Dateline – Storm Point

*** Potential Spoilers ***

The adventure described below is loosely based on the great sword-and-sorcery novel Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed. I think what happens in the game is probably different enough from what happens in the novel that nothing’s gonna get ruined, but things change in play, and I might end up using some plot point from the book that reveals a little too much. I’ll try not to let that happen, but you have been warned.

Oh, and you should also go read Throne of the Crescent Moon, because it’s a fantastic book.

Last Sunday, after a lenghty hiatus ((Caused by the fact that it’s hard to schedule people for a casual game during the summer months, especially when the majority of the players have kids. Also, it’s been a pretty busy summer for me.)), we managed to get the gang together to wrap up the Throne of the Crescent Moon inspired adventure I’ve been running. It looked – right up to the last minute – like we might have a full house, but then someone had to cancel ((We missed you, Br. Linton!)), so we had four out of five players.

Because of the long stretch between the last game and this one, everyone was kind of fuzzy on what was going on and why the characters were doing stuff, so we opened with a pretty in-depth recap. I had been completely unsure about what the group would plan to do with the information they had uncovered last time, so I was pretty much flying by the seat of my pants on this session. I had a stack of stats, and some half-formed ideas about various options, but nothing really solid, because I didn’t know which way the group would jump.

After some discussion ((Which, of course, ran pretty far afield from the game for a bit.)), he gang decided that the main goal was killing Mouw Awa, because he had pissed them off the most. Oh, and they also figured that they should probably stop Dhamsawaat from staging a ghul-backed coup of Belys. Investigation of the sewers, where they had last encountered Dhamsawaat, located the entry to the crypt where they had faced him previously. Unfortunately, that entry was a rectangle of runes carved in the bricks, similar to a teleport circle.

This entry seemed to open an actual physical passage to a remote location, rather than teleporting people there. And it was closed with some sort of key or passphrase that the group didn’t know. So, they set up a blind in the sewers, and decided to camp there until the next night without moonlight ((I rolled a d8 to get the number of nights they’d have to weight, and got a 7. After two nights, they said, “Screw this,” and went and paid a seer to tell them when the next moonless night would be.)). When the gate opened, they went charging down into the crypt, which was once again full of ghuls.

Mouw Awa was there, of course, and he did his level best to mess the crew up. The ghuls were are minions, so were an annoyance but not much more. And in behind them all, Dhamsawaat was working some strange ritual that the players didn’t even notice until about three rounds in.

Because of their history with him, our heroes concentrated everything on Mouw Awa, dropping him to about 8 hp in the first round. Then he possessed the team’s tank and went to town on the others. Things got kinda messy after that, but the group finally realized that, under cover of Mouw Awa and the ghuls, Dhamsawaat had been steadily channeling power into a huge mound of skulls, and that couldn’t possibly be good.

The way I had set up the ritual was that Dhamsawaat could use a move action each turn to power it. After he had powered it seven times (and he was able to power it twice in one round, because he couldn’t see the characters to attack them), a huge bone ghul was going to rise from the skulls and hand the heroes their heads before going on to rampage through Belys. The power was at four or five when someone finally attacked Dhamsawaat and pulled him out of the magic circle.

This broke the ritual ((Initially, I mistyped broke as borke, which also fits, because the ritual was well and truly borked.)) and released a blast of energy ((2d6 per point of power in the ritual, so 8d6 or 10d6; I forget which.)) that finished of Mouw Awa, dropped the characters’ main tank ((Though with his triggered actions, he wound up with more hit points than he had before the blast went off. Stupid dwarf fighters.)), and fried all the ghuls. It also caused the crypt to start to collapse, in best action movie style.

Dhamsawaat ((Who, at this point, was barely scratched.)) fell into the cracks forming in the earth, and our heroes made a panicky escape ((The warlord almost fell to his death a couple of times, saved once by a lightning lure and once by someone grabbing his arm. And one of the others who went to save the warlord almost fell to his doom, as well. It was lovely.)).

By that time, we were about two and a half hours overtime, so we called it a night. Before the next game, I think I’m going to have the characters take some downtime and level up to about level 14. Gotta look at the numbers before I commit to that, but that’s my plan.

In closing, I just want to say thank you to Saladin Ahmed, author of Throne of the Crescent Moon for writing the book that served as inspiration for this adventure, and for being cool and encouraging about me running it and writing about it. Thank you, sir. You are a scholar and a gentleman.

I’m looking forward to book two.

Dateline – Storm Point

*** Potential Spoilers ***

The adventure described below is loosely based on the great sword-and-sorcery novel Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed. I think what happens in the game is probably different enough from what happens in the novel that nothing’s gonna get ruined, but things change in play, and I might end up using some plot point from the book that reveals a little too much. I’ll try not to let that happen, but you have been warned.

Oh, and you should also go read Throne of the Crescent Moon, because it’s a fantastic book.

Last Sunday saw us return to Belys, and the matter of ghuls stealing families from their homes. When we last left our heroes, they were wandering the sewers, trying to find the source of the ghuls. They overheard a whining, sycophantic voice in one sewer byway that seemed to be making excuses to another person, trying to explain why he had failed his blessed friend.

When the group charged into the room, they found that it had changed between one breath and the next, from a narrow, dark sewer to a vast, decaying necropolis. A pile of skulls sat in front of them, a number of shattered stone sarcophagi lay off to one side, and the floor was split in a number of places with deep chasms. Amid the sarcophagi was a tall, defaced statue, and a figure in red and black robes sat at its feet, conversing with a being that looked like a disembodies shadow and called itself Mouw Awa ((I had statted up Mouw Awa, starting from a shadow demon I found in the Compendium, and tweaking his powers and abilities. He’s not the Mouw Awa from the books – different origin, and different powers – but I loved the fauning, venomous nature of his character from the book, and the wonderful, wheedling voice and speech patterns from the audiobook, so I kept those.)).

