Ropecon play report 3 – Frog-men, a giant snake and dark caves

18 August, 2008 at 10:19 pm (game mastering, persistent fantasy, Ropecon) (, , )

This game was played during Sunday. Thalin did not fit in, as there already were 6 players (note to self: next time, only five players; the sheer number of new characters is too much for me to handle with no preparation).

The updated characters and setting info can be found in the relevant page. (The list now has twelve unique players, including me. There have been a total of thirteen [again, including me] players, but one did not get on the list at all in this game. Or maybe used that name in play. I don’t remember.) The new characters are Darethos Freyar, Jackpo, Eerik, Thóren, Tobi, Vrael Derith (with a picture).

I made the mistake on not using any random elements. There were reasons for this, yet it was a mistake. Next time I’ll print a few set of random seeds and select one so as to provide inspiration and make character generation faster. As a consequence the characters look pretty much like a standard D&D adventuring party, which is not the aesthetic I am interested in.

Fiction

A bunch of random rogues and such, by request of Darethos Freyar, a knight of the church, protector of good, and (above all) destroyed of darkness, seeks to investigate certain ruins in the Swamp of immortals, due to rumours of treasure and evil cults. Thóren, a shaman of plainsmen, is heading for the same place in search of half an ancestral blade.

No proper roads go to the ruins. Darethos’s party, guided by a local hunter named Vrael Derith, meticulously move through the swamp, avoiding dangerous areas. Something human-shaped with a spear is once seen watching them, but nothing outright threatening.

Thóren the shaman is surrounded by a buzz of insects, frogs, birds and reptiles. He enters a trance (the process involves mushrooms)  and contacts a spirit of that particular part of the swamp, who manifests as a mound of moss and rock and mud, speaking of someone watching him and telling about the safe paths through the swamplands. Thóren also exchanges gifts with something; leaves some animal skins, gets a bronze knife with crude frog-like shape in the handle.

Freyar’s party notices the shaman, there is some communication by yelling, but the shaman does not join the paladin’s group. Sleep, then progress forward.

The defender of the faith and his merry band of adventurers are approaching one of the more woody parts of the swamp. Three arrows in rabid succession fly from the woods, hitting the ground a few meters from the adventurers. They wisely stop, someone tries negotiating while Jackpo the thief crawls and swims towards the woods.

Thóren notices a shape in a tree, wielding a bow, and Jackpo sneaking. Thóren also approaches the tree, as does Eerik (also a scoundrel). Darethos Freyar yells religiosly coloured threats and insults into the woods, getting an arrow to his foot as a reward. The one who was hiding in the tree is swiftly coming down. It is certainly a human or very close to one, but so covered in mud and dirt that further identification would require significant washing. As the creature comes down, arrows, knives and one club fly, seriously wounding and poisoning the archer. It is questioned to no effect, only indicating some interest in the knife held by Thóren, who attempts giving the knife to it, which is responded to by spitting at Thóren.

Jackpo slits the archer’s throat.

Some days after the ruins are reached. A fire burning there indicates human presence, which scouting confirms: A lone man, very short and heavily robed, is sitting besides the fire, completely oblivious of the killers in the shadow. A knife at the throat and some interrogation tell that the man is an alchemist willing to make a fair trade with his fares, assuming he is not slain outright. He is mistrusted and the intruders instead want to know if there is anything of value hereabouts, at which the robed dwarf (as in a human of short stature) points the way down with his abnormally long hand.

The bloodthirsty adventurers head down to what looks like a cellar. There’s some water on the floor and a dripping sound can be heard. It is dark. They are not likely to be eaten by a grue because they have improvised torches. A narrow tunnel leads forward. A giant snake, venom dripping from its teeth, lunges from the darkness ahead twice, to no great effect. It then retreats.

Next in the tunnel there is a larger space, something like a cross between a cellar and a natural cave. The snake is there, as are around 10 small frog-men, some armed with knives, a few even wearing ill-fitting helmets, and a blood-stained obsidian altar with two fires in both sides of it. A flurry of weapons hits the serpent as it attacks, slaying it. The frog-creatures dive into water-covered parts of the cave, still pitch-black except where fires or torches burn.

