My two favorite genres are science fiction and fantasy, which is boilerplate for nerds around the world, but I had no idea how to open this post beyond stating the obvious. The main reason why I like these genres is because they both allow stories to exceed the possible — sci-fi goes beyond technologies that we live with now, and fantasy…well, fantasy has license to simply blow the doors off of reality. Novels, movies, and video games are all about escapism, and give us stories set in worlds where problems can be solved with a plasma cannon or with a carefully selected magical spell, unlike the real world where a lot of the issues that concern us are way outside of our reach or exceed our available resources to deal with.
Most fantasy, though, seems to have limits. “high fantasy” is a super-popular sub-genre which practically defines the sweep of its parent, thanks to the enduring nature of J.R.R. Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, and other folks who use letters as whole names, and folks like Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss whose names are short enough to spell out in their entirety. I shouldn’t have to elucidate the meaning of “high fantasy” for you, dear nerd, but in the event someone happens along who has no idea what the hell I’m talking about, consider this: elves who live in trees, dwarves with Scottish accents who live under mountains, humans who bumble through the world and reproduce at astonishing rates, maybe a live dragon or memories of dragons long since dead, orcs, trolls, giant spiders, and of course, magic both good and evil. Despite the presence of magic as magic (unlike “the Force as midichlorians”), high fantasy worlds seem to have a hard stop to their possibilities. The genre offerings always seem to have lines that they won’t cross, because even when you’re talking about pointy-eared humanoids who live hundreds of years and in the woods, there are some ideas which are apparently too wacky to approach.
Thing is, I LIKE the wacky approach a lot more than fantasy with artificial bounds. Sci-fi will always need to be rooted in the idea that “we’ll get there, someday”, which is why I love shows like Battlestar Galactica (the newer) and The Expanse (and the book form). Over the years, I’ve come to want more from my fantasy than what Tolkien’s legacy has left us with, and I’ve been able to find such things in works of Clive Barker (Imagica, et al), Felix Gilman (Thunderer, et al), and China Mieville (Perdido Street Station, et al).
What ties these offerings together isn’t their lack of elves and dwarves, but their world building. High fantasy popularized the practice of deep world building, and to this day you’d be hard pressed to find a D&D DM who DIDN’T get into the business because of his or her love of creating a whole world from scratch. RPGs, in particular, give people opportunities to create worlds to their liking, and a lot of game-runners tackle this step with gusto because it sets up the parameters of what is and is not possible for players and NPCs to accomplish. But world building is hard, especially if one has grown up only on a diet of high fantasy with its contrived limitations and an understanding that if the Evil Necromancer can raise an army of the undead, then by golly the players should be able to do that too! And if the players can wield the Sword of Interdimensional Collapse, then by golly…the Ultimate Evil should be able to do that too…for better or worse. I call this the “Deck of Many Things Conundrum”: give your players leeway to come up with creative solutions, but don’t destabilize the game world because if the players can do it, then the NPCs should be able to do it as well*.
When the world becomes a character, things get interesting. Case in point: Numenera, a setting that uses Monte Cook’s Cypher System for role playing games. The world of Numenera pulls absolutely no punches; several billion years in Earth’s future, humanity has survived several “ages”. Each new age is built upon the ruins of past ages which means that players in the current age are constantly finding bits of ancient artifacts — numenera — that are unexplainable and range from the stupidly mundane to the terrifyingly game-altering. Whereas high fantasy discourages the idea that the players should find themselves in control of something that could cause the fabric of reality to turn itself inside out, Numenera considers that kind of opportunity “a day that ends in ‘y'”.
As you can imagine, this opens up opportunities for game runners to throw down absolutely anything he or she wants to in an effort to reward or bait the players for making good decisions or to try and push them to make really, really bad ones. Magic works as either a mystical force OR as science. Space ships are either technologically invented OR are unexplained steampunk contraptions. A creature is either organic OR mechanical…or both…or neither if you can figure out a way to present that. When there is no explained limit to what can be done, or in the case of Numenera, explicit instructions that THERE IS NO LIMIT, things get weird…and difficult.
I tried setting up a Numenera play by post game once, and quickly found myself confounded by the options in the face of established examples of what Numenera is capable of. My scenario involved nothing more than a hand-wavey reason to put the players up against a criminal syndicate, which in retrospect seems lame, and a waste of the expanse of what Numenera provides. In fact, I was recently playing the soon-to-be-released Numenera: Tides of Torment on the PC when I realized that I am simply not equipped to do the Numenera world justice.