There was also a whole bunch of earth ghuls and fire ghuls. And everyone rushed to attack.

My plan was to have the fellow in red and black escape the fight, and Mouw Awa and the ghuls keep the characters busy while that happened. It started out pretty well but on the first turn, Thrun managed to make his way all the way across the battlefield and knock the boss on his butt. All of a sudden, his great defensive position was much less great. I managed to get Thrun off him ((No easy feat. Thrun is a Dwarf Fighter, and is built to stick and hold to any bad guy he gets up against.)), and he made his ignoble escape, but it was a much closer call than I might have liked.

Once he was out of the way, Mouw Awa proved to be just the kind of pain-in-the-ass nasty villain I wanted – he kept possessing whoever looked most interesting and attacking party members, all the while keeping up a running commentary on how he was going to feast on the souls of the characters for daring to threaten Mouw Awa’s blessed friend. The ghuls – a mix of minions and standard ghuls – proved to be effective in the large numbers ((Since I’ve decided to forgo the experience and advancement system, I’m worrying less about building “balanced” encounters for the game. I eyeball the encounter, think about what purpose it serves in the narrative, and then fill it with what looks cool. So far, it’s working.)) to keep the PCs from using their mobility to best effect, and I actually had the fighter to within 30 points of being dead. That’s the closest I’ve got him in many a session.

But we were approaching the hard stop time of the evening, so I had Mouw Awa declare that his blessed friend was safe, and then he fled. All the ghuls collapsed into dirt and maggots and cinders, and we called it an evening.

The purpose of this encounter was two-fold: first, to show them that they’re dealing with something of larger scope than they had first thought, and second, to make them hate Mouw Awa, because he’s one of the coolest villains I’ve read in some time. Success on both counts.

Next, they’re going to need to figure out where they are, and what’s really going on.

Dateline – Storm Point

*** Potential Spoilers ***

The adventure described below is loosely based on the great sword-and-sorcery novel Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed. I think what happens in the game is probably different enough from what happens in the novel that nothing’s gonna get ruined, but things change in play, and I might end up using some plot point from the book that reveals a little too much. I’ll try not to let that happen, but you have been warned.

Oh, and you should also go read Throne of the Crescent Moon, because it’s a fantastic book.

There’s some stuff going on in real life that’s been making it hard to get quorum to play the Storm Point game, so for the next little while, we’re relaxing the quorum rules a bit to make sure the game doesn’t die from lack of momentum. Normally, we play as long as four out of five players can make it, and have one of the players double-up on running a character. But doubling up on a character is a pain, and we’re more likely to get three than four players these days, so I dropped the quorum requirement to three, said no one needs to double up, and decided to keep the entire adventure within the city of Belys to allow a little bit of verisimilitude for changing party composition based on player attendance ((That is, only the characters of the players who attend get to go on the adventure, so no one has to play two characters.)).

This sort of ties in with some other meta-changes to our regular game. One of the reasons we had players doubling up on characters was to keep the experience point and treasure distribution even, and so limit the amount of fiddly bookkeeping I was having to do as GM. I’ve decided to move a couple of steps farther in the direction of eliminating fiddly bookkeeping, in the interests of making the game do what the group wants it to do. A few sessions back, we had a discussion about the direction of the game, wherein we decided that we would use campaign downtime to be able to advance the characters without it taking another six years to get to 3oth level ((Check out the link for more details about the discussion and the decision.)). I’ve decided to do away with handing out experience points ((I’m still using experience points to build encounters, because it’s a pretty handy way of balancing things.)) – instead, I’m just going to tell the characters when they advance in level, and use downtime for bigger level jumps.

As for treasure, I’m still working on that, but I’m leaning towards abstracting that more, and letting characters gain and swap magic items in the downtime. We’ll see how that goes.


I had just finished reading Throne of the Crescent Moon, so when I was looking for a city-centric adventure idea set in a vaguely Arabic city ((My game city, Belys, is vaguely Arabic. Dhamsawaat, the city in the novel, is much more than vaguely Arabic. This comes from the author having done actual research, and me having based my Arabic city on hazy memories of 1001 Arabian Nights.)) , I had a good model right in front of me. I took the main idea of an evil necromancer summoning ghuls for a nefarious purpose and came up with my own nefarious purpose and version of the necromancer. Then, I started reskinning ghouls to serve as my ghuls.

In the book, there are a number of different types of ghul, and I wanted to reflect that, but Belys is all about the Genasi noble families controlling the elements, so I decided that my flavours of ghul were all going to be elementally linked – earth ghuls, sand ghuls, wind ghuls, fire ghuls, storm ghuls, water ghuls, etc. I started with the earth ghuls, using the horde ghoul stat block, and just describing them and their paralysis attack differently – they looked more like putrescent corpses with burning eyes, long claws, and sharp fangs, and their paralysis felt like the earth trying to draw the victim down into a grave.

I’m not going to talk about the other flavours of ghul I’ve come up with, because the party hasn’t met any of them, yet.

So, armed with the ghul stats and the necromancer stats, we started the game.

The characters had become moderately famous in their quarter of the city after their elimination of Channah and their favour for Bitaryut the Blind, not to mention their popular feasts and their ties to a few merchant concerns. When they heard reports of poor families disappearing from the labyrinthine alleys of their neighbourhood, they decided to take a look.

Investigation found that the missing families had all lived in homes on cul-de-sac alleyways, and each had had a symbol drawn on their doors in blood. These symbols, according to the priest and the swordmage, were sigils of dark magic designed to call the corrupted dead to their location. Our heroes found evidence specifically of ghuls – and the priest was able to fill his comrades in on the difference between ghuls and the more common ghouls. The primary difference was that ghuls were created by necromancy, and didn’t propagate themselves the way ghouls did, which meant that someone was creating and using them.

