Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Arandish Campaign 2010 - Session 9

Last session, the party -- consisting of PCs Hazel (Ftr-1), Innominus (Clr-2), and Uncle Junkal (Bard-1) plus NPC Dalgoop (Ranger-2) and hirelings Snikrop and Meathook (both Ftr-1) -- ventured south into the strange, mountainous land of Minoch.

Near the end of last session, four days into their southward journey, the PCs met a small group of cloaked humanoids leaving the Minochian town of Farn Junction, heading north toward Kaladar with a strangely empty-seeming wagon (most northbound travelers are contracted to haul goods to the Free City).  The two groups did not speak, but the PCs got an uneasy or uncanny feeling about the five cloaked figures escorting the empty-seeming wagon.  But they passed the cloaked weirdos by and, at the outset of this session, entered the town.

Once in town, Dalgoop (the NPC ranger) made for the Lazy Basilisk, a local inn friendly to traveling adventurers, to make contact with some people he knows.  Innominus and the hirelings hung out at the bar with Dalgoop, while Uncle Junkal performed his juggling act in the streets (making a small amount of sp) and Hazel sent her kestrel on a reconnaissance flight over the whole town. 

The kestrel soon returned, agitated about something it had seen, and it led Hazel to the southeastern end of Farn Junction, to a group of secluded, windowless, cylindrical huts in the woods a good distance off the main road.  As a clever disguise, Hazel donned her bearskin, which she had had tanned in Kaladar last session, and then she crept through the woods toward the huts.  At one point an arrow or bolt whizzed through the air near her, but she crouched down and froze, and no further missiles were loosed her direction.  Emboldened by the sound of retreating footsteps, Hazel made her way forward through the woods again and reached the first hut, finding the door padlocked.  She then decided to return to town to gather the other PCs before attempting to break in to the huts.

It was now late afternoon, and the whole party sans Dalgoop headed to the southeast end of town and crept up on the huts.  Hazel used her axe to break the first padlock, revealing an empty hut with some blood and gory remains on the wood-plank wall and dirt floor. The second hut revealed a fresh grave in one corner of the dirt floor, but no sooner did Innominus expose a dead arm than the party heard footsteps approaching through the woods, and fled the scene.  Night had fallen and Uncle Junkal in particular seemed convinced that the huts had some connection to the undead.

The next morning the party left Farn Junction (as planned) and headed further south -- and further up in elevation -- toward the mountain town of Fortinbras.  During the three-day journey to Fortinbras, the party was twice attacked by monsters, first a large roc and then a saber-toothed tiger.  In these skirmishes they lost both their hirelings: Meathook was dispatched by the roc, and the tiger slashed Snikrop to ribbons before anyone knew what hit him.

But despite these losses, the party made it to the small town of Fortinbras, and once there, fueled by rumors of an eccentric wise man thought to dwell on the mountain slopes nearby, they hired a local expert mountaineer named Crazy Ted to lead them on an expedition to find said wise man.  With Crazy Ted's help, they climbed the steep mountain and soon found old Zeke Duncaster, a very strange yet dedicated man who was busy carving wooden gravestones for hundreds of people he claims have been dead a long time.  The party attempted to ask Zeke questions about the local area, especially about any underground caves or passages that might lead to treasure, but Zeke was reluctant to advise them, and became extremely agitated when Innominus showed him an idol depicting Orcus.  The hermit Duncaster also seemed to recognize the bone tile Innominus showed him, though he refused to speak about that either.  The session ended with the party making camp in the same clearing as Duncaster's lean-to, with the intention of (next session) heading up the mountain to a "bad place" Duncaster mentioned. . .

Playing Clerics Wrong All These Years?

Live and learn, that's what I say.

I have never been a great fan of clerics.  In fact, arguably I am no great of fan of clerics or magic-users, and I must admit that to this day I don't know how to play those character types well.  But to be honest, I have known very few clerics, on either side of the gaming table; most of the people I played with growing up had preferences for fighters, thieves and magic-users, so even cleric NPCs were rare.  I guess clerics were kind of seen as boring healer-types -- in no small part because my early gaming groups rarely bothered with substantively addressing the issue of gods in the game-world.  I think I played many years in the hobby in fairly atheistic gaming groups, so there just weren't many clerics around because none of us found the concept of gods or divine power very compelling.  Adding to this was the fact that we were all heavily influenced by Tolkien's Lord of the Rings books, so we all wanted to be Strider (rangers) or Gandalf (magic-users).  I knew a few guys who were really into playing druids, especially as I got a bit older, but it is not until very recently (this year) that I have really began to look carefully at clerics and realize how BADASS they are.

