Friday, 18 October 2013

Dark Sun Marauders (Season 3, Appendix 2)

Now that we have finished our DnD group's latest game (a Dark Sun adventure revolving around the heroes defending the city of Tyr from an oncoming Urik army, setting up to make a siege; look back to read them all!), I thought I'd spend some time looking at some of the alternate mechanics I used in the game.  
The final night of our monthly Dark Sun game came after I had been reading a lot about 13th Age.  I'd grabbed the book, kicked myself multiple times after finding out that I'd missed an awesome Kickstarter for the second book, and thoroughly immersed myself into working out how these new ideas could come and change my games for the better.

The party had returned from Raam, three dray heroes alongside them, ready to break the siege on Tyr.  Even if it weren't the final session in the campaign arc, this was the time for a climactic battle.  Players wanted to see threads resolved (such as what had happened to the Orb of Dust, stolen from them many sessions ago); players wanted to wade through the Urik army, scattering the lower-level, inferior forces before their trained and honed might; and players wanted to take down the leaders of the force, focus on the top-dogs of the invading army, and fight against someone of their own skill.  In all, not too much to ask, right?

The Soldiers
I wanted an effective way for the players to feel like they were cutting through multitudes of enemy soldiers who were ill-equipped to stand up against their heroic might.  Well, 4e has minions, so I used them!  And, for what they are, they work...most of the time.  Minions are great for easily killing, but some classes clearly are more effective at minion-pruning than others.  The warlock (who had taken more of a controller role, had focused on having a few area / blast attacks) could easily wade through ranks of the enemies, but the barbarian took down one or two a round.

Expecting this to be the case, I utilised 13th Age's "mooks" for the second battle.  Liet might have been spectacular in part 1, but part 2 was all for Kuoroar!!  Even without criticalling, it felt much more like a goliath champion cutting through waves of inferior troops with his fullblade swinging wildly.

To change things up for the third encounter, I used a version of Pathfinder's Troops rules, modified for 4e.  Essentially, they are a swarm of large creatures (soldiers, in this case!), and moved as a mass.  They were sturdy as a group, no longer as easily dismissed as the first two waves were, but they still went down reasonably well (as they were meant to).

The general idea of the different soldier types was to experience different aspects of being "great big heroes" against waves of enemies.  Blasting through them, slicing five guys with one sword-sweep, and then one mul fighter standing toe-to-toe with twenty soldiers.  The heroes took a beating (which is only fair, considering how many they were fighting against), but they were always pressing onwards, always slogging through the enemy.  During the third act, I even stated that they had many more of the 'minion-like' troops running around, but they no longer even posed a threat.  The soldiers acknowledged the heroes' superiority, and moved about them to fight troops more their level, and the heroes didn't worry about the soldiers, looking instead to the movers and shakers of the opposing side.

Small Icons
Another idea I have taken from 13th Age is the Icon Relationships. However, as I was using the idea for one might only, and didn't feel like reinventing the setting, I linked them to the NPCs they had been rescuing.  And then changed the mechanics quite a bit.  Really, the only things I kept were the d6 roll and that they were about another NPC!

For the second encounter, each player would roll a d6 to see how the three dray champions were doing.  On a 6, they'd do something really great, which would help out the battle they were having (such as a fly-by lightning attack, or raising some of the dead into undead servants).  On a 5, they may do something helpful, but at a cost (eg the NPC would be 'out' for a while, or one of the NPC followers would be lost).  With a few rolls each, these added excitement and interesting story telling opportunities, especially as I continued to use the d6 rolls for each player to report on how another unit was doing elsewhere in the combat.  A few nasty rolls seemed to call for a couple of their allies to be left behind, too wounded to go onwards.

When we return to Dark Sun (and even before then, in our next campaigns!), I'll be sure to invest in the icon idea again.  I'm not sure I will create the icons for the players, but rather ask them who they think are the big important characters in the setting, and how their characters relate to them.

Movers and Shakers
Of course, the other big event they wanted was to deal with this "Orb of Dust" thing.  So clearly, I had it return...along with two other Orbs they knew nothing of.  The biggest surprise for me in this part of the game was how willing the PCs were to go along with the dray's commands.  After months (in game, and in real life) of hunting and wondering about the Orb, they finally had it in their grasp...and then handed it over to someone else.

Now, knowing your ally is a dray is one thing; knowing that they are an undead dray is surely more concerning.  But Liet had lost his Sorcerer King, and was still struggling for someone with whom to make a pact.  Beren was moments away from being killed (and reanimated) when the first orb was exchanged; by the time they handed over the second, he was working on the dray's side.  And Kuoroar!? Well, he was also pretty beat-up, and wasn't about to go against everyone else.

