Saturday, January 27, 2018

GM Notes - Morgansfort Session 4

After resting and healing at the Iron Helm Inn, the day starts early for the party as Lorynn (the innkeep) knocks on the door letting them know they have a visitor downstairs. Nyphus, shirtless and freshly-awakened, goes down to see who it is. An older man is waiting for him in the lobby. He introduces himself as Thelan Taramedes and wishes to speak with the party about their recent trips to the Old Island Fortress. Nyphus is a bit suspicious and surly with him, but accepts an invitation to the gentleman’s house across the square for lunch.

After rising and gearing up, the party walk across the fort’s square to a small abode with a rune etched on its door. Thelan answers the door, invites them in and begins to question the party as to what they found in the fortress. They are cagey at first, but open up once he explains that he was once an adventuring wizard, now retired. They recount their recent adventures in the fortress. He seems very interested by their finding of the lab of Mordoch the Mage. He asks if they still have the Mage’s journal, to which they reply they do not.  He offers them 100 gps to go and retrieve the book. When they tell him about the sheep-headed riddle creature he seems incredulous before determining that they in fact encountered a Curseling. He tells them it is a creature of fairy tale nightmares, a lesser demon who enters the world through the shadows of those who died while not touching the ground (particularly the hanged). Thelan seems rattled by this information and not as interested in the journal. In fact, he tells them he plans to leave Morgansfort in two days for good. If they do not return with the journal by then, he will be gone. He begins to start packing his belongings as if in a panic.

A knock sounds on the door. Baronet Halden Rathwynn accompanied with a small squad of guards are in search of the party and heard from Lorynn they were at Thelan’s. The party follows Halden to the inner keep of the fort where he brings them up to his rooms. There they meet Bailiff Tomandy who, along with the Baronet, questions them about what they’ve found at the fortress. They recount their adventures, including the nightmares and the haunted nature of the fortress. They mention Grelda, but neither man seems to know who she is. It’s the mention of the presence of goblins and kobolds that gets their attention. They seem annoyed that the party let one of the goblins go. Halden and the Bailiff wrap up the interview, thank them for the information, pay them each 15 gps, and tell them to leave the fortress to the garrison of Morgansfort. Mel asks what they plan to do about the island fortress. They calmly explain that they plan to route the fortress out completely the following day, burn the entire grounds, and seal off the dungeons below forever. They ignore the party’s warnings and send them off.

The party regroups and decides to head to the fortress one last time to retrieve Mordoch’s journal for Thelan. On the way to get their gear Mel stops into the noon service at Chapel of St. Queril where a packed congregation listens to the ceremony being given by Father Thelbain. A brazier of incensed offering fills the chapel with scented mist. Mel recognizes the scent as an herbal healing agent and the ceremony itself as a spell of calming and forgetfulness  (Remove Fear) being cast over the residents of the fort en masse. She rejoins the group who head out.

The see Grelda outside her house again, working in her garden. They approach her, tell her they know her to be a witch, and warn of the Baronet and Bailiff’s plan to burn the island down the next day. Grelda is nonplussed, but doesn’t seem to be frightened of the soldiers. She tells the party is the sister of Maien Brai, the herbalist, and aunt to her daughter, Jyni. She has come to the area to try to convince them to return east with her to their homeland. She mentions that Jyni has shown great facility in the art and promises to become a great witch. She bades them goodbye and begins to hustle herself to prepare for the next few days.

The party row across the river and portage the boat in the weeds on the hill. They enter the fortress and find a group of five small children dancing and genuflecting in the stone arcade both to the fountain’s statue and the altar atop the mini-ziggurat. Pater is the only party member who realizes that these children are in fact Kobolds wearing something leathery on their faces. He tells the others, breaking the spell. Creeping closer it becomes apparent that the kobolds are wearing skin masks of small humans, likely children. Nyphus and Mel attack from the front while Pater and Renic skirt around the columnade and attack with surprise from the side. They kill all five and take the horrid masks for consecration later.

