Saturday 26 January 2013

Team Adventure Gets Rich Quick And Acquires Another Quest

The party decided to use Elysia’s magical resources to provide shelter for the night and she cast Leomund’s Tiny Hut in which everybody (except Benbo) was able to fit.  The disgraced hobbit was deputed to keep an eye on the party’s horses while everybody else tried to get some rest.

This was, of course, a doomed enterprise since it was not long after this that the sound of something large approaching the campsite was heard. Aerial reconnaissance revealed that it was a fire giant, prowling through the darkness. Elysia managed to get Benbo into the Hut by casting a Reduction spell on him to shrink him to a fraction of his size; as he was a hobbit to begin with, his reduced mass was not going to cause the Hut to malfunction.
The party swung into action with Gullhor and Larsh emerging from the hut first to take on the lumbering monster.  They were followed a few moments later by Alurax and Alagon.  Elysia had to stay inside to keep the Tiny Hut going but was able to fire Magic Missiles out. Ferros also kept up a stream of arrows to assist the party members fighting hand to hand.

It was not long before the attack strategy of the giants was revealed as two more giants came out of the darkness, heading for the fighting. The party decided to concentrate their efforts on bringing down the first giant, then switching to the others, rather than split their strength and run the risk of more casualties. This tactic bore fruit as the first giant was brought down, soon followed by the second one, who had been wounded in the earlier fighting and who had not yet recovered. The assistance of the polar bear, plus aerial bombardment from the air force, together with Alagon’s wolf made the party’s task much easier.

The third giant ran slap bang into Larsh; the rest of the party had dived for cover as Elysia prepared a confusion spell. Unfortunately, the giant managed to resist the effect of the spell but Larsh was not so lucky. Gullhor quickly turned his bear back into its figurine status to avoid its attacks upon party members. Alurax sent Eristar the hawk swooping in to pick up the figurine and deliver it back to the hands of its owner. The giant then charged at Alagon and Alurax but the party was able to direct its entire strength at it and it was whittled down and finally finished off with a combination of trident, phoenix, wolf, hawk, Magic Missiles, swords and axes. Was ever a Fire Giant killed by such a combination of attacks?

Totalling up the number of giants killed so far, Elysia realised that there must be one remaining. She used Relic (and Ferros sent Rufus) to seek out any more giants in the vicinity. It was not long before they reported back that the final giant was still at the campsite. He was clearly wounded and Elysia realised that it would not take much to finish him off.

So it turned out. She flew Ferros there and dropped him off a dozen yards or so from the fire, whilst she used her Cloak of Elvenkind to approach and launch her attack. A final Magic Missile combined with Ferros’ bow killed the giant and the rest of the party approached out of the darkness.

With no opposition to impede them, the looting began. There were several sacks and boxes of coins, a chrysoberyl, a silver crown set with gems and three magic items, a coil of rope, three blocks of incense and a scroll case. Elysia eagerly seized the latter, to find that it held two spells, Confusion (which she had already) and Polymorph Self (which she certainly did not). 

There was also another scroll case which held two copies of a document in runes that Elysia could not decipher. She would have to rest and regain her spells before she could cast Comprehend Languages on it to work out what it said.  After eight hours of restful sleep, she set about translating it and was alarmed to find out that the message was from the King of the Fire Giants to the chiefs of the other giants in the region, proposing an alliance with the aim of driving out the humans and seizing their lands.  The party had clearly interrupted this particular courier but were there others and had the Fire Giants already delivered one message?  The scroll case was a little too large for two letters so it appeared that this might be the case.
This could mean war
Stowing the scrolls safely, the party set off again. They were still committed to the quest for the Holy Avenger but the news about the threat from a potential Giant alliance was something to consider.  Soon, Alurax, with his hawk vision, managed to spy a group of humanoids on the plains ahead of them. He was able to tell, by their gangly legs and large ears that they were bugbears. He proposed a plan, whereby he would ride towards them, shouting out insults in the bugbear language and entice them to follow him whilst the rest of the party used oil bombs and the powers of Florin the phoenix to light the grass and vegetation and trap the bugbears in a sea of fire.
"This won't take long, lads". And how right they were.
The bugbears, however, were not going to be taken in by something like that and as Alurax approached on Warnado, they split into three groups – four on each flank and nine in the middle. Galadeus used Florin to fire the grass in front of one flank group, then conducted an oil bombing which killed two bugbears and injured two more. Elysia used an Affect Normal Fires spell to increase the power of the flames. The rest of the party piled into the fight, with Alagon and his wolf, Wolf, committing to the other flank whilst Gullhor, Larsh, Alurax and Galadeus attacked the centre.

