CCT 18: Fungeon Crawling

Book 5 of this adventure path, Skeletons of Scarwall, is one huge dungeon crawl. I have previously said that dungeon crawls were one of my least favorite aspects of roleplaying and I feel like this journal and the next few entries could be a series of apologies as in “I don’t like dungeon crawls but..”  The truth is that any scenario can be lame and any scenario can be awesome depending how it is handled. I’ve played games about escaping from slavery in the South that were incredible. I’ve run games where absolutely everyone died in a miserable painful gory failure and it was a blast. Anything can be fun when handled well and I’ve learned by now that Paizo is capable of handling almost anything extremely well.

So no more apologies. This book isn’t fun despite being a dungeon crawl. This book is just fun. Here is what they have done right so far in this book:

  • They have set the dungeon up as an epic and terrifying place and you believe it. It has a creepy history and the players have a good reason for needing to delve into it. We aren’t just poking in caves for treasure. We are braving something absolutely no one else wants any part of because we’re big damn heroes.
  • The difficulty of the encounters lives up to the epic reputation. We don’t have room after room of goblins to slog through till we get to the boss. This place will kick your ass before you even get in the gate and then keep kicking it till you call mercy.
  • It is soaking in atmosphere. They give you a history for every encounter and lots of flavor stuff to plug in as the GM so that the place has a personality. Scarwall is the major antagonist of this book, not just the monsters inside. The players in my group are already referring to the place as if it was sentient.
  • The encounters follow a logical progression and the dungeon itself responds to the choices of the players. Monsters don’t sit in their rooms waiting for the party to kick down the door. The dungeon develops as the party accomplishes certain things. There is a sort of meta-puzzle to be ‘solved’ here.
  • There is immense variety, but all within the theme. One encounter to the next very different skills and tactics are called for from the players, but all of it fits well. Nothing seems random or stupid like gelatinous cubes randomly wandering down hallways.

Paizo keeps bringing the win.

CCT 17: Oops

Well… that was a near TPK.

We finished the fourth book in the adventure path this week and it ends in a giant battle with Red Mantis assassins, a deranged racist ranger (aren’t they all?) called the Cinderlander, a host of Gargoyles, and the leader of the Red Mantis in this region an evil lady named Cinnabar. I honestly hadn’t expected it to be that dangerous of an encounter, but I forgot to take into account several factors:

  • Being ambushed in the middle of the night means no armor. Also no packs full of potions and other handy gear and no secondary weapons. They basically charged into battle naked with the weapons they grabbed from beside their beds.
  • Being separated over a large area means no access to healing magic or buffs for some of the characters and a significant tactical disadvantage. The bow-ranger had to fight with his sword up-close with no backup. The rogue, couldn’t hide and sneak attack. The oracle had no bulky fighter to hide behind.
  • Sneak attacks are a bitch.

Result: 3/4 PC’s, 1 Animal Companion, and 1 NPC cohort all dead.

It has been a long time since I’ve overseen a bloodbath that severe. It definitely served notice that I am not a GM who is afraid to pull the trigger – even if it was sorta unintentional.

No feelings were hurt. Two of the players opted for resurrections, while one opted to roll up a new character. I tried to give them all glorious and dramatic ends, and realized after the fact that the deathblows were coincidentally all delivered by one nameless Assassin who is definitely getting a promotion to named NPC so the players can have the satisfaction of wreaking revenge later on. Since the deaths came rapidly one right after another it was pretty hilarious to watch the stunned silence that followed as the lone survivor, a dwarf fighter, walked back into the camp to find his entire party had been massacred.


CCT 16: Catching Up

It has been way too long since my last entry in this journal. I have infinite excuses. I will spare you.

Tonight we are concluding the 4th book in the adventure path “A History of Ashes.” This makes it a good time for a bit of retrospective analysis on the series so far.

As was apparent from the first 15 posts in this journal I am very impressed with Pathfinder as a whole and with the Curse of the Crimson Throne adventure path in specific. Book 1 was a solid B+ beginning. It introduced us to the city, contained some great NPC’s and a memorable roof chase sequence which my players still talk about. It’s downsides were that it was more or less a cliche series of quests for a patron. It could have done much more with the chaos in the city. Still a mile ahead of any other module I’d ever read or run up to that point.

Book 2 “Seven Days to the Grave” blew the first chapter right out of the water, and probably set a standard that the rest of the campaign will not be able to live up to. It is a definite A+. Great characters. Great mood. Creative encounters. Exciting plot. Nothing bad to say about this really.

Book 3 “Escape from Old Korvosa” was a major letdown after the second outing was so superb and will probably be the nadir of the campaign when we’re finished. The story didn’t give you very good reasons for being in conflict with the major badguys of the book. The Arkonas were interesting, but tangential to the main interests and concerns of the party. The Vivified Labyrinth which provided the climax of the campaign was a throwback to old-school trap-infested dungeons. There is a reason these dungeons are “old” school. A long sequence of nearly unavoidable “save or take tons of damage” situations isn’t very fun. It might have been interesting if the dungeon had been a puzzle that could be solved, or a series of challenges that could be creatively overcome, but it wasn’t. Still, this module was a step above anything non-Pathfinder I’ve ever run: C.

Book 4 “A History of Ashes” has been a major return to form. Some people in the forums have complained that it is too big a divergence from the main plot, but my group found it a welcome change of pace to be out in the harsh wilderness instead of the rapidly decaying city. The encounters have been creative, the NPC’s are excellent and perhaps most impressively – the Cinderlands are a very interesting and well detailed ecosystem that in and of itself has been the source of a lot of fun. I have had the terrain itself serving as a major character in the game and the players have simply loved avoiding stampeding herds of Auroch’s, or raging Emberstorms, or explosive Rockfire. This wasn’t quite the apogee of moody goodness that was Book 2, but close: A.

