at some point. The High King event was triggered in session #26, so things are clearly coming to an end.

      In case it's not clear, this chart has been on the table constantly throughout, and the players have the opportunity to use it in planning the overall direction they take through the campaign.
    • It's really nice to see that laid out like that, Eero.

      How do King of Stones and Escape from the Spiral Castle come about, and why aren't those linked more clearly to other nodes on the map? Is it just a quirk of the layout, or is it for some desired flexibility in terms of when those are "triggered"? Are they up to the players, or up to you?

      The adventures all seem surprisingly "high-level" (presuming that characters start at level 1). Is it because it's quite possible to have 2nd level characters overcome a 4th-level adventure in 4th Edition, or some other reason? (I'm assuming that characters depart from the Council as 2nd level characters, from the chart - but perhaps that's not how it works!)
    • Characters depart the Council at the start at 1st level (you don't get a level for the special campaign events), so they're initially going to be under-leveled for the adventures. The numbers are basically the best compromise I could get with 4th edition balancing, given the premise that the adventures will be "unlocked" as we go along, with the players being largely free to tackle any available adventures in the order they feel like. Having the lowest-level adventure start at 3rd level helps the adventures remain in a relevant level range longer - if I had optional 1st level adventures, the players would have to do them pretty early anyway, or end up doing them when their characters have grown too strong for them. A few levels this or that way isn't critical for 4th edition - a 1st level party has a fair chance to make through a 4th level adventure, for instance, especially with how short these adventures are. It all basically boils down to mechanical theater, really.

      "King of Stones" (middle part of the "Castle of Llyr" novel) and "Hand of Morda" (middle part of the "Taran Wanderer" novel) are both "random encounter adventures"; their adventure hooks basically involve the heroes traveling on some other business while they stumble upon the adventures in question. In this campaign paradigm they're basically GM pitch hitter content: the GM can throw either in whenever he feels that the currently on-going adventure could use a detour in the middle of it.

      "Escape from the Spiral Castle" (middle part of the "Book of Three" novel) is an elaborate defeat bridge: it is triggered when the heroes lose a combat encounter to appropriate enemies who then take them captive and take them to the Spiral Castle. Like the random encounter adventures it is supposed to occur in the middle of some other adventure, except instead of being stumbled upon it starts by losing a fight in the on-going adventure.

      As we'll see in my next session report, the way Spiral Castle happened in our campaign was relatively close to the original novels: while doing "Book of Three" the heroes had a part of their party captured by enemy cauldron-born. Half of the party went on to finish the "Book of Three", and then immediately turned around to involve themselves in the "Escape from the Spiral Castle". I'll presumably write about how that went before the polar ice melts.

      I had initial content-control hickups with the "King of Stones" in session #3 of the campaign, which I described earlier: I initiated the adventure hook, but the players ignored it in an ambiguously passive-aggressive way, which sort of left the adventure lying around without a good reason for the heroes to engage with it. (A big part of this is the stupid nature of the adventure hook, but it's canonical stupidity from the books, so I make do.) We would come to fix that later in the campaign, all the way in session #19, which I'll perhaps manage to describe one of these days.
    • I see! Thank you, excellent.
    • All right, time to try this again. I should develop a more compact session log format, that might make it more practical to actually get these campaign notes written down.

      That being said, where was I...

      Session #7: Escape from the Spiral Castle

      Last session had ended with a large battle where the brave champion Deithwen chose to follow prince Gwydion (an important NPC) into captivity; the two were covering the retreat and escape of the prophetic white pig Henwen from what appeared disturbingly well-coordinated forces of none other than the dread kingdom of the dead, Annuwin.

      The players participating this time were the regular team, except the player of Harald the Viking wasn't with us. To recap:

      Deithwen Morgan, a brave yet somewhat alienated Son of Don Fighter
      Francis the Missionary, a Frankish Christian Cleric
      Eluned the Enchantress, a deceptive and mysterious Llyrian Wizard

      This was the first time we had a regular player miss a session, but as Harald wasn't immediately entangled with the plot, it wasn't such a big deal: he had fallen in the last session's battle, so he naturally was captured alongside Deithwen and Gwydion, as the enemy ended up controlling the battlefield at the end. It just happened to be the case that Harald had no impact on the events of the session, even if he technically speaking was present.

      The day's agenda was of course shaped by the involuntary party split: while Deithwen Morgan was taken in chains and forcibly transported to the dread Spiral Castle, the location of a sort of bonus adventure in the campaign, the other two player characters, Francis and Eluned, went on to finish the adventure of the white pig. Naturally they wasted no time (as in, no long rest in the D&D sense) continuing on to find out where Deithwen and Gwydion had been taken; they had high hopes, bolstered by explicit meta knowledge, that they could well be able to save their boon companions from the evil clutches of, well, evil.