They enter the dungeon. In the antechamber of the first room chains rattle and Ghazold appears out of the shadows. He smiles evilly at the party and ascends again to his ceiling perch becoming invisible. The party move around to the side of the room avoiding the middle under Ghazold. They head around the pit trap outside the dead Stirges’ room down the stairs to the west. They move past the bulk of the dead centipedal worm creature which seems to have pieces of it removed. They enter the dining hall which is still heavy with the musk of the dead apes. They continue eastward into Mordoch’s lab and retrieve the journal. They leave the room intending to return to the fort as soon as possible and deliver the book to Thelan before he skips town.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

GM Notes - Morgansfort Session 3

Here continues the adventure of the Old Island Fortress where our party has just escaped a chamber of gray ooze.

Adventure Recap/Synopsis:

The party finds itself on the other side of a hidden door safely cut off from the ooze in the previous dungeon chamber. The passage runs north ahead of them at least 60 feet trailing off into darkness, but also splits off into a side passage to the east, ten feet ahead of them. Pater scouts the corridor straight ahead. Just beyond the reach of the torch light of the group he sees a small child shaking up ahead speaking in a language he can’t understand. The child is motioning for Pater to stay away and to not come near him. Pater reports back to the group. Mel attempt to talk to the strange child next, but after getting closer the child begins convulsing and blood begins to stream out of its orifices dissolving into a pulpy mess that evaporates into the air. No trace is left of the apparition.

Another child’s voice is heard asking for help from the side passage to the east, this time the language is in the common tongue. After some discussion the group heads down the side passage to the east. This corridor opens up after 30 feet into a dark 20’ x 20’ room with a corridor open to the south. A small figure is curled up in the fetal position weeping on a wedge-shaped platform next to a large chest in the northeast corner. Several nooses hang from the high ceilings above. The party engage the “child” who suddenly stops weeping and rises to reveal itself to be a 7’ tall, slender being. Its head is like an elongated sheep’s skull with a spiky mane of hair on top. Its flesh is a translucent syrup color with its black bones and liquid organs seen underneath. It speaks a wry welcome.

The party attacks, but blows that should cause damage seem to have no effect. The creature says, “Let’s play a game, shall we?” It proposes a deal. It explains that the way ahead as well as the way back all end in dead ends. “There are nothing but dead ends down here.” It proposes a game. It will ask the party three riddles. If they get one right, it will show them the way out. If they fail to guess one answer correctly, it will eat them. With little recourse, they submit.

Riddle 1:

I have a bad reputation,
Yet I have freed slaves,
Helped battered wives escape,
Sometimes I admit
I’ll get a killer out of jail,
But I have been known
To help the mad and sick.
Kings too,
More than a few, I have released from jams.
I will never discriminate
And the darker things seem
The closer I will be.

(Taken from Fire On The Velvet Horizon, by Patrick Stuart and Scrap Princess.)

The party guesses death. It’s a near miss. The creature informs them the answer is “suicide” and counts one for his column.

Riddle 2:

I will wait
For those who left me here
Where the path divides
Between heaven and earth.
I went up, but
I won’t come down again.
The crow knows me.

(Taken from Fire On The Velvet Horizon, by Patrick Stuart and Scrap Princess.)

The party guesses a hanged man, the correct answer. The creature seems delighted and promises to show them the way out, but asks if they will indulge him in one more riddle since he rarely gets to talk to people.

Riddle 3:

My makers hate me
I am a neat small size
And take less work to make.
They give me what they loved,
I keep it safe.
They visit all the time,
But hate coming.
I make them cry.

(Taken from Fire On The Velvet Horizon, by Patrick Stuart and Scrap Princess.)

Again, the party guesses correctly, “a child’s grave.” The creature signals for the party to follow it down the south passage. After 60’ the passage ends in an old stone wall. The beast entreats them to walk through the wall which when pushed reveals itself a cloth tapestry painted convincingly as a wall. The party walk through and the beast leaves them to return to its lair.