One of the frog-men jumps on the altar, visibly drops the bronze dagger it had and, with considerable difficulty, takes off the helmet. The player characters accept the evident gesture of peace. Frog-men, few first, but then increasing numbers, up to fifty, emerge from the water and croak and jump around, as if celebrating something. There is a broken shelf with random pieces of equipment on the far wall; Thóren finds half the blade he was looking for, and others pick a few odds and ends that seem useful. The frogs don’t care.

Jackpo and Darethos Freyar go back, as there is nothing further that would be of interest to them.

Of the others Vrael Derith discovers a tunnel through which at least some of the extra frogs came. He swims through it and finds himself in a cave of some sort. Making noise disturbs a remarkable amount of bats that live there, making them screech and twitter about. There is no light and no wall nearby. Vrael continues forward in the cave.

Others wait. Toben, the peddler who brought everyone together, continues waiting as Eerik and Thóren follow Vrael into the tunnel. The uncoordinated croaking and jumping of the frog-men is changing, becoming a dance or ritual of some sort.

In the actually dark cave, with water up to thighs or so, Vrael discovers a platform of some sort, around the fifth of a meter above water. Climbing on it he discovers that there are some round objects, around the size of fist, lying there. They are cold and hard, maybe stone. Dropping one makes noise (and fluttering bats) , but the item does not break. Vrael continues forward, again entering water. There is some beast ahead, as indicated by a “hrumph”, and growling as Vrael tries to move forward. He is thus gently guided back to the platform, after which the creature departs.

Eerik enters the dark cave and starts wandering towards sounds made by Vrael and the beast. Speaking to Vrael is futile due to the bats, easily excited by unexpected noise. Thóren likewise enters the cave, cue yelling and bats. The creature drops a carcass (of a beaver) near Vrael, who slowly starts backing off from the platform.

Tobi in the frog cave is the center of their ritual dance. He is offered insects, quickly denied, but he does accept the rat they give to him and cooks, then eats, it. The dance becomes more wild and fast. The frog that initiated the surrender offers a bronze knife, like the one Thóren has, to Tobi but pricks him before giving it to him. The frogs seem to be growing larger and their movements and shapes distorting. Tobi tries to yell, but only manages a croak. He has become one of the frog-men, their new king.

Vrael is in the water, Eerik gets on the platform, finds the fist-sized thing and breaks one. Bats. Vrael finds some sort of sandy beach and a heap of rotting organic material, mostly plants, lying on the beach. The beast attacks Eerik, who does not fare well. Thóren approaches. Long struggle ensues, Eerik taking several wounds, almost drowning and falling unconscious before Thóren gets there and slays the beast, cutting its throat with the half of a blade. The frogs made a few slashes and cuts at the hated beast that eats them when able to, and few of them were killed.

Vrael finds an egg in the heap of rot and promptly breaks it. He further discovers a way out of the cave, which everyone uses.

Observations

Pacing sucked. Start was too slow, the end was sudden. Two players had to leave early, which worked sufficiently well.

I have the following patterns: Eggs of monsters, arrows flying from nowhere as warnings, creatures that are not outright hostile unless provoked, which is usually easy. There are strange rituals and the sheer weirdness of everything tends to increase as time does, reaching a climax at some point.

I really enjoyed the fiction that was created, aside from the characters, who acted too much like a band of adventurers, or cold-blooded murderers, as they are also called. Individually they are good to mediocre, but in group, nah. Turning that one character into a froggish monster was the definite high point of the session, for me.

All the stats and so on are recorded in the persisten fantasy page, as far as I remember them correctly (two players wanted their character sheets, which I graciously allowed).

Assuming I don’t get too many good ideas before the next ‘con, it is likely that I will run two proper sessions of this game there. Less players, though.

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It works!

9 May, 2008 at 9:19 am (game mastering, persistent fantasy) (, , , , )

In which I will gush about the actual play of the game I built in the previous post; first, a few words about In a wicked age, then the actual play.

In a wicked age

The game that inspired this one; if you want sword-and-sorcery, a light but important system and episodic play, I can really recommend the game, assuming it plays at all like my hack does. For more information on the game, see the rpg.net index (and linked review), this rpg.net thread (or the relevant seach results), or search the Forge for relevant actual play.