The gang trooped up to the main temple of the Raven Queen, who handles the official graveyards of the city, and managed to only insult the honour of their priests a moderate amount when they asked if anyone had been robbing the graves under their care. The Raven Queen priests huffily informed them that none of the graves they oversaw had been desecrated, but that some in the city performed private burials for their family members, either for religious or financial reasons, and they couldn’t be expected to watch over them.

Putting things together, the party began to speculate that they might have someone trying to build an army of ghuls in the city, starting with some of the non-consecrated graves, and then using those ghuls to fetch fresh materials from the poor living in the alleys of the city. This was somewhat worrisome to them.

Given that their investigation had revealed that the attacks had all occurred on nights when the moon was either new or hidden by heavy clouds, the group decided to set up a watch to try and stop the next attack and, hopefully, gain some more information about where the mastermind was located. They hired a few mercenaries and paid a number of vendors and other street people to keep an eye on things ((And, of course, they pointed out that, if they had become crime bosses after ousting Channah, they’d already have these operatives on the payroll. I just sighed and rolled my eyes.)) and, when a dark night came, they used the hand of fate ritual to narrow down the probable location of the next attack.

They took to the air on their hippogriffs ((I will never live that down.)) to be able to get to any of the three or four alleyways they thought were the targets. And, sure enough, one was. The ghuls were mainly minions, with one tough ghul seeded in the middle, and they took them out pretty quickly. They also spent a fair bit of time looking around for the necromancer they were sure must be on the scene to control the ghuls, but didn’t find him ((Was he even there? I’m not telling.)). They then followed the ghuls’ back trail down into a sewer and another huge mob of ghuls. Again, they were minions, and the gang managed to wipe them out in short order.

That’s where we left things. Tomorrow is the next installment, as they see if they can find out where these ghuls are coming from, and what vile plan is behind their creation.

We’ll see how that goes.

Dateline – Storm Point

This latest session of the Storm Point game was a little different. First of all, one of the players has left the game after many years ((Bye, Pedro! Thanks for playing!)), so the group is down to five. Second, we had a request to wrap up extra early, so I didn’t have much time to stretch things out. Given both those things, I decided to take a bit of a chance to see how things would fall out if I tried something the group wasn’t expecting.

As you may have gleaned from these posts, the group for this game is very much of the beer-and-pretzels, kick-in-the-door-and-get-’em style of play. We use the game primarily as a way to socialize with each other, and attentions are such that we play a pretty bare-bones flavour of 4E – we have combats, and we have the scenes that move you between combats. I try to weave enough of a story that the group genuinely cares about what they’re doing when they get into a fight, but not much more than that ((This is different from other groups and other games I run. It’s just the style that fits the needs of the Storm Point game best.)).

This session, though, I decided to send up a test balloon to see if they’d be open to something with a little more complication to it. I figured that, if it worked, I could make some changes to the campaign to fill it out a bit. If it didn’t, well, we had a short session to suffer through.

I started the evening talking about the effects of the heroes taking out crime boss Channah the previous session, and letting the players talk a bit about how their characters were fitting into Belys. Then I had Bitaryut the Blind, whom they had met at their feast a few weeks back ((And whom they don’t trust. At all. He’s a fortuneteller, and they know I have a deck of many things from The Madness at Gardmore Abbey, so they’re just waiting for him to make them draw a card.)), ask them for some help. According to Bitaryut, the scion of one of the genasi families who rule Belys had been disowned by his parents based on information provided by Bitaryut. In revenge, this genasi had stolen Bitaryut’s scrying crystal.

Bitaryut was somewhat reluctant to come out with a lot of details about what this genasi had done that got him disowned, hinting that there were children involved, but not going into specifics. He was able to provide the location of the thief, and offered the group a favour as a reward for returning his crystal. When pressed, he provided some backstory on the family and the thief they were chasing – they were a family who had manufactured war machines in the war which had destroyed the Empire of Nerath, and the thief was holed up in the old war machine foundry outside the city.

So, our heroes schlepped out to the old foundry and found the genasi and a bunch of war machines that he had managed to repair. And this is when things started to go a different direction.

I had managed to instill enough doubt in Bitaryut’s honesty that, for once, the gang didn’t shout, “Get ’em!” and charge. They actually ((If I sound somewhat incredulous, it’s only because I’ve been gaming with these guys for many years.)) tried talking. After a little while and some tentative maneuvering, they got a different side of the story Bitaryut had told them ((Well, not really told them. More like hinted at and implied.)). In this version, the thief was a victim of politics and Bitaryut’s machinations, and he had stolen the scrying crystal both as revenge and as a stake now that he had to leave Belys.

It was an interesting and gratifying moment for me. I had statted everything up for a fight if it came to that ((It usually does, after all.)), but I was very interested in seeing the players take a different tactic. I ran the whole thing as a conversation, with very few rolls – no one tried to intimidate anyone, and I think there was one Insight check to see if he was lying, but everything else came down to straight roleplaying.

In the end, the group convinced the thief to trade them back the scrying crystal in return for a teleport to Storm Point and an introduction to the leaders of the town. Their idea is that he, with his war machines and the texts he’s discovered on repairing and manufacturing them, may be a valuable addition to their old hometown. There was a little bit of threatening here, of the “We’ll kill you if you mess with our town” style, but generally it went without a hitch.

And, of course, I awarded them full XP for solving the problem without resorting to violence.

So, why did I do it this way?

As I’ve said, this campaign tends to focus on creatures to fight and challenges to overcome ((Said challenges usually involving fighting creatures.)). Part of the reason for that is the dynamic and attention span of our group, as I noted above, and part of it is that combat is the thing that D&D 4E does best. I’ve been reading the little bit of information being released about D&D Next, and it’s been causing me to re-evaluate some of the things I’m doing in my current D&D game.