They find themselves in a 30’ x 30’ room with doors to the east, south, and west. The eastern door has a rune etched into it that looks like a bass clef. With some effort the door opens into a brief antechamber with a second door that is open and unlocked. The room inside is 20’ x 20’, its walls covered in raving gibberish and nonsensical graffiti written in coal. The room is a wreck with the contents of empty bookshelves scattered around the room. Various glass vials are smashed and a slight smell of sulfur hangs in the air. Two tables covered in rot, papers, and debris stand in the middle of the room, a brazier is in the southeast corner, a desk in the southwest. A journal sits on the desk. It is filled with more crazed ramblings with the exception of the last passage:     

“To those who may read this in the days to come… I, Mordoch the Mage, am leaving this as a warning to those who may find themselves within these walls of madness. I came here six moon cycles ago to conduct my research in isolation. I could sense great power here which was ripe for the tapping. Unfortunately, it has driven me half-mad. In this momentary lucidity I implore all those who value their reason to leave this place before it corrupts your sanity. What I can tell you is this: this island fortress is doubly haunted.

This may be one of the earliest places of worship in all the Western Lands. Reading the scrolls in the outer crypt I learned much that has been lost for centuries. Millennia ago, an ancient culture worshiped the evil reptilian god of Shah Gzerohn. They sacrificed many innocents here, a cult of child eaters raising them like crops attempting to lure their evil god to this plane.

Something wiped this culture out and this site lie dormant for many years. Then a couple of hundred years later a barbarian clan settled here on the island to escape the great plague that ravaged these lands at that time. Holed-up inside, the spirits drove them mad. The stain of evil infected them and they began to cannibalize their own children one winter when their stores ran out. In their moments of sanity (like mine now), their guilt destroyed them and they burned themselves alive as penance.

The barbarian chieftain sleeps down the hall beyond the bronze doors. He is guarded by the dead. Ghazold will need to wait until later for me. I will come back for him once I am well again. If he gets free before then he will inevitably come after me. I fear I made him too powerful. But I am rambling. It is time to go before I regress into madness again.

Oh… and I think a Cursling* has crept in here.”

The party spends the night in the room, spiking the door shut, resting and healing. In the morning they venture through the western door which leads to a short hallway ending in another door. This small passage reeks of animal. The second door opens to a long chamber filled will dining tables and refuse. The pungent smell of animal waste fills the air. Two huge carnivorous apes attack from the shadows. The party dispatches them. Renic finds shackles against the northern wall imprinted with the same rune that marked Mordoch’s door. He makes the intuitive connection between the apes and the creation of Ghazold. The room is littered with the bones of small humanoids, but nothing of value.

The chamber exits west into a passage which turns northward. Pater scouts ahead and is attacked by an enormous centipedal creature coming out from an adjacent passage to the west. The party dispatches this creature as well and heads in the direction the long, worm-like beast came from. The passage leads to a stairway leading up northwards.

Back on the first floor of the dungeon the party head north again and reach a room. Pater listens at the door and can only hear voices. The door is locked and Pater fails to open it. Others try to break it down. The door suddenly swings open and two ugly goblins answer. They appear scared and on edge. After a brief testy exchange they attack. One falls and the other nearly dies before begging for its life. It says it will show them the way out of the dungeon if they spare him. He explains that his party of Goblins were attacked, overcome, and split up from a tribe of kobolds. The goblin, named Karznov, seems terrified mentioning the kobolds.

He takes them south, then east, around the trap door outside the Stirges’ room and into Ghazold’s chamber where his chains hang by themselves. As they leave exiting up the long stone corridor leading out into the ancient temple, they hear a croaking laugh follow them.

The party lets the goblin go telling him not to return. They return to Morgansfort, empty-handed in terms of treasure.