Larsh did particularly well, managing to rip a bugbear apart entirely. The rest of the party fared similarly well; Ferros and Elysia sent their pseudo-dragons into action to finish off the bugbears on the flanks, first the ones still burning, then the ones that Alagon and Wolf had not had a chance to kill. With the flanks gone, the centre was steadily ground down, with Alurax’s new ability to launch two attacks every other round proving very handy. Elysia killed two with Magic Missiles. The power of the party was evident in the fact that five of the nine bugbears in the centre were killed with only one blow each.

Sooner than might have been thought, all seventeen bugbears were dead. Galadeus started to scout around and managed to find their trail, which he followed back to their camp, which was soon looted. A large chunk of amber, worth 500 gold pieces was a particularly nice find.

The party pressed on, feeling quite pleased with the way their fortunes were going. Some distance ahead on the plains, Alurax spotted some flying creatures hovering and swooping not far from the ground. As they grew closer, he was able to identify them as giant wasps. He counted eleven or so.  He and Galadeus had encountered them before, at the ruined watchtower and they were not keen on getting involved with the stripy menaces again but cooler heads prevailed and the party laid its plans to get rid of them.

Florin the phoenix had the ability of Pyrotechnics, which of course included the production of large quantities of smoke. Galadeus proposed sending him into the lair whilst Elysia cast Web spells across the entrance. When the wasps were driven out by the smoke, they would become entangled in the webs and fire could then be used to eradicate them.

 This sounded like an excellent idea and the party promptly put it into action. Florin disappeared into the cave and tunnel and a short while later, the smell of smoke was detected, together with an angry buzzing and droning. As luck would have it, all the wasps flew into the webs and the party set to with torches and oil to burn them alive, Alagon finishing off the insects with his axe.

Once the lair was clear, the party ventured gingerly inside. There were no more wasps but they were wary for larvae or other menaces lurking inside the cave. None was found but skeletal remains of the wasps’ former victims littered the tunnel. Ferros was delighted to find these and promptly animated seven of them to serve as replacements for his much-lamented zombies.  The others started hacking away at the nest structure to find within a cluster of gems, twenty five in all, which earned them nearly ten thousand gold pieces’ value. A truly profitable raid, considering the eleven wasps killed as well.
Now with added gems
As the party camped that night, they might have thought that they could enjoy uninterrupted sleep, but it was not to be the case. Alagon, on guard duty, heard the steady tramp of marching feet and alerted the rest of the camp. With the party awake, Elysia sent Relic out to see who was approaching. It turned out to be a group of dwarves, seeking somewhere to camp for the night. The party extended a welcome to them (with Ferros providing them with food and drink) and their leader, Hragnir, having been introduced to the party, said that he recognised Elysia by name. He explained that he had been told of the party’s exploits by Olaf, who had returned to the clan’s homelands with the medallion of Thorgrim.

Hragnir went on to say that he was surprised to find the party in the wilderness since Olaf had set off for the Moat House to find them, bearing grim tidings.  It seemed that a great evil had fallen on the dwarven burial grounds and that several dwarves who had gone to investigate had not returned. Unwilling to risk their best warriors, Hragnir and his comrades had asked Olaf to return to his old party and offer them rich reward to investigate and eradicate the evil.

The party were, of course, committed to the Holy Avenger quest, but they made a note of the dwarves’ problem and resolved to deal with it on their return. Whether they would ever return was another matter, but they were now building up a substantial list of things that they needed to do. The voyage west still beckoned and they had no idea how much further it was to their goal.