We move into Book 5 “Skeletons of Scarwall” next. I am both excited and apprehensive. It has the obvious failing of being one giant dungeon crawl, but it is one of the most clever and interesting dungeon’s I’ve encountered and chock full of creeptastic encounters. I am definitely running this one for maximum horror. We’ll see how it goes.

CCT Journal 15: Character Death

I killed two people last night. The end of the second module in this adventure path is a raid on the temple of the cult of Urgathoa that has been spreading the plague Blood Veil in the city of Korvosa. It is a dungeon crawl that follows many of the normal rules of dungeon crawls, which are stupid. I changed those stupid rules and it resulted in character deaths.

The first stupid rule is that bad guys wait patiently in the next room despite the sounds of pitched battle echoing through the whole dungeon. They do not come join other battles, organize, strategize, utilize choke points or any of that stuff. I changed this rule. When the party began raiding the temple and set off the alarm, the inhabitants grouped up, prepared by casting buffs, developed a plan and… well the PC’s nearly got killed in the first encounter.

The second stupid rule, is a subset of the first, which is that you can take as much time as you want getting through a dungeon, including stopping to rest and recover spells. I changed this rule. I made sure it was clear there was a deadline. Lives needed saving. Bad guys were plotting and delays would mean heavy costs. I simply can’t stand the idea that the villain is sitting in the last room of the dungeon with their evil plan nearly complete just waiting for the heroes to walk in before they go through with it. The result was that a string of encounters that would have been manageable one by one with breaks in between became an unbearable combination of mayhem.

Two player characters died.

The first was obliterated by a Leukodaemon’s breath of flies – riddled with holes and eaten by maggots before their eyes. The second was crushed by the deformed claw of a Daughter of Urgathoa, already crippled by a stew of noxious diseases.

Neither death was planned or intended, though I’m always prepared for the possibility of character death. Since D&D characters are in pitched battle on a daily basis it can be a challenge to make a death memorable, but I think these worked out well, occurring as they did at the very end of a story arc and in appropriately gruesome ways. It was made more memorable by the fact that the party emerged victorious (barely), saving the city from certain doom.

Normally in D&D character death is a minor obstacle. You just need a diamond and a sufficiently high-level Cleric and voila! Respawn. But I think that is a stupid rule too. I don’t think an epic adventure story should feel like Halo. So I changed that rule. Resurrection is still possible, but it is costly. Something significant and permanent changes about your character when you die and choose to be revived with magic. This change is both aesthetic and mechanical and should provoke an attendant response in roleplaying.

For each character it is different. Both characters chose last night to be resurrected. It was dramatic for both of them, but one of the characters who died last night was reborn in fire, her skin now glassy and black like a hunk of obsidian. Always an Oracle of Flame, her ordeal has deepened her relationship to the element. Now she hears voices in the fire, speaking. She lost some experience, and will have to readjust to her new circumstances, but she is back. Alive and able to continue the story. That kind of stuff makes character death, and resurrection, satisfying.

CCT Journal 14: Jumping the Rails

We’re playing a published adventure module and everyone knows it. My players are cooperative. They are diving into the storyline and as long as we work together the “rails” of the adventure are fairly invisible beneath us. But sometimes even groups with the best of intentions feel constrained by the narrative of an adventure. Honestly, sometimes the players are better writers than the GM or designers who wrote the plot in the first place.

A couple such instances have popped up in my last two sessions of Curse of the Crimson Throne. Situations were written into the module which while standard D&D fare put the characters at a definite disadvantage and required a bit of willing blindness from the players. My players rightfully started asking questions – why do we have to do it that way? Wouldn’t it make more sense if? I was forced to concede that their way did indeed make more sense even though it presented some problems for me in terms of running the adventure as written.

When Doug runs a game the situations are almost always malleable. His NPC’s react to what the players decide to do. It is character driven all the way. My games are more story driven. There are stronger rails for the PC’s to follow. But no matter what style of GM you are, there are times where you have to be willing to jump the rails. The goal of the game is fun and you will compromise your players fun if you never cooperate with them and their good ideas – even when those ideas upset the applecart a bit.

So when Hrungar the Dwarf started talking sensibly about luring the villain out of his highly defensible lair with a rather cunning ploy and leading him into an ambush – even though it was going to completely change a whole series of encounters, radically reduce the threat to the party and actually skip over some important information they needed – I went along with it. The ploy was clever enough, in my opinion, to actually trick an intelligent villain and you couldn’t argue the basic point that rushing headlong into the bad guy’s lair, though a staple of D&D, is pretty stupid. I rewarded the players by letting their clever ambush succeed (and then I rewarded them with a bit of bonus XP as well to make up for encounters they missed by not charging in). I found alternate ways to make the encounter exciting – this was an intelligent villain after all, he didn’t just walk into a trap without some contingency plan. And I delivered the important information they needed through a different mechanism – instead of overhearing chatty guards they found notes on the villain’s person.

Sometimes this happens and the players have no idea they’ve actually jumped the rails – that’s good. It means you adapted very smoothly and they couldn’t tell the difference between planned encounters and improvised ones. Sometimes you jump the rails and the players are fully aware, as in my situation the other night. This is also good. It lets the players know that the world is responsive to their decisions and gives them incentive to cooperate with the plot in the future since they won’t feel constrained by it. You enhance the illusion that they are following the story by choice, which is a valuable illusion for the sake of fun.