It occurred to me that I was being lazy. I had tried some more elaborate storylines earlier in the campaign, and they had quickly got lost or ignored, so I stopped working on them, instead putting all my prep time into coming up with interesting combat encounters, along with just a few linking elements. And the group seemed to like that.

But we were feeding into each others’ assumptions. I assumed that they weren’t interested in anything besides combat, and they assumed that all I was interested in giving them in this game system was combat. The playtest reports from D&D Next talk about how much freedom of action there is in the game ((Understanding, of course, that this is very early days, and the game is in active development. Judgment must be reserved until the final product is available. But it looks really promising.)), and how it emphasizes interaction and exploration as well as combat.

Hell, it inspired me. I figured I’d throw some options in, and we’d see how things went.

What do I take away from this? Just because the game is working doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be improved if I change things up a bit. I can be a bit daring and, it seems, my players will follow. And that’s awesome.

I’ve got to think about how to keep this up in the game. I count it as a great success.

Dateline – Storm Point

The last session wrapped up the Channah storyline in the Storm Point game, which was good, but the most valuable part of the game – for me, anyway – was the discussion we had about the direction of the game from here on. That discussion happened at the beginning of the evening, but I’m not going to talk about it until the end of this post.

So, Channah.

Armed with the glyphs for Channah’s teleport circle, our heroes went out and purchased a copy of the linked portal ritual ((Easy to do in Belys; the city is full of magic, wizards, and various fun arcane things.)) and the materials they needed to conduct the ritual. They spent some time making sure they had a plan ((Their usual plan is, “Get ’em!” This plan was essentially, “We all ready? Okay. Now, get ’em!”)), and then teleported in to Channah’s hideout.

I was a little torn in setting up this evening’s encounters. On the one hand, I wanted to wrap things up this session, and our group is slow with combat ((There are a number of reasons for it, and some things that we could do to speed it up, but it comes down to the fact that this is a bunch of friends who don’t see each other that much anymore. One of the big distractions is our socializing and catching up, and I don’t want to lose that. So, we have slow combats, and I’ve made my peace with it.)) – multiple full encounters meant that we would not finish this evening. On the other hand, it strained my sense of verisimilitude to have the group pop into the big main fight, kill the bad guy, and go home.

I addressed this with minions. After all, when you’re sneaking through the bad guy’s hideout, the incidental guard patrols should mainly be a threat because they can give the alarm, not because they might kill you. So, the party arrived in the cellar store room with the teleport circle to find that Channah, knowing he’s got some folks gunning ((Swording for him? Nah, that just doesn’t work.)) for him, had set a guard.

They were, as I hinted, minions, so the gang took them out pretty quickly, but some bad rolls meant that one was able to give the alarm. There was only one door out of the room, so our heroes barred stood guard on that while they looked through the piles of boxes and barrels in the room. I tried to make it clear that the stuff was mundane supplies, but that just seemed to make them more suspicious, so they took the time to actually search everything.

At which point it occurred to me that there was this teleport circle in the middle of the room, and Channah knew how to use it. So, while everyone was either poking through barrels of flour or watching the door, a full squad ((Still minions.)) teleported in behind them and got the drop on them. They mowed down this (larger) group of guards in good time, and realized that, every minute they were spending down here was one more minute Channah had to get ready.

So, out they went, and up the stairs, into the killing ground Channah had set up. I had planned the map to be fairly open to begin with, but with tables, chairs, and the like that allowed for the defenders to set up some defenses if they had a couple of minutes to prepare, which they did. The fight was tough, with some of the party’s tactics turning against them ((Notably blade barrier. The party used this to great effect, but then Milo got tossed into it, and it left a bit of a mark. He survived, though.)). I ran into another dilemma during the battle, though.

Channah, unbeknownst to the party, was an oni mage. He usually appeared as a very, very old eladrin, and would appear and disappear using his invisibility, popping up to blast the party with some of his area attacks before vanishing again. Toward the end of the battle, I realized that it would be child’s play for Channah to just turn invisible and run off, carrying on his vendetta against the characters. I considered doing this, having him disappear for now, but come back as a recurring villain.

Then I remembered Jemmy Fish, and realized that wouldn’t work. The group would hunt him down to the exclusion of doing anything else. Ever.

So, rather than doing the better-part-of-valour, live-to-fight-another-day thing, I kept Channah there to end this. I got some good reactions when he unveiled his true form and began laying about with his massive sword ((Heh.)), and his hidden lamp-oil explosion meant that the last part of the fight was in a burning building, but the gang had thinned out his defenders enough that they were able to concentrate on him, so he went down fairly quickly ((Well, he did. The entire session ran waaaaay over time, despite the things I tried doing to speed it up when I realized what sort of time-frame we were looking at.)).

Next session, I’ll need to have something new for my players. Actually, what I’ll have to do is have a few options ready, so they can pick which direction they’re going to go.

Anyway. About that discussion I mentioned at the start of the post.

The previous session, I had mentioned that there was a moment when it looked like the group wanted to end the campaign and start a new one. In retrospect, I realized that we had been running this game for three years ((With a brief hiatus for Gammatoba.)), and it wasn’t a bad idea to take the group’s temperature and see if they wanted the game to continue, or if they were interested in a change. I started the conversation going with the following question on the Storm Point forum:

Okay, gang, last session I (facetiously) put forward a proposed campaign change, wherein you fellows become crime lords in Belys, the campaign ends, and we pick up twenty years later at first level, with you being the oppressed masses out to bring down the massive oppressors. (See what I done there?) Though I meant it as a threat, it is a viable campaign, and it seemed to capture the imaginations of some of you.