Wednesday 16 January 2013

The DM with Two Brains

It’s a busy life DMing a session; even more so when you’re trying to keep kids in order as well. Sandbox sessions with their extra workload of extemporising from sketchy notes at a moment’s notice leave little time for keeping an eye on how the players are organising their character sheets, hit points, resources, oil bombs, magic item charges etc, etc.

To begin with, I sweated it all; I kept one half of my mind on what was going on behind the DM’s Screen and the other half on whether the party’s thief had remembered that he’d picked up a +2 short sword, +4 v Undead three months ago and should be using it, or making sure that the noobs used the right dice, or that everybody had taken their second bow shot that round.

After a while, I began to realise that this second role wasn’t really that important; if the players, who had been gaming for several months, couldn’t keep track of their magic items, or forgot to maximise their attacks, that was not for me to worry about. If the magic user cast more spells than they were entitled to, or the fighter used the Large damage dice when the target was Man-sized, the world wasn’t going to come to an end. My responsibility was to keep the adventure on track, make sure I used the right monster stats and delivered an enjoyable session for all (within reason).

Of course, I have an advantage – I have two brains.

I’ll explain. When Team Adventure first started, Mummy Grognard sat in -  partly to chaperone the first two players and partly to see what this D&D thing was all about. As the campaign progressed, she became a true part of the team, actively recruiting for places at the table and keeping things under control when the lads started to get distracted and perhaps a little bit…well, laddish.  As things have got more involved, I’ve also allocated her the role of caller so that we don’t have five boys trying to shout over each other in order to get the DM to listen to them. She also keeps track of the magic, gold and XP I hand out and makes sure that at the end of each session, the players’ totals are up to date, accurate and confirms if anyone has levelled up.

All this and sorting the pizzas and milkshakes as well. All praise to her for what she does and the way she stays cool under pressure. To assist her further, I’ve printed out her spell book and a contents page so that she can check more quickly what her magic user can do, what effect it has and how long it lasts without flicking through the entire PHB each time.

In a way, her administrative activities in keeping five boys under control and organised lift a heavy burden from me and ensure that the game progresses fairly and enjoyably. She also manages to bifurcate her MG and Elysia personae very effectively.

Has anybody else had experience of situations or groups where one player clearly takes over part of the admin for the DM? Did it work or was it eventually more trouble than it was worth?  Or are all your players superbly organised and need no administrative support?

Sunday 13 January 2013

Team Adventure - I love the smell of oil bombs in the evening

Following their mystical adventure into a wintry wonderland, the party awoke to a rather more mundane reality; they were still in the woodlands although Galadeus was with them once more and they had their various magical companions.

Gullhar had a magical figurine of a polar bear which he could animate to fight for him once a day. He decided to call it Larsh, after the bear that he had met in the winter adventure.

Benbo had a phoenix figurine, similarly animatable, which he named Florin.

Ferros now had a pseudo-dragon companion, named Rufus, who quickly made friends with Relic.

Alagon was very pleased with his wolf companion, which (perhaps rather unimaginatively) he named Wolf.

Alurax’s familiar was a hawk named Eristar, and he was delighted when he found that he could share its superior vision during daylight and that it could talk to him.

The party set off but soon heard the sound of hoofs echoing across the hilly terrain through which they were moving having just left the sylvan forest behind. They launched the Air Force (as the hawk, two pseudo-dragons and phoenix were now dubbed) who soon reported that the sound was that of the approach of a herd of wild horses. The party decided not to worry about them and rode on their way, camping that night and establishing a watch rota.

At a certain point of the night, the sound of lowing was heard from the darkness and soon the party was roused and alert. Alurax put an arrow to his bow and set off into the dark, aiming (for reasons best known to himself) to try and shoot whatever it was that was making the noise. He did actually hit something (more by luck than judgement) but managed to trip over twice in the dark (once on the way out, once on the way back), causing himself minor damage. The rest of the party decided that fresh beef was not worth the effort and went back to bed.

