Saturday, September 12, 2015

Year of the Demon Lord - The Road to Blackstone Ford (part 1)


In my prior post (here) I discussed how I went about adapting Survival of the Fittest to suit my needs as a campaign starter. This past Thursday my group met for our first session. A quick recap of the cast...
  • Buckets the Goblin - played by +James August Walls; Buckets worked for a wizard and spent his days moving water around for his master, until, that is, he summoned a demon ...
  • Reudan the Human - played by +Troy Pichelman; Reudan is an orphan and a friar who got abducted by elves due to his better than average good looks...
  • Runt the Orc - played by +Sean Anderson; Runt is (for an orc anyways) a runt, who has lived a hard life and even tried his hand as a town guard ...
  • Holgar Flakkison the dwarf - played by +Brian Ries; Holgar was a warrior and a torturer until he found himself an unlikely convert to the Cult of the New God...
  • Sage the Changeling - played by +Dave Hanlon; Sage looks like an older human woman, but she's really only just into her 20s, Sage may well become the witch that she impersonates...
  • Fox the Clockwork - played by +Andrew Cady; Fox's sad tale involves a lonely farmer who built a clockwork to deal with vermin but ended up with a surrogate son, unfortunately things don't work out and Fox was the victim of a poorly timed wind-down while trying to rescue his "father" from their burning home... 

Early this week I decided I wanted to grab the One Unique Thing "mechanic" from 13th Age as an extra little bit of life for the characters, and an extra source of campaign fodder for myself. We ended up with:
  • Reudan is the only human to ever turn down the advances of the Fairy Queen.
  • Sage is the only Changeling created by the Betrayer
  • Fox is the only Clockwork with two bound souls. (Buckets is somehow aware of this)
  • Holgar is the first dwarf to convert to the New God
  • Buckets is a goblin inexplicably born to human parents. 
  • Runt is the only survivor of an experiment to make more human looking orcs (note, the experiment was clearly a failure because Runt is pretty fugly)
With all that done I did a quick setup of the game rules and then dove into setting the scene...
... minor spoilers for Survival of the Fittest (upon which is this heavily based).

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A caravan was traveling by forest road through the Dark Forest from the town of Broad Oaks south and east toward Blackstone Ford. With three merchants and an independent "coach service" the caravan amounts to eight wagons an just shy of a dozen guards. Going tends to be slow and the journey is a five day walk/ride (depending on how much coin you contributed for your spot). 

It is late in the morning of the third down out from Broad Oaks when things go bad. A large tree falls across the road causing the caravan to halt. Along the road in front and behind the wagons a total of ten bandits make themselves known while an unknown number begin to pepper the guardsmen with arrows from the forest to the south. Six of the ten guards are felled in the first volley, crude but functional black arrows sprouting like sudden weeds from their chests and backs.

Buckets, being used the sneaky sort dashed out to a fallen guard and tucked himself under the poor fellow's corpse. The little goblin had more of plan than hiding though, and quickly took his knife out and started to saw through the guard's leather armor and then the flesh below. He paused as he caught a view of the man's innards but quickly continued.

Holgar, Runt, and Sage, seeing the incoming arrows decided that discretion was indeed the better part of valor and took cover on the northern side of the wagon. Runt, being a former town guard, tried to count their enemy and identify a leader. He theorized their numbers to be well over a dozen, but he couldn't locate any clear indication of who was in charge among the bandits. Ruedan, meanwhile, opted for valor in the form of selflessness. Seeing one of the merchants was in trouble he moved forward and grabbed up the sword of one of the downed guards (despite not being trained or strong enough for its used).
I gave Ruedan Good Fortune for taking the heroic route here, it seemed right. He spent it rather shortly after to help Runt.
Meanwhile Buckets had finished his grim work and began to pull the dead guard's innards from the man's body. Wrapping intestines around his body and layering other organs atop his tiny form the goblin began to chant a strange mix of common and the Dark Tongue. The effect was truly horrific and managed to stall more than half a dozen bandits in their tracks. It also stalled Runt in his tracks as the orc found the image far more disconcerting than anything he had seen recently.
I wasn't sure to deal with this but it was creative and fit the tone of the game really well so I had to roll with it. I had Buckets' player roll a Will based attack against the Will of the bandits. He blew it away and so I rolled 2d6 to see how many of the twenty bandits were effected: 8!  
I also decided that this horrific act was going to upset Buckets' allies and had them all take a Will challenge roll or suffer d3 insanity. Yes, I was playing harsh, but you can only set the tone for a game once and its easier to back off a bit than it is to double down. Runt was the only one who failed, so I held his turn for additional effect.
Buckets' pet skeletal mouse rode in his master's mouth as part of the gore filled distraction

