Monday 19 November 2012

Amazon, how well you know me

...because you suggested I might like this.

Saturday 17 November 2012

Team Adventure - Fire in the Ravine

The day dawned bright and dry. It was 23rd August and once they had crossed the river, loaded down with expedition gear and enthusiasm aplenty, their journey through the forest seemed to be without incident, until our heroes came across some cobwebs that looked considerably thicker than the ones they had seen bedecked with dew outside the Moat House that morning.

Benbo, determined to make himself useful, decided to climb the nearest tree and take a look around. He managed to make it to one of the higher branches, whereupon he attracted the attention of a huge spider which swung down out to try and grab him; it failed but knocked him off the branch. The hobbit amazingly managed to land on his feet, avoiding some nasty fall damage.  Alagon swung into action with his hand axes, hurling them at the arachnid. One hit and the other went sailing off into the undergrowth. As the party were milling around, trying to decide how to deal with the arboreal webslinger, another one emerged from the undergrowth and tried to attack Alagon. It was soon finished off as the party brought its strength to bear and whilst Alagon fired a warning shot from his bow to persuade the first one to vacate the scene, other members of the party were busily dismembering the dead spider to raid its venom sacs.

Their warm-up exercises over and done with, the party rode on and around midday or so, heard some noises from the trees; something was moving about just out of view. Alurax spurred his warhorse Warnado into action and rode through the trees to find out what it was. Elysia and Ferros sighed, rolled their eyes and set off in pursuit, a minute or so behind him.

Alurax had encountered two rutting stags, for whom the appearance of a potential rival proved an interesting distraction. One charged, antlers down and butted the unlucky warhorse who reared and retreated. Before Alurax could dismount to take further precipitate action, Elysia and Ferros arrived; Ferros used his Speak with Animals spell ability to assure the stags that no harm was intended and to extricate Alurax from the situation. With the matter closed, the stags got back to locking antlers and the party went on its way.

As afternoon shaded into evening, a different kind of noise was heard off into the forest, more distant but more numerous as if a large group of creatures was traversing the woods. Nobody seemed particularly intent on investigating this, and the party made camp, hoping to settle down for the night. However, the strange noises were again heard later on and this time Elysia sent Relic off to try and find out what was going on and whether it was a threat to the party.  The little pseudo-dragon returned shortly with the information she required; it turned out that it was a large number of wild cattle being herded by goblins. The party, on hearing the G-word, were all for arming up and riding off to give battle but wiser heads prevailed and the noise of the cattle eventually faded away into the night.

Nobody actually thought to wonder why goblins might be herding cattle in the forest (there is a good reason but I’m not giving it away just yet), and the next day, the party emerged from the woods into the rough badlands, over which they had travelled on their way to and from the elven lands. Not far off, they saw the recognisable shape of the rocky outcrop where they had defeated the ogres many weeks ago. However, rising from the top of the outcrop was a thin ribbon of smoke. Intrigued as to what lay up there, Alurax scrambled up the slopes, followed by Benbo who failed to negotiate the rocky incline and fell back down to the bottom, battered and bruised. He nevertheless tried again and, accompanied by Alagon, joined Alurax, who was in discussion with a group of individuals in armour, with weapons and adventuring equipment.

It was hardly surprising, given the energy with which the party had been opening up the wilderness, that determined individuals would soon be following in their wake, and here was one such party who were suitably impressed that they had met the famous Team Adventure. However, Alagon’s entreaties for this new party to join the established team were met with reluctance not only from the neophytes but also from his own colleagues, who did not like the idea of sharing their glory and treasure with yet more members. In the end, our heroes rode on, but not before Ferros had given some words of wisdom to the cleric of the other party.

About the middle of the day, the party was riding down a long and narrow valley when Ferros realised that something was moving behind them. He turned to see two giant lizards lumbering towards them.

The alarm went up and the party swung into action with Alurax, Benbo and Alagon pitching in to take on the scaly monsters. As they dispatched one, two more appeared, coming from the other direction.  An ambush by four giant lizards might have proved too much for the inexperienced party they had met earlier but the doughty veterans managed to slay all four before cutting open the lizards’ stomachs to see if there was anything interesting inside – a lesson they had learned at the Moat House on their first expedition there.