The next morning, the party set off again but it was not long before the Air Force returned from its reconnaissance en masse. The reason soon became apparent – eight flying shapes approaching, shadowing the party.  A consultation with Relic, Russet and Eristar revealed that the newcomers were griffons and the chance was high that the party’s horses were on their ‘must try’ list.  The party split (uh-oh) to try and draw some off whilst Ferros and Elysia decided to try the Fly and Parley option that had worked so well with the manticores a couple of days previously.

They conferred about the approach they were going to use for the griffons and settled on “We are very strong and can kill you if it comes to a fight but back up the trail a few miles is a nice herd of wild horses”.  Fortunately, the griffons took the bait and flew off to try the latest take-out.

The party was rather relieved that they had escaped some potentially damaging action with aerial opponents who could have made their lives rather difficult. They rode on through the hills and it was only as the sun went down and they started to make camp that somebody realised that Alurax was no longer with them.  He had ridden off when the griffons appeared and had not been seen since. Where was he?

Nobody seemed particularly keen on searching for him in the gathering dark and so they pitched camp, got a fire going and settled down for the night.  The night was not to be an undisturbed one. At about two in the morning, there was the sound of approaching footsteps (big ones) and again, the party prepared itself for action. Elysia used her Wand of Illumination to pick out the opposition; four figures, each about twelve feet tall, with coal-black skin and flaming orange hair and beards.

I don't actually have this mini but I wish I did.
 Never having met Fire Giants before, the party were nonetheless fired up (excuse the pun) for action. Ferros opened fire with his bow, Elysia with Magic Missiles. The giants, after taking missile fire as they closed in, crashed into the party’s lines. Galadeus and Benbo had climbed into trees to try and jump onto the giants as they passed by. Galadeus managed it, but Benbo landed short and was used as a golf ball by one enterprising giant. The hobbit went flying through the air and landed in a crumpled heap several yards away.

Lucky shots from Gullhar, Alagon and Ferros had actually managed to bring one of the giants down (a well-considered d30 roll helped) and Gullhar’s timely activation of Larsh gave the giants another opponent to fight.

Elysia used a newly-lit torch to cast Fire Charm, enchanting both the giant, Alagon and Galadeus (on the giant’s back) at the same time. Having removed one opponent from the fight, she moved on to the one that was pressing Gullhar back under the weight of its hefty attacks.

Meanwhile, amazingly, Larsh had managed to get two hugs in on his giant opponent and although he had taken some damage himself, his capacity to soak up damage stood him in good stead as eventually the giant succumbed to the claws and crushing power of the bear’s strength.

Elysia called on Gullhar to run for it, and he did so, drawing the giant straight past the magic user and into the effect of a Confusion spell. It staggered to a halt and stood there stupefied for valuable moments whilst Elysia used Unseen Servant to knock Alagon and Galadeus out of the Fire Charm’s influence, leaving the Fire Giant staring at the pretty colours.

The party withdrew into the night, leaving the confused Giant to wander hither and thither, eventually attacking its Fire Charmed comrade, nearly killing it although it fought back, having had the Charm broken.

At that point, out of the darkness came Eristar, Alurax’s hawk familiar. The party was about to find out what had become of the missing fighter.

Alurax having been chased by a griffon, had got lost in the hills and, being unable to find the party, had made camp on his own for the night. During the night, he too was disturbed by the approach of Fire Giants, three of them in this instance. They were part of the main group but had taken a slightly different route and come across the trident-wielding fighter. He had hastily scrambled to his feet and mounted his horse but unfortunately, a couple of accurately-thrown boulders found their mark and Warnado, his horse crashed to the ground, nearly killed by the incoming missiles. Alurax had loosened the horse bardings to try and get up some speed but it was to no avail. The fighter now faced three giants and, armoured as he was, could not outdistance them. He was soon to find that being the strongest fighter in the party was no guarantee that he could beat anything and was very heavily beaten by one of the giants as the other two moved in for the kill.

At the last minute, Alurax decided that discretion was the better part of valour and made a run for it, discarding practically everything that was slowing him down (except his beloved trident) in a bid to outdistance the giants. They pursued him for a while, half-heartedly, having had their fun. They went on their way, laughing about their ‘pasting of the little fellow’ while Alurax, leaking blood from several serious wounds, crept back through the dark to see to his horse, who was still alive but only just.  He sent Eristar to seek out the party and let them know what had happened and that there were three giants heading their way.