So, in light of that, I’m asking the group as a whole what you want to do. Here are the options:

  • Continue with this campaign. We’ve just made it to Paragon Tier. Let’s see if we can make it to Epic Tier and become gods!
  • Become crime lords and reboot. I like the world, but am bored with this character or storyline. The new one sounds better.
  • Let’s try a completely new campaign. This has been fun, but I want the new hotness. Let’s try Dark Sun, or Eberron, or something else. We’ll have to have a talk to pick one.
  • Let’s try a totally different game. D&D has been fun, but I’d like to try a different game system. Cthulhu, or space detectives, or superheroes, or something else cool. Again, we’ll have to have a talk to pick one.
  • Screw you guys. I’m going home. It’s been fun, but I’m going to bow out of the game.

Feel free to discuss below. I am willing to roll with any of the above options, and my feelings will not be hurt if you choose something else. I’m leaving the poll active for one week, but what I’m really interested in is the conversation on the topic leading up to the votes. Revoting is allowed if the discussion changes your mind.

Have at it.

The vote was pretty overwhelmingly in favour of continuing with the current characters, but I wanted to get a better feel for how people were feeling about the game as a whole, and what they wanted to see as we went forward. The talk revolved around the fact that, three years into the game, the group had just reached 11th level.

The upshot is that the group would like to take the characters all the way to 30th level, but don’t want to spend another six years getting there. We talked about varying the progression rate in different ways, and the one that seemed to click for everyone was a technique I had used to good effect back when I was running Broken Chains – campaign downtime.

Campaign downtime means that we run regular sessions, with regular XP, and then, every so often, I say, “Okay, downtime. You’ve got two years. Give me a paragraph or two on our forum about what you do in that time, and level your character up three levels.” This allows the campaign to progress with the in-game stuff being highlights of the characters’ careers, while the out-of-game stuff allows them to flesh out backstory and provides passage of time in the game ((As an aside, it always strains credulity for me to run a game and realize that characters have gone from 1st level to 20th level in a matter of months, because they go out adventuring every day. If the world were really that challenging and deadly, everyone would be epic level by the time they were adults – or all the people would be dead. Just sayin’.)).

The other thing we talked about was how the game was going to end. The upshot of that conversation is that I need to start using some of the stuff I’ve been talking about in my posts on emergent campaign storylines to pull together a focus for the rest of the campaign.

Now, one of the players wasn’t at the game, and wasn’t able to contribute to the conversation because of that, but I think we’ll have Milo’s buy-in on this. And it gives me some concrete things to do over the next little while to move the game forward in a way that I think everyone will like.

So, win.

Learning from History

So, today Wizards of the Coast announced the new iteration of Dungeons & Dragons ((Note that they’re not calling it 5th Edition, but pretty much everyone else is right now.)). Of course, you know that, because that’s pretty much all that gamers are talking about on the Internet today.

I’m cautiously optimistic about the new edition. Every new edition of D&D has, to my mind, added something new and valuable to the D&D gaming experience, even if it’s left behind some things of value from previous editions, and I expect that this edition is going to be no different. It’s going to do some things right, and it’s going to miss the boat on some things. That said, the stated design goal of making an edition that is accessible and open to fans of all editions ((A noble goal. I just don’t know how realistic it is.)) points to the folks over at WotC recognizing that there are things of value that have been left behind in the previous years, and looking to correct that.

So. Cautiously optimistic, as I said. But as we wind down 4E ((I have no intention of jumping ship over to 5E right away unless it shows massive improvements over 4E AND can accommodate my ongoing campaign without the need for extensive revision of characters.)), there are some things that I really hope the design and development folks over at WotC have learned from the 4E experience:

  • Value external playtester feedback. The various articles note how external playtester feedback was pretty much ignored in the development of 4E. This is a mistake, because it’s the external testers who will tell you what the game actually plays like at the table. Internal playtesters are great – and necessary – but they’ve often been steeped in the development process, and are coming to the game with a very narrow set of expectations. External playtesters have a much broader range of expectations ((i.e., they have not drunk the company kool-aid.)), and are better representative of the target audience. But that’s a no-brainer, right? WotC says it’s going to listen more to playtesters this time around. Let’s hope they follow through.
  • Deliver what you promise. What I’m talking about here specifically is the horrible mess the online tools for 4E are. Sure, the character builder and the compendium are pretty good, but I still use the downloadable version of the monster builder, because the web-based one doesn’t have half of the functionality I need for tweaking monsters. And the virtual game table is only now really becoming available. And all the other adventure tools are… well, just not there. These are all really disappointing to someone who is paying for DDI every year, and finding himself using exactly one tool. So, you know, keep an eye on promises and the fulfillment thereof.
  • It’s not all about the combats. 4E is a very focused, finely tuned ruleset, developed to make exciting, cinematic combats. And then you throw in some stuff to give the characters a reason for going from one combat to another. There really isn’t a lot out there to support play outside of combat – there’s just enough to allow the characters to find their way to the next fight. This is a large part of what makes the game feel very much like a video game ((I don’t know that it does that much, but that’s one of the primary complaints I hear.)), and sends people looking for other things to play. All ((Well, not all, but certainly most.)) of the complexity and support for the game lies in the combat system, which emphasizes a very particular style of play. Broadening some of that complexity and emphasis would broaden the audience for the game and win back market share, I think.
  • Look close to home for innovation. It’s obvious that the 4E developers looked long and hard at board games, card games, and video games when designing 4E, and that’s a good thing. But it seems to me that there are a lot of exciting new game designs out there in RPG-land, too, and looking at some of the indie ((Whatever that really means.)) RPGs and story games could provide a lot of ideas and insights into how to support non-combat actions, and how to speed up combats as well. Which is something I think D&D needs.
  • Build in an entry strategy from the get-go. Start with the Essentials line, and then add the complexity. Don’t come in half-way ((Or three-quarters of the way, in this case.)) through with the beginner set. I think this one is a no-brainer, but just putting it out there. That way, you don’t have to rely on the current fans – who may or may not make the edition switch – to build the market. You can capture the new gamers hitting the scene, and maybe even pull in the old-school fans who have poo-poohed the complexity of modern editions.
  • Remember that the rules are a tool set. The rules are not the game. The game is what happens at the table. WotC is not the dispenser of truth about how to play the game, they are the providers of the rules, and the DM and players get to mangle them as they see fit. The groups are going to house-rule stuff, and twist stuff, and home-brew stuff, and just plain get stuff wrong, and that’s great, as long as they have fun. Concentrate on providing them a tool kit they can use to build their own coolness in-game, rather than a hard-and-fast, rigidly defined game experience. Leave room for the players and DMs to inject themselves into every level of gameplay and – as far as possible – support the different types of play experience. I know, that last bit is tough – be all things to all people – but it’s a valuable goal.