Case in point: This screenshot.
Click for the horrifying description
If you’ve ever read anything by Clive Barker or China Mieville, then the LEVEL of this kind of weirdness is par for the course. To me, it both makes my skin crawl and gives me gooseflesh because of the sheer level of malevolence and creativity involved in pushing well past the barriers of the kind of thing high fantasy would employ to tackle such a scenario. This is some other-world level stuff right here: one part mystical, one part horror, and one big part psychological. It takes the conceit of the world and employs it in ways that are projecting at an angle that can’t be measured by traditional geometry, and it hurts my head. I am in awe of the creativity in this one panel simply because I know such a system would never have occurred to me. I don’t know if I’m too practiced in the ways of high fantasy, too old to get my mind kick-started to think this far outside the box, or if I’m just nowhere near as creative as I’d always assumed I was. I suspect it’s at least a little from each column, and that makes me sad.
The Cypher System is one of a new breed of “anti-D&D” systems that have been cropping up over the past few years, where the rules call for fewer numbers, less dice, and more free-form roleplaying. For many, it’s difficult to wrap one’s head around, but I continue to really want to try. Problem is, I don’t know that I could ever do the system justice, certainly not on the level that Tides of Torment is offering. That is what makes me sad: it’s a great system with actual, limitless potential, and here’s me…wasting it.
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When we last looked in on our heroes, they were on one side of a door through which they could hear the muted sounds of conversation. Let’s pick up where we left off, shall we?
We shall because that’s the point of this post.
The hunter was concerned that the door might squeak when opened, but it was well made enough that it swung open without a sound. On the other side was a large cavern, half filled with water, half filled with stolen treasure, and half filled with a dragon. The other half was filled with the dragon rider who was apparently trying to hide behind a transparent rock on the off chance that someone opened the non-squeaky door on the other side of the room.
True to her maiden name, Tinda “Jenkins” Spellsinger barreled past the ranger and barbarian and burst into the room, finger-guns blazing. Unfortunately her aim was off and her double Eldrich Blasts only scored the cavern ceiling. Smelling the shit on the fan, the barbarian rushed in and closed the gap between the party and the dragon rider who was really positive that he had been hidden from view, guys! despite the fact that he was so obviously not. Never one to be left behind, the warlock stepped into the cavern and took up a safe but observable position right in the cone of poison breath that the dragon unleashed after patiently awaiting his turn. The warlock was instantly gasping for breath and, finding none, expired like a two-month-old carton of milk, while the bard developed a really nasty case of asthma which guaranteed that she’d not be running any marathons any time soon.
Using his Shit Is Gettin’ Real senses, the ranger asked the monk to hold his beer as he stepped into the cavern. The faint strains of Wild West gunslinger showdown music could be heard from elsewhere in the cavern, despite the fact that the party had killed or freed everyone else in the complex. Maybe it was someone’s alarm clock. Regardless, the timing couldn’t have been better: the ranger unleashed a punishing barrage of physical and magical whupass upon the wounded dragon, felling the beast in a world record breaking six seconds. As the smoke wafted from his bow, the ranger tugged down the brim of the Stetson he mysteriously acquired and leaned up against the wall, arms crossed, while the rest of the party reverted to clean-up.
Seeing his dragon companion fall so quickly, the rider whipped out his own dual Eldrich Blasts at the barbarian, hitting him squarely, before attempting to disengage by diving into the nearby pool. The monk, not wanting to the low-scoring member of the party this round, energized himself and bolted across the cavern to chase the escaping cultist into the murky water. Unsurprisingly, the barbarian decided that swimming was fun, and also jumped in, although being one of the least perceptive members of the crew, he got lost easily as the monk kept close on the heels of the dragon rider. Through a secret tunnel they swam, eventually emerging into the cavern where the initial encounter had taken place. It was there that the monk cornered a severely wounded cultist when the barbarian finally found his way out of the pool. Still under the effects of Rage, the barbarian wasted no time (or words, or, you know, thought) in smashing the cultist’s head into the ground…and when I say “smashing” I mean literally smashing, like with a maul, and, like, with flying brains and stuff.
After an awkward moment standing around the corpse with the January Jack-O-Lantern head for a while, the party opted to take what little they could carry from the dragon’s treasure hoard, adding it to their Chest of Undisclosed Treasure From A Previous Session, and eight bottles of some Seriously Kick Ass Booze that they had found previously, and made their way out of the Misty Forest and back to Waterdeep.
