[D&D 4th] Chronicles of Prydain campaign notes



  • Thanks for writing all this up, Eero. I really enjoyed reading it, seems like a fun time was had by all.
    I think that Francis's player shares my own skepticism about the fun-to-effort ratio of the miniatures combat scenes [...]
    I share that skepticism, as well. I feel miniatures combat gets way overused in typical 4E campaigns (which is understandable to a certain extent since its so good at it) and the system really shines when combat is relatively infrequent but extremely spectacular, cinematic, and over-the-top. Unlike other modern editions of D&D, 4E doesn't really assume an X encounters per day attritional model or anything like that, so it can handle 1 encounter a day vs 6 encounters a day pretty well (whereas in say the current iteration of D&D consistently having 1 encounter a day would absolutely wreck the game's paper-thin balance between casters and non-casters).
  • If it was good at minis-usage, the fun-to-effort ratio wouldn't be so badly off.
  • Session #5: The Search for the White Pig

    We congregated for the fifth session with a full crew again. By this time it's pretty clear who the regulars are:

    Deithwen Morgan, a brave yet somewhat alienated Son of Don Fighter
    Francis the Missionary, a Frankish Christian Cleric
    Eluned the Enchantress, a deceptive and mysterious Llyrian Wizard
    Harald the Viking, a faithful yet silent companion

    We had dealt with most of the downtime activity in the last session, so the new one started immediately on the new adventure: the heroes had agreed to escort prince Rhûn to Caer Dallben, the grandiosely named homestead of the great Pridonite sage. Dallben the Enchanter is a famous wizard and wise advisor who chooses to live in remote seclusion.

    King Rhuddlum deciding to send his son to Dallben was, of course, a superficial adventure hook; the heroes would get mixed up in other events once at Dallben's house. The heroes were aware of grander designs being on the move, and certainly intended to consult with Dallben about the rumored Horned King and other events related to the rebellion of the south.

    The adventure at hand is called "The Book of Three" in my notes as per the first novel of the Chronicles of Prydain. The name is misleading in that the titular book of prophecy has literally nothing to do with the events of the story. Rather, it all revolves around a certain magical pig. Here, as per my adventure outline:

    The Book of Three (adventure level 3)
    When the heroes arrive at Caer Dalben they are introduced to the denizens: Dallben, his boyfriend Coll ap Collfrewr and their adopted son Taran the swineherd. After the regular pleasantries Dallben decides to call on the oracular powers of the white pig Hen Wen in an effort to advice the heroes on the matter of the Horned King (or other excuse, should this adventure occur later in the campaign).
    Seeking the Pig (skill challenge level 3, 3 successes)
    Hen Wen senses the approach of the demonic Horned King, and as the stupid pig that it is, decides to escape the danger into the wilderness. Other animals react as well; the chaos aids the escape. Once the pig gets into the woods it has a 50% chance per skill challenge round of increasing the challenge length by one success as it gets further away. There's a set encounter chart for what occurs as the party tracks the pig through the wilderness, paralleling the novel.
    Cauldron-Born in the Wilderness (Combat level 4)
    After around half-dozen rounds of pig-searching, or on the way back to Caer Dallben if the pig is found early, the heroes encounter a scouting party of Cauldron-Born, the monstrous undead servants of Arawn Deathlord. The encounter is bolstered by minor events during the search, causing it to almost certainly have an effective level of 6 by this point. Hen Wen might be present if it's already been found. Ideally the heroes lose the fight and are captured, leading directly to the adventure "Escape from the Spiral Court" and leaving the fate of Hen Wen uncertain.
    Gate to Fairy Land (skill challenge level 3, 4 successes)
    After the party loses track of the white pig, they will have a chance at an implicit skill challenge: the characters do not realize it, but they are being drawn by Fate to enter Tylwyth Teg, the kingdom of the fair folk, whence Hen Wen has disappeared since it was seen last. Use of Religion or Arcane skill can perceive the hand of Fate here; otherwise all skill checks used to fulfill the challenge are subconscious in nature, occurring at any time the party has an opportunity to veer closer to the Black Lake (the location of the fae realm). E.g. an Insight check might be called for at any time a character is pondering what to do next, success indicating a flimsy justification for traveling towards the goal.
    In the Court of the Dwarf King (skill challenge level 2, 4 successes)
    The heroes have to negotiate with the king of Prydain's fae, the Dwarf King Eiddileg, if they wish to regain Hen Wen from the fae. Excess success brings gifts and advice from the fae.
    Challenge of the Dwarf King (combat level 3)
    As an option, any aggressive or rude characters in the skill challenge may be drawn into judicial combat with Doli, the champion of the Dwarf King, and the necessary number of fairies and goblins to make up the encounter. Others may continue the skill challenge while the combat rages, or opt to join in. Winning the combat grants successes equal to number of participating PCs to the skill challenge.
    Speaking with the Pig (skill challenge level 4, 4 successes)
    Once the heroes have recovered Hen Wen, they can either return the pig to Caer Dallben to have Dallben query it, or they can, if they wish, attempt to construct their own magical ritual for communicating with the magic pig. Either choice grants the goal of the adventure: the True Name of the Horned King.

    As you can see, the adventure outline is a bit more complex than what might be strictly necessary: not only are there flavourful special circumstances, but the whole adventure is by default a two-parter, as the heroes fail in the middle and then stumble upon the second half later in the campaign. It's all inspired by the original novel, of course.

    In case you're wondering about the weird phrasing in the "The Gate to Fairy Land" skill challenge, that's because the novel's plotting is nigh non-existent: it never actually cares to justify in any way why the heroes stumble upon Tylwyth Teg and Hen Wen therein long after they've stopped actually looking for the pig. The books are full of this stuff, and I've generally chosen to interpret the amazing coincidences as an explicit admission that Fate (a force that certainly exists in Prydain, as we'll come to see) is manipulating the events in certain junctures. Doesn't mean that everything is fated all the time, just that where the novels lack plot causality it's made up by magic.

  • So anyway, I had a clear agenda for the session. However, at this point in the campaign we are also starting to have some serious character-based interference in the basic plot framework, which certainly makes the game more interesting all around. We actually spent a fair amount of time at the beginning of the session roleplaying the initial encounter between Dallben the Enchanter and our heroes, for reasons pertaining to the side adventure I wrote about earlier. Let me explain from the beginning:

    Because we had an adventure with prince Rhitta, occurring some 500 years in the past, and some adventuring loot was certainly found and earned as a result, I decided to have this loot make an appearance with Dallben: the sage has been holding onto this stuff for years by this point as part of his sagely duties, waiting for the rightful heir to come claim it. This heir is, of course, Deithwen Morgan, who we now know is descended on the distaff side from one of prince Rhitta's Companions, the so-called Good Fellows of Rhitta - a prestigious chivalric order, sort of like the Paladins of Charlemagne or the Knights of the Table Round. (In fact, considering the antecedents of everything in Prydain, the Good Fellows are the Knights of the Round Table, but just like everything else in Prydain the names are welsified and falsified to protect the innocent.)

    OK, so Dallben is holding onto some loot that from the PC perspective comes as a random boon, even if the players are aware of the amusing fourth-wall-breaking campaign circumstances that are going on. He also knows about Deithwen Morgan's unique parentage, him being half a Son of Don and the other half arguably a reincarnation of a Companion. This is, however, not everything that's going on with this encounter. You see, Dallben is a rather unique individual in Prydain in that he literally knows the future.

    Without going into Dallben's personal history in depth for now, it happens to be the case that he owns the Book of Three, a rather peculiar book that after careful consideration has been determined to include the complete history of Prydain until the very end of the Chronicles of Prydain. It is an artefact of Fate; not necessarily all-revealing, and apparently somewhat vague at times, but nevertheless it is implied that Dallben knows everything that happens during the Chronicles in advance.

    However, here's the rub: the entrance of the player character heroes into the campaign has irrevocably changed the path of history. Now, I can see how some other GM might judge this to also be Fate, such that Dallben always knew how things would turn out, but, well, we actually know that this is not the case, don't we? I mean, the players are ridiculously free-willed compared to Pridonite people, and we certainly know that the exact degree of free will that they are allowed is not in the hand of Fate, but rather in my hand as the campaign designer. The Fate is a personalized character in Prydain, and I have definitely not designed this campaign from an in-character viewpoint. Therefore: should the player characters cause events to deviate from what Fate has written in the Book of Three, the book will appear to be wrong. And that's interesting, because Dallben hasn't been in the position to be surprised for the last twenty years of his life.

    This being the circumstance, the first scene of the adventure was rather interesting: Dallben was surprised by the arrival of the heroes at his home, of course, as they are literally not mentioned anywhere in the Book of Three. However, he nevertheless knows one of the heroes, this Deithwen Morgan, due to his being trusted as the holder of an inheritance: Deithwen is a man with a dangerous familial connection to what Dallben knows is a core ideological premise of the southron rebellion. And while Dallben knows that the rebellion is backed by the dark lord of Annuvin, and that it used to be doomed to failure by Fate, these days he knows much less.

    Dallben understandably interviewed his guests quite carefully to figure out their intentions. He also went full Gandalf in an effort to advice the heroes to the best of his ability. A difficult success in a Diplomacy skill check after a bit of warm-up even got Dallben to confess most of his concerns to the PCs. Particularly, the fact that as far as he knew, the rising of the southon cantrevs (and the elevation of the Horned King into war kingship) should have occurred half a year earlier. Time was changing, and Dallben knew not why.

    (The asshole still didn't warn the heroes about the possibility that the Horned King might attack Caer Dallben any day now. I guess Dallben thought that the attack might not occur at all, as apparently the events of The Book of Three novel had been bypassed entirely: the Horned King had risen, the armies were on the march, yet clearly the Horned King's first act of office was not a daring raid against Dallben. Little does Dallben know how they all, even Fate, dance as puppets on the strings of my rpg campaign logic...)

    It was a minor thing, but I'll note it nevertheless as a harbinger of more to come: Dallben chose to trust his deeper insights to Deithwen and Francis only, being as how Eluned the Enchantress was characteristically off-putting and Harald the Viking was characteristically passive. Eluned attempted to sneakily spy on Dallben's confidential counsel, because that's how she is.

    So anyway, Dallben was an intriguing character who impressed Deithwen and others greatly with his wisdom. I think that him deciding to give Deithwen's magic item inheritance to the party played a big part in that - as we know, NPCs who give you magic items are the good NPCs as far as players are concerned.
  • After that was all taken care of, Dallben shared what he knew (and found wise to share) of the southron rebellion with the party. Him being a hermit wizard, this mostly meant counter-temporal knowledge of an alternate timeline: what the Horned King is, how it came to power, what it is trying to accomplish as a leader of the rebellion, and so on. Most significantly: that it is a 10th level solo encounter accompanied by an army, so good luck with that. Key fact for quest progress: a demonic being such as the Horned King could be defeated by unearthing its True Name. The Horned King being an ancient demon (predating the arrival of the seapeople of Llyr in Prydain, at the very least), unearthing its name would be impossible except for the convenient fact that Dallben has Prydain's most powerful oracular device in his possession - the white pig Hen Wen.

    And that's how we got this adventure under way. As the plot railroad tells us, the heroes were soon swept into the swine-herding adventure as it just so happened that Hen Wen panicked when its pigsty was approached. Taran, the doughty youngster that he is, tried valiantly to stop the pig, and the PCs obviously got into the act as well, but it would have taken considerably more effort than we saw to stop the pig right then and there. (Reasonable, as there wouldn't be an adventure at all if the pig didn't escape.)