Those are the big lessons I hope WotC takes forward into this new iteration. Beyond that, I have my own pet peeves that I hope get eliminated and sacred cows that I hope get supported or returned to play.

There is, of course, going to be some public outcry about the whole thing – it’s another cash grab ((C’mon, guys. WotC is a business, and of course they want to make money. That does not preclude them also wanting to make the best game they can. After all, that will net them more money, right?)), they’re ruining my favourite edition, they won’t listen to the fans enough, they will listen to the fans too much, it’s too much like game X, it’s not enough like game X, the whole thing is going to crash and burn, etc.

For my part, I’m cautiously optimistic, based on past experience. Let’s see if WotC can indeed produce a D&D game that is all things to all fans.

I’d be happy if they succeeded.

Dateline – Storm Point

I’m still a couple of posts behind, and it’s been several weeks since this game, so this is going to be another short-but-hopefully-sweet post. I really needed to get it up tonight because we’re playing the next session tomorrow.

Yeah. I’m bad.

So, at the last session, our heroes were pursuing the bagman for Channah, a local crime boss, through the sewers of Belys, in order to have a frank and open exchange of opinions about why the boys from Storm Point wouldn’t be paying any protection money. There was some discussion about what would happen after that point, with one of the players putting forward a strong preference for taking over Channah’s rackets.

Now, at this point, I spoke up. I told the players that I didn’t want to run a game ((I’m a firm believer that the GM gets to have fun running a game. If he or she isn’t, why do it? Thus, if it’s a game I don’t want to run, then I’m within my rights to just not run it.))where they were the villains. The ((Somewhat predictable, really.)) response was that most of the characters were Unaligned as far as alignment went, and that this would be okay. I countered with the statement that anyone running a criminal enterprise that involved protection rackets, prostitution, theft, drugs, and possibly slavery was a de facto villain, regardless of what the alignment said on their character sheets.

As my big guns in this argument, I launched into the following little rant ((This is, of course, not verbatim. But it captures the rhetoric and the content pretty well.)) to convince them that becoming crime lords was off the table.

Look. I know I generally give you guys a lot of freedom to decide what happens in the game, and what your characters do, and what their goals are. But I have to tell you, I have zero interest in running an Evil game and – no matter how you dress it up – that’s what becoming crime bosses in a big city is. I’ve run my share of Evil games back in high school, and I am not interested in running any more.

In fact, if you insist on going down this path, I will end this campaign. I will let you become the crime lords, but then the game ends, and I start a new 1st-level campaign where you all play ((And this is where the car left the road. Not even skid marks. It’s like the driver pointed the car at the cliff and stood on the accelerator. Obviously a suicide run.)) the oppressed, exploited, downtrodden citizens who have spent the last twenty years under the thumbs of the Storm Point Gang, and the game will be all about killing your old characters and freeing the citizens from their oppression.

I should have known that my little speech was not having the desired effect when I noticed that everyone was quiet and listening to me ((I never get everyone paying attention to me at once! Never!)), not arguing. When I finished, there was silence for a few moments, then Dan said, “That would be awesome!” And Erik looked at me and said, “I realize you were trying to convince us that this was a bad idea, and I agreed with you, but you just talked me around to the other point of view. I want to play in that campaign!”

Chris just looked at me and sadly shook his big, bushy head.

At which point, I abandoned any sort of reasoned argument or persuasion and just said, “No. Not doing it.”

Now, though, I’m rethinking the whole idea. That could, indeed, make a pretty rocking campaign. On the other hand, we just spent three years getting everyone up to Paragon tier, and we’ve all got a lot invested in the game. I think we need to have a real conversation about this ((Probably not tomorrow, though; one of the players is unable to make the game.)); if the players want to play in that new campaign instead of the current one, I think that’s doable.


When we got down to playing, the heroes tracked the bagman to a trapdoor leading up into a warehouse down by the river docks. They triggered an alarm bell when they went up, and found themselves facing a couple orcs, a few ogres, and a war troll ((FIRE or ACID.)). The fight dragged a bit because of all the brutes, but the good guys managed to prevail, and captured the bagman for interrogation.

Under their gentle questioning, they managed to get the bagman to agree to help them get to Channah. In exchange for the glyph key to Channah’s teleport circle, the party would let the bagman take over Channah’s territory – with the party being exempt from protection fees, of course.

So, tomorrow’s session is going to see the assault on Channah’s stronghold. The fights so far have all been below character level for the party, which may have been giving them an inflated sense of their own badassery, but the stuff I’m throwing at them tomorrow is going to be significantly tougher. That’s a little tidbit of a warning for any of my players who happen to read my blog before the game tomorrow.

Should be fun.

Dateline – Storm Point

Wow. I’m falling behind on the posts. Sorry, folks. I’ll try and catch up before Christmas.