Their arrival at the city was fortuitous, as it seemed that the cult situation had escalated in their absence. The city was on lockdown, and the normal citizen hustle was reduced by several magnitudes of bustle. The party was quickly ushered up to the council chambers where they relayed the news of their encounter with the dragon and its rider to Delaan and Algarthas. At the mention of the rider’s name, however, Algarthas grew pale and quickly left the room. Delaan informed the party that the rider they had encountered — Neronvain — was Algarthas’s half-brother, and the estranged son of the council’s King Melandrach.
Lady Silverhand was quick to bring the party up to speed on what had transpired. The draakhorn had been sounding almost continuously for the past few days, and streams of chromatic dragons could be seen heading to the Well of Dragons from every corner of the region. To make matters worse, scouts from all over report that cult forces had broken off their raids and were returning to the Well with haste. The council has no choice but to consider the cult’s plans to be entering their final phase, which meant that the council was out of time: they had to begin deploying their forces to meet the threat of the Dragon Cult.
She had one more task for the party: infiltrate the Well of Dragons and do whatever they could to disrupt the plans of the cult in any way possible to weaken their offensive and stop their ritual. The party had proven themselves capable time after time, having won over the various personalities that made up the Council of Waterdeep. They didn’t agree on much very often, but the council had come to the unanimous agreement that the Adventure Co. Brand Adventure Company was the Sword Coast’s best and only hope at stopping this threat (because of course they are…it’s their story).
There was one loose end: informing Melandrach of the death of his wayward son Neronvain. The warlock, bard, and ranger tactfully explained the situation to an incredulous Elven king, offered their condolences, and watched as the trembling elder was lead from the room by his surviving son.
+ + +
It’s been a few weeks since we have been able to convene, due to holidays and various Mishaps of Real Life. Thankfully we weren’t in a really complex story because apparently I need to work on my note-taking skills.
This was a notable session for a few reasons:
First, the fucking hunter one-shotted a dragon. A seriously wounded dragon, but still a core threat to the people of the Sword Coast. What surprised me was the fact that the ranger had apparently been holding out on this Skill Chain of Badassery. Obviously not something to use against rank and file minions, but the “firepower” had traditionally been concentrated in the hands of the multi-strike monk and the berserker barbarian, so who knew we had devastating artillery in the group?
Second, the dogged persistence of the monk in chasing down Neronvain. I see the reasoning behind it — this guy might have a dragon mask, so there’s no way they were going to let him get away — but there was always a chance. Neronvain ducked into a concealed tunnel while under water, but the monk was able to keep his eyes on him. Liberal use of Ki points to initiate Dash, coupled with several Attacks of Opportunity and a blistering string of critical rolls decimated the cultist as he tried to run. I admit that my hope was that Neronvain would escape because having him alive and bringing this news to Melandrach would have severely different consequences than what we’re dealing with now. Of course, Neronvain’s death, I think, was a surprise to everyone since it was handled as an in-character situation involving a raging barbarian who could only see killing his enemies as the way to end the encounter, regardless of how incapacitated his enemies were.
Third, the score sheet. I’m not going to say much else about it right now, but I had thought the council affinity tracking would vary far more than it is. I am interested in completing this module mainly so I can write the whole post-mortem about it.
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The party wasted little time getting the act together, and none too soon: Turns out Lady Elia had a trick up her sleeve, and that trick was turning into a silver dragon in the fortress courtyard, freaking out the animals and making uninformed citizens panic at the sight of a dragon suddenly in their midst.
Elia — her real name being Otaaryliakkarnos, in WotC’s typical alphabet soup fashion — flew the party to the meeting place high in the mountains, and along the way provided them with a dossier on each of the dragons they would be meeting with.
Protanthur: proud and distrustful of humanoids. He’d be the party’s greatest opponent.
Ileuthra: A wise dragon who spends his time walking the planes of existence and consorting with gods. He would be judging the party’s arguments most strongly.
Nymmurh: Already given over to the humanoid cause because of his relationship with Lady Dala Silmerhelve of Waterdeep, so at least the effort was starting at absolute zero.
Tazmikella: A dragon who has spent a good part of her life in human form, living among humanoids, and has gotten burned by the younger races more times than she could count.
And herself, of course, but no one asked her about her position on all of this Cult business.
True to her word, Protanthur turned out to be a tough nut to crack. By and large, the dragons were all on the same page that something needed to be done, but the dragon clans weren’t sure that there was any benefit to entering into a formal alliance with the humanoids. If their paths crossed in pursuit of some mutual goal, then so be it, but there was no point to a formal alliance. To the long-lived dragons, this subtle distinction apparently meant something.