So even though I had the option of fighting the dray, it didn't come up, for they elected instead to go along with their demands.  Instead, they fought off the others, planning to survive long enough for the enemy army to be broken by the death of its commander - which they (and it) did.

The three Orb-holders (Thakok-An, Maetan Lubar, and the dray champion, Rhyleighi) each came with their personal elemental beast (Sandstorm Vortex for the Orb of Dust, and an Earth and Fire elemental for the Orbs of Flame and Stone).  It is only too apparent what happens to solitary enemies in DnD, and I didn't want an anti-climatic stun or dominate to end the night.

The elementals were huge, imposing creatures that kept the party distracted whilst not actually being the main threat. On the other hand, once Thakok-An's was relieved of her orb, her Vortex vanished, and she was pretty much out of the battle, which proved to be an added bonus for the PCs vanquishing her!  And as can be read about here, the Earth Elemental had a most interesting time whilst being dominated and stabilising a dying PC...moments before it came back to its senses, and pulverised the squishy mul.

In the end, I enjoyed taking some outside ideas and merging them with the system as written.  I look forward to using elements of 13th Age in future games, especially for the simpler things such as Mooks and Icons.  (Indeed, I will eventually get around to writing up another post just about those ideas!)  Importantly, the players also enjoyed the varied elements, and they all worked together to create a better story.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Dark Sun Marauders (Season 3, Appendix 1)

Now that we have finished our DnD group's latest game (a Dark Sun adventure revolving around the heroes defending the city of Tyr from an oncoming Urik army, setting up to make a siege; look back to read them all!), I thought I'd spend some time looking at some of the alternate mechanics I used in the game.  
Back when the party had to defend the front gate of Tyr against the approaching Urik army, I wanted them to feel a sense of urgency about the operation.  I had toyed with the idea of increasing waves of minions, of minions being replaced with more able troops, or other clear mechanical threats, but had decided against it.  Depending on who was present at the game that night, the numbers and types of enemies needed would vary greatly.  Plus, most players have a tendency to not want to withdraw, no matter what the threat, and instead carve through every one of the soldiers before them.  That way could lead to much unwanted bloodshed.

There was an option to have some NPCs included, whom they would need to recover, protect, and defend whilst guiding them back inside the city walls.  I still think that could work, but there's a fine line between spending actions to rescue / guide NPCs, and being bored / grumpy because you couldn't use your latest powers.  I didn't want to go there, either.

The third option felt a lot better.

I have recently been getting heavily into collecting the LotR Lego sets - because Lord of the Rings is awesome, and Lego is awesome, why else?  I started out getting just the Helm's Deep set, trying to convince myself that that was enough.  Then, went about collecting them all.  At the time of my game preparation, I had just put together (with the help of my daughter, who actually builds most of each set!) my latest set: the Battle at the Black Gate.  I wasn't going to draw any analogies between Mordor and Tyr, but both the Lego set and my adventure had a shared focal point: a set of gates!

As I told the group about the situation (the broken gate, the enemy scouts outside, the folk working hard on repairs), I cleared out the map, dumped most of the Lego set at one side, and set up the miniatures.  I left pieces together, but broke apart most of the rest of it, so it had both the feel of destruction, and vague hints at what it once was.  Then I handed over the instructions, and told them that the enemy would stop (and they could retreat) once the wall was reconstructed.

The enemies they faced were simple enough: halfling forest runners with a headhunter, and a silt shark thrown in to stir things up.  Naturally, to go along with the theme, the forest runners were the hobbits (Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin), and the headhunter was a dwarf (Fili, I think).  I even found one of my old "Pirate" theme sharks, and enough Lego flat boards to base them all, and the group had the threat of Lego on either side!

Before the game, I had thought of having restrictions on how many players could help with the construction at any one time, but once we were in it, I realised that that would have slowed things down, and largely been unnecessary. There was one player who is (like me) a keen and avid Lego enthusiast, and happily (for him and the other players) took care of the majority of the work.  Each round, players felt the tension between wanting to kill the enemy, but also wanting to play it safe and defend themselves long enough for the wall to be repaired.  There were enough calls of "Ooh, quickly!" that I felt the building exercise served to heighten the experience, and the feedback was all positive.

In all, the added excitement from a secondary challenge during the encounter worked well.  Rather than taking away from PC's actions, it worked by giving players who were not currently participating something else to focus on and work at, which could easily be put down when their turn rolled around.  The challenge was different enough that the 'new shiny' worked well, and though fun, is not something I would use every encounter, every session, or even every campaign.  But, will I use Lego in my games again?  (Have you not read about what my daughter chose for her character's representation?) Well, it just so happens that I have this nice ship... and our next campaign is going to be an Eberron based...pirate game.  Stay tuned for more!