    Taran the naive teenager had been introduced with a few deft impression already, and the players didn't oppose taking the young man with them to scout and deal with the pig once it would be found. Deithwen naturally liked him, as Taran at this point has a bad case of hero worship, so he was obviously man-crushing on the big knight who found his way to Caer Dalben. (The fact that Taran's the main character of the Chronicles of Prydain didn't hurt - I guess we owed him a chance to impress us, plus he might be important later for all the players knew.)

    The actual pig-search was relatively densely scripted in that I saw no reason not to replicate the exact events from the novel. The first quarter of the Book of Three novel is essentially a string of minor wilderness encounters as Taran searches for the lost pig, so that's what we did here. Perfectly serviceable pacing content for a tracking skill challenge: the players get to try some skill roll, then an encounter occurs, then they get a turn, back and forth.

    It is worthwhile to note that the heroes got an outright opportunity to meet with the Horned King and a half dozen of his Good Fellows (death knights, essentially - rebel kings who summoned the Horned King in the first place), as that's who rode directly towards Cair Dallben only a short while after the pig's escape. The heroes had ample opportunity and easy checks to hide from the encounter, and chose to do so, apparently lacking confidence in fighting the Big Bad Boss at this point. Let's just let Dallben deal with - running after an escaped oracular pig is more our style. (I was so confident of this choice in advance that I hadn't even prepped a stat block for the Horned King yet. It would have been a suicidal choice to face a paragon level combat encounter with level 2 characters.)

    The Horned King thing was a good example of a lively info dump, though - precisely the sort of thing that this kind of campaign lives for. Imagine it: the heroes hiding in the bushes, spying on the hurrying party of eldritch enemies, and most importantly, making a fat bunch of lore skill checks about what they see and experience: the various characters got to observe and explain the details of various setting things ranging from tattoos to social history. (For clarity, this being SG: the GM got to explain and the players got to listen.) For example, this Good Fellow stuff: we'd earlier learned that the Companions of ancient Pridonite kings were called "Good Fellows", but now sorceress Eluned also had the opportunity to tell us about how this same name (coincidence, yeah, let's go with that) is used as the highest cult rank in Annuvinist death worship, and how Good Fellows are basically magical knights dedicated to building up their own spiritual House of Death in preparation for their inevitable demise. Good stuff.

    Aside from the atmospheric near-miss with the Horned King, the party also encountered prince Gwydion, the son of High King Math, who was "accidentally" (guided by Fate, rather) on his way to consult with Dallben about the rebellion. The heroes were already familiar with Gwydion who'd accompanied them in their last adventure, so the meeting was a glad reunion. Gwydion naturally chose to accompany the heroes, judging that securing Hen Wen before forces aligned with darkness could capture it was paramount here.

    Gurgi, the weird comic relief mascot thing (think Gollum except basically well-meaning) was also encountered, and to nobody's surprise quickly shooed away. I won't say that it's an useless character, but Gurgi clearly struggles to justify himself in a D&D context. I do have plans for reintroducing him at an opportune time in some later adventure, but this time around the players didn't see much point in interacting with it. This - choosing the focus of play - is very much their privilege, I'm not going to force-feed stuff they don't want.

    An interesting encounter in the theme of Fate and fourth-wall-breaking was had with Gwyn the Hunter, or rather his horn sounding ominously in the distance. Gwyn is the Welsh king of the Wild Hunt, and a mysterious figure mentioned in passing in the Chronicles - essentially a pagan god whose appearance foretells battle and death. I did drop some rather cool theology on him, expanding on the vague book depiction. As far as this campaign is concerned, Gwyn's role is rather clear, though: he appears before every combat encounter the heroes are "supposed" to lose, and increases said encounter's level by +1. Sometimes I'm so clever I poke myself with my wit.

    As can be seen in the adventure plan, this pig-tracking skill challenge involves a fair bit of randomness, as the required number of successes has the chance to bloat rather quickly even if the heroes do not get side-tracked. As it happened, though, Hen Wen wasn't extremely fleet of foot this time around, and it appeared that the heroes would actually capture it soon after crossing the great river Avren. Nightfall caused a natural break in the exhausting search, allowing for one more rather cool scene.
  • Deithwen Morgan was clearly the lead drama guy of the session, as he had an opportunity to have a character moment with prince Gwydion during the night watch. The two witnessed a massing of the southron armies across the river from a hill-top, paralleling the scene Taran had with Gwydion in the novel. This time, however, Gwydion was with an estranged cousin, a supposed member of the Sons of Don. When the two witnessed the cruel lighting of the wicker baskets that the rebels performed, burning their prisoners alive in pagan rites predating the arrival of the Sons of Don, the shared grief became a bridge: Deithwen for the first time in his life realized what was the abstract "darkness" the Sons of Don supposedly stood against, while Gwydion for the first time understood that Deithwen, too, has a heart that recognizes the wretchedness of the dark when he witnesses it. The casual cruelty of the bold celebrants of the far shore did not come as a surprise to Gwydion as the elder Son, but it did prove to him beyond the shadow of doubt that the Idea driving this rebellion was of Annuvin born. For Deithwen this was a moment that has not left him since, I think; ever since then he has been relentless in his opposition to Annuvin and all it stands for.

    (In case the reader forgets: Deithwen is a Fighter by class, a point that characterizes him as a particularly estranged and lackadaisical Son of Don. Most members of the clan/family/race are either Paladins or Paladin/Warlords, as they consider communion with Danu, their mother-goddess, of utmost importance. Deithwen's abnormal class choice constantly drives the way his station among the Sons of Don develops.)

    To clarify a technical point, scenes like this are built out of a combination of free play, oracular dicing (various skill checks to provide hints and inspiration) and GM chairmanship of discussion. As plot (in the sense of "what matters are dealt with during play") is not under fire here, I don't really care as the railroad conductor about what happens. Basically it's just important to showcase setting and the characters as best as we can, then move on.

    GM chairmanning of discussion was particularly in force as I asked a question on an important point: did Deithwen wish to take this opportunity and reveal to Gwydion what Dallben had told him about his distaff parentage? I consider this sort of chairmanship or dramatic coordination a laudable technique because it facilitates PC princess-hood: it is not uncommon for individual players to miss out on interesting opportunities to showcase their characters, which is why I follow actively and dig this stuff out when possible. It is always a joy when a player beats me to punch, of course.

    Deithwen decided to take the leap and did indeed talk with Gwydion about his curious connection to the rebellion: as a particularly "close" descendant (in a spiritual sense more than number of generations) of a genuine Companion of Rhitta, an original Good Fellow, Deithwen might be in an unique position to outright defect to the rebellion. A political movement that idolizes the old native kingdom predating the Sons of Don might be very keen to seize the opportunity to raise a man who combines the bloodline of Don with the blessings of the ancients. Deithwen wisely decided that it would be best for him to talk this out with Gwydion now, rather than letting him learn of the possibly pertinent fact on his own later. Gwydion, the wise man that he is, listened to Deithwen and thanked him for the confidence. This meeting did much to mend the relations between Deithwen and his prince-cousin.

    After the RP scene we rounded out the skill challenge and indeed captured Hen Wen out in the wilds - a feat that Taran never managed in the novel. That was followed by the return trip that was destined to be disrupted by the fight with the Cauldron-Born. There was a minor encounter with Gwythaints, Arawn's spy birds first, and then after those could carry word to the Cauldron-Born, an encounter was all but a certainty. The only question would be how the party would deal with the dangerous situation. They had Hen Wen with them, after all - should they let the pig escape again, or split the party to continue escorting the pig home while also slowing down pursuit, or what?

    We weren't going to get the fight done in the same session, so this was a good point to stop for now. Next time we would see whether the party could short-circuit the adventure: because they had the pig in hand here, they would miss out on the whole second half of the adventure if they also managed to win the fight. (If they lost, the pig would presumably escape again and get back on track to Tylwyth Teg.) While indubitably a victory in the short term, this would mean that the heroes would miss out on the one of only two guaranteed fair folk encounters in the entire campaign; a fact that would certainly have implications later when we get into the whole army-marching phase of high fantasy epic.
  • I share that skepticism, as well. I feel miniatures combat gets way overused in typical 4E campaigns (which is understandable to a certain extent since its so good at it) and the system really shines when combat is relatively infrequent but extremely spectacular, cinematic, and over-the-top.
    Agreed. At this writing I identify two major issues with that, though:
    1) Daily power economy needs to be rethought if adventures do not routinely involve at least two fights in between long rests. The whole concept is obnoxious if there's actually only one fight per adventure.
    2) Player familiarity with the combat rules and their commitment to character building correlates directly with the regularity of combat. Every degree of reduction in combat implies a loss of player motivation in learning and using the combat rules. I find it entirely realistic for the sharper and more story-oriented players to start seeing through the facade - the pretense that we even should care about the combat stuff.
    If it was good at minis-usage, the fun-to-effort ratio wouldn't be so badly off.
    Yes. I am convinced that this miniatures part of the game could be done so much better. Who knows, maybe I'll develop something leaner and meaner myself at some point. It's very non-trivial, though, compared to many difficulties plaguing roleplaying.

    I have to say that I genuinely enjoy the painted playing pieces that one of the players produces for the NPCs - those seem worthwhile to me as an aesthetic side element of the campaign in a way that actual miniatures have rarely been for me. At this writing he's started making them for the player characters as well, having given up on ever getting around to painting actual miniatures for them [grin].
    What's your own enjoyment of the process so far, curiosity aside? Would you do it again for pure pleasure? Would you want to be a player in such a game?
    I am enjoying the game. I enjoy the creative storytelling opportunity this format offers the GM: there's world-building, various philosophical ideas getting wrangled, art of presentation to consider. It's a fun artistic exercise. I totally understand why and how being the storyteller-GM can be the most boring thing ever, but I find that choosing your topic super-seriously in a personal way helps. You have to care about the subject matter of the campaign on a level where figuring out new revelations about it is entertaining in itself, and the small things the other players do help you out in clarifying your internal vision of it. It's far from a given that a young GM could even have this kind of relationship with their material, and often we're encouraged to GM extremely generic material we don't have an emotional connection for, which is a recipe for growing bored.

    (For example, how do I care about the Chronicles of Prydain? Not only is it a book series I have nostalgia for, but I also think that it's existential themes - in the last two novels - are top-pick stuff. Furthermore, it being relentlessly vanilla as high fantasy becomes an interesting task of expression and involvement, helping me re-appreciate what makes these themes and ideas enchanting in the first place. The lack of contemporary genre glitter makes this an extremely minimalistic exercise in conveying high fantasy on its own merits. I have rediscovered Celtic folklore again in this project, for instance, coming back to it from a fresh perspective after a time.)

    I also enjoy seeing the other players engage, learn and succeed in the imagination arts. The princess player is in full control of their own capability of understanding what the GM is conveying, and of constructing their own character vision, and of engaging a relevant dialogue. It's great when the other players are excited by e.g. the way I convey the Horned King. Sure, it's all vanilla fantasy here, but it's like the theater: it's immediate in a different way from the distance of a novel or a movie when there's a living person shouting in your face. I root for the other players to improve, and try to find the words and approaches that help me connect with them.

    I can easily imagine myself enjoying this sort of thing as a character player as well, but the GM is really a meaningful quality bottleneck for a game like this. You might remember how I've occasionally been playing trad fantasy and Call of Cthulhu with another local GM here over the last few years, and his campaigns are essentially in this same bailiwick: princess play GM's story. I am entertained on occasion in those games, but it starts and stops unexpectedly, often due to procedural faults inherent to trad GMing methodology. The GM also is somewhat uneven with his material: the game is clearly the most fun when he's delving into something he actually cares about himself, while sometimes he's just phoning it in, and that shows.
  • I really like those insights into the GM's own attachment to her material and the themes therein. (Although it makes me scratch my head a little; it's been a VERY long time since I've seen someone GM a game where they weren't interested in their own material - that sounds like a very strange thing to be doing! Can't you just come up with more stuff that excites you? You're the author of the thing, after all.)