The party presented their case to the best of their ability. A united force of humanoids and dragons could only be stronger than if either group went it alone, and the party attempted to enumerate the ways in which their contributions could benefit the dragons. They walked a fine line between obsequiousness and a show of over-confidence in the abilities they were touting, but the dragons weren’t entirely on board. The party spoke of the benefits of humanoid knowledge to a dragon who moves through the planes of existence with ease. They described war to creatures who had fought in battles than humanoids knew only as legends. Most of all, they tried to sell the “triumph of the human(oid) spirit” as their greatest asset, but that turned out to be the dragon’s — or at least Protanthur’s — sorest spot.
Each dragon had some beef with the humanoids. Taz had first-hand experience with the two-faced nature of humans, elves, and dwarves. Otaaryliakkarnos clan sought restitution from the dwarven kingdoms for their careless hunting of her ancestors (and from having made a suite of armor from the skin of one in particular). Protanthur’s ire was reserved for elves and tieflings specifically, each of which were represented in the party, but his greater issue was that humanoids, with their short lifespans, couldn’t amass the wisdom that leads them to make good decisions. Humanoids were corruptible and weak, and prone to infighting over transient elements that they’d never live long enough to enjoy. He stated the it was humanoid frailty — of life, of character — as an excuse for a “get as much as you can, while you can” attitude that had wreaked havoc across the realm for centuries. In short, humanoids were why Faerun couldn’t have nice things.
Nymmurh was Protanthur’s foil, however. The younger dragon had spent much time on both sides of the current argument, some among his clan debating the situation, and some among his confidants in Waterdeep. As the one who felt most at ease in both camps, he could only remind Protanthur that while everything he said about the humanoid races was accurate, the fact that they were still around despite centuries of strife and fallen empires spoke volumes as to their tenacity and will to survive. No, they didn’t need an alliance with them, he agreed, but that being the case, there was no good reason not to ally, and the only reason Protanthur was holding out was due to his bias against the younger races.
As the dragons disengaged from the party to discuss the matter amongst themselves, the party regrouped to consider their options at this point. It was mentioned that maybe they could sweeten the pot a bit if they offered the dragons a part of the Cult’s treasure hoard in exchange for an alliance. If the dragons returned and Protanthur’s position remained unchanged, there might be no other option. The party seemed hesitant to stoop to common tit-for-tat, though, possibly believing that doing so would offend the ancients and ruin whatever logical arguments they had spent the past hour and a half making for their case.
As the dragons reentered the grotto, most still had reservations, but were in a better mood to bargain. Although Otaaryliakkarnos figured that the suit of armor made from her ancestor was lost to history, she requested a formal apology from a representitive of the dwarves for their centuries of drunken revelry that they called the dragonmoots that usually ended with the slaughter of her kin. The party stated that they couldn’t speak for the entire dwarven nation, but Otaary seemed to be very insistent that they try in exchange for her support. Ileuthra had one contingent request: that once the dragon masks were recovered, they be given to the metallic clans for safekeeping. While he was cool on the idea of an alliance himself, he was concerned that the masks left in the well meaning but relatively weak hands of the humanoids would eventually be too much of a temptation, and if an alliance was the price they had to pay for the humanoids to agree to hand over such powerful artifacts, then so be it. In a more casual conversation with Taz, the mention of a cut of the treasure got her attention, and she suggested that Protanthur’s current internal struggle might be swayed by a promise of a portion of the spoils. Because, dragons.
In the end, Protanthur begrudgingly agreed to the alliance in exchange for 1/3 of the Cult’s hoard. It would no doubt be an uneasy alliance, with one side desperate for the help of the other side which appeared to be unengaged in the process, but the party requested that the dragons sign a written agreement that they could take to the Council as a formal declaration of the alliance.
+ + +
I was both excited and terrified of this session going in. It’s difficult enough to RP a single character; it’s very difficult to have to RP several characters over the course of an adventure; it’s stupidly daunting to have to RP several characters simultaneously during the same session. Not only that, but to have to RP dragons, and to give them some air of ancient wisdom, aloofness, and hubris and self-centeredness, all while trying to not agree with the logical, very humanly relatable points that the players were putting forth, in the name of playing the characters.