Actual play

Players present, in no particular order: Ari, Thalin, ksym. Players not present: Wgaztari. Hence, no victorian game. The random generator, which I tweaked a bit before play to provide slightly more explicit NPCs, generated the following:

A conjurer who needs blood to entice his uncouth spirits.
A troupe of musicians for hire, one of whom is a burglar and cutpurse.
A seerstone, one of only five, which rumours suppose to be close to the entrance into the underworld of lost souls.
The site of a pitched battle, ground churned and stinking, and the widows mourning there.

Thalin first claimed the burglar/cutpurse/musician, Ari fixated on playing the seerstone, while ksym after some pondering chose to play a one-armed veteran of the pitched battle. The game kinda drifted towards somewhat oriental flavour, so the final characters (at chargen) were:

  • Lông (bad musician 6, ninja training 3, liar 4) played by Thalin
  • Chen Pong (merchant 4, stone 5, fat 4) played by Ari
  • Kyo (ronin 6, one armed 3, fast 3) played by ksym
  • Martoh (summoner 5, fighter 4, spirit guardian 4), an NPC

Quick and shallow characters, much as they should be. I told it doesn’t matter and is in fact positive. Mister Chen Pong requires some further explanation (if Ari plays Chen again, the traits will probably be changed to reflect this). Chen’s one eye, usually covered, is (IIRC) an emerald. Chen does not know this and to him the eye does not feel extraordinary.

On that note, I just now notice that I managed to misread one of the entries: The seerstone is “supposed to be close”, not “supposed to close”, a gate to underworld. Well, no matter. Other things were ignored or altered slightly, too. The widows were totally ignored and the uncouth spirits somewhat turned into demons of Christian mythology. Not to mention “burglar and cutpurse” evidently meaning “ninja”.

Crafting the situation

It did not take long for me to draw connections between three of the random elements: Certainly the site of pitced battle is exactly what is necessary for a summoner to open a gate to the underworld (which was implied by the seerstone). I asked if any PC had connections to the summoner; it turned out that the Chen Pong the merchant has a deal regarding a barrel of gunbowder, for which a small opal was given as a payment before the deal and more were implied to be the reward for providing the barrel in a fairly discreet manner.

Where does this leave the others? Well, in the same tavern as the merchant, of course. Of Kyo’s background it is known that he was healed in a nearby monastery (which later turns out to be a Christian one) and tended by one sister Victoria residing therein. Lông and the related troupe of four musicians get some meager food and lodging in echange of performances.

The plot threads are created

The musicians play (Lông pretends to). Kyo is drinking. A young man or woman, shaven completely shaven of all (visible) bodily hair, including eyebrows and lashes, enters the tavern He or she is wearing robes that are somewhere between grey and black in colour. People first fall silent, then nervously start talking about anything but the hairless one, who walks straight to Chen Pong, handing him a sealed letter. The letter containts instructions on where to deliver the gunpowder and when (a burned building midway between the monastery and the only local mountain, at the this midnight).

Soon the hairless goes away, merchant Pong asks the tavern’s owner about the young one. He instructs not to ask more. Kyo sits nearby, yet reacts not. The troupe stops playing, Lông sits next to Chen the merchant, orders some milk (cue random jokes), steals a few gold coins from Chen and finally pays his milk with one. This is first time the rules as used; Thalin rolls 3d due to ninja training, Ari 2d due to merchant 4. Thalin is the victor and suggests the aforemention stealing, which Ari accepts. Tavern keeper is quite impressed with the gold coin and soon offers a meal.

Some interaction between Chen Pong and Kyo, Chen and Lông, happens. End result: Chen offers to provide Kyo with some fairly rare rice beverage from a certain village, further notices that some coins of his have been stolen, one troupe member called Jin is more-or-less framed by Lông, is chased away by Kyo who doesn’t catch him (but gets on the list due to failing the roll), after which all the player characters gather outside near where the musician got away (the vile rogue!). Ari adds trait “suspicious towards artists 1” to Chen, ksym “suspicious towards vagabonds 2” in imitation.