    I'd love to hear more about the "procedural faults inherent to trad GMing methodology" which cause you to stop enjoying the Call of Cthulhu campaign you're playing. (And how do you avoid these - if you do - in your Prydain game?)

    Finally, I hope you don't mind if I ask you two (Eero and Trent, that is) a question about your discussion of D&D4 combat.

    You see, you are describing the qualities of the rules and their interactions, and, it seems, in very glowing terms. It's exciting, it's full of strategic depth, and it's presumably at least somewhat rewarding.

    But then you turn around and say that it's "overused" and "best when it's infrequent".

    How do you reconcile these two things? What does that actually mean - that something is so good and yet shouldn't be "overused"?
  • I really like those insights into the GM's own attachment to her material and the themes therein. (Although it makes me scratch my head a little; it's been a VERY long time since I've seen someone GM a game where they weren't interested in their own material - that sounds like a very strange thing to be doing! Can't you just come up with more stuff that excites you? You're the author of the thing, after all.)
    It is a conundrum, isn't it? I'll note that I'm describing what I perceive and not an analytical conclusion as such. It may well be the case that when I see a GM being not that much into their stuff it's not because the material selection is wrong, but rather because the GM lacks the artistic and presentation skills to really expose their passion. Maybe the stuff they're showing really is the stuff of their heart's desire, but what does that matter if I never found out because don't know how to present it in a way that communicates the excitement?

    I'll describe a common type of traditional play experience to clarify for those who might not follow what we're talking about. By "common" I mean that I've seen several GMs over the years do the same exact thing.

    When you read the Call of Cthulhu rulebook and decide to run a game, it is rather understandable if your first attempt (or the first ten attempts - it's a very difficult game, as I've discussed elsewhere) ends up being something that I like to call the "Deep One adventure" (as in, "another one of these fucking Deep One adventures"). Those who have played CoC probably know what I mean here: the Investigators arrive at the adventure location, poke around for a bit, and then find some Deep Ones, or the Deep Ones find them. There's a firefight, and then the adventure ends. It's not always Deep Ones - I remember a couple years ago participating in a Deep One adventure with Mi-Go, for instance.

    The dominant feature that the Deep One adventure has from my perspective is that it does not possess emotional merit; at best it may be described as a GM training session. It is not scary, the investigation is just a pacing device while waiting for the monster to pop, and there's nothing actually going on in the scenario except the "there be monsters here" bit; no interesting philosophy, no detailed psychological drama, no surprising phantasmagoric imagery (except I guess if you don't know Lovecraft, I suppose), no insightful historical milieu. I only ever see a GM be emotionally engaged if they're struggling with the technical maneuvers of running the game or suffering from stage fright.

    Now, getting back to Paul's observation about how it's easy to be interested in your own material. Assuming you have a history with Call of Cthulhu, imagine yourself into the boots of that GM who decides to run a Deep Ones adventure, and perhaps you'll have an inkling of why you might end up doing it. The way I see it, the game text conspires with the GM's desire to simply run an adventure, any adventure, and the end result is that the GM lays down what amounts to a monster of the week episode. They don't want to get too personal with it because they're inexperienced as an artist and fear to commit, and because they don't have the skills to commit properly anyway, and they might not understand the importance of being authentic. That's how you end up putting together a Deep ones adventure.

    (For those well-versed with CoC, you might wish to compare the Deep One adventure with something where the GM obviously engages with their material. I recommend John Tynes's Hastur Mythos, for example. The old Dreamlands book is good, too. There are more and less authentic examples peppered through the game's published oeuvre.)
    Finally, I hope you don't mind if I ask you two (Eero and Trent, that is) a question about your discussion of D&D4 combat.

    You see, you are describing the qualities of the rules and their interactions, and, it seems, in very glowing terms. It's exciting, it's full of strategic depth, and it's presumably at least somewhat rewarding.

    But then you turn around and say that it's "overused" and "best when it's infrequent".

    How do you reconcile these two things? What does that actually mean - that something is so good and yet shouldn't be "overused"?
    I can't really answer this because after 18 sessions I don't think that the 4th edition combats are exciting, strategic or rewarding [grin]. The best I can say for the combat system is that once you remove fake complexity, it's relatively simple (although the fake scaling makes the math unnecessarily complex). I guess you could also say that it's reasonably usable, and that it's not a godawful mess. There are worse things out there.

    I am not willing to make the call at this point about whether it's possible to do better as regards a miniatures skirmish combat system for a GM railroad story game. I would be surprised if this was as good as it could go, as the game evidently suffers greatly for having to conform to what D&D is supposed to look like.

    It is, however, entirely possible that this type of game (fantasy adventure railroad) would be better served by not using miniatures skirmish combats at all. I understand that this is a topic where it's difficult to actually get anywhere, as everybody has so much experience and so many hopes entangled with it.
  • Apologies for the delay, @Eero_Tuovinen and @Paul_T , been busy with family stuff.
    1) Daily power economy needs to be rethought if adventures do not routinely involve at least two fights in between long rests. The whole concept is obnoxious if there's actually only one fight per adventure.
    Yes, but this is a pretty trivial hack. There's lots of options out there already:

    1) If one desires an "official" optional rule for decoupling player resources from the "adventuring day", one need look no further than the DMG2 (p. 55) which prohibits the PCs from gaining the benefit of an extended rest until they have reached 2 milestones (or 4 encounters). This is basically identical to 13th Age's full heal-up rule that @Adam_Dray referenced in another thread.

    2) A dead simple option is to simply change an extended rest from a day to a week. This was a very common house rule during 4E's zenith.

    3) Another common house rule was to change "per day" to "per level", so PCs wouldn't refresh their "daily" resources until they gained another character level. If one is upfront about how skill challenges, player-authored quests, and roleplaying vignettes (DMG2) feed into the game's XP reward cycles this can be a major incentive for more player-directed, story-focused play. Otherwise, I'd just half the amount of XP needed to level up (which was done in WotC's Gamma World hack of 4E).

    4) A more experimental house rule I've seen (but never experienced firsthand) was to roll PCs' daily power resources into the action point subsystem. PCs can use an action point to take an extra action OR use a daily power. The first time you're bloodied in an encounter, your action point usage in the encounter refreshes. Basically, this rule changes "daily" powers into "action point" powers.

    5) A house rule I used in my own 4E games years ago is to leverage 4E's milestones to trigger "medium rests". At each milestone, the PCs regain 1d4 healing surges and can make a saving throw for each expended daily power (a success refreshes that power). I combined this with Option 2 above (extended rest = 1 week) to great effect in my games.
    2) Player familiarity with the combat rules and their commitment to character building correlates directly with the regularity of combat. Every degree of reduction in combat implies a loss of player motivation in learning and using the combat rules. I find it entirely realistic for the sharper and more story-oriented players to start seeing through the facade - the pretense that we even should care about the combat stuff.
    If that's something that's communicated upfront to everyone at the start of the campaign, I fail to see how it's a problem. I've run both combat heavy and combat light 4E campaigns. 4E's encounter system (including both combat and skill challenges) as well as its XP reward cycle are both robust and diverse enough to accommodate different play agendas.

    Honestly, if one desired he or she could run every encounter in 4E as a skill challenge. There are guidelines in the DMG2 for utilizing action points and combat powers in skill challenges so these PC build resources do not become invalidated.
    Yes. I am convinced that this miniatures part of the game could be done so much better. Who knows, maybe I'll develop something leaner and meaner myself at some point. It's very non-trivial, though, compared to many difficulties plaguing roleplaying.
    What do you perceive to be the major shortcomings of 4E's combat system? I have been working on my own hack to 4E so there may be some overlap here.

    ~ Trent
  • Finally, I hope you don't mind if I ask you two (Eero and Trent, that is) a question about your discussion of D&D4 combat.

    You see, you are describing the qualities of the rules and their interactions, and, it seems, in very glowing terms. It's exciting, it's full of strategic depth, and it's presumably at least somewhat rewarding.
    I can only speak from my own experiences, Paul. I have run or played games of 3E, 3.5E, 4E, 5E, Gamma World,13th Age, Dragon Age, Spirit of the Century, Dresden Files RPG, Apocalypse World, Blades in the Dark, Otherkind, and a few other games. Of these, 4E by far had the most dynamic and engaging combat system for me.

    However, I don't have any real experience with wargames or the like so coming more from that perspective, I really don't have a point of comparison.

    Now, as to the "rewarding" part, I think its important to point out I don't feel 4E does Step On Up play very well at all. The "reward" of 4E combat isn't really to challenge the players as with more conventional iterations of D&D but more as a platform for PC characterization and producing compelling action scenes (I think Eero earlier referenced these as "action choreography" which isn't a bad way of phrasing it).

    As to what I personally find compelling about 4E combat:
    * Relative parity of PC build options, so each player can contribute meaningfully in each encounter. This isn't really all that innovative outside of D&D (where symmetric player resources is the norm not the exception), but in D&D style games its pretty damn unique.
    * Meaningful choices for players to make each round, as mediated through the at-will/encounter/daily power and action point resources suites. One thing that definitely turned me off from combat in FATE games was the feeling that I was just doing the same 2 or 3 things over and over.
    * The "heroic comeback" narrative built into the game's PC and monster design. Monsters have more hp than PCs and powerful 1-shot abilities that will give them an initial advantage, but the PCs through use of healing surges and limited resource options will usually mount a counteroffensive that lets them overcome.
    * Means of overcoming combat other than simple hit point ablation. Traditionally, this has been restricted to spellcasters in D&D through save-or-suck type abilities but in 4E this is distributed among all character types through inflicting conditions and effects as well as the use of in-combat skill challenges to affect combat outcomes.
    * A very deliberate design toward using combat powers to produce "story" within the encounter. A great example is the Paladin whose lay on hands power uses his or her own healing surges to help others ("I give of myself...") and valiant strike power gives the PC greater effect the more enemies he or she is engaged with (so the Paladin is actually mechanically rewarded for facing overwhelming numbers). There are tons of examples of this in 4E that emerge organically through play and aren't necessarily evident from a casual read-through.
    But then you turn around and say that it's "overused" and "best when it's infrequent".

    How do you reconcile these two things? What does that actually mean - that something is so good and yet shouldn't be "overused"?
    By this, I mean that 4E is best utilized when you don't have combat for the sake of combat --- whether its Step on Up challenge-oriented play or random encounters that serve no purpose other than to drain PC resources. 4E is poorly suited to these sorts of play.

    A lot of official 4E adventure design had problems with this, inheriting adventure design principles used in 3E. The best example of this is Mike Mearls' Keep on the Shadowfell, probably one of the worst written 4E official adventures, which featured fight after fight after fight of the "5 goblins in a room" variety. That may have worked okay in 3E buts its terrible adventure design in 4E and is totally contrary to its design principles.

    Combat in 4E should have fictional stakes other than "not get killed by the monsters". Otherwise it should be run as a Complexity 1 skill challenge, in my opinion.

    ~ Trent
  • Trent,

    That is a fantastic overview. Thank you very much! Looks like I may need to actually play this game sometime. Your list and suggestions look a solid guide to consistently fun play.

    I hadn't realized that it was possible to handle combat as Skill Challenges, which is additionally interesting. Hmmm!

    One question:

    How does "not really suited to challenge the players" interact with "combat should have fictional stakes"? You seem to be implying that combat is exciting tactically but generally always a win for the players (if I'm reading you right).