I owe my newfound admiration for clerics to one of the players in my current campaign, who is playing Innominus the cleric.  In what turned out to be a very humbling and educational exchange for me, Innominus' player emailed me recently to ask a couple questions about how cleric spell acquisition works:

What's the deal with spells? I've always assumed (though I never really played a cleric before, because I mistakenly viewed them as too priestly and therefore uninteresting) that e.g., the first level cleric selects one first level spell and that's the one spell they know, period. They pray to have use of it one time each day. In contrast to elves and MU, they don't need a spellbook, etc. But the wording of the [Labyrinth Lord] basic edition (p. 19) is maybe vague enough to leave room for me to overthink this:

"Clerics do not study spells from books, but instead receive the knowledge of how to cast specific spells through prayer to their gods. For this reason, clerics have access to all clerical spells they are capable of casting when they pray for spells."

So does 'all the clerical spells they are capable of casting' mean that one spell as I had been thinking of it (in the case of Innominus,
Cure Light Wounds), or does that mean any of the 8 first level spells can be prayed for since Cleric-1 is capable in the abstract of casting any first level spell?

I dashed the player off a quick email response, saying that I

have tended to limit clerics to "knowing" one spell, so they pray for that same one back etc. and do not know a second one until they level up or get a scroll or whatever (I *think* AD&D set this in stone so that's probably where I got it from -- I will check my Player's Handbook for this). However, many DMs -- and note that I could easily be persuaded to play it this way -- interpret that passage you quote to mean that a cleric may pray for a different spell or spells every day, i.e., any of the any of the 8 first level spells that can be prayed for. Some refs. even add a twist to this and make the cleric roll *randomly* for his/her spell(s) each new day!

But then I read my Player's Handbook, and then went back once again to the Labyrinth Lord rulebook and read the spell acquisition passage very carefully, and realized that I HAVE BEEN WRONG ABOUT HOW CLERICAL SPELL ACQUISITION WORKS ALL THESE YEARS.  I think my early disinterest in clerics and personal tendency to avoid wizards and clerics has led me to assume that those two classes work more similarly to each other than they in fact do.  In my mind I overlaid the M-U spell restrictions (i.e., only the specific spells you memorize are castable) upon clerics, which is not how it reads in Holmes nor the AD&D PH!  I completely made this up, because of course clerics (in Holmes onward anyway) get access to all the spells they are capable of casting via divine caveat -- each day (or perhaps each adventure as per Holmes -- though that may also mean the same thing as "day") the cleric prays for an new spell or spells!  Combine this with their potent undead-turning abilities and now I see that CLERICS ARE BADASS!  And now I feel silly for not understanding them and for grossly overlooking their greatness all these years.

Arandish Campaign 2010 - Session 8

I was out of town all last week, so this is a belated report on last week's session.  Last night's session report will soon follow.

Last week, the party -- consisting of Hazel (Ftr-1), Innominus (Clr-2), and Uncle Junkal (Bard-1) -- began in the Free City of Kaladar.  They chose to lodge at the Orc's Balls Inn, a somewhat seedy establishment near Kaladar's South Gate that is owned and operated by Fred, an old friend and street contact of Uncle Junkal's. The dawn following their first night in town, a ghoul attacked Innominus and No-name (Innominus' follower) in their room at the Orc's Balls Inn, killing No-name.  Fred insisted that this was a highly unusual incident and claimed he had rarely seen a ghoul inside the city limits before.

After lamenting the passing of No-name, Innominus and the party decided to avail themselves of the services of Sawith the Scribe of Kaladar in order to learn more about the origins and possible purpose of the ivory tile they found in the wight's office beneath the orc complex.  For a somewhat hefty fee, Sawith told them that the tile might be one of two things, or some combination of both:  (1) a coffin marker from an ancient Noffellian civilization, and/or (2) an artifact relating to some legendary (but never proven to exist) underground planar nodes, where (according to legend) one may use the tile in conjunction with some kind of powerful inter-planar gate.  But even the great Sawith himself could offer little more information than that.

In the course of inquiring with Fred about the ghoul and doing their business with Sawith, the group learned several rumors about local adventuring opportunities.  The only one they concretely followed up on was a rumored meeting of a clandestine organization called the Society of the Cheetah Mask, set for midnight at the Greedy Lion.  The PCs attended, and met five representatives of the SCM, who were all wearing cheetah masks.  The PCs ended up hiring themselves out to the Society of the Cheetah Mask, which the representatives explained is an organization working to end the territorial disputes between Delzar and Mizar.  The members of the SCM believe that the true threat to Ara lies to the south, where vicious and super-numerous troll hordes are rumored to exist.  Increased trollish raids in southern Mizarian villages have caused the SCM to mobilize, hiring mercs out of Kaladar to head south and gather intelligence about the troll hordes and their plans.

