Fool me once…

As it turns out, I’ll be returning to work from hibernation this year in February and not in March, as I had expected. And I’ll not be moving into a new place until early March at the earliest, quite possibly in April. So the next two months aren’t going to be quite as chill as expected and I’ll won’t be settled in until we’ll be full deep into the planting season. This means my original plan to get a new campaign started and established after Christmas will have to be pushed back to probably somewhere in May, as I don’t want to start a  campaign for four weeks and then potentially disappear from the face of the Earth for a couple of months. (Once the plants arrive in the stores, our work for the year is mostly done, so off-season starts for us in May.)

This also means that I can spend the whole of this month on further elaborate campaign prep, and expand on it in whatever idle time I’ll be finding in spring. And one thing that has been on my mind recently is that despite my previous experiences in the campaign from one year ago, Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition might not be all that bad.

At the end of the Inixon campaign, I talked with the players, who mostly were GMs themselves with much more experience with the system than me, and while they mostly agreed with the issues I had spotted in the rules, their opinion was that these things are fixable without too much trouble by picking a few of the variant rules and changing the approach to handling certain things. I had similar conversations again twice last months about where I had been dissatisfied with how the game handled, and again the responses I got was generally that my observations are correct, but that the game doesn’t have to be run that way and play quite differently if you don’t.

The main issue I had with the system was that PCs have a lot of fancy toys to play with quite early on. Many of these cool powers are related to combat, and seeing how excited the players were about getting them, I wanted to give them opportunities to actually get some use out of them. Unfortunately, these fights made them advance to new levels and get new shinier toys before they really got much chance to play with their old ones in interesting and creative ways. I really didn’t want the players to sit on the cool new powers they were clearly excited about and not being able to use them, and as a result things somewhat escalated into a series of battles with little inbetween. Eventually I decided that there was a good point in the story to wrap up the campaign around the time the PCs would have reached 6th level, instead of continuing into a fully open-world exploration of the Isle of Dread.

The obvious answer to this issue is of course to just give the players fewer XP. But I think in hindsight the issue wasn’t so much the specific XP awards, but that throughout my now 20 years of running D&D, a pace of having characters gain a new level about every 4 game sessions or so had always worked very well in 3rd edition, Pathfinder, and oldschool games. And that’s just the pace that I had kept with the Inixon campaign. Not sure if that’s really the case or a change in my perception as I change my style as GM, but to me it really feels like characters in 5th edition get a lot more new powers with each new level than I was used to. And certainly as compared to B/X, of course. It also was the first time I really wanted to use the approach to not have the players wait until higher levels to get cool magic items with interesting powers, and be more generous with magic treasure that has minor and situational powers. It doesn’t increase the power level of the party that much, but it absolutely adds to the amount of cool toys that the players have at their disposal and are eager to try out. With all that in mind, aiming to let PCs level up about every 4 game sessions really seems to fast. Better seems to aim for 6, or maybe even 8 game sessions on average. I think that should be a good start to address my main dissatisfaction I had with the game.

Somewhat related to that was another issue I had with dungeons. The campaign had started with Against the Cult of the Reptile God, which really does provide a solid reference for why this dungeon exists and what the inhabitants want with it. That went really well. This was followed by a fantastic unstructured stay in a pirate town, in which the one part I wasn’t happy with was the dungeon from Escape from Meenlock Prison. It was okay, but I felt it turned into kind of a slog. Eventually we got to Dwellers of the Forbidden City, and I really had no clue what to do with it but to put some ruined mansions down and fill them with hostile monsters. The game kind of implies it wants me to do dungeons with cool encounters, but it also isn’t letting me know how to actually do that, and I just got frustrated with it and decided not to go into The Isle of Dread after that. I felt that I just don’t get the whole point about dungeons other than being series of monster fights. However, in the past year after that, I learned a huge deal about classic dungeon crawling and what that is all about. The Basic/Expert exploration system is a fantastic campaign structure with an actual solid 30-minute-gameplay-loop, that 5th edition (and really all D&D starting with 2nd edition) seriously lacks.