      Escape from Spiral Castle was one of the explicit adventures in my campaign framework. It's based on the middle part of the first novel in the Chronicles of Prydain. Several important elements of the overall campaign plot are introduced in the adventure, which makes it interesting how causally separate it is: the heroes never quite choose to go to the Spiral Castle, at least in the novel or our play-through; it's just this place where the forces of Annuvin apparently choose to bring prisoners.

      The fictional background of the matter is that the lord of Annuvin, Arawn Deathlord, has an important second in command in Queen Achren, the once-great sorceress who created Annuvin and was its first ruler before Arawn. The two used to be lovers before Arawn couped the axis of evil, so they have sort of an ambivalent relationship. Regardless of what's going on there, though, the current situation is that Achren has braved the famous curse of the Spiral Castle and set up shop there as a sort of Annuvinian outpost in southern Prydain. Her mighty magics evidently keep the castle's curse in check, considering the antiquity of the great pile of stone and its heretofore uninhabited status.

      (The Spiral Castle is one of the "Three Great Castles of Prydain" as I explained to the players during the session; generally the local architecture isn't ludicrously magical in the Minas Tirith sense, but the Spiral Castle, the royal palace at Caer Dathyl and the nowadays sunken Caer Colur do make a striking exception. The castle has its origins as the ruling seat of Prydain's first royal house, the indigenous house of Rhydderch Hael; its currently debilitated state is due to the dramatic fall of the last king of the line, king Rhitta son of Rhych.)

      Setting trivia I made up myself: the Spiral Castle's architecture resembles a great spiral, which also happens to be the most prominent and recognizable holy symbol of Pridonite druidism, being as how the spiral represents the wind of life, the naturally occurring form that soul stuff takes during the soul migration and reincarnation.

      So Queen Achren hangs out at this abandoned castle when she's not out on the isle of Mona plotting her own treacherous power play, of which we learned some stuff earlier in the Castle of Llyr adventure. The structure of the Spiral Castle adventure the way I designed it is pretty simple because the adventure is essentially simple: it's mainly a dungeon crawl (in the highly subsumed 4e sense) with a few narrative highlights. To wit, here's the structural prep:

      Escape from the Spiral Castle (Adventure level 3)
      The heroes are taken as prisoners to the Spiral Castle, wherein they meet with Queen Achren. She'll likely throw the lot into her dungeons after they refuse her advances, or keep them as guests if they prove amiable.
      Diplomacy with the Queen (skill challenge level 7, length 6)
      Characters taking a more real-politics tack have the chance to talk things out with Achren. The relatively high difficulty represents the way cultural expectations stack against this solution. Achren's theoretically willing to flip allegiances against the Deathlord, but only on her own terms: her allies need to acknowledge her status as the former High Queen of Prydain, and accept her designs for reinstituting the sea-kingdom of Llyr as a power base independent of Annuvin. Success short-circuits the adventure.
      Fighting the Queen (combat encounter level 7, cauldron-born and cultists)
      The fight is likely to occur in the main hall of the Spiral Castle, where Achren can use the ancient magics to confuse and confound her foes. Players insisting on it could trigger this as the first scene, but then they're going into it unarmed and bound in chains - not good odds for a fight that's drastically over-level to begin with. Achren herself is an 8th level elite controller. Success short-circuits the adventure.
      Escaping the Castle (skill challenge level 3, length 12)
      The default adventure spine: the heroes are sent into the dungeons of the castle where they have the opportunity to try for an escape. Princess Eilonwy can help them out at first, they'll probably want to find their stashed equipment, and decide where they're going to escape - could climb high or delve under the castle, etc. Various minor encounters are triggered as the skill challenge progresses.
      King Rhitta (skill challenge level 4, length 4)
      Heroes unwilling to face the Queen in battle will ultimately crawl their way into the deep dungeons, discovering the cursed tomb of the last Pridonite High King. Characters may attempt sneaking and magicking their way through the place without awakening the cursed king and his loyal dead-knights. An exit from the dungeons outside the castle lies beyond the royal tomb. Even a single failure in the skill challenge activates the combat encounter, which transforms the sneaking challenge into a diplomatic one.
      Fighting Rhitta (combat encounter 7, dead-knights and ghosts)
      A general fight is a losing proposition, so what the wise party does is continuing the skill challenge on the side while letting one or more of the heroes fight duels with dead-knights. King Rhitta only fights himself if the battle turns into a general melee. Winning a duel grants an extra success for the skill challenge.

      As can be seen from the outline, the adventure basically consists of a single long skill challenge into which other potential scenes attach: the skill challenge represents heroes wandering the various areas of the castle. It is relatively straightforward for the players to "opt out" of the skill challenge once they find their way into the throne room to fight Queen Achren, if that's how they want to deal with this, but otherwise they'll be forced to delve deep to find the secret way out. Confronting either the Queen or the cursed king down below is required to escape the twisted place.
    • So anyway, that was the material I prepared. The actual execution had this interesting detail where one part of the PC party started the adventure in captivity, as presumed in the prep (and the original novel), while the others were free and looking to free their fellow. This ended up with a pretty funky adaptation.