Friday, 4 October 2013

Dark Sun Marauders (Season 3, Chapter 10)

These posts are from our DnD group's latest game.  The current adventure is a return to the world of Dark Sun.  In the previous seasons (the first run by me, the second run by Richard), the party were involved with hunting through Kalak's pyramid, confirming if the Sorcerer-King was truly dead, and retrieving the Orb of Dust.  The group has now returned to Tyr to find it fully under siege - but they have an advantage against the invading Urik army: three Dray champions of old!

With the rising sun, the plans for their attack were made.  The ever-unsleeping Valentin had broken the petrification enchantment upon Rhyleighi, releasing the quite-alive dray from his two and a half centuries of stony sleep.  Kulo, explained what he knew of the situation within Tyr - mainly, that though the city army were ready to attack, they could not open the gates and get outside without being slaughtered, letting the Urik army in, or (most likely) both.  They needed the army to be focused elsewhere.  And that's where the team came in.

With the Urik army spread out between them and Tyr, they were in prime position to attack its unprotected back, close by the command tents.  Alyshialynn was to move along, killing those she could, and raising them as undead soldiers under her command.  Sadhbh would take to the air, delivering strafing runs, and press towards the siege weaponry being built to harass the city.  Kuoriar!, Liet, Beren and Paelias were to attack more directly, whilst Rhyleighi would join the other adventurers - Kulo, Pieter, Kal-kin and Tak-tha - and cause a similar distraction.  With multiple attacks close, but not on top of each other, the Urik army would have little time to collect reinforcements.  After adequate harassment, they could all fall back, and discuss their plans further.

Before departing, the dray handed across small items to each of the heroes.  They would grant them extra energy in battle, but they came with a warning: do not use them too much, lest they wipe them out in the long term.  Interestingly, Rhyleighi (the only non-undead Dray of the four) was the one who gave the warning, and also confided that the other three used their items too often.

That first skirmish worked well - the Urik guards were unprepared and under trained, and all the teams moved through their forces with ease.  One command tent was destroyed - unfortunately, there were no high-ranking officials, but the destruction left only three more tents waiting.  Sadhbh made it far enough across to set one group of siege engines alight, and the undead presence was felt far after Alyshialynn returned to the others.  There were losses, though, with Tak-tha being grievously injured, and contact to Garidias being lost (though Valentin ensured them that the eladrin had merely taken the long way around the enemy army).

By the time they had regrouped, recovered, and discussed their next assault, the Urik army was ready.  More seasoned troops had moved into position, and their training showed, in how they could turn the blows, and in how they approached their enemy.  This fight was looking dire, but thankfully, a few well-timed fly-by attacks from Sadhb, along with two squads of Alyshialynn's undead, turned the battle in their favour.  Indeed, the harassment had caused a decidedly large hole in the Urik army, and they were failing to get reinforcements there quickly enough.  The gates of Tyr opened, their soldiers pouring out to meet many troops who had turned around to face the surprise thread, and now fell in the confusion.

Whilst striking out towards the third command tent, another target came across them.  A solitary figure, walking through the masses of troops, with a whirling sandstorm clearing the path before her.  It looked as if she, too, was headed for the command tent, but Liet only knew that she must have the Orb of Dust...and thus, he must take her down.

Pushing their way through the otherwise-engaged spearmen, Kuoroar! and Beren took on two heavy squads of troops, whilst Liet squeezed his way past, focusing on the figure.  Paelias, as always, supported them from a safe distance.

The figure - who, once she was close enough, was revealed to be Thakok-An, the very same Templar who had stolen the Orb of Dust from before their faces only a few months ago -  seemed uninterested in them, and continued working her way towards the command tent.  Liet was not about to have her get away, not with his Orb, and so raced after her.  Invisible, he walked up behind her, and said "You have my orb."  Sadly, Thakok-An did not agree, instead dominating the lesser Templar, and sending him running wildly back to the others.

But his actions served to catch her attention, and now she, as well as her elemental whirlwind, focused on the group.  This allowed Liet another chance; if simply asking did not work, he now reverted to commanding.  Dominating the Templar in return was a hard task, but he only needed the upper hand for a moment, long enough to get Thakok-An to throw the orb to her.  From that moment, without her artefact, Thakok-An was defeated.  And she would have died, too, were it not for the arrival of two others, each with their own Orbs, and their own bound elementals.

The first to arrive was Rhyleigh, though his possession of an Orb was not apparent until after Liet had obediently handed her newly claimed orb to the dray.  Holding the Orb of Dust in one hand, and the Orb of Flame in the other, the dray touched them together, causing them to merge together and form one swirling, sandy, hot orb.