And there’s a couple of things about 5th edition that I really like. I’m a big warlock fanboy, especially after having two of them in the Inixon campaign, and I am seeing so much worldbuilding potential with this class as the supernatural and weird is concerned, and for all the adventures that can come out of it. I also think that the druid circles of the land are quite a nice element that I’d love to play with. I had pondered the idea of a setting in which warlock magic is the only way mortals can access supernatural powers, which seems really fun, though probably doesn’t get too much cheer from players. But considering my previous ideas for the Shattered Empire, a campaign with only warlocks, druids, and bards as spellcasters sounds like something that could be really cool for a very-early Medieval campaign drawing on central-eastern Europe as reference.

So I am willing to give the system another try, with the following adjustments:

  • Characters gain XP by milestones, with the default type of milestone being the return of a treasure back to civilization. The amount of XP depending on the value of the treasure, and the obstacles standing in the way being appropriately difficult. My aim is to provide treasures that let characters gain a level every 6 to 8 game sessions or so.
  • A short rest takes a full night of rest, and a long rest requires taking a week off in a town, castle, or similarly secured and hospitable place. In practice this means going without a long rest for each whole adventure. This means druid spells that provide food, water, and similar ways to make wilderness travel easier for each day won’t be able to cover the whole trip. Similarly healing spells have to be rationed for the whole adventure. Having friendly sanctuaries in the wilderness will be a huge benefit, which is one of the really cool concepts I’ve encountered in The One Ring.
  • Encumbrance is done by inventory slots and not by weight, which makes it trivial to track instead of a big nuisance.
  • The Encounter syste, from B/X gets imported just as it is, with wandering monster checks, reaction rolls, morale, and all of that.
  • Initiative is done by sides instead of initiative counts, which is always a huge reduction in my personal mental workload and speeds up play considerably as it cuts down greatly on players taking time to consider their next move at the start of their turn.

I am still somewhat cautious about the idea, but I think it can only turn out better then the Inixon campaign. And that one was by far the best one I’ve ever run.

Records of Inixon, Day 27: Snakes and Pirates

Day 26: 4th Day, 9th Month, Year 507

After having defeated the pirates, Ilmari went to talk with the freed prisoners. They told him that most of them were fishermen who had been caught by the pirates, but apparently the people who had the pirates hunting for slaves didn’t want them to draw attention to their home base and so the pirates kept them in their camp instead. The other prisoners still at the pirate camp had been left there because they were not healthy enough for whatever their masters were needing them for.

Meanwhile Alamar and Haren interrogated the four pirates who had surrendered, who told them that their captain had made regular trips to the main island to deliver the slaves they had captured or were transporting from the cult outpost on the mainland. Not wanting to risk the prisoners causing them any trouble in the future, the two executed all four of them.

After searching the camp and the pirates stores for anything useful, it was decided to give the second pirate ship that was docked at the pier to the fishermen so they could return to their villages. An offer to join in the hunt for the pirates’ masters was declined.
Since they were not certain that all the pirates had been killed and there could still be more out there, the whole camp was then set on fire and burned down completely.

The next morning the ship headed northeast to search for the place the captured slaves had been delivered to. When they came close to the location indicated by the interrogated pirates on a map, Haren, Alamar, Ilmari, and Sagari took a boat to the beach to scout ahead on foot. As they were trying to cross a muddy river flowing from the forest into the sea, they were attacked by an enormous crocodile. It managed to land a hard strike on Ilmari, but was quickly killed by Haren and Alamar.

Continuing along the beach, the group soon spotted a small bay with several ancient white marble ruins that still showed some signs of the architecture of the ancient Naga. The ground had been dug up and huge piles of earth were surrounding the ruins. Sagari sent out Jawa to scout out the area, who spotted a group of frog men digging in the ruins and half a dozen armed reptilian humanoids patrolling the area. There were also several tunnel entrances in the surrounding hill sides, which raised the possibility of much larger numbers of warriors being present inside.