*(The riddle creature is the Curseling which was taken from Fire On The Velvet Horizon, by Patrick Stuart and Scrap Princess. Buy it here. It's pretty awesome.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

GNS Musings

I first encountered Ron Edwards' GNS theory of role-playing through watching videos by YouTubers IvanMike1968 and Runeslinger. While I was AWOL from gaming the past few decades I missed what were apparently some stupendous flame wars in and about Edwards' DIY indie gaming site, The Forge. I don't pretend to have more than a passing knowledge of Mr. Edwards or his theory so I don't proclaim myself as any expert on any of it.

From what I understand the theory goes something like this: RPG gamers are divided into three camps, gamists, narrativists, and the simulationists. Each camp has their own creative agenda when they come to the table, or more plainly, they're all looking for a different experience when they game. In broad strokes, the gamist wants to compete "to win," the narrativist considers the creation of a player-driven story to be most important, and the simulationist most values immersion in their character. At least that's what I think I've been able to ascertain.

Whether or not you agree with this system of classification, it's worthwhile to acknowledge that not everyone has the same motivations for why they like to play RPGs. We all have our own ideas about where the fun lies in these games. When people with different goals game together it can be problematic. But does it have to be?

I ask myself this because I'm generally an introspective person and I'm naturally curious what camp I would fall into. Strangely, I'm not sure. There are aspects of each that at least, on the surface, seem compelling. However many proponents of this theory argue these agendas are mutually exclusive. I don't know how I feel about that. Human beings are perfectly capable of holding conflicting, even contradictory, motives or beliefs. It's part of what makes us such interesting, complex creatures. Also, I wonder if my goals would be the same as a player and a GM, or if I would have different agendas depending on what side of the table I'm sitting on.

I don't think I fit into narrativism. I like creating a good story, but I'm not driving towards some preconceived idea of a satisfying narrative. I want to play to find out what happens, even if that doesn't make a particularly compelling story. I don't particularly care for the actor-turned-author stance where a character's story arc is more important than the dice. Again, at least as far as I'm able to understand this agenda.

I think I would have characterized my younger self as a gamist, not only because I was interested in seeing my character advance in levels, but additionally because I wanted, as a player, to cleverly figure things out and to be rewarded for playing well. I had little use for in-character role-play, usually favoring first-person exposition over direct dialogue. Now, I find myself drawn more towards simulationism, where playing a role well is its own reward regardless of how much XP or GPs are involved. That said, I think I can still have fun even if I'm not fully immersed. What's interesting are the questions, can our creative agendas expand or even change over time, or do our perceptions of our true motivations change?

I've also begun trying to analyze where the players at my current table fit into this theory and how compatible their motivations may be with my own. So far, we've all had a good time during the games I've run, but I have noticed a little strain. One of my friends would definitely be a gamist as a player. His level of fun seems directly related to how well his character is doing in-game. If he's killing a lot of monsters and accomplishing tasks, he's happy. If his character is on his last couple of hit points and having a hard time hitting anything, he gets mopey. He begged to play a Paladin despite my initial suggestion we stick to the four core classes. He wanted the extra powers, but later mock-complained about needing more XP than everyone else to level up.

Interestingly enough, this friend has run a couple of games I've played in (4e and DCC), and he had a very railroad-y approach to the game. He wrote his adventures out as a series of story scenes that the PCs had to hit. His satisfaction depended on the players running through the story as he designed it. Once I heard about the GNS model, I recognized pretty quickly how different our play styles were once I had the vocabulary to articulate it. The question remains, is there enough overlap between us to play together? Or does the fact that we're very good, old friends smooth over any of the potential sticking points?

I guess what I try to focus on are the places where our play styles do overlap. Despite driving "to win," my friend is an excellent role-player, very comfortable with in-character dialogue and eager to play through a scene versus waiting to roll dice. He also enjoys when he can become immersed and is nonplussed if another player upon hearing the description of a creature says, "Oh, it's Stirges." There are also shared preferences outside of creative agendas where we can find common ground - for instance genre, session pacing, and tone (mix of gravitas and humor). We've been able to find a happy medium somewhere in the middle. Whether or not that continues to be the case once his character dies remains to be seen.