    Doesn't that devalue the fictional stakes somewhat - if you almost always or always win?
  • Hi @Paul_T ,

    Yes you can totally run a combat scenario as a skill challenge. If you're familiar with the countdown clocks and progress clocks in Blades in the Dark, it could play out very similar to that. As I mentioned to @Eero_Tuovinen there are guidelines in the DMG2 for using PC build resources like powers and action points so they still matter in a skill challenge.

    As an example of what I'm talking about, lets say the characters want an audience with the Elf Queen but they have to earn the right to do so by besting her champion in combat. Here's how I'd play that out as a skill challenge:

    - Level 5 Skill Challenge, Complexity 3
    - Primary Skills (DC 14): Acrobatics, Athletics, Arcana, Nature, Religion, or Other. The characters can use their physical abilities or skill with magic to overcome the Champion. He is a skilled and canny adversary however, and once a skill has been successful against him it cannot be used again in this challenge. A success counts as a success toward the challenge. If a character beats the DC by 5 or more, it counts as 2 successes.
    - Secondary Skills (DC 19): Bluff, Diplomacy, History, Intimidate, Stealth or Other. The characters can use their abilities to distract, outmaneuver, or outwit the Champion. A success either grants a +2 bonus to a Primary Skill check or "unlocks" an additional use of a Primary Skill check in the encounter.
    - Success: After 6 successes, the Champion has been bested and the Elf Queen agrees to the audience.
    - Failure: On any failed check, the Champion retaliates and can choose to deals 13 physical damage with his fey scimitar to that character OR increase the DCs by 1 for the rest of the encounter.
    - Special: At the end of each round, the Champion summons his arcane powers and automatically deals 6 force damage to every character in the challenge.
    - Special: Whenever a character takes damage in the challenge, another nearby character can choose to make a DC 19 Endurance check to take the damage for them.

    That's just a guideline, of course, and in actual play I tend to be more flexible and organic with which skills are allowed and how the player's approach can influence the DC of the action.
  • One more thing...
    One question:

    How does "not really suited to challenge the players" interact with "combat should have fictional stakes"? You seem to be implying that combat is exciting tactically but generally always a win for the players (if I'm reading you right).

    Doesn't that devalue the fictional stakes somewhat - if you almost always or always win?
    I think I should clarify my previous statement here, @Paul_T , in that 4E has relatively little in the way of long-term strategic deployment of resources which is more of a stronger emphasis in other iterations of D&D. This is actually a major strength of 4E if you embrace its design ethos, in that it supports as little as 1 and as many as 12 encounters per day without the game breaking or the balance of the various player characters falling apart. Compare this to the current edition D&D, which is pretty delicately balanced on the 6-8 encounter paradigm (with 2 short rests in between), and that fragile balance between PC loadout options tends to fall apart without some serious hacking and/or house ruling.

    Given that, any major challenge the players face in 4E will be within the microcosm of the encounter itself rather than the macrocosm of the "adventuring day". This is by design as the game is pretty strongly tilted toward hard scene-framing and zooming in and out as suits the group's agenda.

    So, yes, by the numbers and in a straightforward contest of hit point ablation the players should almost always win if the only thing at stake is beating up the guys on the other team. I would argue, however, that is a pretty terrible way of playing 4E and pretty contrary to the advice in both of its DMGs (of course, that didn't stop people from running it that way or from WotC employees who didn't grok the system writing terrible adventures for it). Something should be at stake other than depleting all the monsters' hit points, however, and the DMG2 discusses encounter objectives at some length in regards to this.

    I'm not sure if I'm communicating my point here effectively. I can discuss this at more length if you'd like but its time for lunch. :)
  • Thanks, Trent!

    Regarding the combat as skill challenge, you've basically designed a small combat mini-system for the encounter. But I see your point: once you're familiar with the game, it's not too hard to do.

    However, that's the easy part, isn't it?

    What do you do with all the combat abilities and powers - I mean even your AC doesn't affect the Challenge in any way, which could be frustrating for some players.

    Is there a way to account for these in these combat Skill Challenges? That sounds tricky, but you've hinted that there are optional rules for this somewhere.

    On the subject of combat with interesting failure stakes, you're making perfect sense to me!

    Let me see if I got that right:

    The PCs tend to be able to win just about any fight, so you should make sure to include stakes in any fight which can be lost without losing the entire fight. (That is, before the PCs are taken down and by killed.)

    For instance:

    * Can you protect this object, position, or NPC from being targeted or damaged by the enemy?

    * Can you keep so and so from escaping?

    * Can you disrupt the ritual before it is completed (in 4 rounds)?

    If that's the model for good D&D4 combats, I can imagine that setting up the setpiece battles would take a lot of work, but the payoff is that it sounds like it would make for an exciting and dynamic game.

    Is that what you're talking about?

  • Thanks, Trent!

    Regarding the combat as skill challenge, you've basically designed a small combat mini-system for the encounter. But I see your point: once you're familiar with the game, it's not too hard to do.

    However, that's the easy part, isn't it?

    What do you do with all the combat abilities and powers - I mean even your AC doesn't affect the Challenge in any way, which could be frustrating for some players.

    Is there a way to account for these in these combat Skill Challenges? That sounds tricky, but you've hinted that there are optional rules for this somewhere.
    You're quite welcome, @Paul_T !

    So, in regards to how the various crunchy combat stuff --- feats, powers, armor and arms, defenses, action points, etc --- can factor in skill challenges, the DMG2 and other sources give us a few ideas and suggestions:
    - Grant a re-roll to a check you just made (action points).
    - Grant a bonus (usually a +2) to the next roll you or an ally make (encounter powers).
    - Grant an automatic free success to the challenge in addition to whatever else you might get from the skill check (daily powers and rituals).
    - Grants you another use of a skill or approach that has been previously "locked out" of the challenge.
    - Removes a failure from the challenge.

    My personal preference, though, is to treat them the way I would tags in Apocalypse World and use them to guide the fictional consequences of both successes and failures. So, for example, I might give the option of a Fighter wearing scale armor to "crack" his armor to avoid taking any damage from a failed check (which he would have to repair afterwards) or something to that effect (I probably wouldn't give that same option to a PC in light armor).

    As always, though, one should begin and end with the fiction.
    On the subject of combat with interesting failure stakes, you're making perfect sense to me!

    Let me see if I got that right:

    The PCs tend to be able to win just about any fight, so you should make sure to include stakes in any fight which can be lost without losing the entire fight. (That is, before the PCs are taken down and by killed.)

    For instance:

    * Can you protect this object, position, or NPC from being targeted or damaged by the enemy?

    * Can you keep so and so from escaping?

    * Can you disrupt the ritual before it is completed (in 4 rounds)?

    If that's the model for good D&D4 combats, I can imagine that setting up the setpiece battles would take a lot of work, but the payoff is that it sounds like it would make for an exciting and dynamic game.

    Is that what you're talking about?
    Yes, something to that effect. There is an actual list of sample encounter objectives in the DMG2, including:
    - Protect a person or object
    - Make peace
    - Sneak in
    - Stop a ritual
    - Retrieve an object

    As to setting up these encounters entailing a lot of work, it depends. 4E has a lot of rules architecture for supporting DMs here, including skill challenges, terrain powers, traps/hazards-as-monsters, an actually functional encounter building matrix based on XP budgets, MM3-on-a-business-card for setting up improvised combat antagonists on the fly, and so on. I've found it relatively easy to prep, especially for someone inexperienced at creating content whole cloth without any kind of mechanical support.
  • That makes a lot of sense, Trent.

    I see some potential for miscommunication and disappointment if a player's effectiveness in a combat "Challenge" is all up to GM judgement (e.g. "does my Flame Strike give me a free success, or allow me to reroll, or a +2?"), but that's not a deal-breaker for every group, I suppose.
  • Hi @Paul_T , for skill challenges I absolutely recommend being up front about the scope and consequences of an action before the dice ever hit the table. I also think it bears pointing out that the consequence of a failed skill challenge should move the story forward (and, as per Rules Compendium updates, award the PCs full XP even if they fail the challenge) whereas the consequence of a failed combat encounter in D&D is often a TPK.
  • Interesting! That's an important detail.
  • edited December 2018
    My being slower at documenting the campaign than playing it continues; we'll be playing session #24 after the Christmas break. Bad GM!

    Session #6: Fight for the Pig

    The sixth session started immediately with the fight that had been set up in the last session: the heroes had tracked the white pig Hen Wen through the wilderness and managed to capture it, but the army of the Horned King was immediately on the opposite bank of the river Avren, and a chance (fated, actually) encounter with Gwythaints, the slave birds of Annuvin, meant that the enemy would not be far behind.

    All the regulars were again with us here, meaning that this was our party:

    Deithwen Morgan, a brave yet somewhat alienated Son of Don Fighter
    Francis the Missionary, a Frankish Christian Cleric
    Eluned the Enchantress, a deceptive and mysterious Llyrian Wizard
    Harald the Viking, a faithful yet silent companion

    The heroes were also accompanied by Taran the swineherd, prince Gwydion of Don, and the titular white pig Hen Wen. I think that prince Rhûn was also around, although as occasionally happens with these NPCs, his presence didn't matter much. The party was keenly aware of the plot goals in the situation: the white pig needed to be brought back to Caer Dalben where Dalben could protect it, and use it to divine the True Name of the Horned King, the warlord of the rebellious southern lords.

    What the heroes did not know, however, was that they were not being hunted by mere rebels. No, the combat encounter they were forced to engage was to be with the undead Cauldron-Born warriors kept in thrall by the necromancies of Arawn Deathlord. Largely believed to be in torpor, this was the first concrete sign the campaign had of the Deathlord being active in Prydain one more.

    Half of the players knew the score here from reading the books anyway, and openness never made railroading more difficult, so I was rather open with the players about the the basic concept of this fight: it was nominally a 4th level encounter (in a 3rd level adventure), except that Fate (as forewarned by the horn of Gwyn the Hunter in the last session) bestowed it with +1 level and the Gwythaints leading the enemy to the heroes bestowed it with another +1, which meant that I would be populating the enemy board for a 6th level encounter. Considering that the heroes were at 2nd level at this time, it was going to be a difficult fight that they weren't even intended to win, story-wise.

    The situation was further worsened by the novel-famous unkillability of the Cauldron-Born: the players didn't know how this would be mechanized precisely, but they knew that only Radiant damage (something very rare in Prydain) would actually put downa Cauldron-Born permanently. Otherwise the only way to decisively triumph against them would be to force them to stay away from Annuvin for an extended period of time so as to make them go into torpor for lack of the proper death magic ambience.

    Not being able to win in the conventional sense did not mean that nothing could be done, of course: the heroes discussed the situation and concluded that their duty required them to delay the Cauldron-Born as best as they could while Taran the swine-herd and Francis the Missionary took the white pig back to Caer Dalben.

    The actual combat set-up was rather routine by now; I had the other players draw up a sample of forest milieu on the battle-map, complete with obstacles, some elevation differences and so on, while I myself calculated the enemy force composition. Aside from a large number of basic Cauldron-Born (Soldier 3) I also fielded a Cauldron Abomination (level 4 Brute) and a Cauldron Revenant (level 5 Leader Controller) for some variety to the zombie horde.

    Those variant Cauldron-Born are a good example of how the original novel material intersects with the D&D systematics, by the way. In the source material Cauldron-Born are represented in a rather undifferentiated horde, but 4th edition D&D obviously benefits from having a given monster theme represented by a few different critters. I think I did pretty well in expanding the concept a bit with the Abomination and Revenant subtypes - they worked well as part of the overall narrative of what the Black Cauldon and the Cauldron-Born even are.