Sage decided that retreat to the north was a wise idea, the old woman yelled for everybody to flee northward before heeding her own advice and taking off at a run into the woods. Holgar saw that Ruedan, whom he had befriended over their mutual devotion to the new god, was heading for trouble with the bandits outnumbering the remaining guards. The stout dwarf took up his club and charged, swinging wildly, but failed to connect. Ruedan meanwhile aided the merchant woman in getting down from her wagon before fleeing into the woods.

Seeing that the battle was a lost cause Holgar disentangled himself from the combat and started to flee. Before he could get very far he spied the inert form of a small clockwork "child". The righteous dwarf altered course and grabbed the clockwork before making good his flight into the woods. At this point Runt recovered from the horror of Bucket's actions. Realizing that the little goblin might be a good ally to have the orc surged forward grabbed Buckets and with some effort, and some advice from Ruedan, ran off into the forest.
I should note here that Fox's player had, at the start of play, told us that he and Buckets had scammed their way into the caravan for the price of only one person by winding Fox down so that he was inert "baggage". The result was that Andrew mostly sat out the first scene because nobody bothered to wind him.
An hour of flight later and just a handful of the survivors of the caravan managed to regroup in a clearing. Taking stock of their situation Ruedan, Holgar, Runt, Buckets, Sage, and the now active and wound Fox realized they had only the possessions they had carried, one sword, some extra guts, and no idea where they were. 

Buckets declared that he could cast a path finding spell that would point them toward Blackstone Ford so that they could hopefully exit the woods safely. To cast the spell he claimed to need a bit of blood and flesh, and Runt offered up one of his many bulbous weeping tumors (ick!). The spell indicated a direction, but they had no way to know (being unable to see the sun to determine direction). Runt looked up at the trees and figured that maybe a little direct visualization would be possible. He selected a tree and climbed above the canopy seeing in the distance the river and the village of Blackstone Ford, and much closer, a column of smoke.
I should note here that most of this was simple challenge rolls. I figured that if Buckets succeeded I'd give them a boon on their roll to stay on track, but when he failed I fed them some bad info. Luckily for them Runt's idea was a good one and set them on a right path.
Runt came back down and cuffed the goblin upside the head, saying that the idiot had pointed them in the wrong direction. Runt picked up his "magic" compass stick and popped the boil into his mouth, eating the offering (ick!) and then nodding, agreeing with Runt that the orc was correct and his earlier directions had been the result of a failed spell.

With their path set (as Runt did not mention the smoke to the other characters they simply headed south toward Blackstone Ford) they began their march through the forest. A couple of hours later and they had managed about four miles. During a short stop the group heard some rustling in the nearby underbrush. Buckets decided to hide, while the others warily armed themselves.

Their caution was rewarded when a sickly diseased wolf came out of the underbrush at them. The creature was clearly ailed by something, but Fox, being immune to disease, charged forward to attack the creature before it could sicken his companions. A short fight and a lot of bludgeoning later and the wolf was dead having taken no casualties. After the fight Ruedan gave the sword he'd taken to Runt since he was clearly going to get better use out of it than the holy man would.

The group was now turned around a bit and wanted to find their bearings. Runt attempted to climb another tree but was unable to get high enough to grasp the low branches in this particular grove. Somebody mentioned tossing the goblin into the tree from where he could climb the rest of the way. Buckets wasn't having any part of that and threatened to hold on with a dagger if need be. Fox offered himself for the task pointing out that his small clockwork frame should be light enough.

Unfortunately Runt's muscles weren't up to the task and he wasn't able to throw Fox high enough for the clockwork to climb the tree either. Dejected the party opted to follow Buckets, who claimed he was certain of the right direction (and actually was ... ish). A couple more hours walk and the shadows were starting to get long as the day wore toward the start of dusk. Buckets said that he thought he saw a structure to the east and the group decided to investigate before darkness fell and they were left in the forest without any shelter.