Sagari and Ilmari sneaked forward along the edge of the jungle and ambushed two of the patrolling serpentmen with a sleep spell. Sagari then created an illusion of a small shack around the two prisoners to fool them into believing they had been taken far away from the ruins while they were out. The first of the two prisoners refused to say anything to his captors and did not respond to any intimidations from Ilmari and Haren, so they killed him to get the other one to talk. Alamar telepathically whispered into the mind of the captive that he was an allied servant of the Naga and managed to convince him to tell his captors what they wanted to know, as it would make an ambush waiting for them more believable. He told them that there was a Naga in charge of the camp, and about a dozen serpentmen warriors, as well as numerous slaves who were doing the excavation. Feeling confident that they would be able to deal with these forces if an open battle broke out, and convinced that the reptilian slavers were cruel and heartless masters, they killed the second prisoner as well and went to make plans for entering the ruins.

Records of Inixon, Day 26: Thieves and beggars, never shall we die

Day 26: 4th Day, 9th Month, Year 507

After returning from the crypt, it was decided to take the ship northwest to search for the presumed pirate ship that had been spotted by Sagari’s familiar Jawa earlier. In the evening they discovered another group of small islands some distance off the coast of Inixon, where Jawa spotted the ship again, docked in a large camp sitting between the beach and a steep cliff. Using his ability to turn invisible, he searched the camp further and found a fenced off area where several prisoners from both the local tribes and the mainland were being kept.

A plan was made to wait for nightfall and then have Jawa take some spare weapons from the ship and drop them outside the huts of the prisoners. Meanwhile the ship was kept out of sight behind one of the islands while Haren, Alamar, Ilmari, and Sagari took small boats and the ogre Hai, and six of their sailors to land on the beach outside the sight of the guard towers.

Sagari attempted to use his magic to put two men working at the forge to sleep, but when only one of them was taken out, Ilmari quickly ran up to silently kill the other without waking the nearby sleeping guard beasts. Alamar teleported up to one of the guard towers and killed the sentry as well. They then proceeded further into the camp and managed to kill three more pirates and two guard beasts with only little noise, and signalled their crew to move up. They began looking into some of the small huts and managed to kill several more pirates before the noise woke up others that had already gone to sleep, but they had already killed a dozen of the pirates before their attack grew into a full out battle.

As more and more pirates appeared from their huts and came running from many directions and more guard beasts charged at them, Sagari decided that it was time to use the magic gem they had taken from Perang’s house in Tual, and threw it into the water to summon an elemental. In the chaos, the prisoners took up the weapons they had been given and started to break through the fence that held them. Some particularly mean pirates who had put on their armor emerged from some huts that were build into the side of the cliff, and Haren climbed up a ladder to fight them. Sagari cast an illusion on the pirate shouting orders, who began trying to fight off an imaginary fire elemental, causing the men behind him to fall back and remain stuck on the narrow walkway. So Haren turned around to face some pirates on the walkway behind him.

One the other side of the cliff, a woman with a staff and white face paint came from one of the huts, casting magic at the escaping prisoners that were joining into the fight below her. Alamar climbed on the roof of a larger house and began shooting her with magic, and Ilmari took up his bow to help take her down. Meanwhile the water elemental that Sagari had summoned turned towards the ship to prevent it from leaving, causing some of the remaining pirates to foolishly jump into the water to escape. When the battle started to come to an end, Haren charged back towards the pirate leader, who attempted to make an escape by climbing up the roof of his hut and jump to other huts behind it. Haren managed to corner him and told him to surrender, as several dozens of his mean where already dead. But he refused to give up without a fight and turned on Haren with his sword, who faugth back while Alamar and Ilmari assaulted him with magic and arrows. When the leader fell, the last four pirates that attempted to break out of a cave within the cliff gave up and the fight and asked to surrender.

Records of Inixon, Day 24: Sticks and Bones

Day 24: 2nd Day, 9th Month, Year 507

When the ship reached the Sui town Mora, several warriors with spears and war paint where already at the docks watching their arrival. The locals seemed friendly enough, but the warriors asked about their business and were told that the group was searching for old ruins. They went to see the chief of the town but where told to come back in the morning, and so they went to have a look at the town’s trade post that was run by a friendly mainlander named Zeb, who was able to provide them with some basic information about the island. Being far from any sea routes, Inixon didn’t see much traffic from ships passing through, and even the Sui tribes had only started settling on the island a few generations ago. There were some ruins in the jungle that most people didn’t pay much attention to, and in recent months there had been some pirates in the area south of the island, which was why the Sui warriors were a bit more cautious about visitors than usual.