Each of the dragons had three traits: desire, attitude, and concession, as well as a bearing such as angry, unfavorable, neutral, and favorable. Their desire is what they wanted in the context of the module, which was the cessation of the Cult’s rituals. They differed from the Council’s approach in that their dragon pride made them believe that they could and should go it alone, not because it was “a dragon problem”, but because they’ve got the “long view” of life in Faerun, and have collectively decided that the pattern of humanoid races is one of general dumbassery. They were quick to remind the party that it was a human’s perchance for corruption that started the whole Cult business in the first place.
During the negotiations, it was basically two against one: the bard and (oddly) the tiefling warlock took the initiative to argue the case. Their positions were very Star Trekish: yes, humanoids can be selfish and dickish, but there’s so much potential there…swap the party for Jean Luc Picard and the dragons for Q and I think I’d seen that episode before. But as a person I couldn’t find any fault in their argument; as dragons, I had to.
The only thing the dragons had in their favor (aside from their racism) was their long view of the world. They had seen some shit, and have noticed the patterns. They don’t feel that they could trust that humanoids were doing this for any other reason than selfishness which would eventually devolve into the usual squabbles between their nations. While humanoids were certainly good at war, one dragon asked, point blank, “how can we be sure you’re not just going to turn on one another once the Cult is defeated and go to war over the spoils?” Hopefully, no one could really answer that — they could speak on behalf of the Council, but they couldn’t really speak for the Council, after all. It wasn’t so much that the dragons were trying to be right, but they had to seem entirely uninterested and unconvinced that there was a benefit to them doing something they really didn’t want to do with people they’d rather not do it with.
That’s where the concessions were supposed to come in. Before the party left Waterdeep, Sliverhand attempted to impress upon the party that for the purpose of these negotiations, they were the Council. Part of the point of the scenario was (minor spoiler for the party members who read this, but probably not really) to put the party in a difficult position: yeah, they had the authority to wheel and deal, but after they made promises to the dragons, they would then have to convince the Council to actually make good on those promises. In this, the dragons can only be proven to be correct in their fears: humanoids aren’t as unified in their support for one another as the dragons are, no matter how dire the circumstances are that they’re staring down. I didn’t use all the concessions, because by the time all of the speechifying was done we were abutting our quitting time, and there was still the final go-ahead that needed to be nailed down. After 1.5 hours of talk, throwing in the towel because the dragons lined up to make demands would seem really stupid. Plus, the broaching of the subject of concessions was supposed to be part of the empowerment of the party. They could have outright asked “what can we do to win your support?” and I think the scenario could have been over in about 15 minutes.
But we got some good RP out of it, and hopefully everyone enjoyed themselves. True to form, though, the party’s wildcard Dimsdale Butterstick the Perpetually Scintillating — the barbarian who’s convinced he’s a wizard — almost derailed the negotiations with his unique brand of outbursts, but someone produced a whole bunch of crumpets from their adventuring rations which kept him busy throughout most of the proceedings. At the end, though, once the crumpets had been consumed, the warlock summoned some pretty lights to amuse the barbarian, which actually worked because he failed his Wisdom saving throw.
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The party was summoned before the Council of Waterdeep upon their return to…eh…Waterdeep. They had turned Varrum the White over the Council’s “Hospitality Ambassadors”, and were on their way to their debriefing.
The Council had redecorated since last the players were there, most notably that Lord Neverember was apparently no longer in charge of the quorum. Lady Silverhand now occupied the Big Chair, but no one at the table offered to elaborate. It was obvious that Neverember was displeased and detached from the proceedings.
Lady Silverhand congratulated the party on returning with Varrum in tow, a sentiment that was echoed by Lord Brawnanvil of Mithril Hall. Brawnanvil was eager to put Varrum on trial for a laundry list of transgressions against the dwarven races. On the other side of the coin was Delaan Winterhound of the Emerald Enclave who saw Varrum’s presence as an unnecessary distraction. He cautioned the Council and the Party against Varrum’s well-known duplicity, and warned that his presence in Waterdeep could be putting the city and the Council’s operations at risk.
Still, Lady Silverhand would not overlook this opportunity to wring valuable intelligence from their prisoner, and sent the party down to Varrum’s interrogation in an act of “good faith”. Perhaps the party — having just rescued Varrum and providing him with asylum — would put the dwarf more at ease.
Varrum was eager to talk. He told the party about the goals of the Cult, the purpose of the Wyrmspeakers and the masks their carried, and about the Thayan’s involvement in the Cult’s proceedings. By and large he was cooperative, which put the party immediately on the defensive.