But the Urik army was not about to let the orbs go without a fight.  Maetan Lubar, along with his high command and a heavy earth elemental, arrived on the scene as Thakok-An was making a hurried retreat.  "You fools!", she cried, "I was fighting the Urik army with you!"  Whilst the titans raged, and the dray and army general battled, those in the middle tried hard to stay on their feet.  Beren went down, as the earth elemental crashed into him on one side, and a momentarily-dominated Kouroar! hit him on the other.  Liet, already weakened from his mental battle against Thakok-An, collapsed from the collateral damage, but not before once more asserting his will upon an opponent - this time, on the earth elemental itself.  For a moment, the creature's control was ripped from the Orb of Stone, and it bent down to stabilise Beren's bleeding form, but with Liet unconscious, the command didn't last. Moments later, ten tons of rock in the rough shape of a foot came crushing down onto the mul's body, and the last drops of life were squashed out of him.

Paelias had managed to rouse Liet, but Maetan had wrestled control of Rhyleigh's fire elemental, and seemed to have gained the upper hand.  Kuoroar was trying to upset the general's advantage, but he had little energy left.  Managing to slip away from the earth elemental, Liet put his all into one final attack, barely managing to throw out the burst of psychic energy before he felt like collapsing from the effort.  But that final blast was all that was needed: Maetan fell screaming, hands clutching at his head.  The orb rolled along the battlefield, stopping at Kuoroar!'s feet, and as the general's cries dropped away to a brainless blubbering, the half-giant picked up the heavy stone sphere.  Behind him, Beren raised himself off the ground, though it was clear to all that he had not miraculously recovered.  The same grizzly wounds were apparent on his body as were on the undead dray, and the same dead eyes now looked out of his head.

"Give it to me," Rhyleigh said softly.  "Give it to me, and let us end this siege here, now."  Not seeing any other option, Kuoroar! handed the orb across, and watched as Rhyleigh melded it with the other.  With the combined powers of the Orbs of Dust, Flame and Stone now at his control, none on the battlefield could stand against him.  Though skirmishes continued on for the better part of the day, the battle had been won.  With their commanded dead, those Urik soldiers that could turned and fled back to their city.  Some made it, others were cut down before the could get far enough from Tyr.  Many more were lost in the desert, left to die without food or water, or picked up by travelling bands of slavers.  Some became food for the various creatures of the desert - a few, food for small tribes of halflings.  Whatever their fate, the siege of Tyr was over, and the Urik army had effectively been decimated; it would be many years before the Sorcerer King Hamanu would be able to gather such a large force - if not centuries.

The dray did not stay long after the battle had been won.  Nor did they leave the three-in-one Orb.  The news of their pressing urgency took it's time to reach Tyr, but as with all news, it eventually found its way there, passed from refugee to merchant to soldier to traveler... the city of Raam had fallen.  Absalom, the so-called "first of the Dray", had torn through it within hours of the hero's adventure there.  He had raised up an army from those he had slain, much like Alyshialyn, and along with ranks of other dray, had set the city ablaze, not intending to allow a single survivor to escape.  The other dray champions had returned to him, to work under him, and root out every last survivor.  Some tales spoke of Abalach-Re escaping the destruction, but just as many claimed she fell when the four champions and their powerful Orb cornered her in her garden palace.

Liet and Kuoroar! slowly recovered from the use of the dray's stones, though it took days.  The dray left the magical devices with them, perhaps because they didn't care, perhaps because they were now attuned to the heroes, or perhaps to serve as a continual temptation.  Liet especially found his thoughts drifting back to it, wondering just how it linked him to his new pact-masters.  Indeed, working out how he drew strength from the dray at all, with them so far removed, was something he would have to think about carefully.

Kuoroar! had an easier time distancing himself from the stone, though he couldn't bring himself to throw it away or destroy it.  Though, every time he looked into Beren's dead eyes, he was reminded of the danger of power.  For the dray had left Beren behind - undead, like them, but slowly acting more like his old self as time went by.  That was, apart from the whole "living" bit.  He had his own free will, and his body even looked normal once he had rested.  But his any that had known him previously, the pale grey eyes now staring out at them were unnerving at best, and down-right freaky at other times.  Unlike the others, Beren had no choice when it came to the dray's stone - it was attached to him, and couldn't be removed.  Liet assumed that if it were removed, he would revert to the "plain old dead" state, so experiments along that line were stopped.

But for now, Tyr was calm, safe, and slowly rebuilding itself.  The outer sand-flats were scattered with dead, too many even for the local inix to feed off. In time, the sand would bury them, or the sand storms would erode them.  They had been quickly picked clean of valuables, and now just lay as a reminder to the other city-states of the folly of attacking Tyr, the free city.