      I started the adventure by running two scenes side by side: on the one side were Deithwen Morgan and prince Gwydion who met Achren in her hall for a bit of impromptu and technically freeform diplomacy; I needed to find out how Deithwen took his captivity and what he tought of Achren, to determine what Achren would do with him. In the meantime, the rest of the party did a bit of a travel/tracking skill challenge: they discovered the trail of the cauldron-born and their captives, verified that they'd joined the army of southern rebellion that'd been spotted in the area during the last adventure, and then marched with them along the river Ystrad for a ways before leaving them to travel to the Spiral Castle.

      The skill challenge worked the way they do - well, that is to say, granting me nice opportunities to flesh out the setting in minor ways and keeping players engaged in providing their input on what their characters do to advance their cause.

      Meanwhile Deithwen... he was rather rude to Queen Achren, I thought. Might have been because prince Gwydion warned him about the queen's viles in advance (that's what he does to Taran in the novel, so the same here) and Deithwen wanted to prove himself to Gwydion, or otherwise it was just his fundamentally straightforward (a post-modern man would say fascist) world-view. Whatever the cause, Deithwen was not only unwilling to entertain the friendship of the evil queen, but he was also, just like Gwydion, very clear about it to her face. So yeah, easy decision to lock them up to think a bit on their position.

      With the opening scene out of the way, I continued the parallel two-party strategy by having all the heroes join in the escape skill challenge: Deithwen and the others were in different locations, some trying to break into the castle while others were trying to break out, but such minor details don't actually prevent counting all successes into a single skill challenge. The 4e skill challenge is an extremely abstract thing, it's only real significance being as a clock that tells us when to stop riffing and let the goal be accomplished.

      On Deithwen's part the skill challenge begun by him being locked up alone, with Gwydion (so he thought) being put in the cell next to him. This is the set-up from the novel, so Deithwen's fate followed those rails: he has a weird chance encounter with princess Eilonwy, the young ward of queen Achren, who is apparently exploring the castle dungeons for amusement's sake when she notices the brave knight Deithwen locked up in there. Eilonwy ends up freeing Deithwen on a rash whim, due to feeling sorry for him, and decides to follow him along as he tries to escape the castle; running away from "horrible aunt Achren" has been something that the perky teen girl has been mulling over for a while, so here's a chance to act on that for real.

      The outer party, meanwhile, has arrived at the Spiral Castle and are figuring out how to sneak inside, find their friends and whatever else. An early failure in a nature check attracts the attentions of the rather sparse castle garrison, seguing into a minor combat scene with some hunting dogs and soldiers Achren has on hand.

      The clever bit is that instead of starting the slow 4e combat process immediately I instead divided the battlemap in two halves and let that half of the party do their set-up there while we figured out what happened with Deithwen. Ideally he'd find a combat for himself as well so we could execute the two combats in parallel.

      My hopes in this regard were fulfilled: after princess Eilonwy released Deithwen from his prison cell, he decided to go look for his equipment first. Eilonwy had told Deithwen that she had already "released the two other prisoners", which Deithwen ironically assumed to have been Harald the Viking and prince Gwydion. (The player knew from reading the novel that this was a tragic misunderstanding, but he played along because doing otherwise wouldn't be that interesting.) So Deithwen assuming he was the last one left had to only worry about his own survival.

      Deithwen isn't much of a sneaker, so a failure on his part to retrieve his weapons alerted a minor guardpost in the dungeons. His equipment was stashed inside, so he'd have to triumph unarmed to get anywhere here.
    • We prosecuted the two unrelated minor combats side by side with combined initiative scores. No difficulty in that regard, an easy technique to recommend for similar campaigns. (I got the idea from the flashpoint technique in Spione, of course.) This way everybody has something to do despite the party being split for the time being.

      The actual fight wasn't much to write home about, in large part because of fundamental tactical incohesion among the rescue party: while Francis the Missionary set bravely to face the enemy with the handful of NPC support cast the party had with them (Taran the swineherd and prince Rhün, specifically), Eluned the Enchantress betrayed the team by sneaking away during the confusion. (I'm sure that Eluned's player would argue the point, but it would be sophism: he set up near the edge of the battlefield and ran away the first moment she could, all without talking it over with the rest of the party in advance.)

      Meanwhile Deithwen got his ass handed to him inside the castle as well without any major difficulty, which meant that the party was if anything more imprisoned than before: now both Deithwen and Francis were captive, and princess Eilonwy was in cross trouble with aunt Achren as well: she got sent into her room, as is appropriate in punishing children.

      As Achren now had some new captives, she entertained herself (and allowed me to do exposition) with Francis the Missionary. She naturally ignored the teenager boys that got captured with Francis, so I basically got to put Taran and Rhün into the cell with Deithwen, because why not.