Once back in the council chamber, a new face had appeared, but before introductions could be made, the warlock had a request: he wanted just two minutes to question Varrum without anyone else in the room, a request that had been denied by the chief interrogator Lady Maquette. Mithril Hall was supportive, but the Emerald Enclave pointed to this diversion as proof of Varrum’s disruptive nature. Lady Silverhand granted the warlock’s request, interested in wringing any and all information from their captive before they had to resort to more painful methods.
The Council was engaged in a run-down of status reports from their kingdoms, but the stories were all the same: villagers and small cities were being emptied of their populations as people fled ahead of impending Cult attacks. Houses, barns, inns, and other personal properties were being razed by dragon fire, and precious possessions were being stolen from the wreckage. The massive movements of people along the Sword Coast was projected to overwhelm the strongholds of Waterdeep, Neverwinter, Baldur’s Gate, Luskin, and others. The Council’s reports echoed Varrum’s statements that the Cult’s attacks had two purposes: to acquire as much treasure as possible for the return of Tiamat, and to overwhelm the Council member’s resources and sow confusion in a bid to keep them occupied.
Winterhound seemed particularly vociferous after the unusually glowing report from King Melandrach of the Misty Forest. Melandrach claimed that Cult raiders had been repelled once he ordered the forest kingdom’s defenses increased, and boasted of confidence that his people were safe. Prince Alagarthas, Melandrach’s youngest son, countered the King’s claim with evidence gathered by his people in league with the Emerald Enclave. They felt that the Cult had merely been repelled but not defeated, and that they were surely biding their time until they could discern the weak points in Melandrach’s new defenses. A stern rebuke from his father through the invocation of his missing brother and rightful successor Neronvain, silenced Alagarthas, driving him from the room.
With the bickering complete, Lady Silverhand introduced their newest visitor as Lady Elia, a representitive of the metallic dragons of Faerun. The Council had been insistant with the metallics, begging for an audience in which they would plead their case for assistance in their fight against the Cult. Their diplomatic missives had been received, but no word had been received regarding their reception. Silverhand was quick to remind the Council that it was foolish to try and appeal the dragon’s sense of decency, since what was life and death for those at the table was merely a blink of a eye for dragonkind; instead, they needed to state their case to the draconic council as diplomats and, if necessary, to make concessions that would win the metallics over to their cause. Lady Elia was the first response the Council had received, and they were eager to take it. It was the Council’s decision that since the party had the most experience with the dealings of the Cult, they would be best suited to provide the dragons with answers to whatever questions they might demand answers to before making their decision. Lady Elia mentioned that she needed to return to her council as quickly as possible, as their deliberations were still ongoing in her absence. The party agreed to leave that evening.
As the Council adjourned, the party was stopped in the hallway by Alagarthas. He pleaded with the party to come to the Misty Forest to stop the impending Cult assault, warning the players that it might be a matter of hours, or a matter of days before their defenses were compromised and his people slaughtered. Winterhound supported Alagarthas’ request, but the party felt that treating with the dragons was far more important to the needs of the council. Angry beyond words, Alagarthas left the party with a confused Winterhound in tow.
+ + +
I ended up spending more time preparing this scenario than any other, I think, and I believe it paid off. I got to cover all of the bases that I felt were needed at this point in the module, although I was worried about halfway through that it was turning into an exposition dump.
Varrum’s presence is supposed to be a boon for the Council; he fucked up, pissed off Severin, and believes his life in the Cult to be over. But Silverhand’s warnings were accurate in that Varrum is an opportunist. He knows that he has nothing to gain from lying to the Council, but his life no doubt depends on being as truthful as he feels he needs to be, for as long as possible.
Since Varrum was a member of Severin’s inner circle, he’s got a lot of information — but not ALL the information. The Cult’s structure in our version of the module has the power concentrated with Severin. He has advisors who handle the military aspects, so the current job of the Wyrmspeakers is to corral chromatic dragons of their mask’s color who might be resisting the call of the draakhorn, but also to go where Severin deems necessary, quickly, and without question. This isolates Varrum from Severin’s details, but also keeps him apart from other Wyrmspeakers. He mentioned to the party that this was a potential weakness in the cult: since the Wyrmspeakers operated independently at Severin’s sole command, cornering any one of them could lead to the Council gaining possession of one of the masks.
And if you notice that I’m ending abruptly at this point, you’re right.
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A weekly D&D recap by the party’s resident bard (naturally) got me thinking this morning about a set of situations we encountered during this week’s game.
