CCT Journal 10: Harrowing

We concluded book one of this adventure path, “Edge of Anarchy” last night. I will give my brief review of the book before talking about something I added which I believe has had a great effect on the game.

If you’ve actually been reading all of these you know by now my experience has been largely positive. I’m thoroughly impressed with the quality of the production, the creativity, and thoughtful design that went into this first module. There are plentiful engaging NPC’s. The encounters are diverse and exciting. The setting and background are fascinating and they do a good job of helping your explore it. It has more story than any other adventure module I’ve ever read. That being said if there is one thing I think they could do better it is to focus more intently on that story. Without significant effort from the GM it would be very easy for this book to feel like a series of disconnected missions given by the captain of the city guard, which is super cliche. Tying these missions together, not just thematically, but with a coherent storyline would be a major improvement. I did that work on my own, because I am a story-addict, but I think it is within reach for the designers themselves to do, and I hope that is the way they head in the future.

If I’m so awesome at story-weaving, what did I do to fix this deficiency in book one? Let me tell you…

This adventure path incorporates an original deck of cards for divining called “Harrow”. The deck has six suits named after the six attributes in D&D: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma. Each of the six books in the path are also themed around one of these attributes/suits in the Harrow deck, and a Harrowing is performed at the start of each module to give the players some fun thematic little advantages for the upcoming adventure. This is all great, but they didn’t take it far enough.

During character creation I gave each player a custom Harrowing which gave them some detailed character hooks and storylines to be played out over the course of the campaign. Each person received a 9 card spread. The 3 cards in the left column covered their past. The 3 cards in the middle column covered their present, and the 3 cards in the right column covered their future. Each space also had its own meaning, so the layout looked like this:

—-PAST—–——PRESENT———– FUTURE

Your happiest—– A helpful force—– Something you should
memory———– in your life——— aspire toward

Something you —-Relationship to —–Your Riddle to solve
have forgotten—– another PC

Your darkest ——A harmful force—- Something you should
memory———– in your life——— avoid

Dealing the cards into this layout and then revealing them one by one I interpreted each card for them vaguely and asked the player to give me the specifics on the matter. So for example the card “The Rabbit Prince” came up in the center space for one of the players. The card represents the capriciousness of combat. I told the player that he should choose one of the other PC’s and that his character’s relationship to that person would be defined by a constant bickering/rivalry. He chose to see Safiya the Oracle as a nosy older-sister who he is always arguing with. In another player’s reading the card “The Avalanche” came up in the top-left space. The card represents a disaster, but since this is a happy memory I told the player that it was a disaster averted or avoided in his life that he remembers happily. He decided that at one time he was nearly executed for a crime he didn’t commit and at the last minute new evidence was found that exonerated him.

Once every character’s reading was complete not only did they have a lot more information about themselves and neat details to roleplay out, but I had the bones of how I was going to weave them into the story of the adventure module. I chose 6 of the juiciest items from each reading and assigned one to each book of the campaign. I then began to figure out how I would connect that little character detail or story hook into the main storyline in such a way as to make the character more invested in what was happening.

So, for example, one of the characters had overcome a drug addiction and still owed a lot of money to his old dealer. His old dealer was who he put under “Harmful forces” in the reading. In this first module I decided to make that dealer Devargo Bavarsi, the owner of Eel’s End a place which figures prominently in the adventure, forcing a conflict and a resolution to that particular storyline. Having nearly been captured and killed by Bavarsi the players turned the tables and got Bavarsi killed by his own spiders. He no longer has that enemy and he had a strong in-character reason to be involved in that part of the main plot.

Some of the individual subplots tied in very tightly with the main storyline and others were a bit more independent, but I kept them all bouncing through the first book alongside the main events and tied them in where appropriate. This gave me some fun stuff to plan and a chance to really “own” the campaign without adding inordinate amounts of work. It gave the players a game which feels like it was crafted for them and not for any generic group of hero adventurers. And it led to a fun final session where each of these story lines were resolved concurrently.

Usually I think splitting up the party is a bad idea. Anyone who has to sit out of the action for more than a few minutes is going to get bored. But once in a while I like to run this kind of session where everyone is separate or divided into teams and multiple scenes are happening at the same time. To do it effectively you have to plan it very carefully and get it all set up before hand. I asked my players to keep their focus and cheer on their fellows when it was a scene they were not involved in, and I drew out all the maps ahead of time, positioned my miniatures and had written a detailed outline of how I expected the scenes to go in columns alongside one another in my notebook. Then I jumped into the action right away with minimal exposition.

Each player was given 2-3 minutes of attention on their scene and the pace was kept high. If they delayed in responding to a prompt their character stalled in the game. I jumped around the circle through four different scenes trying to leave each scene at a dramatically appropriate moment like it was a movie or a TV show cutting together events in different locations to increase tension. One player was running a gauntlet full of traps, while another was in an arena with wild animals trying to outsmart or survive his competitors, and another player was in a massed battle with a gang of imps, and another was being pressed to make extremely difficult and life-changing choices by conflicting parties. I was pretty successful in gauging the timing so each scene concluded at approximately the same time and no one was left sitting for more than 10 or 15 minutes. Furthermore, when they were active they were the star of their own scene and everyone’s scene was exciting enough to hold the attention of the inactive players.

Following each of these individual scenes with the group encounter that forms the conclusion of the module and brings back most of the important PC’s from the first adventure had the effect of making it feel like the proper end of a chapter. Story arcs were completed. Major questions were answered. The dominant problem they had faced was resolved, and their individual little plots were equally at a close… little do they know that it was just the start of much bigger challenges ahead.

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