A serving wench from the tavern addresses Lông, provides him with an iron key to his room for the night, should he wish to take it, then goes back to the tavern. Lông soon follows, enters his room, goes to rest. Chen Pong hires Kyo to work as a bodyguard and the two take Chen’s wagon and start their way towards the meeting point, though Kyo first wants to visit sister Victoria in the monastery.

Tying some threads together

Visiting sister victoria at night involves waiting and an illicit deal with a monk who greatly appreciated a soft pillow and traded it for a nice, hand-crafted prayer carpet.

Lông gets a visitor; the aforementioned tavern wench. They try to make each other drink the provided wine; end result is Lông taking 1 harm and the wench being drugged to sleep (after some hours that were promptly skipped when playing so that people may imagine whatever they will). Lông leaves through a window, immediately after which a trapdoor on the floor is opened and six robed, hairless young ones come in, pick up the drugged woman and lock the trapdoor behind them. Lông runs to catch the two other PCs, who do not expect him.

Aside: I so wanted to get Lông there. Who has ever heard of evil summoners using beautiful women as sacrifices? Well, the dice roll as they may and random serving wench is not a terribly powerful opponent, generally speaking.

The grand climax

Chen and Kyo are at the burned house. The stone walls are still standing, but roof has burned away. The doorway is covered by a curtain that serves as a temporary door. Chen’s eye feels a bit strange. There is someone playing a flute inside the ruins; Lông, now present, recognises it as Jin the alleged thief, who did not play quite that well before the occasion.

Kyo rolls the barrel next to the doorway, Chen enters first. Inside there are the following: A naked serving wench tied to an obsidian altar. A bonfire. Jin, not very attentive, playing the flute between these. A warrior, sword on his belt and a sacrificial dagger in his hand, waiting. Some initial hostile reactions avoided the trade is sealed: Six of the hairless kids carry a small chest, which containts a small fortune in opals and gold, to the merchant’s wagon; then they carry the barrel of gunpowder inside what remains of the burned house.

Every PC is ready to depart. Lông reveals his presence. First there’s some hesitation but then the PCs decide to go and rescue or kill whoever is in need of either. Chen Pong sees the doorway fluttering, as if in wind, but the others see no such effect. The action: Lông enters the building, Kyo is about the follow, Chen starts playing with fireworks aimed towards the doorway, which takes some time. As Lông brushes aside the makeshift door and steps in, the situation is as follows: The six young ones are holding vessels with gunpowder and are standing around the bonfire. The pace of the music has been ascending; the summoner is preparing to use the dagger. Oh, yeah, and the curtain-door dissolves into something of a living, axe-wielding shadow that attacks Kyo at the Summoner’s behest. (It is the summoner’s very own death spirit guardian shadow demon. Something to that effect, anyways.)

Kyo and the demon start dueling. Lông utilises the blowpipe hidden in his flute against the summoner (dice favour Thalin, whose suggestion I accept) who is hit, drops the dagger which cuts one hand of the (right now very drugged) woman free from the bounds, then staggers some steps backwards and (my small addition) draws out the spirit of poison, which starts fluttering around him.

Kyo and the shadow duel; Kyo is clearly better at it, even if his blows are not terribly effective. They do drive the spirit back to the building, where the energies involved in opening the gate fortify the spirit again (2 more dice due to summoning 5 of Martoh the BBEG). The dice favour me and my suggestion is that the shadow is, finally absorbed into the blade that Kyo uses; it is accepted. New trait: Demon sword 3. (Summoner consequently loses the relevant trait.)

Chen Pong fires one of the prepared fireworks. Dice get rolled (doorway has 2 dice; 2 seems to be a decent arbitrary number for random enviromental obstacles); the doorway wins and my suggestion that the projectile hits one of the young ones, who spills gunpowder around; particularly, upon the woman (and Jin the flute player). Such happens, the projectile then goes up and explodes pretty harmlessly there.

Kyo gets there and starts fighting the summoner, who is pretty overwhelming due to the demonic sword being the summoner’s pet. Pretty intense bit of fighting ensues, end result being that Kyo gets a small wound and two drops of his blood end up on the altar. Meanwhile Lông is busy saving random people, which involves jumping into the bonfire and slapping the flutist, and so forth.