Another half hour of travel and the party found the ruins of an ancient tower. Despite standing a dozen yards high the tower was too short to pierce the forest canopy because of the broken and fallen top. Despite the towers beaten and worn shape the shell of the building makes for a good place to camp and the group beings to set to creating a fire while others search the ruins for useful items. Fox finds a silver cup which he keeps for himself, while Runt finds a few arrows (but no bow).

Settling down for the evening Ruedan shared his rations out with the group as the sun set and darkness overtook the forest. Things were quiet for an hour or so until ghostly forms rose from the ruins of the tower and began to move about. The spirits offended Ruedan, whose belief in the new god dictated that anything interfering with the passage of the soul was an anathema. All attempts to interact with the spirits failed as they seemed to be completely oblivious of the living and simply went about their actions.

Fox studied the spirits and determined that they people were likely a few hundred years dead. Meanwhile Holgar and Ruedan, both adherents to the new god, continued to try and interact with the spirits to find a way to help them move on. Runt thought the lot of them were idiots and stayed un-involved, while Buckets located a good vantage point that was also safe for when things went wrong.

While following one of the spirits Holgar found the remains of an old chest of drawers and managed to scavenge a few copper coins from the ruined wood. Ruedan had located something far more valuable though; a dagger of bone that glowed faintly red. Still unable to get a reaction from the spirits Ruedan grew frustrated and finally stabbed one of them with the glowing dagger.
At this point the rabbit hole was full so I figured I'd do something with this as it was getting late and this would likely be the last scene. I was struggling with my old tablet and finally gave up and decided to use the medium monster template as a "spectre" created by stabbing the ghost with the knife. The knife's properties were likewise changed from those it had Survival of the Fittest and it became an implement of necromancy for my game. 
Once struck by the knife, the spirit's ethereal flesh was blasted away revealing a skeletal spectre that immediately attacked Ruedan with ghostly claws. Unfortunately for Ruedan he was no fighter and any further attacks with the blade missed while the ghost shredded his flesh in return. Sage, Runt, and Holgar came to Ruedan's aid trying to defeat the apparition but not before Ruedan was felled.

Fox dashed in and helped out be dragging Ruedan away from the combat before heeding Buckets' advice and fleeing into the woods. Thankfully the others were able to banish the ghost and stabilize Ruedan. Afterwards they decided to keep clear of the ghosts, and certainly keep them clear of the bone dagger. With a severely injured comrade they bedded down for the night with hopes for better progress in the morning.
I wasn't sure how to deal with a "ghost" so I just used the stock medium monster and didn't give it any special powers. I probably could have gone a little more hard core but I was learning as much as the PCs were.
We decided to break there and pick up the second half at out next session in October. Rather than keep them at level zero I decided that the night's rest would be a good occasion for them to pick up their novice classes. With that decision made I told them what the dagger did:
 Crimson Bone Dagger 

  • Necromancy implement (can be used to discover the tradition)
  • Grants a +1 to all spell checks for Necromancy spells
  • ??
  • ?? 

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Notes to self:

Given that this was the first game of SotDL for all of us I think there was some learning all around. As I usually do I also asked for feedback at the end of the session. I distilled the experience and suggestions for myself into three salient notes:
  • Give more fortune. Don't be shy with it, if there is good RP or good actions hand it out
  • Be a little more proactive with boons - if need be prompt the PCs to think about their professions, or get a little more cinematic
  • Ramp up the combat a little - death is part of the equation
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Memorable Quotes (as recorded by the players)

"...One of you has decided to go full tauntaun..." - Me, summing up Buckets the goblin's horrific actions as part of a psychological war on domestic terror bandits

"No, just grab the entrails, they're wrapped around his neck!" Reudan shouting advice to Runt as the orc struggles to lift Buckets.

"We were attacked by monkey men!" Buckets lying about the events that Fox missed while he was wound down.

"I weigh seventy-two pounds! That's two more than [Fox]!" Buckets was pointing out that Fox was still lighter than he for the purposes of Runt's throwing into tree navigation experiment.

Sage - "I can describe a plant that will help ward off the spirits."
Reudan - "I don't want to ward them off, I want them to move on!"
Sage - "Yes, move on, that's what I meant."
Sage could tell that ghosts + acolyte of the New God were a bad combination.

"Maybe there's a little actual magic in all the bullshit Buckets spouts." - Me, theorizing late in the evening how Buckets was aware of Fox's secret One Unique Thing