First, the party encountered a panel set into a wall in a narrow hallway. Most of the party tried to Perception it’s purpose, but the overall thought seemed to be that this was part of trap, and should be avoided. Second, the bard was on point when it came to recalling historical details triggered by various elements encountered in the tomb they were spelunking through in search of Varrum.
After reading Brenda’s post and subsequent comment about that weird panel, I got to thinking: was there a bias between allowing the party to figure out the panel, and the bard’s effortless success in parsing things she was seeing?
Basically, yes, although I’m going to blame the way D&D set up its skill system. For those who aren’t aware, characters have skills which are values that are added to a roll on a 20 sided die (d20). This value needs to meet or exceed what’s called a difficulty check (DC) in order to succeed. It’s a streamlined system that relies on the player’s decision to put points in skills which represent the character he or she wants to play, their race, or their class. If a character is a bard, for example, you might expect that she’d have a high History skill because history is something that bards would be interested in: names, dates, places, and events make up a bard’s reason for being a bard. A monk or a ranger wouldn’t really care much for learning how long King Raje the IV sat upon the Obsidian Throne in the depths of the Shining Caverns, and would have lower History values. Because skills are added to a d20, the logic goes that there’s a greater chance of meeting or exexceeding a task’s set DC the higher the skill value.
The problem with the skill-DC system is basically that d20. Between two characters with a low differential in a particular skill, a random roll on the die could see a ranger succeeding in a History check, while a bard fails the same. In some sense, that doesn’t seem right. From an RP perspective, a one specialist class should never get blindsided by a more generalist class in a particular skill. The reason this happens (aside from the die) is that the DC is usually presented as an absolute, or if a sliding value, based on external or environmental factors (such as terrain, available equipment, etc). Breaking down a door has the same DC for everyone, be it a hulking barbarian or a diminutive gnome, remembering the name of a powerful wizard has the same DC regardless of a character’s reasons for knowing that name, and so on.
I understand now that I was enacting a bias in this week’s session. On one hand, a ranger — eagle eyed and always on point for distinguishing elements — maybe, logically, should have had some kind of advantage in dealing with that panel, the same way the bard was granted consideration for pulling all that lore out of recessed memory. I do recall that at the time, having the bard remember something just made sense, but the DC of figuring out the panel was left at the “one size fits all” recommended by the module documentation.
My thought, then, was to treat DCs on a per-character, per-class, per-race basis. A bard should have a lower DC for tasks involving history, lore, and myths than most other classes. A ranger should have an easier time on observation and situational awareness tasks. Conversely, an elf might know more about elven ruins than a bard simply because the elf would have grown up with stories of ancient racial homelands, while the bard might have just heard rumors. Ideally, skills should be set to model this, but it doesn’t seem that the D&D skill system is robust enough to reflect the kinds of life experiences that come with being specialists that a class-based system is meant to represent. If we’re talking about a role playing game, then it makes sense that a particular role should have intangible advantages based on the situation and that character’s class and race.
Of course, this could go way off the reservation and create a party of uber-specialists. If the bard is the best at history, and fails, then why should anyone else try if they’re going to have a more difficult time of it? I get antsy when only a few players participate in a check that everyone could and probably should be participating in, especially if the party sees the initial rolls coming in low. Sometimes, being a generalist is a Good Thing because you’re not locked into one character, one task, one role as the lynchpin for success. Setting a sliding DC scale doesn’t prevent people from trying, though, and maybe if a specialist fails his or her role, the assistance mechanic could come into play to allow the specialist to help someone else with the task.
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With Arauthator off somewhere else after taking a beating from the Adventure Co. Adventuerers, the party was free to move about the berg in search of Maccath the Crimson.
Maccath’s hut was a that of a desert nomad, constructed of tapestries and thick carpets over whale ribs, all situated in the center of a frozen cavern in the middle of an iceberg floating in an arctic sea. Unsure of what they were looking at when they found it, the waladin sent in one of his familiars to scout things out.
The tiefling’s domicile was filled with books and scrolls and artifacts strewn about in stereotypical “mad genius” fashion. The mage herself was seated at the only piece of actual furniture in the room, a desk that looked like it was pillaged from a sea captain’s cabin. When the party entered, she was hard at work doing…something. Something magical, but something that fizzled in a spectacular explosion of light and ash.
“I assume you’re the ones who took care of the dragon?” she said with familiarity. “I guess that’s my cue to pack up and leave.”
Without wasting any time, Maccath started moving about the room, shoving tomes and parchments into bags, forcing them on party members as she went. She explained her situation in brief, but paused her work when asked about the draakhorn.