Day 25: 3rd Day, 9th Month, Year 507

The next morning the group returned to the house of Chief Dura, presenting gifts of two golden cups they had taken from Perang’s mansion and an expensive wine they bought from Zeb. They told the chief that they had come to Inixon to search for ruins and showed him a copy of Kamar’s treasure map that did not show the treasure’s location. The chief’s son recognized the small islands that were shown on the map and showed them their location on their navigational charts, which didn’t show these parts of the Southern Islands in much detail.

After leaving the chief’s house, the group walked to the nearby temple of the Sui not far into the jungle. They were unable to hire one of the Shaman’s apprentices to help them on their expedition, but stocked up on healing potions and antitoxins.

Soon after, they returned to their ship to begin their search for the hidden treasure.

Day 26: 4th Day, 9th Month, Year 507

Later in the day, the ship reached the small island off the coast South from Inixon and spotted the distinctively shaped rocky hill that was drawn on Kamar’s map. Sagari send his sea drake Jawa to fly over the island and search for signs of habitation, and he soon spotted a large ship in the waters on the other side of the island. Sagari told him to go and take a closer look, and after a short wait determined that it looked very much like a pirate ship, heading North to Inixon. With the ship not being able to spot theirs, and currently heading away, it was decided to first look for the treasure that was almost at hand, and follow the other ship’s course later.

Haren, Alamar, Ilmari, and Sagari took a boat to the island and after a short search discovered a small and simple doorway made from three heavy stone blocks, that lead into the hill. Inside the doorway was a small cave that had some old scattered bones in it, so Jawa turned himself invisible to search the passage leading deeper into the earth. Roots from the jungle above were growing through the ceiling and along the walls, and Jawa discovered several moldy skeletons that were tangled up in the dense roots. Tugging at the leg of a skeleton made it come to life and swipe at Jawa, which made him quickly return to the entry cave. Four creatures consisting of tangles of bones, roots, and mold came shuffling from the passage and Haren stepped forward to stop them as they emerged from the tight and narrow tunnel. They were easily felled but kept getting back to their feet and continuing their attacks until an ice spell from Ilmari and some burning oil proved successful in destroying them, making the others retreat back into the darkness.

The group carefully continued their journey into the small passages that were covered in tree roots and had many small shelves cut into their walls, some of which held old crumbling skeletons. They encountered more of the bone and root creatures that tried to ambush them from both sides, but were soon fought off, with the survivors retreating again into the tangled maze. Eventually they reached another doorway of big stone blocks that was blocked by crumbling and moldy woodden planks. Haren tried to kick them apart, but got covered in a cloud of poisonous mold. Ilmari used his ice magic to destroy the mold covering the planks and the doorway and they continued into the next chamber. Sitting on a stone throne was the skeleton of a tall humanoid creature with a fanged inhuman head. In it’s hands it held an old sword and large yellow stone. After Alamar checked the throne and the skeleton for magic, only the sword and the stone turned out to be enchanted. Haren carefully approached the skeleton and not taking any risk chopped off the skeleton’s hand with his axe before reaching for the sword. When nothing happened, Jawa picked up the stone from the skeleton’s other hand and handed it to Sagari. Everyone agreed to take a rest in the chamber with the throne before attempting the return back the entrance of the tomb.

Records of Inixon, Day 24: The Reefs

On the fifth day of the journey through the Southern Islands, the mountains and jungle covered shores of Inixon appeared in the distance in the afternoon. As the ship slowed down to carefully navigate the reefs around the island, a sailor called out creatures in the water swimming alongside the ship. Suddenly the ship was janked sharply to the right and then pulled back hard to the left, coming to a very sudden stop that threw many of the sailors to their feet. A heavy cloud was forming right above the masts and Alamar was send below the deck to get the magic conch shell they had taken from Perang’s mansion in Tual. A dozen humanoid fish creatures started climbing up the sides of the ship armed with spears and jagged knives. Alamar appeared with the shell and blew into it, which caused the fish men to turn their heads and step back from their intended attack on the sailors.