      Eluned the Enchantress continued her betrayal neatly by parlaying herself into the castle as an honored guest: as might be remembered from the campaign's first adventure, Eluned had earlier established a personal working relationship with Achren, and even helped her a bit in solving certain ritual working issues in her plans. Achren was obviously happy to see a friendly face visit, and she was only too happy to put Eluned up as a guest. The two spent quite a while sipping tea and discussing world politics while the rest of the party continued their dungeoneering.

      The skill challenge continued from here with the party breaking out of jail again (repetitive, I know, but fundamentally necessary; there was some narrative conceit here that I'm forgetting, probably something to do with prince Rhün's foolish luck). At this point they had some actual choices they could be making about how to progress: Deithwen was rather grateful to princess Eilonwy for earlier, so they could conceivably go "free her" as well, or they could attempt to save themselves. Going to confront Achren in an attempt to establish a combat scene would be an option as well, but the party was pretty clear about their mortal limitations at this point, so it was generally agreed that it probably wouldn't end well.

      After a series of dungeoneering hijinks, hiding from guards, retrieving their equipment and such, the party ended up discovering the deeper tunnels under the castle, and therein the tomb-hall of the ancient king Rhitta. This was familiar ground to the party in the sense that both Deithwen's and Francis's players had read the novel, so they knew what to expect in rough terms. Of course, in the novel the dead king is not nearly as lively as he is in the D&D adaptation.

      As the adventure framework basically expects, the party ended up awakening the tomb, which enabled them to engage in a bit of corpse diplomacy of various sorts. Deithwen was unhesitating in drawing the martial attention of the ghosts, leaving Francis to deal with the diplomatic aspect. This is something of a classical dynamic for those two: both players are playing characters who are fundamentally Good-aligned, and the skills of the characters complement each other, so it's not uncommon in this campaign to see Deithwen and Francis pairing up to deal with whatever.

      History skill checks and such enabled me to exposit the sad story of King Rhitta for the players while Deithwen fought a honorable duel with a wight of deathly pallor. A nice dramatic detail was that Deithwen recognized the revenant half-way into the duel: it was, true as dawn follows the night, his own mien he recognized - the pallor of a true ancestor of his! Specifically, the elder Morgan we met in the side-story session a few weeks before, the one who was, indeed, one of king Rhitta's good fellows and boon companions. This is, after all, the same Rhitta who was the main protagonist of that particular one-shot adventure.

      That particular side session - session #4.5 in my reckoning here - had a major impact in the early part of the campaign in general, there were all sorts of funny little call-back opportunities involved there. Good creative synergies for what amounted to a random session set up on a whim.

      As Deithwen managed to put down the wight of his ancestor, Morgan the Fighter, and Francis proved once again that it's possible to succeed in diplomacy challenges without the Diplomacy skill, the tired shade of king Rhitta relented and allowed the heroes the boon they knew not to ask: he proffered the Black Blade, the sword that once spelled doom to the Spiral Castle. Of course the king offered the sword to Taran the Swineherd, being sensitive to the currents of Fate; after all, as Fate (and players who read the books) well knows, Taran is destined to one day rule the land as the first native Pridonite High King since Rhitta himself.

      This being a roleplaying game, Taran obviously whiffs his Will defense and actively dares not touch the sword offered by a skeletal wight. Smart boy. Fortunately Francis is there to take up the burden instead. Gotta collect those quest items after all!

      Thing is - and this is where the real climax of the adventure occurs - the retrieval of Dyrnwyn the Black Blade is what triggers the final destruction of the Spiral Castle, as per the novel. As the castle starts shaking, tremouring, groaning and generally signalling its imminent destruction in a very video-gamey manner, the heroes have one simple task: run out of the tomb, following the tunnel, before the whole edifice goes down.
    • edited May 2
      imageExcept, Deithwen Morgan, he turns on his heels and starts running in the opposite direction! You see, princess Eilonwy, whom he met earlier and who was schooled pretty seriously by Achren for helping him, is still in the castle! I made it clear to the players that this was a major risk to take considering the rapidly worsening feng shui in the castle, but Deithwen was determined to see it through, so in he went, dodging falling masonry.

      Meanwhile the twisted sisters Achren and Eluned had figured out from all the shaking that something was amiss in the castle. Being the last great mistress of sorcery in Prydain, Achren didn't really need a picture drawn for her about what was happening to "her" castle; instead, she confidently asked Eluned whether she would help her and Eilonwy escape the impending disaster. To her credit (or not, depending on your viewpoint) Eluned was glad to help Achren in her moment of need.

      So Deithwen had his own little "fun" skill challenge where every failure involved the immediate loss of a healing surge as he dodged falling stone and generally tried to climb his way into the higher floors of the castle, and at the same time the sorceresses did something perhaps even more amazing: Achren, utilizing Eluned as her laboratory assistant, initiated a magical ritual to summon a gate to safety. Rare Llyrian magic, this; the campaign theme in this regard is that all the particularly D&D-like utility magic is "Llyrian", so of course Achren the mistress of magic knows all the high-level D&D wizard party tricks. It was still impressive to see her execute the ritual in combat time (as in, tracking passing time by the combat round) while the castle around her was shaking itself apart.