The party were starting to get accustomed to the wilderness again; towards evening, they spotted on the horizon the ruins of what looked like an old castle. They soon realised, as they rode towards it, that it was the ruined watch-tower where they had fought the trolls; this was revealed by the scatter of burned bones across the ground and the scorched patches where the fires had been lit and blazed fiercely.

Alurax and Benbo ventured into the ruins, keen to see if the owlbear that had been kept there by the trolls was still guarding the three doors that they had never explored. They crept very cautiously down the steps to the room where it had been last seen and found that its body lay against one wall; behind it was some sort of cocoon, white and papery, that had grown up between the body and the brickwork. Both of them edged closer to the cocoon before hearing a sinister droning noise coming from it. Out flew several giant wasps which headed straight for our heroes.

Pausing only to toss an oil bomb at the striped marauders, Alurax and Benbo ran for the stairs, but the stalwart hobbit was stung by two of the wasps as he tried to escape. His robust constitution meant that he managed to overcome the sinister paralysing effects of the stings’ venom and the terrified pair reached the top of the stairs, slamming the door and barring it. They raced back through the ruins to the rest of the party who were just deciding where to sleep that night and in panicked voices, explained that they needed to leave immediately.

On hearing the words ‘giant wasps’, the rest of the party agreed with them and they headed off into the night. After a good while, they managed to calm down and decided to set about pitching camp.  Before they could do so, they were surrounded by a group of horse archers who had appeared out of the night. Diplomacy prevailed over combat, which Benbo had been about to start, and it was established that the newcomers were nomadic tribesmen who were on the move through the badlands. The party wisely distanced itself from them and settled down for the night.

The next day’s travel was distinguished by encounters with several groups of wild animals. A pack of eight lions shadowed the party for some time, but kept their distance. At noon, or thereabouts, the party’s horses started to show signs of distraction and became friskier and less controllable as the party rode on. Soon, the source of the distraction became apparent; a herd of wild horses, several of them mares.

Yes, we can help you but we want a share of the XP

Keeping a tight rein on their own mounts, the party pressed on and eventually left the wild horses behind.

As the sun started to dip towards the west, the mournful sound of wolf howls met the party’s ears. Alurax also noticed a familiarity about the terrain; three rocky hillocks close to each other recalled to mind the Battle of Three Peaks and this was confirmed when they started to see orc bones, gnawed and chewed by the lupine scavengers. Not wishing to loiter in an area where they might be attacked, the party put some miles between them and the battlefield, setting up camp and allocating first watch to Alurax and Benbo.

Not long afterwards, there was the sound of something moving in the night sky above them. They quickly wakened the party and, despite some members expressing the wish to shoot first and ask questions later, it was soon revealed that the campsite was in for a visit from four giant owls. Elysia, using Ferros as interpreter, established cordial relations with the owls who were able to advise that a gang of ogres were camped in a nearby ravine and would probably pose a serious problem for the party the next day unless the party took the initiative.

Thanking the owls for their information (and refusing to allow Benbo to ride one of them), the party set about planning what to do. Elysia sent Relic off on a reconnaissance mission and he soon returned with enough information to allow them to lay their plans.

The ogres had set up a camp at the bend of a dry ravine, with three sentry posts of two ogres each, a good distance from each other, overlooking the campsite. It was established that four ogres were at the camp fire, three a little further off and it was likely that two were in a small cave that opened onto the ravine. Elysia decide to make use of the Ring of Mammal Control that she had salvaged from Galadeus’ body (well, hand actually – all that was left of him) to get the herd of wild horses to the mouth of the ravine and then start them stampeding down it.  That having been done, she quickly moved to the area of the campsite, where she cast a Fly spell on herself and moved up silently into the night sky.

Alagon, Alurax and Gullhar crept forward towards the sentries and settled down to wait. Meanwhile, Benbo had been lashing oil bombs together, six at a time, with a length of rope attached to each cluster. Ferros took up position with his bow.

Elysia flew in and cast a Stinking Cloud on each sentry pair, then pulled out. The three fighters then moved in to kill whichever ogres were not incapacitated; Alurax and Gullhar managed their ogres quickly but Alagon seemed to be having more difficulty. However, he finally managed to kill his opponent. All three of them rushed into the clouds to kill the choking ogres and took a few moments to recover themselves.