So, accompanied by a ranger and SCM member named Dalgoop, plus old hireling Snikrop and new hireling Meathook (a 1st level Fighter with a flail), the party set off south through Minoch, eventually headed to the Mizarian frontier to (hopefully) spy on some trolls.

To be continued. . . .

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Arandish Campaign 2010 - Session 7

This week's session provided a fine example of how the PC party continues to work and function well together, and it also ended on a particularly exciting note that I cannot wait to tell you about.

The PCs -- Uncle Junkal (Bard-1), Innominus (Cleric-1), and Hazel (Fighter-1) -- began the session standing outside the charred remains of an office, whose undead occupants they torched last session.  They now searched the charred remains of the wight's desk, and by "searched" I mean Innominus beat the desk to splinters with a mace, then the PCs sifted through the rubble.  The desk -- every single drawer -- was full of bones, partial skeletal remains belonging to a wide array of animals and humanoid creatures.  After a round or two of careful searching though the bone-pile, Innominus found a rectangular ivory tile, roughly 3" x 2" and inscribed with a rune-like symbol vaguely resembling a humanoid-shaped skull.  Uncle Junkal, the party's bard, did not recognize the inscribed symbol as belonging to any particular known religion or cultural tradition.  Innominus pocketed the tile, believing it to be important or at least fairly unique.

Once they had sifted the rubble, the PCs noticed one more item leaning against the wall in a shadowy corner behind the now-destroyed desk: a small painting on a black velvet canvas.  The painting was abstract but grotesque, suggestive of demonic, multi-species sex acts and the like.  The PCs decided to remove the painting from its mounting frame so it could be rolled up for easy pilfering, but as soon as Hazel touched the painting, she vanished from the room!

This is where the PC cooperation piece kicks in: while Hazel calmly explored the small, exit-less room she had been teleported to, her two companions left behind in the office problem-solved how to get to her.  Uncle Junkal and Innominus knew they should not touch the painting themselves, but shortly discovered that if they threw an inanimate object at the painting, the object too would vanish upon touching the canvas.  So they wrote a note -- "grab the rope" I believe it was -- on a broken piece of the desk then thrust it "into" the painting.  They followed this with a rope cast "into" the painting, which Hazel grabbed and was pulled back out into the wight's office.  Victory!

In the exit-less room she had visited, Hazel had found two rotting corpses, one of which she looted, obtaining a nice suit of dwarf-sized chain mail, a scroll of ward against undead, and a New Steel hand axe!

The party ventured to one more wing of the underground complex, encountering and killing six skeletons (Innominus turned them), and subsequently finding another teleportation trap in the form of an immense bas relief.  After looting the corpses imprisoned in the other side of that trap, the group decided they had had enough of mucking about in an undead dungeon; they unanimously voted to head back to the surface and make their way to a larger city / trade center where they could offload some of their recent plunder and buy some much-needed equipment (and possibly magic items).  Uncle Junkal also looked forward to returning to civilization so that he might make some money performing his juggling act in the streets.

So the PCs left the dungeon, returned to Vedik, left Larry the farmer some money, and let two of their Vedik hirelings go.  Two other hirelings, Snikrop and No-name, expressed a desire to accompany the party on their further adventures, and No-name became a follower of Innominus' while Snikrop (already a de facto level 1 fighter) apprenticed himself to Hazel.  Talen, the low-level magic user the PCs found underneath the idol last session, also traveled east with the party since he is ultimately headed to Delzar, his homeland. 

The party headed eastward, out of the Noffel / Western Lands frontier area, over the Freystone Pass, and onto the well-traveled Endyn Trade Route, which would take them to the Free City of Kaladar.  After a couple minor random encounters on the road -- a small caravan of goblins fleeing hobgoblin threats in the northeast, a group of eight skeletons easily turned by Innominus -- the session ended with the PCs booked into a modest inn in Kaladar, the largest single city in Ara and the entire continent's commercial center.  Anything can be bought, sold, or traded here, and so the PCs got right to work fencing their loot and buying new supplies.  We will pick up with their Kaladarian city adventures -- and whatever the hell comes next -- in forthcoming reports . . .

DM thoughts: Well, the PCs are finally loose in Ara, and who the hell knows where they will head next?  Frankly, I don't care.  I am eager to see how the players and I will sort this thing out improvisationally as we go along, now that they're outside the confines of the dungeon and loose in the biggest trade center in the known world.  ANYTHING COULD HAPPEN, and we will figure it out spontaneously together, and that is one of the most fun and exhilarating aspects of this particular hobby -- so I am really relishing the possibilities right now.  Great session!