Sagari stepped forward to talk with them in the language of water spirits, and the leader of the fish men told them that they would not kill and eat everyone on the ship because they had blown the magic shell, but they still needed to pay the sacrifice in blood. It was quickly decided to bring up one of the goats they had taken from the cult lair in Orlane, which was then killed and thrown into the water by the leader of the fishmen. On that signal all the fishmen jumped back into the water, the cloud above the ship disappeared in the wind, and the ship continued its journey towards the nearby island.

Not long after, a strange sound could be heard on the wind and the ship changed directions. Alamar suddenly started walking towards the front of the ship but Haren managed to catch him before he could throw himself into the water. The sounds came from sharp rocks reaching out of the water ahead, and Sagari send his water drake familiar to dive into the sea to see what might be causing the sounds. In the water around the rocks were three sirens with long sea serpent tails whose singing had clearly been affecting Alamar and some of the sailors. Realizing that their ship wasn’t being pulled to the rocks, someone pushed Jiub away from the rudder and turned it back towards the safe passage before they crashed into the reef.

With their luring song having been foiled, the sirens jumped out of the water flew towards the ship on huge wing-like fins. Sagari used his magic to force one of the sirens to flee from the ship at the start of the fight and in a fierce fight the other two sirens were killed. With the port on Inixon already becoming visible ahead, it was decided to hang the two sirens from the masts as trophies instead of throwing them back into the water.

Records of Inixon, Day 19: Perang’s Mansion

Day 19: 13th Day, 8th Month, Year 507

As the group ascended further up the abandoned basement stairs, they were attacked by an undead creature in rotted robes with Sui tattoos on its face. After slaying it, they reached a heavy locked door that had been scratched by claw marks. Even when the door was unlocked, it was blocked by something on the other side, but Haren was able to slowly push away a stack of crates without toppling them, allowing them entrance into the larder of the kitchens of Perang’s mansion.

Using the map drawn by the captured guard, they made their way to stairs leading up to Perang’s private rooms without encountering any guards. At the top of the stairs they arrived at a rooftop garden with a large water pool in the center and several doors leading to rooms in the upper story. Finan and Ilmari sneaked up on two guards and attempted to knock them out, but it took a sleep and dissonant whispers spell from Sagari and Alamar to take them out with little noise. The two guards were tied up and dragged into the bushes growing at the edge of the roof garden, which caused several thorny plants to come to live and attack them. Even with their small size, their large numbers allowed them to land several hits on Haren before they were ultimately destroyed.

Finan picked a lock on a door leading to a library, where they found the magic conch they were looking for, as well as a large green gem and a strange tome bound in black shark leather sitting on a shelf. Searching the rest of the room came up with a chest with money and gems, as well as tools for making poison and forging documents.

A second door led into the main living room of Perang where four small mist creatures appeared out of a small fountain in the center of the room. While fighting the creatures, another door flew open with Perang charging into the room, but Finan had gone to hide behind the door and fell upon him with Ilmari coming to his help. After a short fight, the master of the mansion was killed, and as he fell to the ground his hair disappeared and his head turned into a featureless gray face with blank white eyes. Everyone soon figured out that this creature had killed the real Perang some time ago and hid its body in the disused basement, where it had been roaming around as an undead ever since. The bedroom was filled with large wardrobes and chests that held a wide range of different clothes and outfits, as well as more of Perang’s money.

Before leaving the place, the group checked out the other door leading from the garden and found the room of Perang’s steward, who quickly surrendered after a short fight, and whose answers to their questioning indicated that the creature must have had replaced the real Perang many years ago.

With the magic conch in their possession and loaded with Perang’s gold, silver, and jewels, they retreated back down the disused basement stairs, avoiding the guards guarding the mansion’s main entrance. Their ship was already waiting nearby, and as soon as they had climbed on board, they headed out to sea and setting course to Inixon.