Friday, 29 July 2016

The Good Fight 1: One Last Job

What makes an engaging fight?

It’s perhaps the biggest of the three pillars of Dungeons and Dragons, and one of the ones I find most satisfying to play and to DM: where death and glory lie on a single D20 and tension reigns. But we’ve all seen it, the fight where the bottom fell out – players texting, “Oh, it’s my turn?” and glassy expressions as the players go through the motions of killing the opponents.

I spend a lot of time thinking about what makes a fight good, and I flatter myself I have delivered some pretty solid fights and the occasional shite one. There’s a lot written on axioms or rules for good DM-ing that I’ll try to avoid re-treading (everyone knows that you should have a monster, plus a complication, different goals etc) by focusing on some specific fights I have ran or fought through. I’ll do separate posts for each fight.

‘One Last Job’

 The ‘One Last Job’ session was the second heist committed by the North Corner players. (I’ll write a post about how I play Heists in detail later). They were robbing Ottergreer, a banker and demon cultist who had been at cross-purposes with them a few times in the past.

Being a heist, all action was narrated by players in the past tense, and all scenery was narrated by their temporary ally, a demon called Skun, in past-tense and a cockney accent – this allows numerous Oceans Eleven twists and is the funniest way to run a dungeon – “I would have had noticed that I had remembered I had the key that I had stolen from the guard before. Fuck”

This combat took place in a bank vault – a fake one. There were piles of treasure surrounding an enormous altar on a raised dais. Built into three walls were sarcophagi.

This normally genre-savvy party went straight for the treasure, and the Dragonborn Barbarian literally jumped in, cackling.

I tried to suppress my laugh. This wasn’t the bank vault.

The piles of treasure were not gold. That was an illusion. They were tiny mechanical insects, that immediately started to devour the unfortunate Tazzak Redscale, and slowly spread across the floor. Every time you started your turn in a space covered in insects, you would take D4 damage. Next turn, D6, then D8, and so on and so forth until D20. Then, it would be D20 + D4, and so on ad infinitum.

Then, the sarcophagi opened, and out came the Revenants. Each Revenant was a normal person with the word DEBTOR scarified on their foreheads. I love details like this – it immediately clues you in to a lot fo information about Ottergreer (access to magic, vengeful streak, loan-shark business practices, cold efficiency) without dumping exposition on the players and breaking the flow. There were now three pressures acting on the players:

they needed to stay out of the way of the insects which slowly spread across the chamber, limiting their movement.
the Revenants could paralyse and frighten them, limiting their movement further.
they needed to escape the vault, ot access the real one – their window was small.

This created an enormously intense situations where the players darted around, making desperate choices to avoid danger and fight back, and all in an atmosphere of escalating tension. By the end of the combat, the players were squeezed on the central podium, desperately trying to push the Revenants back to allow the player to successfully solve the Altar’s riddle: “True treasure lies within.”*

Once they’d solved it, the combat was over: in the ceiling a portal opened, gravity reversed and mechanical insects, Revenants and murderhoboes all fell in a maelstrom and fell into the true Vault, which was concealed in the Abyss….

Combat over.

I think what made this fight good (this is not simply my self-absorption stating this – my players did enunciate their enjoyment) was that it demanded non-standard tactics and was constantly pressured: every turn counted. This meant players were thinking ahead (a clear sign of engagement) and having those conversations: “Dave, you can’t move towards that Revenant because you’re frightened, but could you move around the other, ready an action and…” Secondly, it re-iterated the themes of the dungeon: this was a dungeon about greed as a sin.** Going for the treasure was punished; the monsters were Debtors or the treasure itself, and the eventual solution was a symbolic link between the acquisition of wealth and the blood of living creatures. I consciously try to put these meta-narratives in place even though I imagine players are unlikely to pick up on them or particularly care.  Lastly, it was frightening: the Revenants were relentless and the players options were limited in pretty strong ways: being paralysed whilst a wave of insects wash over you, biting and clawing, is a horrifying event.

*You needed to put some blood in the bowl: it was stained red from persistent use as an additional clue.
** It also featured a less-good fight with a yuuuuuuge demon called Drumpfdunuld who wielded Wall Spells and a Midas-touch like ability….The greatest treasure recovered was The Murti of Mammon, an idol that could be fed blood to give supernatural luck in games of chance, or any wheeler-dealing…

Monday, 25 July 2016

"Do you hear the people sing?" - Turning Dungeons and Dragons into Rebels and Revolutions.

I love this picture and it directly inspired my Rakshasa. 

My party have left the womb-town that started my campaign (leaving it an impoverished, depopulated ruin in a considerable constitutional cross with a huge chunk of the city centre magically transported to the Abyss...) for pastures new. I expanded my map from the town-level to the continent-level, and added a rough hodge-podge of D&Disms: powerless ceremonial emperors, honour-obsessed river-pirates, reaving tribes of giants fanatically devoted to killing the gods themselves and of course a city-state ruled by a tyrannical Rakshasa Despot: Loquista.

It was that hook they bit, and they declared their goal to be overthrowing Teshei, Despot of Loquista.

Now, it would be exceedingly easy to just roll this as a straight-up, door-kicking adventure where they bum-rushed the Palace and killed the Rakshasa. Loads of official adventure paths essentially work on that premise. I thought that would be enormously disappointing, and wanted the prevailing morally grey themes and skulduggery of NORTH CORNER to continue.

To that end, I decided I would run this as a lengthy series of adventures with the city as a sandbox. to successfully overthrow Teshei's regime will be a long process. Attached is the word document I'll be updating to track the progress the party makes with their stated plan: use assassination to precipitate a civil war among the leading figures on the Council of Ten and then seize control of the city with some armed help.  This will hopefully function as a sort of urban West Marches: players will push into dungeon-style assassination missions (an excellent way to be able to run a realistic dungeon which is time-limited - good look taking a Long Rest there) and record the general progress of the rebellion though these bulletins. It gives a great opportunity for the three pillars of play to be interpreted differently - and I'm always someone who finds the city fascinating but skip over the wilderness in my campaigns with maybe a single token random encounter. Characters make drama; one struggles to have drama with a wind-swept steppe or mountain range because D&D by and large glosses over the difficulties of traversing it.

I've had a great time organising some of the homes or bases of the eccentric Cambion aristocracy of the Council of Ten - and I'm looking forward to concretely asserting that players have that session and that session alone to assassinate a figure. If the session ends, the night or social event is over and their opportunity is missed. Correspondingly, the knowledge and threat represented by the Secret Police will increase. As the Secret Police wax, consequences will be dire...

Eventually, they will have to decide to call in their favours and try to trigger their coup or revolution. Then it's little flags on the city-map as full-scale war is launched - with the players able to jump in to urn the tide only at key points.

One thing I love about this is it gives the D&D proletariat - a maligned tribe of victims, quest-givers and faceless extras - a chance to be an integral part of success: winning over the people through acts of heroism or charity will bolster their numbers for when the barricades arise.