We opened this last session of Storm Point with our heroes brainstorming what they wanted to do about Channah, the gang boss who thought it was a good idea to demand protection money from the party. There were some suggestions, but the group was really lacking information about how things worked in Belys. In the end, they decided to spend some time trying to figure out how the Belysian underworld was organized.

Full disclosure time. One of the proposals on the table was that the group find an enemy gang and get them to pay the group to wipe out Channah and turn his territory over to the other gang. I didn’t like that idea for one simple reason: it turns the heroes of Storm Point into petty thugs and enforcers in the big city. Now, part of what I want to do with this phase of the game ((The early Paragon Tier, that is. Maybe levels 11-13.)) is to show the characters as being in a much bigger pond than they’re used to – they are the heroes of a little fishing town out in the middle of nowhere, and now they’re in the big city, playing with the big boys. But I didn’t want to completely invalidate their hard-won heroic status, and turn them into villains ((Arguments can be made about anti-heroes and shades of grey and how most of the group is Unaligned and yadda-yadda-yadda. Y’know what? Don’t care. If you get one gang boss to pay you to kill another one and give him the dead boss’s territory, you’re not heroes. You’re assassins. And that’s not what I want this game to be.)).

Given that desire on my part, I structured the underworld ((On the fly, as part of a skill challenge to gather information.)) in such a way that getting one gang leader to pay to kill another was not going to happen. I had already decided that the city was ruled by a cabal of genasi noble families ((Just a quick note for those of you who read this post. While the first part of what I wrote about Belys there is accurate, the secret I list is not. What, you think I’m stupid enough to put a secret from an ongoing campaign where my players might see it? Don’t answer.)), each of whom controlled a different section of the city. Within their own city ward, the noble family has pretty much absolute power, and is fiercely territorial. Thus, any incursion from another city ward – even by unsanctioned criminals – would be met with devastating force. No crime boss wants to risk attracting that kind of animosity.

I didn’t want to just close off avenues of action, though. I wanted to let the players know that, as long as they kept things fairly quiet and didn’t harm any civilians or attract official attention, the powers-that-be would turn a blind eye to them. After all, the nobles don’t much care if someone kills a gang leader, as long as no one is trying to usurp the noble prerogative.

So, in the end, the group decided to wait for the next visit from one of Channah’s men, and try and get a meeting with Channah himself, whereupon they would proceed with their standard negotiation tactics ((“Get ’em!”)). They didn’t expect the bag man ((Bag half-orc, in this case.)) to agree, so they posted the ranger and the monk on the rooftops to follow him back to the hideout that the group had so far been unable to locate.

It almost went the way they wanted. The bag man had an escort of ogres and a troll, and didn’t seem impressed with the threats the group made, nor with their demands. After all, they were in his city now, and were just country bumpkins from some no-name fishing village over the mountains. So, when they refused to give him the money, and demanded to meet with Channah, he refused. He gave them one last chance to pay, then nodded sadly, and dropped something in the kitchen well and walked out.

I cheated a bit here, and one of the players almost called me on it, but restrained himself ((Thanks, Erik! I appreciate the trust.)). What I wanted to do was completely wrong-foot the group to show them they weren’t dealing with Jemmy Fish and his halfling pickpockets back in Storm Point. So, I didn’t give anyone a chance to react to the guy dropping his little surprise and sauntering out. Unfair? Yeah, it is. But it was a dramatic choice meant to drive home the fact that these people are playing for keeps, and are good at what they do. Channah is smart, resourceful, and ruthless, and he has some good people working for him. That’s all information the group needs.

And thus the kitchen filled with a vapour of elemental water that started drowning everyone in the room ((I handled it like a poison in mechanical effect. +5 vs. Fort, 2d6 damage, and ongoing 5 poison damage (save ends) each round on everyone in the room.)). They got the kitchen staff out of there, and the swordmage used his fire-based abilities to purge the elemental water before anyone died. And then they were out in the street, chasing the bag man.

Up on the roofs, the monk and the ranger kept pace with the bad guys, following them through the winding streets. They spotted when the bag man ducked out of the middle of his guards and vanished down an alleyway, and flagged down the other characters when they caught up on the ground.

Then it was down into the sewers, where they found themselves led into what was meant to be an ambush ((Channah is smart, remember? He plans ahead.)). It turned out not to be a very good one, and our heroes got the drop on the bad guys. It was a fairly long fight, but the heroes were never really threatened. Their opponents were a few trolls, a couple shambling mounds, a basilisk, and a bog hag – none of them were up to the characters’ level, and the majority were brutes. When the hit the characters, it hurt a lot, but the hits were few and far-between. But man, could they soak up damage.

At the end of the fight, we wrapped for the evening. We actually got a fair bit done ((For us, at least.)), and I’ve been gratified that the last several sessions – and it looks like the next one this Sunday – have had a full roster of players.

We’ll see where they go from here.

Dateline – Storm Point

Last Sunday was the the first session of Storm Point since the gang moved into the Paragon tier.

I moved their base from the small fishing town of Storm Point to the large city-state of Belys, upping the fantastical elements and basically turning the dials on things up to level 11 ((Yes, that’s a D&D/Spinal Tap joke. We’re deep in geek country, here, folks.)). So, the is run by a collection of wealthy genasi families, and the various towers and palaces are topped by minarets flying banners of various elements, and tiny golem-like constructs, powered by sparks of pure element, run errands for the wealthy.

I had also allowed the group to swap out their magic items. I did this for a few reasons:

  • During the distribution of magic items over the various levels, I messed up, and there were a couple of characters who were blatantly under-equipped compared to their companions.
  • Lots of interesting new items have been released over the three years we’ve been playing.
  • The gang likes to tweak their characters, and I figured this was a good opportunity to correct the equipment imbalance, while letting them do that.