“Oh, the draakhorn, eh? Sorry to say that you missed it by about six months. A gang of men in purple robes had a discussion with Arauthator, and then left with the horn. I have no idea what they said or what they offered in exchange, but I have no idea where they took it.”
Once all of Maccath’s studies were collected, the group set out for the Ice Hunter village where they received as much of a heroes welcome as the northern tribe could muster. The old shaman was overwhelmed with gratitude, while the Chief begrudgingly acknowledged that they did a Good Thing. On the way out, the party demolished the effigy in ice that Arauthator had erected at the top of the stairs, and the party followed the Ice Hunters in fleeing Oyaviggaton for the last time.
Back in the trading port of Ironmaster, the party grew concerned about Maccath’s hoard of ancient magical writings. The waladin opted to disguise himself, secure a key to Maccath’s room at the inn, and absconded with her work back to his own room where the party began an investigation into the contents of the bags and boxes that were taken from Oyaviaggton. Many of the scrolls and books contained spells, and many were lost histories of ancient civilizations. But there was enough deciphered that the party began to question the sanity of allowing Maccath to return these items to the Arcane Brotherhood at the Hosttower.
Just as they reached their conclusion, a furious banging sounded. “Who’s there?” the bard casually asked.
“You know damn well who it is!” Maccath shouted, and before anyone moved to act, the door to the room burst into flames, and quickly settled into ash. The tiefling stood in the doorway with visible anger, followed closely behind by Lerustah, the captain of the Frostskimmr, and several members of his crew.
+ + +
Once the chapter’s “big bad” has been dealt with, everything else is just exposition. The party had free reign of the interior of the berg (more or less, as the creatures loyal to the dragon were already on their way out once they sensed their boss was hurtin’ for certain) and were able to quickly find Maccath. She was eager to beat cheeks, since she’d been magically limited to just two caverns for three years. During her travels with the party, she explained how she’d made a deal with the dragon: he’d allow her to study the ancient artifacts that had been taken from the Hosttower over 100 years ago during the Time of Troubles, and in exchange she would agree to serve as the companion of Arauthator’s mate Arveiaturace, who had become so attached to her former mage-companion that she refused to remove his corpse from the saddle that she still wore. Maccath figured that there was enough material to study for a few years, during which time she was confident she’d be able to figure out a means of escape. Three years and five adventurers later, she got her wish.
This was a RP heavy session, since the party was basically moving in the direction of Waterdeep. They had to make a layover at Ironmaster, the arctic trading post where Ice Hunters and travelers from the south met to do business.
The waladin in particular seemed to drive a sentiment of distrust of the tiefling, and at one point was called a racist (by the waladin player’s wife, no less!), with the rest of the party slowly opting to attempt to prevent the artifacts from being returned to the Hosttower. The ranger said that he’d go along with the plan so long as the materials were turned over to the Council, specifically the members of the Emerald Enclave whom he trusted for obvious, elvish reasons.
This is going to be a classic example of “off script”, why tabletop RPGs are awesome, and why I have a hard time running them. At first, I panicked, not because the players were going off script, but because I could suddenly foresee all manner of…let’s call them “opportunities”…that I knew they weren’t seeing. Some would be good, some would be bad, but then I realized that there’s going to be good and bad throughout the module anyway, and the whole point of playing a TRPG over a CRPG was that players have agency. It’s a collaborative story, and I know that I’ve not always done as good a job at allowing the players to stray into their own territory as I should be doing. They make decisions, I respond to those decisions in as logical a situation as I can muster, given the in-game situation. For example, the party didn’t talk about the fact that Maccath would notice her property missing from her room. Naturally, she’d be pissed that someone stole her stuff, and even more so if she found out that the people who stole it were the same people who just rescued her.
Of course, I must maintain the integrity of the mechanics of the story, even when the players decide to take actions that are unaccounted for. In this, there is no “off script”, and I’m not sure where this falls in the spectrum of DM responsibility. I’m consciously forcing myself not to activate failsafe mechanisms that will put the players back on the module track. The only reason I can think of for doing so is because I’m always worried about my ability to improv a situation — my mind doesn’t work as well or as fast as it used to — and in the end that only cheats the players, and I do NOT want to do that since they’re actually making decisions to make the story their own. However, I also have to consider how the player’s actions might have farther reaching consequences, even if and when they do not. In this case in particular, I can see a definite trajectory based on the player’s current situation. I’m not going to say if it’s good or bad for them, just that it’s something I’m already planning that is actually accounted for in the module itself.
Tropes of the game:
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