Chen’s eye starts seeing things; there had been random ominous signs some time before, but now
there is an actual gate inside the bonfire; it is small, but grows slowly. Chen walks to the gate and the bonfire it is around gives way. The summoner approaches Chen, Kyo gets in the way, there’s dueling and finally Kyo defeats the summoner.

The gate is bound by an iron crossbar, but something big is striking at it from the inside. Chen knocks on it and a window appears. There’s negotiations with demons, which don’t seem to be going too well be fore Lông starts playing music; such bad music is something the demons can’t stand (and the three dice give some extra weight to the negotiation). The final deal: Demons get the summoner (who is in need of what they call training, having failed in opening the gate), some of the rice beverage and some fireworks, but don’t open the gate by themselves.

Everyone leaves the scene; Lông had saved all the hairless and evidently enchanted young ones and now grabs few opals from the chest before leaving. Kyo and Chen Pong leave with the drugged girl and the wagon.

Everyone lives happily ever after, or at least until the next game where they take part. Chen Pong gets trait “rich 3”, Lông gets “rich 2” and The current list with strikethrough indicating that the character is no longer on the list (at least in that position).

  • Chen Pong (Ari)
  • Kyo (ksym)
  • Lông (Thalin)
  • Kyo (ksym)
  • Martoh (Tommi)
  • Chen Pong (Ari)
  • Kyo (ksym)
  • Lông (Thalin)
  • Lông (Thalin)
  • Martoh (Tommi)

The setting

Here’s what is known about the setting: There are somewhat oriental lands, there are also mroe European-themed lands with Christianity dominating. There was a war between these two. There is a tavern with at least one room designed so that people sleeping there can be captured. There is a monastery of mixed genders (strictly separate). The monastery is very close to the war zone, but was not pillaged.

Running the game and theoretical blathering

There process of running the game is not mechanically complex; to use DNAPhil’s terms, the hard skills are not terribly complicated. The way dice work is complicated to explain in words, but very intuitive in play.

The process: First, use the oracle to generate random inspiration. Then guide players in character generation and explain how the game works. Once all the characters are somewhat done it is time to weave them together. Players are a great help here, especially those who sometimes GM. The trick is to have enough plot threads to make the situation interesting, but not too many so that it doesn’t explode all over the place. One session only to solve all of them. Either I have accidentally learned to do this or got lucky. (We did play past midnight, but that is not unheard of.)

In actual play try to win all rolls and suggest interesting stuff. The players are good enough to beat you every now and then, but there is little reason to play soft with the resolution. You can’t accidentally kill anyone off or otherwise screw their characters, because they get to shrug off unwanted consequences by taking harm. Essentially, the players have total control over their character concept, but if they are blocking everything, the character will be harmed enough to drop from play.

Note to self: Thalin is a powergamer and good at it. This particularly means that I have the responsibility to hold him in check by throwing some nasty consequences at him. There’s always harm as an alternative. So, next session will involve stress-testing the system when real pressure is applied to at least one player.

Resolving conflicts

There’s the traditional way: Player tells what he tries, rolls dice, GM tells the success or failure and describes it (or lets the player to describe it). There’s the hardcore Forgish way: What happens upon success and failure are negotiated before the dice are as much as touched. (I usually live between those two, though closer to the Forgish extreme.)

This game used a third way: First roll the dice, then negotiate. This has the good aspects of stake-setting, in that everyone must know why the dice are on table, but this is faster, as the margin of success kind of implies how significant the suggested results can be and only one outcomes needs to be negotiated. Further, the way traits are gradually brought into play creates narration during the conflict, which often implies certain consequences and hence guides the process.

It is interesting how this resolution feels extended while actually being mathematically equivalent to just rolling all the dice at once and being done with it. I guess it is the extra narration and the fact that the dice can shift who the conflict favours mid-conflict, even a few times.

Fictional content

I relied heavily on stereotypes (and so did the players). It may not be necessary with a group that has enough common history, or if the session can take a long time. One should not think too hard about such things as a cohesive setting or sensible villain actions, if there is a villain.

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