What I did was total up the levels of magic item each character had, take the highest value among the group ((I thought about taking the average, but that felt like I was punishing the players with more stuff.)), and said, “You each have this many levels of magic item potential, and no items right now. You can spend these levels on any items you like, but no item can be higher than level 14.”

So, over the three weeks since the previous game, they leveled up their characters and changed their magic item load-outs.

Now, I had some initial worries about whether they might wind up too well-equipped ((Heh.)) for their level, but I soon got over those. Balance between characters and GM is a fiction, anyway – the worries were just the knee-jerk reaction of someone who played the old-school games back when they were the new-school games. The main balance concern I have in any game is whether or not the characters each have sufficient chance to be awesome and contribute to the cool of the game. If they have too much magic item power? Well, guess I’ll just have to throw bigger challenges at them…


I waxed semi-poetic for a while, describing the city and its environs, and talking about how they used the letters of introduction from the merchant they had helped to secure the magic item exchange, and then we talked about getting lodgings. The group’s first impulse was to find a cheap inn outside the walls ((With <ahem> certain services…)), but I ran down some of the options for them, including better inns inside the walls, renting rooms, and buying a house.

They liked the idea of renting rooms in a manor house, with servants and a garden and such, and really got into negotiating the rents ((I was, frankly, amazed. This is the group whose mission statement is “Get ’em!” But I was also pleased.)), settling on a total of 1500 gp for the year, with the landlords providing food, drink, and servants to host four feasts during the year. They then decided that they should have their first feast only a couple of weeks after they arrived in the city, to make their entrance into Belys society, inviting their merchant acquaintances, and allowing them each to bring someone that the gang should meet.

The party went well, and the group met a couple of NPCs that I wanted to get on the stage. The first was a group of Githzerai ascetics, who were suppliers of the Gith plate and Githweave armour that a couple of the party had acquired. The second was a scarred seer and favourmonger, Bitaryut the Blind. He’s there mainly to give the group someone to go to if they need an in somewhere in the city, or a hint about the future.

There was a third NPC who factored into things, though he didn’t come on stage. Channah is a crime boss who is extorting the group’s landlords. He had a couple of his men beat up a couple of waiters, and when our heroes found out, they started asking questions about him, that led to their first fight as Paragon tier heroes.

Now, I set this fight at 9th level, both because it was the first encounter with Channah’s goons ((When he figures out what kind of hard men he’s up against, he’ll send tougher goons.)), and because it was the first chance the group had to try out their new Paragon abilities and magic items. So, just a couple of orc bloodragers and four ogre savages ((2600 xp, a level 9 encounter for 6 characters.)) accosting the gang down by the docks.

It was an interesting fight to run. I was somewhat surprised to see the group focus on the ogres, when they had so much trouble dropping one of the orcs. I was also pleased that they took pains to render their foes unconscious instead of killing them. And, in the end, they intimidated the last orc standing into taking their threat back to Channah.

And because they seemed interested in this plot thread, I decided to up the stakes and send the orc’s head to them next morning, with a note in his mouth saying that Channah had doubled the money he expected.

But that’s where we left it.

Dateline – Storm Point


I’m running Tomb of Horrors for this leg of the Storm Point campaign. You may not want to read on if you’re playing the game yourself.


Sunday before last ((Yep, I’m falling behind. Work stuff.)), we got together and finished off the first stage of The Tomb of Horrors ((The way the adventure is constructed, there are a few different stages, and they don’t run one right after the other. You space them out with some other adventures between them.)).

Considering the track record for this group getting through encounters, and the fact that this was the first game I was running in about five weeks, I wasn’t too confident of getting through the two encounters that were necessary to wrap up the adventure, but the gang really pulled together, and we were able get to the ending.

I was leery about running the encounter with the game tables, which is essentially an extended skill challenge, in large part because the write-up for the encounter had only one combination of skills that could be used to win, and each of those three skills would need to be used to win. This is, I believe, a real flaw in a skill challenge, so I disregarded it, and went with my default style of running skill challenges, which is to let the player pitch a skill and why it should be usable, and then set the DC based on how convincing the pitch is.

They got through the challenge, but sucked up some nasty psychic damage in the process. This, coupled with the way I was playing up the energy-sapping nature of the Garden of Graves ((Basically, every time the group took an extended rest, they recovered one fewer healing surge. So, after two extended rests in the Garden, they were starting their adventuring day two healing surges down.)), they were somewhat wary of running into the last encounter.

And that last encounter was a doozy. I had them all bloodied at one point or another, and dropped the Warlord at one point. Everyone else found themselves down in single-digit hit points during the fight, I believe, but they pulled it together, and killed the various zombies and the plant monster. Then, it was on to dismantling the arcane engine at the heart of the graveyard, and heading back to the mortal world, which we just glossed over.

I awarded the group a few more experience points than the adventure called for, simply to get them all up to 11th level, so we could start Paragon Tier play with their arrival at the city-state of Belys. This means all my players are trying to decide on which Paragon Path they want to pursue.

I’m making some meta-game changes to the way I do things at this point, too. I’ve found that the planned treasure/magic item distribution that is the default of D&D is a real drain on my time, so I’m ditching it in favour of the random distribution set out in the Essentials books. That means I’m ditching the magic item wish list system I’ve been using for the players, and adjusting the magic item economy to make selling unwanted items more profitable. Thus, by giving the group slightly more magic items, and letting them sell them for 80% list price, the group will still get the magic items their characters want ((Some say, “Need,” but I think it’s just pure avarice.)), but the work is offloaded from the GM to the players. Which I like.

I’m also letting the group swap out their current magic items, but I haven’t figured out exactly how that’s going to work, yet. I’ve got a little while yet to think about it.