    The base dramatic goals of the fight were two-fold: firstly, I might be able to seize the white pig from the heroes, in which case the adventure could get back on track with the pig showing up later in fairyland. Secondly, the Cauldron-Born should be able to hold the field given their entirely unfair regenerative qualities, which meant that I might be able to take some or all of the heroes captive. This would be desirable, as it's what happens in the novel, and managing that provides a natural entry to the side quest Escape from the Spiral Castle.

    In hindsight I'd say that while having the white pig in the fight is an interesting addition (that only occurs in the adventure flowchart if the pig is reached before this fight occurs), I could probably have tried more to make its presence a tense dramatic problem. The heroes admittedly did a good job about keeping the pig under control, leveraging Taran's pre-existing working relationship with the swine, so I never had an actual fair opportunity to have the pig run off in the wrong direction or whatever. Evacuating it from the battlefield was rather routine, in other words. I'm going to add some notes to this encounter about fielding some of the Gwythaints as well if the pig is present, just so as to have something with superior mobility harassing the evacuation.

    The other goal worked pretty well, though: the heroes committed their front-line to delay the Cauldron-Born and were forced to fight quite hard given the superior numbers and robust strength of the monstrous enemy. Francis the Missionary made a point of delaying his own exit from the field enough to lay down his Turn Undead, which did much to put the enemy into disarray and enable the rest of the party to keep them at bay for the half a dozen turns we arbitrarily agreed Taran to require to firmly get away from the danger.

    I'll make note of one of the fundamental weaknesses of this type of miniatures skirmish combat game chassis here: large combats with many participants are very quick to grow exhausting, with imminent danger of being boring, even if you do everything correctly. This is a well-known feature of 4th edition D&D, of course, and I do my best to avert it in various ways, but here it was pretty unavoidable considering the concept of the fight that it would be an exhausting grind: the game simply doesn't offer any other way to determine whether PCs lose and get captured in a fight they are not quite strong enough to outright win. It was a whole session of dice rolling minutiae, when all's said and done.
  • edited December 2018
    While the players in the campaign are generally very good about following the lore and engaging the roleplaying scenes, they are merely mediocre tactically, with the occasional flash of fiction-based competence (that may or may not pay off when it comes to the actual combat rules). This showed well in how Harald the Viking went down early in the fight; the party has this habit of sending their melee Strikers running around on their own while the Defenders stick to the Controllers and Leaders, and this often means that Harald goes down against a focused assault on round two or three of the fight, leaving the others to finish it on their own. This fight was one of the big early examples of how that habit works for the party - not very well.

    (Knowing that the players read this log occasionally, a direct note to you: the only reason I feel comfortable criticizing your tactical play is that I've had to think far too much about how the 4th edition D&D combat system even works, just so I could run this thing. Being the GM seems to give a better overall sense of combat flow in general; I can only imagine that the things that seem obvious to me are far less so when you're actually only in control of your own actions, and have to constantly juggle the stupid power selection minigame on top of deciding where your character moves on the battlemat. I would probably make the same sorts of tactical plunders you do if I was in your shoes.)

    Meanwhile Eluned the Enchantress followed her already characteristic play of conservative positioning, using the Wizard's range (typically 10 squares on most moves) fully to stay out of trouble while clearly constantly flirting with the notion of leaving her companions to their fates. She has been entirely consistent throughout in inspiring no confidence whatsoever in her loyalty.

    In terms of visceral action the fight ended up being a two-man show for the two Sons of Don: both Defenders, and together perfectly capable of being drowned in a zombie horde and fighting on for a long while nevertheless.

    The fight took several hours to resolve in all, but at the end we got the decisive results we needed: the back row of Francis, Eluned and Taran escaped while Harald, Deithwen and Gwydion were captured by the Cauldron-Born. To the surprise of the heroes (if not the players) the Cauldron-Born did not cruelly slay their foemen, but rather tied them securely and forced them on horses (which Cauldron-Born apparently can use with no trouble) so as to take them quickly to directions unknown.

    Meanwhile the escapees returned to Caer Dalben and learned therein that the household was assaulted by the Horned King yesterday (an event that the heroes had witnessed from the distance), but that Dalben had forced the demonic warlord away with his superior magics; while Dalben is probably not an epic-level combatant (I haven't even given him a statblock due to his non-combat role), he clearly reigns supreme in his own home to such an extent that he can solo a paragon-level encounter like that off-screen.

    At this point the Book of Three adventure was essentially concluded; single-mindedness and dice luck had enabled the party to essentially skip the second half of the adventure, the part where they would've discovered Elfland. Not doing this second half obviously has massive alternate history possibilities on an already tortured story, as the fair folk of Tylwyth Teg perform precisely the sort of tie-breaker role you'd expect of them in the Chronicles; a Prydain that has never rekindled its relationship to the elves may find certain future challenges darker and more difficult.

    The next challenge was also clearly determined here: half of the party had been taken by the Cauldron-Born, and Dalben obviously encouraged Francis and Eluned in their instinct to follow the trail as best as they could to save their companions (and the crown prince of the realm, of course). As I've discussed before, Dalben the NPC has some pretty unique insights into future knowledge (namely, he's read what amounts to the Chronicles of Prydain in advance), and while much of this lore has already lost its currency, he's not dumb: Dalben was perfectly capable of recognizing the storyline from the Book of Three, and how it was imperative for Taran (or, perhaps, these new heroes) to get to the Spiral Castle to fulfill his destiny. He really should've been the one captured alongside Gwydion, but perhaps things could still work out here.

    We broke the session at this point; might have been a bit early, but that fight really was like two normal fights in length, and the new adventure would feature new concerns, so we didn't exactly like tackling that right then.
  • edited December 2018
    Interesting business, as usual.

    How do you plan to handle the "split party" in this instance? Will there be a rescue effort, combining the action, or two separate storylines?

    Is this kind of thing negotiated explicitly, or do the players simply play their characters and we see what happens?
  • edited January 2019
    How do you plan to handle the "split party" in this instance? Will there be a rescue effort, combining the action, or two separate storylines?

    Is this kind of thing negotiated explicitly, or do the players simply play their characters and we see what happens?
    Let's just say that the campaign has since then become a masterclass exploration of this very topic, and it's going swimmingly. I'll just continue doing these write-ups (hopefully with a better pace at some point, or this campaign log is going to take the entire 2019 to finish), and you'll get to see some rather ambitious variations on party splitting as we go along.

    Everything is negotiated openly, but the framing tools are, as we'll come to see, so powerful that the very most that the players have to compromise on their character motivations seems to be delaying their stuff now and then.

    Omake: The Campaign Flowchart

    In an effort to motivate myself to write down my campaign notes before I forget them (I'm 20 sessions behind by now), I'll try if translating some of my campaign prep notes might inspire me.

    imageFirst, here's the Master Chart for the campaign, showing the available adventures - how the original five novels break down into these mini-adventure arcs that I prioritize in structuring the campaign. Each adventure has an assigned level that determines the mechanical challenge difficulties in it in a top-down fashion, basically as per the 4th edition rules (excepting that the rules assume me to level to the party level instead of an arbitrary number, of course - I can't quite do that without puking, makes the number circus too arbitrary for me).

    (I published an earlier version of this a year ago, in the earlier thread. I've since expanded it a bit and made the adventure unlocking process more visually explicit.)

    The chart consists of 13 adventures, 11 of which are based on the five Prydain novels - two adventures from each novel, mostly, excepting "The Book of Three" which turned into three separate affairs when deconstructed into adventures. Two of the adventures are original work based on ideas implied on passing in the novels.

    It is theoretically possible for the players to "reveal" new adventures that are not on the chart, and it is theoretically possible for them to miss out on some adventure by producing a state of the fictional campaign story that implies either situation. This is, however, a purely optional and emergent possibility, not prepped in advance of the campaign in any way.

    At this writing we've played seven of these adventures, with four more that are probably going to happen, two that will probably be skipped altogether, and one extracurricular adventure that may or may not happen, but that I should probably prep for at some point. The High King event was triggered in session #26, so things are clearly coming to an end.

    In case it's not clear, this chart has been on the table constantly throughout, and the players have the opportunity to use it in planning the overall direction they take through the campaign.
  • It's really nice to see that laid out like that, Eero.

    How do King of Stones and Escape from the Spiral Castle come about, and why aren't those linked more clearly to other nodes on the map? Is it just a quirk of the layout, or is it for some desired flexibility in terms of when those are "triggered"? Are they up to the players, or up to you?

    The adventures all seem surprisingly "high-level" (presuming that characters start at level 1). Is it because it's quite possible to have 2nd level characters overcome a 4th-level adventure in 4th Edition, or some other reason? (I'm assuming that characters depart from the Council as 2nd level characters, from the chart - but perhaps that's not how it works!)
  • Characters depart the Council at the start at 1st level (you don't get a level for the special campaign events), so they're initially going to be under-leveled for the adventures. The numbers are basically the best compromise I could get with 4th edition balancing, given the premise that the adventures will be "unlocked" as we go along, with the players being largely free to tackle any available adventures in the order they feel like. Having the lowest-level adventure start at 3rd level helps the adventures remain in a relevant level range longer - if I had optional 1st level adventures, the players would have to do them pretty early anyway, or end up doing them when their characters have grown too strong for them. A few levels this or that way isn't critical for 4th edition - a 1st level party has a fair chance to make through a 4th level adventure, for instance, especially with how short these adventures are. It all basically boils down to mechanical theater, really.

    "King of Stones" (middle part of the "Castle of Llyr" novel) and "Hand of Morda" (middle part of the "Taran Wanderer" novel) are both "random encounter adventures"; their adventure hooks basically involve the heroes traveling on some other business while they stumble upon the adventures in question. In this campaign paradigm they're basically GM pitch hitter content: the GM can throw either in whenever he feels that the currently on-going adventure could use a detour in the middle of it.

    "Escape from the Spiral Castle" (middle part of the "Book of Three" novel) is an elaborate defeat bridge: it is triggered when the heroes lose a combat encounter to appropriate enemies who then take them captive and take them to the Spiral Castle. Like the random encounter adventures it is supposed to occur in the middle of some other adventure, except instead of being stumbled upon it starts by losing a fight in the on-going adventure.

    As we'll see in my next session report, the way Spiral Castle happened in our campaign was relatively close to the original novels: while doing "Book of Three" the heroes had a part of their party captured by enemy cauldron-born. Half of the party went on to finish the "Book of Three", and then immediately turned around to involve themselves in the "Escape from the Spiral Castle". I'll presumably write about how that went before the polar ice melts.

    I had initial content-control hickups with the "King of Stones" in session #3 of the campaign, which I described earlier: I initiated the adventure hook, but the players ignored it in an ambiguously passive-aggressive way, which sort of left the adventure lying around without a good reason for the heroes to engage with it. (A big part of this is the stupid nature of the adventure hook, but it's canonical stupidity from the books, so I make do.) We would come to fix that later in the campaign, all the way in session #19, which I'll perhaps manage to describe one of these days.
  • I see! Thank you, excellent.
  • All right, time to try this again. I should develop a more compact session log format, that might make it more practical to actually get these campaign notes written down.

    That being said, where was I...

    Session #7: Escape from the Spiral Castle

    Last session had ended with a large battle where the brave champion Deithwen chose to follow prince Gwydion (an important NPC) into captivity; the two were covering the retreat and escape of the prophetic white pig Henwen from what appeared disturbingly well-coordinated forces of none other than the dread kingdom of the dead, Annuwin.