      Deithwen arrived in the 2nd floor conference room where the Llyrian wizards were doing their thing at suitably dramatic moment, just as they got their gate going, mere combat rounds before the entire room would fall in and crush them all. He didn't really have time to spare for Eluned, whom he hadn't even known to be in the castle so far; Eilonwy was whom he was here to save.

      Ironically Deithwen didn't have any clever plans for the escape, so his brilliance in this regard amounted to eagerly gesturing at the girl and shouting about his intent to jump out of the window. "Come here Eilonwy, let me grab you! I'll jump out of the window and cushion your fall!" Classic Deithwen, he does teeter at times between heroic and stupid.

      Achren has something of a hold on the girl's mind, of course; while she would certainly yearn to escape her aunt (and secret childhood kidnapper; Eilonwy's backstory is rather tragic), it's no easy thing to resist authority face to face, and Achren is right there, ordering her to enter the gate and get to safety. Foolish girl, be quick about it! Why do I always have to be waiting for you?

      As the GM, playing Eilonwy here, I got to choose which way she'd go. I could've left it to Charisma checks, but Deithwen was genuinely not very convincing here compared to the enchantresses who were clearly in control of the situation, so Eilonwy, to much long-term campaign regret, chose to go with the devil she knew - she did as Achren demanded and entered the gate first, soon to be followed by both Achren and Eluned.

      Deithwen was, of course, so stubborn and anti-Achren that he opted to jump out of the window. Being a 4e D&D character he obviously survived the fall, too.

      That was the adventure, pretty much, except for the epilogue stuff. As the heroes gathered together outside the castle, they had quite a few revelations to ponder. The most shocking one was no doubt the case of mistaken identity: Deithwen had earlier heard from Eilonwy that she had helped "the other two" escape, so he'd largely put prince Gwydion out of his mind. It wasn't prince Gwydion who was waiting for him outside with the company, though, but rather Fflewddur Fflam, the hapless-yet-harmless adventuring bard whom the party had met in passing in their first adventure. Fflewddur had been captured earlier by Achren's men, purely by accident, and thrown into the dungeons, only to be released by the "pretty princess" as per Deithwen's innocent request.

      The demise of the prince of the Realm, the Tanist of the High King, was obviously a great blow to the morale of the party. A full half of the play group was of course perfectly aware of the shall we say theatrical nature of Gwydion's death from reading the novel, but for all that the characters knew they'd had their prince get crushed by a massive castle outright falling apart into a picturesque pile of rock. Fflewddur Fflam, a known royalist, was besides himself with grief when he realized that he had lived in the stead of the "finest man in all of Prydain".

      The party now of course had in their possession Dyrnwyn, the blade that was turned back by the sins of king Rhitta, the aforementioned wight and last king of the Spiral Castle. The sword has a pretty vanilla fantasy role in the Chronicles, the sort you'd expect; it's initially most interesting features are that it is one of the few, few means of permanently putting down the Cauldron-born, and that it strikes down whomsoever dares to draw the sword without being worthy of it. (Which is interpreted as "being noble born" initially, due to cultural reasons.)

      Eluned found herself back at Caer Colur, the depressing half-sunk ruined castle of the people of Llyr; this was where Achren's gate took the Llyrian trio. Achren was understandably furious, as with the unforeseen devastation of the Spiral Castle she had lost her home, stature in the eyes of Arawn Deathlord, and many valuable resources.

      The players pretty much decided that the party would go on - Eluned had after all been mostly ambivalent and unwilling to raise her hand against Achren, rather than actively treacherous.

      Next the party would have a bit of downtime and reorientation, and we'd have to raise them to level 4 for having finished The Book of Three and the Escape from the Spiral Castle adventures successfully. I had the players tell me in advance what they would be tackling next, so as to prepare for the next session; there were some different ideas, but the narrative pressure of the southern rebellion certainly drew the party towards considering The Horned King, the follow-up adventure to The Book of Three, in which the heroes would attempt to stop the rebellion by defeating its prominent and devilish warlord.

      So that was session #7. It was distinctive in that it was easily the most fun I'd had in the campaign so far, warts and all (with the possible exception of session #4.5). The original actions that Eluned and Deithwen took were dramatic and consequential in their own ways. I also continued to be entertained by seeing the setting come to life and learning more about it all along.
    • Great write ups, as usual. The “flashpoint” technique being used for D&D combat is, as far as I know, a new development. Clever and I bet it worked great!

      I’m curious about the structure of the campaign being so heavily based on the book, and yet allowing for original characters. Am I understanding correctly that the PCs are not characters from the novel?