Silly Names

Eric Minton over at The Mule Abides recently commented on some of the great (IMO) -- if silly -- names in my current Arandish Campaign PC party.  While I cannot take credit for any of those names -- Uncle Junkal's, Innominus' and Barbarella's players all named themselves -- I nevertheless must confess I have my own penchant for silly names.  I love comedy, especially silly-sounding names, yet like Mr. Minton, I often feel torn about this impulse, because I do not want silly names to completely interfere with or puncture the "reality" of the game-world of Ara.  I still want to be able to grip and frighten my PCs and their players as well, and too much joking around can erode that sense of imminent danger and horror that makes D&D so intense sometimes.

With thanks to Eric for spurring me to think about this, I have been able to recognize a few trends in my own naming conventions:

I like SILLY names -- really absurd ones like Rabbit-Head and Weasel-Breath -- but NOT necessarily puns.  I am in fact no great fan of verbal puns.

Further, I do not really like references to the real (21st century Earth) world UNLESS they are pop-cultural in nature (I love names recycled from obscure films or books) and really suggest a lot about the character.  The late Barbarella Bootay, for example, was a buxom, adventurous, brave female rodian duellist -- so that name really fit her, and I liked it because it is also fairly heroic-sounding.  Even beyond the fact that I would never tell a player how to name his or her character, Barbarella's player calling the PC "Barbarella" fits the character's personality and, furthermore, does not alter the fact that almost every NPC rodian the party meets conforms to my standard naming conventions for prominent rodian families: names like Saladar Karibekian and Karn Borasukian.  So Barbarella's PC name has only enhanced the fun for the player and party and has not significantly impacted the "typical" rodian cultural practices of Ara (since I typically dictate those as DM). Had she lived to become a prominent high-level warlord, maybe Barbarella would have established her own new prominent Bootay clan, and that would have changed rodians in Ara. . . but alas. . .

While minor NPCs of any stripe frequently get silly, or at least colloquial names in my campaigns, and players are welcome to name their characters however they wish, NPCs connected to any known organization or nation in Ara, or members of well-known families of Ara, are always named somewhat earnestly, and always in line with their institutional affiliation.  This includes names of kings, mayors, prominent innkeepers, recurring NPCs, etc.  I believe it is important not to overwhelm the diegetic "reality" of the Arandish setting with goofiness, so while major PCs and villains can have bizarre and / or silly names due to their exceptional status as heroes / main characters, and minor or adventure-specific NPCs can also get named weirdly, there exists a "returning cast" of Arandish regulars (or at least recurring types, e.g. Kaladarian Guards, Mizarian Barbarians) who provide campaign flavor and who I would tend to name more seriously.

Also, any serious villain I want the characters to truly fear will get a serious name.  I would never name a vampire, dragon, or other real menace in a silly way. 

Lastly, I often give minor NPCs, especially random townspeople and peasants, a very mundane name like session six's Larry the farmer

In the end, I like to strike a balance between "serious" and / or setting-specific names, on the one hand, and wacky, absurd names on the other.  That is the form my rpg'ing gonzoism takes, and I think it promotes a favorable game play balance, a fun amalgamation of light comedy and sinister danger.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Arandish Campaign 2010 - Session 6

After a one-week (real-time, not game-time) hiatus, our core group of four PCs -- Uncle Junkal (Bard-1), Innominus (Cleric-1), Hazel (Fighter-1), and Barbarella Bootay (Rodian Duellist-1) -- was back and ready to explore the level below the Demon Idol.  They first ventured topside and made the half-day journey back to the village of Vedik, to resupply and to dump off the loot they already found in the orc complex.  The villagers were so grateful to the party for clearing out the orcish warband that they gave the group a farm.  This was a property whose previous owners were killed by the orcs, and the party offered to pay another local farmer named Larry a monthly fee to work the land in their (frequent) absence.

After burying their various shares of loot in secret locales around the farm property, the group return-journeyed to the orc complex with a total of four hirelings in tow: Snikrop and No-Name, plus the two the PCs sent back to Vedik at the outset of session 4.  Serendipitously avoiding any random encounters (lousy rolls!), the group returned to the demon idol chamber without incident, climbed into its hollow enclosure via the eyes, and at long last descended into the chamber beneath it.  