The GNS theory is an interesting idea and can be a good shorthand way to figure out if you're on the same wavelength as someone else, possibly saving yourself time and headaches playing with people who aren't looking for the same experience as you. At the same time, I don't think it's the end-all, be-all. These kinds of divisions, whether natural or contrived, tend make people breaks into antagonistic tribes, claiming their way is better than any other.

RPGs already bring out an inner defensiveness in their practitioners possibly due to how vulnerable players are while role-playing. Good role-playing involves a certain amount of trust and openness between players which leave them exposed to criticism, prone to feeling silly. In light of this vulnerability, it can be easy for players to be defensive and insecure of whether they are "doing it right." Sure, RPGs have rules (sometimes lots of them), but in the end, what we're doing is pretty squishy and open to interpretation. That's part of the magic.

I'm not sure if I'll ever make peace with this theory, but if nothing else, it's an interesting exercise which hopefully helps us be honest with ourselves about what we're really after in playing these games.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

GM Notes - Morgansfort Session 2

This second session took place a month after the first which became our normal schedule. I had started running this module as a one-shot, or least intending it to only last a game or two, before we moved onto something of my own. Instead this has turned into a campaign which, after all, is the intention. The open-ended design makes this pretty easy. What follows are my notes as remembered to the best of my ability. There was a lot of role-playing in this session which the party didn't re-enter the dungeon until late into the game. They were only a little way through the actually underground adventure when we had to break for our three-hour hard stop. Like the first recap, I've used the present tense to allow the reader to follow along more easily in their own mind.

Adventure Recap/Synopsis:

The party emerges into mid-afternoon daylight from the dungeon underneath the Old Island Fortress. After a brief discussion, they decide to go back into the dungeon to retrieve the two desiccated bodies found in the room across the hall from the stirges’ nests. They portage the small boat to the other side of the river and find a quiet place to bury the bodies up the hill from Grelda’s cottage.

As they start on the road back to the fort, they spot the same pretty blond girl who was loitering outside the herbalist shop that morning quickly dart into the cottage. Pater attempts to sneak up to the house and listen. The front door opens and the girl asks Pater who he is and what he wants. The rest of the party announce themselves, ask her name, and inquire if Grelda is home. The girl is Jyni. Grelda is her aunt and is out for the moment. She assures the party that she is fine by herself. The party bid her leave and make a pretense of returning back to Morgansfort. Once out of sight of the cottage, the group circle back and hide in a copse of trees behind Grelda’s and wait.

A few hours pass and the group eat, rest, and recuperate from their recent bloody excursion. Mel and Nyphus take it easy in particular. Just as dusk arrives, so too does Grelda. She returns from out of the sky, flying low astride her garden plow. She enters the small cottage and shortly after Jyni exits heading back up the road to the fort.

The party follow Jyni at a distance in the deepening gloom to make sure of her safety. At the gate the adventures are asked if they have any treasure to claim as there is a 10% tax on all treasure returned to the fort from the area. The tax pays for the upkeep of the fort’s military garrison which protects the local farms from bandits and any threat of invasion from evil humanoids. The punishment for shirking the tax by hiding treasure is public flogging. Renik tells the clerk at the gate that any treasure they bring came with them when they first arrived at the fort.