The party were none too happy to hear this. Nevertheless, Elysia sent Relic back with Eristar to verify the condition of Alurax. Via this long-distance courier communication, Alurax declared that he would not leave his horse, so Elysia realised she would have to go to him. She was out of spell capacity that would have enabled her to fly there, but Benbo revealed that he had a Potion of Flying that he donated so that Elysia, Ferros and the Air Force could cover the short distance to where the fighter lay with his mount.

When they arrived, Ferros healed some of Warnado’s damage before turning his attention to Alurax. They then returned, albeit slowly, to where they had left the others. The three giants had arrived, found their fallen comrades and the other two, confused and battered had all gone off into the night.

The party licked its wounds and conferred over breakfast. The consensus was that the party had done quite well against the giants the previous night and with Alurax back in the fold, the remaining five giants were ripe for the picking. Two were known to be wounded, one badly. It should be pointed out that Benbo thought this an unnecessary diversion and was the only one to vote against this.

The Air Force began its scouting, looking for the direction that the giants had taken. Sightings of a group of stone giants in rockier terrain and a large band of goblins were ignored and the party followed the trail that had been identified. They rode all day and as dusk began to fall, spotted a camp fire in the distance, which they approached cautiously. Elysia had decided to use Fly and Fire Charm again, since it had gone so well the night before and she set about preparing for the attack.

Unfortunately for her, Benbo had ideas of his own. He activated his phoenix and lashed together two bombs made up of three oil flasks each. He clearly remembered the attack on the ogres in the ravine. Having assembled his bombs, he sent Florin off to drop them into the fire, hoping that the explosion would cause havoc to the camping giants. At this point, Gullhar pointed out that since they were Fire Giants, the attack would, almost certainly have no effect, but Benbo was unconcerned. Alurax pointed out at the same time that Elysia was in the area and would be in danger. If anything happened to her, they would view his actions in a very hostile manner.

Meanwhile, Elysia had arrived at the camp fire to find only the two wounded Fire Giants there. She  nevertheless cast her Fire Charm spell and managed to entrance the less seriously wounded giant. The other giant, on the brink of death, was helped across by a Magic Missile. There was no sign of the other giants but Elysia had managed to remove the threat posed by two, at least.

However, just as she was assessing her next move, something dropped out of the darkness and landed in the camp fire. Benbo’s aerial assault had reached its target and Elysia was about to have a very unpleasant and oily experience.

Back at the party’s camp, the gang were waiting for Florin to return with reports of how well the mini-Dresden had gone. Benbo was in for a surprise as out of the darkness stormed a charred, smoking and very angry magic user. Elysia demanded to know who had been responsible for the oil bombing which had left her with serious splash damage and had almost set her Cloak of Elvenkind on fire. All fingers pointed to Benbo. Elysia instructed that the luckless hobbit should be tied up – for his own safety and for everybody else’s.

A disciplinary hearing was convened while Elysia recounted what had transpired at the giants’ camp site. By sheer good fortune, the oil bomb cluster had landed just at the edge of the fire and although the blast had happened just as Benbo intended, Elysia caught only the splash damage rather than a direct hit. She was nevertheless burning in several places and rolled on the ground to put herself and the Cloak out. The giant that had been Charmed – who had, unsurprisingly, suffered no fire damage - was released from the enchantment and hollered the alarm, causing the three Fire Giant sentries to leap into action. Elysia’s Fly spell was still in operation and she took off out of danger.

Okay, that's the village secure; let's call in the hobbits
The decision of the hearing was that Benbo should be relegated to the status of NPC – still with the party, but responsible only for such things as keeping an eye on the horses, non-combat related activities and such like. Custody of his phoenix figurine was transferred to Galadeus.  Having made its decision, the party withdrew to find a safe camp site, aware that the giants were now roused and angry;  not good neighbours to have around.

Wednesday 9 January 2013

Are children intuitive railroaders?