There they met Talen, a Delzarian magic-user who (as he told the PCs) had been adventuring in northern Telengard when he accidentally read a cursed scroll that teleported him to the chamber beneath the idol.  Using his ventriloquism spell, Talen had been surviving here for weeks by convincing the orcs he was a demon, demanding food offerings.  Talen would sneak out of the idol's eyes when the orcs weren't around and collect the food.  Yet he could not escape since he could not take on the orcs alone, nor had he discovered any other way out of the downstairs chamber.  It was in fact Talen's intervention that started the orcs raiding the local Vedik villagers in the first place!

For some reason, the party decided to distrust Talen, and subjected him to a search and some rigorous questioning.  But he could tell them nothing about the rest of the complex, and appeared to be telling the truth about the extent and nature of his activities here.

So the party searched Talen's one-room hideout for secret doors, and found one.  Talen was incredulous that he had missed it, but was grateful to the party for agreeing to escort him back to the surface.

The next chamber the party came to was an old trophy room, where various stuffed creatures and weapons displays were at one time kept; the room was now empty, save for impressions left on the walls suggesting what trophies had previously been kept there.  Hazel entered the trophy room and inspected the area where a bear's head once hung.  Barbarella entered next and began searching the room systematically.

Next thing anyone knew, a huge black bear materialized in the corner where the bear's head had once been, and moved to attack the party.  I don't believe this bear ever landed a blow; two rounds later, it was dead, the killing blow being a thrown dagger critical hit by Uncle Junkal.

However, no sooner had the party dispatched the bear (and began skinning it!) than another ghostly "trophy" became material: a pair of swords and a shield!  The swords swiftly attacked and (due to a high damage die roll by the Labyrinth Lord) killed PC Barbarella Bootay in a single blow.  Barbarella's is the first PC death this campaign.  R.I.P.

As Hazel fought a fighting retreat, keeping the swords and shield at bay, the party exited the trophy room forthwith, slamming the door shut behind them.  They made their way back up a northbound hallway to a door they had previously listened at -- detecting no sounds but smelling a foul rotting smell wafting from under it.  Despite some party trepidation (Uncle Junkal seems particularly undead-o-phobic), Hazel flung open the door and faced off against a ghoul.  I believe she hit and damaged the ghoul, and then hireling Snikrop (played by Barbarella's player) finished the ghoul off in one more long-sword strike.

The ghoul had no treasure, so the party moved on to another doorway, which also smelled foul.  The party instructed two of the hirelings to prepare to throw a cookpot full of oil into the room, then Innominus flung open the door.  Inside was a ghoul and a terrifying wight!  Losing no time, Innominus turned the two undead fiends, rolling his nightly d30 (a "15") for his To Turn roll then a "6" on 2d6, just enough to turn 6 HD worth of undead!  Looming in the doorway, the cleric kept the turned wight and ghoul trapped in the small office, where they cowered behind a wooden desk.  The hirelings flung the oil into the room, and it spilled its contents all across the floor.  Uncle Junkal threw a lit oil flask, striking the wight square-on, then rolling his nightly d30 roll (a 21, the wight's exact HP total) for the damage, instantly incinerating the wight.  The helpless, turned ghoul burned to death the following round, as Uncle Junkal's flask had ignited the pool of oil on the floor.  We ended the session waiting for the flames to go out so (presumably) the party can enter the office next session and rifle the charred remains of the desk etc. 

Labyrinth Lord's meta-notes:  I am quite happy with how the party is working together -- see, for example, tonight's final wight-and-ghoul attack, or the ogre battle last session.  They are learning to use their unique abilities in concert with one another.  It's great.  I am also pleased that more than one PC has demonstrated, at one time or another, shall we say, less than pure motivations for their actions.  Hell, some of them have been downright cruel and twistedly violent: see, for example, Innominus' "orc mask" antics during sessions two and three, Uncle Junkal's "toothpick torture" of Ug the orc in session two, and the party's outdoor orc corpse display in session four.  In a sense, this kind of dark grotesquery and ruthlessness on the part of the PCs is what I love most about D&D.  As a general rule, I despise squeaky clean PCs or campaigns -- although sometimes a moralistic or law-abiding PC can make a great foil / balance for an otherwise ruthless bunch of PC scoundrels.  However, as many others in the OSR blogosphere have oft noted, playing morally ambiguous characters is true to the spirit of old-school dungeoneering-type play: it assumes that all characters are de facto thieves, delving into underground realms in order to loot the hell out of the places.  The party, in short, are glorified grave robbers.  I like this, and it is in this spirit that I offer salute to the late Barbarella Bootay, who had fairly cutthroat mercenary tendencies, and a bravery bordering on recklessness, but alas, is no more.  (I wonder what character that player is going to play next?  I wonder what the PCs are planning to get up to with that Vedik farm?)