    The players participating this time were the regular team, except the player of Harald the Viking wasn't with us. To recap:

    Deithwen Morgan, a brave yet somewhat alienated Son of Don Fighter
    Francis the Missionary, a Frankish Christian Cleric
    Eluned the Enchantress, a deceptive and mysterious Llyrian Wizard

    This was the first time we had a regular player miss a session, but as Harald wasn't immediately entangled with the plot, it wasn't such a big deal: he had fallen in the last session's battle, so he naturally was captured alongside Deithwen and Gwydion, as the enemy ended up controlling the battlefield at the end. It just happened to be the case that Harald had no impact on the events of the session, even if he technically speaking was present.

    The day's agenda was of course shaped by the involuntary party split: while Deithwen Morgan was taken in chains and forcibly transported to the dread Spiral Castle, the location of a sort of bonus adventure in the campaign, the other two player characters, Francis and Eluned, went on to finish the adventure of the white pig. Naturally they wasted no time (as in, no long rest in the D&D sense) continuing on to find out where Deithwen and Gwydion had been taken; they had high hopes, bolstered by explicit meta knowledge, that they could well be able to save their boon companions from the evil clutches of, well, evil.

    Escape from Spiral Castle was one of the explicit adventures in my campaign framework. It's based on the middle part of the first novel in the Chronicles of Prydain. Several important elements of the overall campaign plot are introduced in the adventure, which makes it interesting how causally separate it is: the heroes never quite choose to go to the Spiral Castle, at least in the novel or our play-through; it's just this place where the forces of Annuvin apparently choose to bring prisoners.

    The fictional background of the matter is that the lord of Annuvin, Arawn Deathlord, has an important second in command in Queen Achren, the once-great sorceress who created Annuvin and was its first ruler before Arawn. The two used to be lovers before Arawn couped the axis of evil, so they have sort of an ambivalent relationship. Regardless of what's going on there, though, the current situation is that Achren has braved the famous curse of the Spiral Castle and set up shop there as a sort of Annuvinian outpost in southern Prydain. Her mighty magics evidently keep the castle's curse in check, considering the antiquity of the great pile of stone and its heretofore uninhabited status.

    (The Spiral Castle is one of the "Three Great Castles of Prydain" as I explained to the players during the session; generally the local architecture isn't ludicrously magical in the Minas Tirith sense, but the Spiral Castle, the royal palace at Caer Dathyl and the nowadays sunken Caer Colur do make a striking exception. The castle has its origins as the ruling seat of Prydain's first royal house, the indigenous house of Rhydderch Hael; its currently debilitated state is due to the dramatic fall of the last king of the line, king Rhitta son of Rhych.)

    Setting trivia I made up myself: the Spiral Castle's architecture resembles a great spiral, which also happens to be the most prominent and recognizable holy symbol of Pridonite druidism, being as how the spiral represents the wind of life, the naturally occurring form that soul stuff takes during the soul migration and reincarnation.

    So Queen Achren hangs out at this abandoned castle when she's not out on the isle of Mona plotting her own treacherous power play, of which we learned some stuff earlier in the Castle of Llyr adventure. The structure of the Spiral Castle adventure the way I designed it is pretty simple because the adventure is essentially simple: it's mainly a dungeon crawl (in the highly subsumed 4e sense) with a few narrative highlights. To wit, here's the structural prep:

    Escape from the Spiral Castle (Adventure level 3)
    The heroes are taken as prisoners to the Spiral Castle, wherein they meet with Queen Achren. She'll likely throw the lot into her dungeons after they refuse her advances, or keep them as guests if they prove amiable.
    Diplomacy with the Queen (skill challenge level 7, length 6)
    Characters taking a more real-politics tack have the chance to talk things out with Achren. The relatively high difficulty represents the way cultural expectations stack against this solution. Achren's theoretically willing to flip allegiances against the Deathlord, but only on her own terms: her allies need to acknowledge her status as the former High Queen of Prydain, and accept her designs for reinstituting the sea-kingdom of Llyr as a power base independent of Annuvin. Success short-circuits the adventure.
    Fighting the Queen (combat encounter level 7, cauldron-born and cultists)
    The fight is likely to occur in the main hall of the Spiral Castle, where Achren can use the ancient magics to confuse and confound her foes. Players insisting on it could trigger this as the first scene, but then they're going into it unarmed and bound in chains - not good odds for a fight that's drastically over-level to begin with. Achren herself is an 8th level elite controller. Success short-circuits the adventure.
    Escaping the Castle (skill challenge level 3, length 12)
    The default adventure spine: the heroes are sent into the dungeons of the castle where they have the opportunity to try for an escape. Princess Eilonwy can help them out at first, they'll probably want to find their stashed equipment, and decide where they're going to escape - could climb high or delve under the castle, etc. Various minor encounters are triggered as the skill challenge progresses.
    King Rhitta (skill challenge level 4, length 4)
    Heroes unwilling to face the Queen in battle will ultimately crawl their way into the deep dungeons, discovering the cursed tomb of the last Pridonite High King. Characters may attempt sneaking and magicking their way through the place without awakening the cursed king and his loyal dead-knights. An exit from the dungeons outside the castle lies beyond the royal tomb. Even a single failure in the skill challenge activates the combat encounter, which transforms the sneaking challenge into a diplomatic one.
    Fighting Rhitta (combat encounter 7, dead-knights and ghosts)
    A general fight is a losing proposition, so what the wise party does is continuing the skill challenge on the side while letting one or more of the heroes fight duels with dead-knights. King Rhitta only fights himself if the battle turns into a general melee. Winning a duel grants an extra success for the skill challenge.

    As can be seen from the outline, the adventure basically consists of a single long skill challenge into which other potential scenes attach: the skill challenge represents heroes wandering the various areas of the castle. It is relatively straightforward for the players to "opt out" of the skill challenge once they find their way into the throne room to fight Queen Achren, if that's how they want to deal with this, but otherwise they'll be forced to delve deep to find the secret way out. Confronting either the Queen or the cursed king down below is required to escape the twisted place.
  • So anyway, that was the material I prepared. The actual execution had this interesting detail where one part of the PC party started the adventure in captivity, as presumed in the prep (and the original novel), while the others were free and looking to free their fellow. This ended up with a pretty funky adaptation.

    I started the adventure by running two scenes side by side: on the one side were Deithwen Morgan and prince Gwydion who met Achren in her hall for a bit of impromptu and technically freeform diplomacy; I needed to find out how Deithwen took his captivity and what he tought of Achren, to determine what Achren would do with him. In the meantime, the rest of the party did a bit of a travel/tracking skill challenge: they discovered the trail of the cauldron-born and their captives, verified that they'd joined the army of southern rebellion that'd been spotted in the area during the last adventure, and then marched with them along the river Ystrad for a ways before leaving them to travel to the Spiral Castle.

    The skill challenge worked the way they do - well, that is to say, granting me nice opportunities to flesh out the setting in minor ways and keeping players engaged in providing their input on what their characters do to advance their cause.

    Meanwhile Deithwen... he was rather rude to Queen Achren, I thought. Might have been because prince Gwydion warned him about the queen's viles in advance (that's what he does to Taran in the novel, so the same here) and Deithwen wanted to prove himself to Gwydion, or otherwise it was just his fundamentally straightforward (a post-modern man would say fascist) world-view. Whatever the cause, Deithwen was not only unwilling to entertain the friendship of the evil queen, but he was also, just like Gwydion, very clear about it to her face. So yeah, easy decision to lock them up to think a bit on their position.

    With the opening scene out of the way, I continued the parallel two-party strategy by having all the heroes join in the escape skill challenge: Deithwen and the others were in different locations, some trying to break into the castle while others were trying to break out, but such minor details don't actually prevent counting all successes into a single skill challenge. The 4e skill challenge is an extremely abstract thing, it's only real significance being as a clock that tells us when to stop riffing and let the goal be accomplished.

    On Deithwen's part the skill challenge begun by him being locked up alone, with Gwydion (so he thought) being put in the cell next to him. This is the set-up from the novel, so Deithwen's fate followed those rails: he has a weird chance encounter with princess Eilonwy, the young ward of queen Achren, who is apparently exploring the castle dungeons for amusement's sake when she notices the brave knight Deithwen locked up in there. Eilonwy ends up freeing Deithwen on a rash whim, due to feeling sorry for him, and decides to follow him along as he tries to escape the castle; running away from "horrible aunt Achren" has been something that the perky teen girl has been mulling over for a while, so here's a chance to act on that for real.

    The outer party, meanwhile, has arrived at the Spiral Castle and are figuring out how to sneak inside, find their friends and whatever else. An early failure in a nature check attracts the attentions of the rather sparse castle garrison, seguing into a minor combat scene with some hunting dogs and soldiers Achren has on hand.

    The clever bit is that instead of starting the slow 4e combat process immediately I instead divided the battlemap in two halves and let that half of the party do their set-up there while we figured out what happened with Deithwen. Ideally he'd find a combat for himself as well so we could execute the two combats in parallel.

    My hopes in this regard were fulfilled: after princess Eilonwy released Deithwen from his prison cell, he decided to go look for his equipment first. Eilonwy had told Deithwen that she had already "released the two other prisoners", which Deithwen ironically assumed to have been Harald the Viking and prince Gwydion. (The player knew from reading the novel that this was a tragic misunderstanding, but he played along because doing otherwise wouldn't be that interesting.) So Deithwen assuming he was the last one left had to only worry about his own survival.

    Deithwen isn't much of a sneaker, so a failure on his part to retrieve his weapons alerted a minor guardpost in the dungeons. His equipment was stashed inside, so he'd have to triumph unarmed to get anywhere here.
  • We prosecuted the two unrelated minor combats side by side with combined initiative scores. No difficulty in that regard, an easy technique to recommend for similar campaigns. (I got the idea from the flashpoint technique in Spione, of course.) This way everybody has something to do despite the party being split for the time being.

    The actual fight wasn't much to write home about, in large part because of fundamental tactical incohesion among the rescue party: while Francis the Missionary set bravely to face the enemy with the handful of NPC support cast the party had with them (Taran the swineherd and prince Rhün, specifically), Eluned the Enchantress betrayed the team by sneaking away during the confusion. (I'm sure that Eluned's player would argue the point, but it would be sophism: he set up near the edge of the battlefield and ran away the first moment she could, all without talking it over with the rest of the party in advance.)

    Meanwhile Deithwen got his ass handed to him inside the castle as well without any major difficulty, which meant that the party was if anything more imprisoned than before: now both Deithwen and Francis were captive, and princess Eilonwy was in cross trouble with aunt Achren as well: she got sent into her room, as is appropriate in punishing children.

    As Achren now had some new captives, she entertained herself (and allowed me to do exposition) with Francis the Missionary. She naturally ignored the teenager boys that got captured with Francis, so I basically got to put Taran and Rhün into the cell with Deithwen, because why not.

    Eluned the Enchantress continued her betrayal neatly by parlaying herself into the castle as an honored guest: as might be remembered from the campaign's first adventure, Eluned had earlier established a personal working relationship with Achren, and even helped her a bit in solving certain ritual working issues in her plans. Achren was obviously happy to see a friendly face visit, and she was only too happy to put Eluned up as a guest. The two spent quite a while sipping tea and discussing world politics while the rest of the party continued their dungeoneering.

    The skill challenge continued from here with the party breaking out of jail again (repetitive, I know, but fundamentally necessary; there was some narrative conceit here that I'm forgetting, probably something to do with prince Rhün's foolish luck). At this point they had some actual choices they could be making about how to progress: Deithwen was rather grateful to princess Eilonwy for earlier, so they could conceivably go "free her" as well, or they could attempt to save themselves. Going to confront Achren in an attempt to establish a combat scene would be an option as well, but the party was pretty clear about their mortal limitations at this point, so it was generally agreed that it probably wouldn't end well.

