Saturday, 22 September 2012

Rocky's First D&D Campaign - Session 1 Recap

As the story proper begins, we find ourselves at the Green Dragon Inn. The main floor is a bar with rooms upstairs for guests. It features a full bar, a raised area for VIPs, a small stage for entertainment, full kitchen, and room for 30+ patrons. Once a high-class establishment, it has since fallen into disrepair as its original owner employed slave labor to keep the place running and abandoned it when that was no longer an option. It's current owner is Jamie, a friendly and chatty effeminate elf of undetermined gender. He/she's happy as can be with his/her little operation, which consists of him/herself and his/her waitress Harriet, a young Dwarven woman who also sings on the tavern stage on slow nights. On this particular night, there are roughly a dozen patrons in the bar, either seated at the bar or in groups at a table, taking in the show or chatting amongst themselves. A group of young nobles are seated at the Lord's table, basically slumming it for an evening like teenagers in Tijuana.

In through the front doors comes our heroes, in order of their seating at my table, left to right: First is Clastoptera, an Elven Druid, who enters and takes a seat near the stage, taking in the show and waiting on a drink. Clastoptera's player has played some D&D but was a little soured on the experience because her previous party contained a couple of prima-donna players who loved to steal the show and take all of the focus. Hopefully I can give her some opportunities to shine in this campaign and make her feel like a vital member of the group.
Thanks, DeviantArt!
Next comes a figure who appears to be a human in simple clothes, but is actually a disguised Drow Avenger who we will refer to as The Pilgrim at his player's request. He approaches the bartender and asks if there is any work in the area. Jamie responds that there is always work available in Sutulak, and in fact he/she is having a slight *whisper* rat problem *end whisper* that he/she would love some assistance with. Jamie asks The Pilgrim to take a seat with a drink on the house and he/she'll get back to him later in the evening. The Pilgrim's player is an experienced DM in his own right, so I found myself relying on his knowledge a lot in the first encounters. Thankfully he's quite helpful and doesn't constantly challenge me by quoting the rulebook. When I don't know something I'll typically just improvise and look it up later, rather than slow the game down by flipping through the book.
Without the disguise.
As The Pilgrim takes his seat, an Eladrin Wizard enters and also approaches the bartender. She introduces herself as Freyja, and she has come to Sutulak in search of her missing parents. Freyja's player is easily the most eager of my group, and this is also her first game of D&D. She came prepared with a simple back story and goal for her character, and I will do my best to accommodate her without derailing the main quest or turning her into the focus of the party. Improvising my response, I have Jamie tell Freyja that Eladrin are still pretty rare in Sutulak, but there is an older couple who recently moved into the Upper Class residential district. He/she invited Freyja to sit and have a drink while he deals with his other customers and later he/she'll be free to sit and chat with her all about them.

Never let me choose your portrait.
Through the doors of the tavern steps a robot. No, really. 6'6", 200lbs and change, a Warforged Barbarian named Azryn. Recently freed from servitude and not sure what to do with his newfound independence, he apparently came into the tavern just to hang out. However, when he attempts to take a seat at a nearby table, I ask Azryn's player to make a Strength check. Here's the quick summary on Skill Checks: Every character has skills in different areas, and sometimes in order to accomplish a task you need to succeed in a skill check. In this case, I was concerned that the flimsy wooden chair wouldn't be able to hold all 200lbs of Azryn's Warforged ass. So I asked Azryn's player to roll a Strength check, and he failed. The result was that the chair cracked under his weight and he crashed to the floor. This had no impact on the overall story, but I thought it was a fun little distraction that gave some depth to the world around the players and introduced a key mechanic to the newbies (of which I happen to be one myself). Jamie came running over to make sure Azryn was alright, surprised to find a Warforged being in his tavern. Azryn apologizes for breaking the chair and asks if there is any work to be found in the area. As with The Pilgrim, Jamie quietly speaks of his/her own little rat problem and asks Azryn to wait a while. He/she offers Azryn a drink, but since Azryn doesn't drink or eat, Azryn simply observes the singing waitress.

It's a boy! All six fingers and four toes!
Finally we have Oizo, a Githyanki Swordmage. Oizo's player isn't much for roleplaying and prefers combat to any sort of acting. In-character, Oizo enters the bar and just takes up a spot near the door, leaning against the wall and observing the area. I'll try not to force Oizo into any major roleplaying situations, but I do have to establish his personality for the benefit of the group, so he'll have to get into it just a little bit until the action picks up.