A couple of years ago, I was reading an article which discussed the tendency of children to ascribe purpose to everything and pondered if this effectively hardwired them to a theistic view of the universe. Whilst that is in itself a very interesting article and worth a look, it’s not what I want to discuss today, although I have purloined and slightly altered the title.

The recent account of the Christmas dungeon run by Junior Grognard will have shown just how railroady it was, although this is not to take anything away from his achievement in writing it and running it. All I’m saying is that there was a specific goal, a pre-determined path and no substantial deviation had been planned for.

This surprised me at the time, since he and his friends have been playing a very sandbox, player-agency driven campaign for a number of years and I had thought that this playing style might have rubbed off on him to a certain extent. The reasons why it hadn’t intrigued me.

It may be that since birth, children are exposed to story, either in the written format or in the televised version. The stories they encounter in this fashion are very linear; A leads to B, leads to C, concludes at D. There’s no concept of the possibility of alternative outcomes; the text is inviolable, created by an unseen source, presented as a given. When children begin to write or otherwise create their own stories, they often adhere to the beginning-middle-end format, not necessarily examining motivations but letting actions fuel their narratives. Indeed, to change anything about the narrative alters the end and this is not something that children find easy to contemplate unless alternative resolutions are addressed by a specific exercise. 

Since the emergent story is often hard to discern from the pre-planned, pre-existing version whilst running dungeons, particularly if the DM is skilled in making random events mesh seamlessly into a coherent and unfolding experience, the existence of other ways of creating stories may not even be apparent to child players. That the party was ultimately victorious against the giants in the fire chasms seems to them a logical outcome, their destiny fulfilled. Something that was always meant to be. Returning to the nexus points where specific decisions turned an entire adventure onto another (and unexpected) track can show how player agency affects outcomes but it seems not to sink into the child mind.

Another possibility is that sandbox is by its very nature formless, unpredictable and places a large amount of responsibility onto the players for their own fates. I don’t know about your family but in my experience, a childhood is not often the place where there is a lack of predictability, a feeling that anything could happen (good or bad) and a whole shed load of personal responsibility dumped on a child (well, not until they get into their teenage years.)  Junior Grognard gets up at a particular time, goes to school at a particular time, eats what I buy and cook, goes to bed at a particular time, takes holidays we choose, has specific areas where he enjoys freedom and others where he knows not to venture (often involving hot, fragile or sharp things). That might seem controlling but he’s only nine and he’s the only one we’ve got. Asking him to suddenly take on the responsibility for the choices, actions and fate of a character, even a fictional one is a big leap. It’s possibly why players become more adventurous in their teenage years as they begin to realise that what they do affects what happens to them and they are allowed to do more. A campaign where there are few choices, things are set up so that they know where they are going and the outcome is predetermined does give a fair degree of security.

There’s also the possibility that the child’s mind as it grows is just not equipped to handle the kinds of uncertainty and choice that sandbox presents. It’s documented that the frontal lobes don’t fully integrate into the brain as a whole until the early twenties. These are the parts of the brain that deal with outcomes, judgements and controls a person’s impulses and emotions. Being able to make informed choices from a range of options and to estimate the consequences of those choices is much harder without fully formed and integrated frontal lobes.  However, whilst the frontal lobes are the parts of the brain that take longest to develop, the nucleus accumbens is a part of the brain that plays an important role in reward and pleasure. Children are biologically prone to seeking out experiences and activities that give the most reward for the least amount of effort; one reason why child RPG players are very easy to hook with shiny magic items and piles of treasure, leading to XP!

So, given the preceding, is it worth running sandbox games with kids?  Should we just switch to adventure paths where the amount of player input is minimalised?  I’d say no; my players, as I’ve said have been adventuring in a world where, unbeknownst to them, events are being driven by the choices and actions that they take. That they don’t entirely realise the mechanics behind the world in which they are playing is immaterial; the philosophy of choice, player agency and lack of constrictive DMing is seeping into their still-forming minds and come the day when they can handle the concepts that underlie sandbox in its purest form, they will be ready for it, rather than addicted to the quick fix and the easy option.

That’s my take on the issue; I’d be interested to know if other DMs who play with kids in their groups have encountered the same things or if other evidence is going to blow my hypothesis out of the water.