    After a series of dungeoneering hijinks, hiding from guards, retrieving their equipment and such, the party ended up discovering the deeper tunnels under the castle, and therein the tomb-hall of the ancient king Rhitta. This was familiar ground to the party in the sense that both Deithwen's and Francis's players had read the novel, so they knew what to expect in rough terms. Of course, in the novel the dead king is not nearly as lively as he is in the D&D adaptation.

    As the adventure framework basically expects, the party ended up awakening the tomb, which enabled them to engage in a bit of corpse diplomacy of various sorts. Deithwen was unhesitating in drawing the martial attention of the ghosts, leaving Francis to deal with the diplomatic aspect. This is something of a classical dynamic for those two: both players are playing characters who are fundamentally Good-aligned, and the skills of the characters complement each other, so it's not uncommon in this campaign to see Deithwen and Francis pairing up to deal with whatever.

    History skill checks and such enabled me to exposit the sad story of King Rhitta for the players while Deithwen fought a honorable duel with a wight of deathly pallor. A nice dramatic detail was that Deithwen recognized the revenant half-way into the duel: it was, true as dawn follows the night, his own mien he recognized - the pallor of a true ancestor of his! Specifically, the elder Morgan we met in the side-story session a few weeks before, the one who was, indeed, one of king Rhitta's good fellows and boon companions. This is, after all, the same Rhitta who was the main protagonist of that particular one-shot adventure.

    That particular side session - session #4.5 in my reckoning here - had a major impact in the early part of the campaign in general, there were all sorts of funny little call-back opportunities involved there. Good creative synergies for what amounted to a random session set up on a whim.

    As Deithwen managed to put down the wight of his ancestor, Morgan the Fighter, and Francis proved once again that it's possible to succeed in diplomacy challenges without the Diplomacy skill, the tired shade of king Rhitta relented and allowed the heroes the boon they knew not to ask: he proffered the Black Blade, the sword that once spelled doom to the Spiral Castle. Of course the king offered the sword to Taran the Swineherd, being sensitive to the currents of Fate; after all, as Fate (and players who read the books) well knows, Taran is destined to one day rule the land as the first native Pridonite High King since Rhitta himself.

    This being a roleplaying game, Taran obviously whiffs his Will defense and actively dares not touch the sword offered by a skeletal wight. Smart boy. Fortunately Francis is there to take up the burden instead. Gotta collect those quest items after all!

    Thing is - and this is where the real climax of the adventure occurs - the retrieval of Dyrnwyn the Black Blade is what triggers the final destruction of the Spiral Castle, as per the novel. As the castle starts shaking, tremouring, groaning and generally signalling its imminent destruction in a very video-gamey manner, the heroes have one simple task: run out of the tomb, following the tunnel, before the whole edifice goes down.
  • edited May 2019
    imageExcept, Deithwen Morgan, he turns on his heels and starts running in the opposite direction! You see, princess Eilonwy, whom he met earlier and who was schooled pretty seriously by Achren for helping him, is still in the castle! I made it clear to the players that this was a major risk to take considering the rapidly worsening feng shui in the castle, but Deithwen was determined to see it through, so in he went, dodging falling masonry.

    Meanwhile the twisted sisters Achren and Eluned had figured out from all the shaking that something was amiss in the castle. Being the last great mistress of sorcery in Prydain, Achren didn't really need a picture drawn for her about what was happening to "her" castle; instead, she confidently asked Eluned whether she would help her and Eilonwy escape the impending disaster. To her credit (or not, depending on your viewpoint) Eluned was glad to help Achren in her moment of need.

    So Deithwen had his own little "fun" skill challenge where every failure involved the immediate loss of a healing surge as he dodged falling stone and generally tried to climb his way into the higher floors of the castle, and at the same time the sorceresses did something perhaps even more amazing: Achren, utilizing Eluned as her laboratory assistant, initiated a magical ritual to summon a gate to safety. Rare Llyrian magic, this; the campaign theme in this regard is that all the particularly D&D-like utility magic is "Llyrian", so of course Achren the mistress of magic knows all the high-level D&D wizard party tricks. It was still impressive to see her execute the ritual in combat time (as in, tracking passing time by the combat round) while the castle around her was shaking itself apart.

    Deithwen arrived in the 2nd floor conference room where the Llyrian wizards were doing their thing at suitably dramatic moment, just as they got their gate going, mere combat rounds before the entire room would fall in and crush them all. He didn't really have time to spare for Eluned, whom he hadn't even known to be in the castle so far; Eilonwy was whom he was here to save.

    Ironically Deithwen didn't have any clever plans for the escape, so his brilliance in this regard amounted to eagerly gesturing at the girl and shouting about his intent to jump out of the window. "Come here Eilonwy, let me grab you! I'll jump out of the window and cushion your fall!" Classic Deithwen, he does teeter at times between heroic and stupid.

    Achren has something of a hold on the girl's mind, of course; while she would certainly yearn to escape her aunt (and secret childhood kidnapper; Eilonwy's backstory is rather tragic), it's no easy thing to resist authority face to face, and Achren is right there, ordering her to enter the gate and get to safety. Foolish girl, be quick about it! Why do I always have to be waiting for you?

    As the GM, playing Eilonwy here, I got to choose which way she'd go. I could've left it to Charisma checks, but Deithwen was genuinely not very convincing here compared to the enchantresses who were clearly in control of the situation, so Eilonwy, to much long-term campaign regret, chose to go with the devil she knew - she did as Achren demanded and entered the gate first, soon to be followed by both Achren and Eluned.

    Deithwen was, of course, so stubborn and anti-Achren that he opted to jump out of the window. Being a 4e D&D character he obviously survived the fall, too.

    That was the adventure, pretty much, except for the epilogue stuff. As the heroes gathered together outside the castle, they had quite a few revelations to ponder. The most shocking one was no doubt the case of mistaken identity: Deithwen had earlier heard from Eilonwy that she had helped "the other two" escape, so he'd largely put prince Gwydion out of his mind. It wasn't prince Gwydion who was waiting for him outside with the company, though, but rather Fflewddur Fflam, the hapless-yet-harmless adventuring bard whom the party had met in passing in their first adventure. Fflewddur had been captured earlier by Achren's men, purely by accident, and thrown into the dungeons, only to be released by the "pretty princess" as per Deithwen's innocent request.

    The demise of the prince of the Realm, the Tanist of the High King, was obviously a great blow to the morale of the party. A full half of the play group was of course perfectly aware of the shall we say theatrical nature of Gwydion's death from reading the novel, but for all that the characters knew they'd had their prince get crushed by a massive castle outright falling apart into a picturesque pile of rock. Fflewddur Fflam, a known royalist, was besides himself with grief when he realized that he had lived in the stead of the "finest man in all of Prydain".

    The party now of course had in their possession Dyrnwyn, the blade that was turned back by the sins of king Rhitta, the aforementioned wight and last king of the Spiral Castle. The sword has a pretty vanilla fantasy role in the Chronicles, the sort you'd expect; it's initially most interesting features are that it is one of the few, few means of permanently putting down the Cauldron-born, and that it strikes down whomsoever dares to draw the sword without being worthy of it. (Which is interpreted as "being noble born" initially, due to cultural reasons.)

    Eluned found herself back at Caer Colur, the depressing half-sunk ruined castle of the people of Llyr; this was where Achren's gate took the Llyrian trio. Achren was understandably furious, as with the unforeseen devastation of the Spiral Castle she had lost her home, stature in the eyes of Arawn Deathlord, and many valuable resources.

    The players pretty much decided that the party would go on - Eluned had after all been mostly ambivalent and unwilling to raise her hand against Achren, rather than actively treacherous.

    Next the party would have a bit of downtime and reorientation, and we'd have to raise them to level 4 for having finished The Book of Three and the Escape from the Spiral Castle adventures successfully. I had the players tell me in advance what they would be tackling next, so as to prepare for the next session; there were some different ideas, but the narrative pressure of the southern rebellion certainly drew the party towards considering The Horned King, the follow-up adventure to The Book of Three, in which the heroes would attempt to stop the rebellion by defeating its prominent and devilish warlord.

    So that was session #7. It was distinctive in that it was easily the most fun I'd had in the campaign so far, warts and all (with the possible exception of session #4.5). The original actions that Eluned and Deithwen took were dramatic and consequential in their own ways. I also continued to be entertained by seeing the setting come to life and learning more about it all along.
  • Great write ups, as usual. The “flashpoint” technique being used for D&D combat is, as far as I know, a new development. Clever and I bet it worked great!

    I’m curious about the structure of the campaign being so heavily based on the book, and yet allowing for original characters. Am I understanding correctly that the PCs are not characters from the novel?

    How did you bridge the gap between an existing narrative and original characters being created by the players? (Or have we discussed this already?)
  • The PCs are original characters, yes. My basic cosmological assumption is that everything in the campaign setting is basically as depicted in the novels, except for the addition of the player characters and whatever their individual backstories imply. This addition will, in turn, presumably cause compounding changes into the timeline of events as the existence of these new important characters (around whom dramatic coordination now revolves) mess up the pre-existing arrangements.

    The campaign framework and adventure prep frames you've seen are the main tool I use for consolidating the static storyline of the novels with the dynamic events of the campaign: the adventure prep is static and directly based on what happens in the novels, yet it is, to a degree, "bangified" in the sense that I've removed all the specific causality that occurs in the novels. For example, the Castle of Llyr adventure no longer presumes that its events occur after Dalben decides to send Eilonwy off to be taught how to be a proper princess, and Taran decides to escort her to the isle of Mona, etc.; the only assumption the adventure prep makes is that the heroes have come to Mona for some reason whatsoever. The particular details are left as an exercise in improvised weaving.

    At this point in the exercise I can say that it's not ultimately that difficult to keep the campaign "on rails", so to speak. The reason is largely in the bangified nature of the prep: although the campaign's amount of material is pretty large, and the in-play plots weave around in a complex way, the fact that I am not actually following any individual plot lines from the novels, nor designing my own, means that I have the maximum amount of flexibility in my railroad: each adventure features certain key characters and conflicts that instantiate as combat encounters (this being D&D 4e), but ultimately the degree of arbitrariness in how we approach this material is rather large.

    For example, in the Escape from the Spiral Castle the only real constraints are that once the PCs get into the castle, the only ways out are by either confronting the sorcerous queen Achren, or by confronting the tomb of Rhitta below the castle. I should also introduce princess Eilonwy if at all feasible. Everything else that is "supposed to happen" in the castle as per the novels is floating opportunistic content that will be inserted if appropriate at any point, or dropped if not. I designed the adventure in this particular way instead of some other in an effort to reduce the plot logic and phantasmagoric scenery of the original story to its bare essentials.

    As the campaign goes on its resemblance to the original storyline becomes less and less, which means that the heroes tend to arrive at individual adventures from more unexpected directions. This would be fatal for a causally prepped campaign, but as you can see from the campaign framework, the causal connections between the various adventures are generalized at best; the particulars of why and how the heroes move from one adventure node to the next are left as an improvisational exercise.
  • I like that, Eero.

    What happens to the original novel’s characters, then? Do they still exist in this “world”?

    And what constraints did the players face to create their characters? (One issue I face in newer editions of D&D is that a 1st-level character has a lot of built-in assumptions around who they are and what they look like, and that’s often doesn’t match the kind of story frame we might be interested in depicting.)
  • edited May 2019
    The original characters all exist, and would theoretically act out their own stories if not for the player characters and their inherent need to be in the center spotlight interfering with them. The general tendency is for the player characters to push the original cast aside in many ways due to the natural deference that NPCs hold for PCs.