Meanwhile, Benbo had launched his first oil bomb cluster which landed in the campfire. A huge explosion incinerated the four ogres who were standing around it. As the horses hurtled down the ravine, the three outlying ogres took to their heels but were too slow to avoid being run down and trampled. A second blast bomb fell short of the two ogres in the cave but the splash damage still badly injured them and Ferros shot one dead. The other, overwhelmed by what had happened to his comrades, surrendered and was taken prisoner by the party, who had descended from the heights. A quick investigation of the cave revealed that it held coin, gems, jewellery, potions and an axe that glowed with a magical light.

A good night’s work by the party with some skilled use of their resources and abilities, plus the exploitation of the element of surprise (and perhaps a few pointers from outside sources) meant that each member of the party came away feeling very pleased with themselves. Whether this would continue as they made their way further into the wilderness, we shall see in the next session.

Wednesday 14 November 2012

The Pros and Cons of Pre-Rolling

Well, Team Adventure is about to set out on a long wilderness jaunt in pursuit of the renowned, much-desired and possibly entirely fictional Holy Sword. I know where it is and to get there, they’re going to have to cross a lot of hexes.

They’ve done this before, of course; long-term followers of this blog will recall their journey to the wood elves and their descent into the resprayed Lichway. One thing that marked the journey there and back again (see what I did there?) was a large number of random wilderness encounters that I diced up as they entered each hex. Even I didn’t know what was coming, how many of them there would be and the outcome of the encounter.

Now, however, I’m faced with a bit of a decision. Should I pre-roll the encounters so that the wait for me to consult the charts, roll the dice, do the calculations, determine the numbers and – inevitably – work out how much treasure said monsters are carrying, if at all is short-circuited?  They’d still meet the monsters, but I’d know in advance what was coming and be able to keep the game flowing.

Or should I stick with the old method, wherein I’ve as much idea as the party what’s lurking round the next tree or bluff?

There are arguments for and against each method.

Pre-rolling, as I’ve already said, speeds things up no end. The party can start counting the loot (assuming they win) almost as soon as the last monster has fled or hit the ground. I can also, if the monsters are intelligent, plan ambush or battle strategies, rather than just hurl them against the party in a head-on charge. I can prepare lairs if the party want to try and track the monsters back to their hidey hole. I can even work out a linking plot to make the encounter that little bit more interesting than ‘monster of the day’.

Of course, there is a problem with pre-rolling; I’m only human and these are kids I’m gaming with. Hell, I’d be as bad if it were adults. Although the DM is supposed to be a neutral facilitator of environment interaction, a party that’s been badly mauled by trolls is going to be in serious trouble if the dice decree a dragon flies over their heads. If I’ve pre-rolled the encounter but the party don’t know I have, I’m at liberty to fudge the results. To a sandbox extremist like myself, that’s something I don’t like to do deliberately but it may be that I find myself doing it unconsciously.

The only defence from accusations, either from oneself or the players, that one is somehow fudging (and it is worth recalling that fudging for one person can sometimes mean fudging against another) is to adhere rigidly to the will of the dice. I refer the reader back to one of the most insightful comments I’ve ever heard about sandbox, from the Great Sage Beedo “The dice are there to protect the DM from himself”.  Some of the most interesting and exciting situations in the Team Adventure campaign so far have arisen out of random encounters, which – when combined with the decisions that players have made based on those encounters – have generated entire plot strands. Had I intervened, even slightly, in the randomness of the roll or the decisions that the players made afterwards, things would have been different – no less enjoyable, perhaps but with a sneaking suspicion that the fate of the players was not entirely in their own hands.

Of course, even offering the players as wide a choice of options as possible still implies a certain amount of interference from the DM because he’s the one who chose and allocated those options in the first place.

It all comes down in the end to how much I, as a DM can trust myself to respect the oracular power of the dice, yet at the same time have access to the knowledge the dice might choose to impart ahead of time. Just as life is the story we tell ourselves to make sense of the random events that happen to us, the true meaning of the events that random dice rolls set in motion becomes apparent long after the dice have stopped rolling across the table.