Dinner is had in the tavern and the party heads off for rest. Pater goes to bed early, but wakes in the middle of the night to have a look around. The square is lit up outside from an unseen, omnidirectional light source. Pater sees a man knock and get let into the building next to the tavern. Following the other’s example, Pater knocks and is questioned at the door by a large surly man. He is almost turned away when a voice from inside says, “Oh Bargus, let him in.” Pater enters what appears to be a normal residence, but is lead down a hallway where a bookcase masks a hidden door leading downstairs into a basement. The room is immediately recognizable as an illicit gambling hall (gambling is strictly forbidden in Morgansfort). There is a bar against the right wall and several table where games of chance are being played. Pater sidles up to the bar and asks for a drink. His neighbor on his left tells the barkeep to put it on his tab. That neighbor turns out to be the Baronet Halden Rathwynn. After a short conversation Pater mentions the nightmares of his party members which seems to spook the Baronet who quickly leaves. The barkeep mentions to Pater that the Baronet is a regular who has a bit of a gambling addiction. Pater tries his hand at games with some off-duty soldiers and loses money.

The next day Renik goes to the bank and gets the jewelry the party took out of Island Fortress appraised. The teller questions him where he got them and Renik gruffly mentions something about family heirlooms. He leaves without liquidating the goods.

The party spend the next few days rest up and healing, and prepare to return to the Island Fortress. No nightmares occur. The party enter the dungeon with the intent on dispatching the foul ape-with-a-crow-head, Ghazold. When they reach his octagonal antechamber they see nothing but his empty chains and shackles hanging from the ceiling. Having gone westwards previously, this time the party goes down the east passage which quickly ends with a stuck door. Pater finds no traps on the door itself, but once opened, a trap in the floor immediately opens and Nyphus and Renik fall in 20 feet down taking damage. Pater and Mel spike a rope down, but not before surveying the room above. It is only an empty banquet hall covered in dust. Mel and Pater head down too where they find themselves trapped in the east end of a large, though odd-shaped, room with a gray ooze creeping towards them. Pater scouts the other end of the room and finds no way out. There is a small room off this one separated by bars – bars too close for even small Pater to slip through. Within the small room is a bench with three ceramic flasks and a crate, another door on the north wall. The party engages in combat with the ooze, but to no avail. Arrows and sling stones dissolve on contact and the torch thrown at it sputters, dies out and is absorbed into the mass. The party retreats to the rope, but the trapdoor above them is now shut. Luckily Mel finds a secret door leading out of the room close to where they fell in.

The party finds themselves in a new passage which leads north with another passage heading east 10 feet up. Here we leave our heroes until next session...

A Recommitment to the Blog

Seeing as how it's been a couple of months since my last post, I wanted to give a quick update before posting anything new. I've been doing a lot of reading, thinking about, and actual playing of RPGs the past couple of months. The game I started in September is still going and we've had a blast. I've bought a bunch more OSRs as well as some of the old TSR modules I've never owned. I watched hours of other people playing or discussing different rules or game mechanics and I've done a lot of thinking about my own preferences and biases as it relates to role-playing.

I'm still really enjoying Basic Fantasy, but some of my old reservations from D&D remain around the game. As simple and basic of game as it is, I'm still craving something a little leaner. I've found that as I've gotten older, I need (or want) the rules less and less. So, hopefully without jinxing anything, I'm planning on putting my own rules set together. This is something I intentionally set out not to do when I started gaming again. I didn't want to reinvent the wheel. However, I think it would be nice to have a hard copy of the game as I like to play it. I'd like to self-publish it through Lulu or CreateSpace if nothing more than to have a physical copy for myself and to be able to share with others looking for something similar.

I don't want to dive into what the system will entail just yet. I'll need some more time to think, write, and play test it all. In the meantime, Basic Fantasy is still my game and I plan to develop and submit a couple of adventures I've been working on to the BF workshop forums. Whether or not they get published isn't really important. It's more about getting some feedback on my writing and ideas as well as go through the exercise of making an RPG adventure.

Stay tuned for more game synopses and random thoughts about RPGs in general.

GM Notes - Morgansfort Session 14 - Death Frost Doom - Part 2 of 2

So, here stands the final chronicle of my two-year Basic Fantasy campaign. It ended a year ago and I'm just now getting around to fini...