    As for the constraints in character creation, I've strived to be relatively lax. The campaign has a specific set of allowed races (human, mainly) and classes, but otherwise it's all pretty much by the book. I've reinterpreted the chosen classes fluff-wise somewhat to get away from the generic gruel presentation endemic in D&D and have the class choice mean something in the fictional context. That is, a character who's a Rogue really is a despised outlaw in-setting, and so on.

    Omake: Chargen Master Chart

    imageAs you can see, the character creation options all fit on one sheet that the players use when picking what to play. There are a few race options, although I'd prefer it if the players managed to keep it in their pants for the most part and stuck with human characters - the fair folk is particularly an alien outsider pick, a party with several of those might as well go delve some generic dungeon for all that they care about this Prydain business.

    I also added the class-specific "class goals" on that sheet. As I've described before, this is a bit of princess play provocation I added to give active role-acting a little bit of teeth throughout the campaign: the campaign plot by itself will never cause any of these class goals to occur by itself, so the player has to open their mouth at least once in a blue moon and express a character-based desire to have these come to pass. A character who gets their desire gains +1 to level and immediately gets to pick a paragon path even if they haven't reached level 11 yet.

    I technically speaking have a bunch of story content ideas specific to each of these character class choices, but in reality it's just observations about the setting: for some characters some aspects of the setting are more important than others due to their class picks. What's most significant is that I try to make it so that all of these classes get externally defined by their socio-political positioning, such that whatever the player has in mind, they also have to deal with the expectations that the setting has for them. Nobody is "just an adventurer" unless they try really hard to make me feel like I'm unwelcome with my attempts at interaction.
  • Session #8: Downtime before the war

    This campaign has a distinctive rhythm in that often the downtime events in between adventures end up eating up an entire session. Session #8 was like that: we updated the characters to level 4, talked about the general state and direction of the campaign (in-fiction, I mean), and dealt with individual character plotlines.

    The usual crew was participating:

    Deithwen Morgan, a brave yet somewhat alienated Son of Don Fighter
    Francis the Missionary, a Frankish Christian Cleric
    Eluned the Enchantress, a mysterious and treacherous Llyrian Wizard
    Harald the Viking, the taciturn companion

    The most significant downtime plotline here was Eluned's developing relationship with Achren the sorcerer queen and Eilonwy her ward: after the trio escaped the crumbling Spiral Castle by the skin of their teeth they spent several days at Caer Colur gathering their wits and reorienting for the new situation. Achren was homeless now, after all, and in a generally weak position: she couldn't expect Arawn Deathlord to grant her the kind of independence she'd enjoyed so far if she returned to Annuvin, and it isn't a place to raise a young girl, anyway. The response she'd had from the Sons of Don in the form of Deithwen and Gwydion wasn't encouraging either; her past sins weighted too heavily on the former queen of Annuvin.

    Achren concluded around this time that her only chance was to rely on the scattered remains of the Llyrian people; Eluned the amenable player character was particularly encouraging in this regard, as she seemed to hold Achren in some reverence due to her ancient pedigree and might of her magical lore. (Plus I think the player was pleased with having a personal character-specific plotline like this.) Eluned also seemed interested in throwing her aid behind Achren's plan to raise Eilonwy into the magical queenship of Llyr, so as to revive the old kingdom. Whatever Achren's original designs on the matter (perhaps some sort of grab-and-run tomb robbery of the Llyrian magical heritage?), it seemed now that if she was to have a political platform in Prydain at all, it would be through national revival of Llyr as a whole.

    (I forget if I've explained the setting background upthread, but for refreshment: the Llyrian people used to rule the Isle of Mona as an independent "sea kingdom" loosely associated with Prydain but technically not under the overlordship of the Sons of Don. Their strength was concentrated in Caer Colur, a highly magical castle from which their navy had exerted influence over all of Prydain for over 500 years, long before the creation of Annuvin or the arrival of the Sons of Don in Prydain. The mother of princess Eilonwy, princess Angharad, brought doom upon the nation by eloping with a common man; her breaking the matrimonial taboos of Llyr caused Caer Colur to sink cataclysmically around 15 years ago, scattering the people of Llyr in diaspora all over Prydain. The key point is that the destruction of Llyr as a nation is still relatively recent, which is of course atypical in this sort of high fantasy.)

    The wizards did some more magical research into the ruins of Caer Colur to reconstruct the coronation ceremony they would need to hook Eilonwy up into the ancestral magics, and Achren took the opportunity to teach her magical gate spell to Eluned, because gift-giving is the best way to keep player characters on your side. The gate spell is a 10th level ritual in 4e terms, but I've rejiggered the ritual rules for the campaign to allow characters to learn rituals over their own level as long as they have a teaching resource for it and can handle the ritual requirements. Eluned is crazy-optimized for Arcana skill checks, which means that she can generally handle ritual magic well over her own level in that regard.

    The other magical boon Achren helped Eluned attain was a magical familiar, specifically a minor demon (a death-energy aligned magical non-human entity, sort of an anti-fairy). The real motivation was that the book demon or whatsitcalled in the wizard sourcebook provides a minor bonus to Arcana checks, which has been the main inspiration in Eluned's character building: anything that improves the Arcana skill or uses it for something or other is of great interest to her. I think the familiar never, ever features in the campaign in any way again after that +2 to Arcana was jotted down.

    (That's a pretty typical player hook in character-building games, by the way; feature or bug depends on your expectations. The player is expected to use something as the decision-making heuristic for their character building, and the idea of min-maxing for some specific stat or other is one of the easiest and most present ideas in that regard. A good princess-play game will either support the player in picking something more interesting to build upon, or it will ensure that the mechanical min-maxing compass actually leads somewhere interesting in the actual game. D&D 4e obviously doesn't do much, but I've done my best myself to make having an abnormally high Arcana rewarding and special - by actively offering ludicrously powerful magical rituals to Eluned, for instance, the sort that no other wizard of her generation is even capable of casting.)

    Achren also tried to get Eluned to organize an expedition to the Tomb of Llyr, the adventure locale of the King of Stones adventure that she'd mentioned before; finding the bones of the original king of Llyr would provide a massive shortcut to the frustratingly slow and difficult skill challenge of crowning Eilonwy.

    Failing that, Achren also hinted at the possibility that Eluned might wish to develop her magic further by questing for Caer Oeth-Anoeth, the mystical Castle of Non-Forceful Force hidded deep in the recesses of the Forest of Idris. I left this rather vague for now, as Oeth-Anoeth is a very optional and rather high-level adventure, but Achren's idea here was pretty much to have Eluned temper and corrupt herself in the Pridonite center of death magics; a tradition originally invented by Achren herself, foreign to Eluned's pure Llyrian wizardry. Perhaps pick up a Warlock multiclass. (Warlock's one of the two "hidden" classes in the campaign, available only through death magic study.) It's still a mystery to me whether Achren intended well or ill to Eluned by this suggestion, but I suspect that on some level she wanted Eluned to understand her own perspective better; many Llyrian wizards consider Achren a tainted being for her mastery of death magic. Eluned could be more like herself by facing the travails of Oeth-Anoeth.
  • So yeah, Eluned had a lot of stuff to juggle at this point. She promised to look into the Tomb of Llyr business, and it was indeed talked over by the group, but the overall group consensus was pretty firmly behind the idea of intervening in the war of southern rebellion that was so very prominently on-going in southern Prydain. The other adventure options opened up on the flowchart so far didn't really have a chance at this point, which is all well and good: the whole point of the flowchart + campaign situation arrangement is to let the players perceive a plotline they wish to follow. Here, as does seem natural from further away, the heroes were obviously rather concerned about the ravaging Army of the Horned King that was by latest reports marching through the Ystrad Valley towards the north.

    (I admittedly like a bit of armchair warcraft, so you can imagine how the storytelling and campaign direction discussion in the campaign tends to include a fair amount of medieval warfare stuff. A bit similar to Tolkien in that, he does a surprising amount of geography, force composition and such while describing epic on-goings, too. As an example of what I mean, here after the third adventure I made a big deal of the bold strategic surprise that the Horned King achieved by mustering the southern forces in the autumn, consolidating control and marching towards northern Prydain rather late in the year. This goes against the usual order of Pridonite warfare and risks the Horned King's army getting into seasonal difficulties while his enemies sit in their castles. However, thanks to the surprise, the outlook is fair for the Horned King if he manages to cross to the north quickly: the surprise means that the muster of the north is still on-going when the Horned King arrives. His plan is to outright storm Caer Dathyl, the throne of the High King, and claim not only its arms and stores, but also its legitimacy, all before the northern army can quite pull itself together.)

    While Eluned was doing her own thing with Achren, the other characters largely busied themselves with war prep: they visited Dallben the Enchanter anew to properly divine the True Name of the Horned King with the aid of the oracular pig Hen Wen, for instance. Taran the swineherd begged Deithwen, his new mancrush, to take him to squire for him in the war. As Deithwen is such a macho crypto-fascist of a lump of meat of a man, he was of course excited about having a teenager groupie of his own, and one who wants to kill rebels, no less.

    (The theme of how characters deal with war is a major one in the original novels, which makes the parallels here interesting. Specifically, the player characters as led by Deithwen Morgan are much more traditionally modernist about the whole thing than the original cast of characters. Where the Chronicles are this skeptical existential treatment that casts suspicion on the idea of "heroism" - very '60s intellectual in that way - the player character cast are sort of dropped in here from a 30 years older work, or Warhammer maybe: they're eager boy-scouts who understand that it is the most important thing to be brave in the face of peril, to be loyal beyond all reason, and to recognize evil and do it in when you can. Perhaps shed some crocodile tears for the dead afterwards, as long as it doesn't come in the way of duty. Taran, the original protagonist of the novels, is an impressionable young man who grew up into what he became because he had all these skeptical adult role models like prince Gwydion and a dozen others, so him hanging out with Deithwen "kill the witch" Morgan is a major change for him psychologically. Deithwen is kinda precisely like the kind of hero that Taran thinks heroes are like at the start of the Chronicles, before events abuse him of those ideas.)

    The boisterous king Smoit whom we'd gotten to know at the beginning of the campaign was the key NPC in getting the heroes involved in the war. His kingdom of Cadiffor is the greatest of the Valley Cantrevs, one of the two southern provinces of the realm, so he was naturally pressured to join the Horned King's rebellion. Smoit proved his mettle in the matter, however, and had the main part of his subjects take cover in his formidable fortress of Cadarn. The rebels did siege him for a week or two, but as the southern part of the country was otherwise pacified by the rebellion and the Horned King deemed it to be the time to march, ultimately the rebels were forced to abandon Smoit and his kingdom with only superficial ravaging.

    While the heroes were consulting with Dallben, Smoit contacted the loyalists yet remaining in the south, and took it upon himself to organize a fighting force. This group would come to consist mainly of the men of Cadiffor, as many southern loyalists had been put to the sword, haunted into the wilderness or sacrificed in the rites of the Old Way. Nevertheless, as the vast majority of the southern army had marched away, Smoit managed to pull together around two thousand fighting men altogether.

    Eluned the Enchantress joined the rest of the party in Caer Cadarn, making her excuses under tense circumstances. King Smoit was more than happy to have the already remarkably well-known Heroes of the Quarrel Cliffs (a popular name for the party in song, thanks to their dramatic original meeting over a drunken quarrel and man-on-woman violence) join the war effort. His plan: to march after the Horned King and harass him from behind, hopefully contributing meaningfully in the defense of the realm.

    We'd see how that would go in the next session.
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