      How did you bridge the gap between an existing narrative and original characters being created by the players? (Or have we discussed this already?)
    • The PCs are original characters, yes. My basic cosmological assumption is that everything in the campaign setting is basically as depicted in the novels, except for the addition of the player characters and whatever their individual backstories imply. This addition will, in turn, presumably cause compounding changes into the timeline of events as the existence of these new important characters (around whom dramatic coordination now revolves) mess up the pre-existing arrangements.

      The campaign framework and adventure prep frames you've seen are the main tool I use for consolidating the static storyline of the novels with the dynamic events of the campaign: the adventure prep is static and directly based on what happens in the novels, yet it is, to a degree, "bangified" in the sense that I've removed all the specific causality that occurs in the novels. For example, the Castle of Llyr adventure no longer presumes that its events occur after Dalben decides to send Eilonwy off to be taught how to be a proper princess, and Taran decides to escort her to the isle of Mona, etc.; the only assumption the adventure prep makes is that the heroes have come to Mona for some reason whatsoever. The particular details are left as an exercise in improvised weaving.

      At this point in the exercise I can say that it's not ultimately that difficult to keep the campaign "on rails", so to speak. The reason is largely in the bangified nature of the prep: although the campaign's amount of material is pretty large, and the in-play plots weave around in a complex way, the fact that I am not actually following any individual plot lines from the novels, nor designing my own, means that I have the maximum amount of flexibility in my railroad: each adventure features certain key characters and conflicts that instantiate as combat encounters (this being D&D 4e), but ultimately the degree of arbitrariness in how we approach this material is rather large.

      For example, in the Escape from the Spiral Castle the only real constraints are that once the PCs get into the castle, the only ways out are by either confronting the sorcerous queen Achren, or by confronting the tomb of Rhitta below the castle. I should also introduce princess Eilonwy if at all feasible. Everything else that is "supposed to happen" in the castle as per the novels is floating opportunistic content that will be inserted if appropriate at any point, or dropped if not. I designed the adventure in this particular way instead of some other in an effort to reduce the plot logic and phantasmagoric scenery of the original story to its bare essentials.

      As the campaign goes on its resemblance to the original storyline becomes less and less, which means that the heroes tend to arrive at individual adventures from more unexpected directions. This would be fatal for a causally prepped campaign, but as you can see from the campaign framework, the causal connections between the various adventures are generalized at best; the particulars of why and how the heroes move from one adventure node to the next are left as an improvisational exercise.
    • I like that, Eero.

      What happens to the original novel’s characters, then? Do they still exist in this “world”?

      And what constraints did the players face to create their characters? (One issue I face in newer editions of D&D is that a 1st-level character has a lot of built-in assumptions around who they are and what they look like, and that’s often doesn’t match the kind of story frame we might be interested in depicting.)
    • edited May 6
      The original characters all exist, and would theoretically act out their own stories if not for the player characters and their inherent need to be in the center spotlight interfering with them. The general tendency is for the player characters to push the original cast aside in many ways due to the natural deference that NPCs hold for PCs.

      As for the constraints in character creation, I've strived to be relatively lax. The campaign has a specific set of allowed races (human, mainly) and classes, but otherwise it's all pretty much by the book. I've reinterpreted the chosen classes fluff-wise somewhat to get away from the generic gruel presentation endemic in D&D and have the class choice mean something in the fictional context. That is, a character who's a Rogue really is a despised outlaw in-setting, and so on.

      Omake: Chargen Master Chart

      imageAs you can see, the character creation options all fit on one sheet that the players use when picking what to play. There are a few race options, although I'd prefer it if the players managed to keep it in their pants for the most part and stuck with human characters - the fair folk is particularly an alien outsider pick, a party with several of those might as well go delve some generic dungeon for all that they care about this Prydain business.

      I also added the class-specific "class goals" on that sheet. As I've described before, this is a bit of princess play provocation I added to give active role-acting a little bit of teeth throughout the campaign: the campaign plot by itself will never cause any of these class goals to occur by itself, so the player has to open their mouth at least once in a blue moon and express a character-based desire to have these come to pass. A character who gets their desire gains +1 to level and immediately gets to pick a paragon path even if they haven't reached level 11 yet.

      I technically speaking have a bunch of story content ideas specific to each of these character class choices, but in reality it's just observations about the setting: for some characters some aspects of the setting are more important than others due to their class picks. What's most significant is that I try to make it so that all of these classes get externally defined by their socio-political positioning, such that whatever the player has in mind, they also have to deal with the expectations that the setting has for them. Nobody is "just an adventurer" unless they try really hard to make me feel like I'm unwelcome with my attempts at interaction.
    • Session #8: Downtime before the war

      This campaign has a distinctive rhythm in that often the downtime events in between adventures end up eating up an entire session. Session #8 was like that: we updated the characters to level 4, talked about the general state and direction of the campaign (in-fiction, I mean), and dealt with individual character plotlines.

      The usual crew was participating:

      Deithwen Morgan, a brave yet somewhat alienated Son of Don Fighter
      Francis the Missionary, a Frankish Christian Cleric
      Eluned the Enchantress, a mysterious and treacherous Llyrian Wizard
      Harald the Viking, the taciturn companion

      The most significant downtime plotline here was Eluned's developing relationship with Achren the sorcerer queen and Eilonwy her ward: after the trio escaped the crumbling Spiral Castle by the skin of their teeth they spent several days at Caer Colur gathering their wits and reorienting for the new situation. Achren was homeless now, after all, and in a generally weak position: she couldn't expect Arawn Deathlord to grant her the kind of independence she'd enjoyed so far if she returned to Annuvin, and it isn't a place to raise a young girl, anyway. The response she'd had from the Sons of Don in the form of Deithwen and Gwydion wasn't encouraging either; her past sins weighted too heavily on the former queen of Annuvin.

      Achren concluded around this time that her only chance was to rely on the scattered remains of the Llyrian people; Eluned the amenable player character was particularly encouraging in this regard, as she seemed to hold Achren in some reverence due to her ancient pedigree and might of her magical lore. (Plus I think the player was pleased with having a personal character-specific plotline like this.) Eluned also seemed interested in throwing her aid behind Achren's plan to raise Eilonwy into the magical queenship of Llyr, so as to revive the old kingdom. Whatever Achren's original designs on the matter (perhaps some sort of grab-and-run tomb robbery of the Llyrian magical heritage?), it seemed now that if she was to have a political platform in Prydain at all, it would be through national revival of Llyr as a whole.

      (I forget if I've explained the setting background upthread, but for refreshment: the Llyrian people used to rule the Isle of Mona as an independent "sea kingdom" loosely associated with Prydain but technically not under the overlordship of the Sons of Don. Their strength was concentrated in Caer Colur, a highly magical castle from which their navy had exerted influence over all of Prydain for over 500 years, long before the creation of Annuvin or the arrival of the Sons of Don in Prydain. The mother of princess Eilonwy, princess Angharad, brought doom upon the nation by eloping with a common man; her breaking the matrimonial taboos of Llyr caused Caer Colur to sink cataclysmically around 15 years ago, scattering the people of Llyr in diaspora all over Prydain. The key point is that the destruction of Llyr as a nation is still relatively recent, which is of course atypical in this sort of high fantasy.)

      The wizards did some more magical research into the ruins of Caer Colur to reconstruct the coronation ceremony they would need to hook Eilonwy up into the ancestral magics, and Achren took the opportunity to teach her magical gate spell to Eluned, because gift-giving is the best way to keep player characters on your side. The gate spell is a 10th level ritual in 4e terms, but I've rejiggered the ritual rules for the campaign to allow characters to learn rituals over their own level as long as they have a teaching resource for it and can handle the ritual requirements. Eluned is crazy-optimized for Arcana skill checks, which means that she can generally handle ritual magic well over her own level in that regard.

      The other magical boon Achren helped Eluned attain was a magical familiar, specifically a minor demon (a death-energy aligned magical non-human entity, sort of an anti-fairy). The real motivation was that the book demon or whatsitcalled in the wizard sourcebook provides a minor bonus to Arcana checks, which has been the main inspiration in Eluned's character building: anything that improves the Arcana skill or uses it for something or other is of great interest to her. I think the familiar never, ever features in the campaign in any way again after that +2 to Arcana was jotted down.

      (That's a pretty typical player hook in character-building games, by the way; feature or bug depends on your expectations. The player is expected to use something as the decision-making heuristic for their character building, and the idea of min-maxing for some specific stat or other is one of the easiest and most present ideas in that regard. A good princess-play game will either support the player in picking something more interesting to build upon, or it will ensure that the mechanical min-maxing compass actually leads somewhere interesting in the actual game. D&D 4e obviously doesn't do much, but I've done my best myself to make having an abnormally high Arcana rewarding and special - by actively offering ludicrously powerful magical rituals to Eluned, for instance, the sort that no other wizard of her generation is even capable of casting.)

      Achren also tried to get Eluned to organize an expedition to the Tomb of Llyr, the adventure locale of the King of Stones adventure that she'd mentioned before; finding the bones of the original king of Llyr would provide a massive shortcut to the frustratingly slow and difficult skill challenge of crowning Eilonwy.

      Failing that, Achren also hinted at the possibility that Eluned might wish to develop her magic further by questing for Caer Oeth-Anoeth, the mystical Castle of Non-Forceful Force hidded deep in the recesses of the Forest of Idris. I left this rather vague for now, as Oeth-Anoeth is a very optional and rather high-level adventure, but Achren's idea here was pretty much to have Eluned temper and corrupt herself in the Pridonite center of death magics; a tradition originally invented by Achren herself, foreign to Eluned's pure Llyrian wizardry. Perhaps pick up a Warlock multiclass. (Warlock's one of the two "hidden" classes in the campaign, available only through death magic study.) It's still a mystery to me whether Achren intended well or ill to Eluned by this suggestion, but I suspect that on some level she wanted Eluned to understand her own perspective better; many Llyrian wizards consider Achren a tainted being for her mastery of death magic. Eluned could be more like herself by facing the travails of Oeth-Anoeth.
    • So yeah, Eluned had a lot of stuff to juggle at this point. She promised to look into the Tomb of Llyr business, and it was indeed talked over by the group, but the overall group consensus was pretty firmly behind the idea of intervening in the war of southern rebellion that was so very prominently on-going in southern Prydain. The other adventure options opened up on the flowchart so far didn't really have a chance at this point, which is all well and good: the whole point of the flowchart + campaign situation arrangement is to let the players perceive a plotline they wish to follow. Here, as does seem natural from further away, the heroes were obviously rather concerned about the ravaging Army of the Horned King that was by latest reports marching through the Ystrad Valley towards the north.

      (I admittedly like a bit of armchair warcraft, so you can imagine how the storytelling and campaign direction discussion in the campaign tends to include a fair amount of medieval warfare stuff. A bit similar to Tolkien in that, he does a surprising amount of geography, force composition and such while describing epic on-goings, too. As an example of what I mean, here after the third adventure I made a big deal of the bold strategic surprise that the Horned King achieved by mustering the southern forces in the autumn, consolidating control and marching towards northern Prydain rather late in the year. This goes against the usual order of Pridonite warfare and risks the Horned King's army getting into seasonal difficulties while his enemies sit in their castles. However, thanks to the surprise, the outlook is fair for the Horned King if he manages to cross to the north quickly: the surprise means that the muster of the north is still on-going when the Horned King arrives. His plan is to outright storm Caer Dathyl, the throne of the High King, and claim not only its arms and stores, but also its legitimacy, all before the northern army can quite pull itself together.)

      While Eluned was doing her own thing with Achren, the other characters largely busied themselves with war prep: they visited Dallben the Enchanter anew to properly divine the True Name of the Horned King with the aid of the oracular pig Hen Wen, for instance. Taran the swineherd begged Deithwen, his new mancrush, to take him to squire for him in the war. As Deithwen is such a macho crypto-fascist of a lump of meat of a man, he was of course excited about having a teenager groupie of his own, and one who wants to kill rebels, no less.

      (The theme of how characters deal with war is a major one in the original novels, which makes the parallels here interesting. Specifically, the player characters as led by Deithwen Morgan are much more traditionally modernist about the whole thing than the original cast of characters. Where the Chronicles are this skeptical existential treatment that casts suspicion on the idea of "heroism" - very '60s intellectual in that way - the player character cast are sort of dropped in here from a 30 years older work, or Warhammer maybe: they're eager boy-scouts who understand that it is the most important thing to be brave in the face of peril, to be loyal beyond all reason, and to recognize evil and do it in when you can. Perhaps shed some crocodile tears for the dead afterwards, as long as it doesn't come in the way of duty. Taran, the original protagonist of the novels, is an impressionable young man who grew up into what he became because he had all these skeptical adult role models like prince Gwydion and a dozen others, so him hanging out with Deithwen "kill the witch" Morgan is a major change for him psychologically. Deithwen is kinda precisely like the kind of hero that Taran thinks heroes are like at the start of the Chronicles, before events abuse him of those ideas.)

      The boisterous king Smoit whom we'd gotten to know at the beginning of the campaign was the key NPC in getting the heroes involved in the war. His kingdom of Cadiffor is the greatest of the Valley Cantrevs, one of the two southern provinces of the realm, so he was naturally pressured to join the Horned King's rebellion. Smoit proved his mettle in the matter, however, and had the main part of his subjects take cover in his formidable fortress of Cadarn. The rebels did siege him for a week or two, but as the southern part of the country was otherwise pacified by the rebellion and the Horned King deemed it to be the time to march, ultimately the rebels were forced to abandon Smoit and his kingdom with only superficial ravaging.

      While the heroes were consulting with Dallben, Smoit contacted the loyalists yet remaining in the south, and took it upon himself to organize a fighting force. This group would come to consist mainly of the men of Cadiffor, as many southern loyalists had been put to the sword, haunted into the wilderness or sacrificed in the rites of the Old Way. Nevertheless, as the vast majority of the southern army had marched away, Smoit managed to pull together around two thousand fighting men altogether.

      Eluned the Enchantress joined the rest of the party in Caer Cadarn, making her excuses under tense circumstances. King Smoit was more than happy to have the already remarkably well-known Heroes of the Quarrel Cliffs (a popular name for the party in song, thanks to their dramatic original meeting over a drunken quarrel and man-on-woman violence) join the war effort. His plan: to march after the Horned King and harass him from behind, hopefully contributing meaningfully in the defense of the realm.

      We'd see how that would go in the next session.
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