He's basically a Jedi. No, really.
After the introductions are made, there is a loud crash from the Lord's Table as a wooden wall bursts apart and a horde of giant rats emerges. The bar's patrons immediately flee the area, dropping their drinks and sprinting for the door. The rats spread out and start attacking the closest things they can find, which consists of the party, the waitress on stage, and the bartender at the bar. Azryn and Clastoptera are seated near the stage, so they intercept a pack of rats before they can get to the waitress, who has fainted with fright. The Pilgrim and Freyja take on the rats who come into the main dining area, Freyja letting loose with bursts of magic while Pilgrim hacks away with his heavy war pick. Oizo is too far away, so he charges forward and telekinetically leaps into the fight (as his racial ability allows him to). Clastoptera shapeshifts into a swarm of bugs and starts swarming the rats in her area while Azryn chops one in half with his heavy axe. Freyja is overcome with a swarm of rats, but teleports herself away to escape further attacks. As the battle starts to shift in favor of the party, one surviving rat flees back for the hole it came through, but Clastoptera uses an ability to create a terrifying sound from within the hole. This scares the rat into running in a different direction, and Oizo puts it down by throwing his sword at the rat in a spinning arc that chops it in two. Lengthwise. He then recalls the sword to his hand Jedi-style.

With the battle concluded, Harriet the waitress is still unconscious and Jamie has regained his composure, having spent that entire fight standing on top of the bar screaming in terror. He offers the party free room and board for exterminating the rats, though Pilgrim employs his Diplomacy skill to earn a permanent room at the inn for the party (which is actually the Honeymoon Suite). With that, the party retires to bed while Jamie sets to work disposing of the rat corpses and repairing the hole in the wall. However, several hours later in the dead of night, a scream is heard from downstairs followed by a dull thud. The party awakens and comes back downstairs to find a band of robed thugs standing at the bar. Two bandits wielding maces, a fat guy with a club, and a mage who is just emerging from the kitchen. The bandits insult the party and attempt to intimidate them into returning upstairs, but the party makes their Will checks and stands their ground. With that, the bandits attack. Freyja moves first, casting her Magic Missiles and moving off to the side for a better vantage point. Oizo rushes into combat and throws his sword at the fat guy, who is a simple minion and drops in one hit. He is then flanked by the two bandits who swing away at him with their clubs, landing glancing hits. Pilgrim joins in to distract the second bandit, as does Azryn. Clastoptera is off to the side as well, throwing fireballs. The bandit mage leaps onto a nearby table and casts Dancing Lightning, striking Oizo, Pilgrim, and Freyja with bolts of lightning. Freyja responds by casting Icy Terrain, making it difficult for the mage to move around, and Pilgrim rushes over to engage him. Oizo, Azryn, and Clastoptera continue their assault on the two bandits while Freyja and Pilgrim deal with the mage. As the first bandit falls, the two surviving enemies decide it's time to run, and start heading for the door. The mage manages to stun Freyja and Pilgrim with a Thunder Burst and makes it to the door, but is knocked out by Azryn who charged to catch him at the last second. The second bandit sprints past and escapes into the night.

I constructed these encounters according to an XP budget system recommended by the DM guide. Basically, take the number of party members you have, multiplied by the relative XP value of a standard enemy at their level. In this case, 5 x 100 = 500. For these first two encounters, that was the measurement I went with, and it seems to be working pretty well. I just had to make sure to have some variety among the monsters so that the fight isn't too easy or difficult and there are no obvious weaknesses to exploit. For harder encounters I'll increase the budget, which will mean more difficult fights but also greater rewards.

Anyway, with the fighting over the party decides to take the unconscious mage to a table, tie him up, and demand answers. Meanwhile, Oizo is elected to bring the two dead bandits to the manager's office to strip them for gear and look for clues. He drags the bodies into the room, only to find Harriet sleeping on a bedroll, still unconscious from the excitement earlier in the evening. He succeeds on a Stealth check not to awaken her while he is searching the bodies. The mage is awakened and refuses to talk, spitting at them for being unclean non-humans. Freyja decides to use her Prestidigitation power to change Azryn's appearance to make him appear bigger and more demonic. While this is a little more elaborate than the Prestidigitation power is capable of, I allow it because it's an interesting idea. As a result, Azryn gets a bonus to his Intimidate check, and gets the mage to talk. The mage, Ulric, was hired through an intermediary to kill the bartender. Freyja goes to the kitchen to search for Jamie, finding an enchanted silver dagger laying in a pool of blood, with bloody drag marks leading to an icebox. Opening the box, she finds Jamie inside with his throat slit and sigils carved into his face, arms, and chest. Freyja attempts skill challenges on the dagger and body, using Arcana and Religion respectively. She fails to identify the dagger but succeeds in determining that one of the symbols on the body relates to an ancient god called Zarus, who favors humanity over all other races and promotes domination and subjugation of all inferior species.

In response to finding the body, Freyja calls out for help. This was actually a problem between me and my group when I had to explain what meta-gaming is. Basically, characters within the story must act in a manner that is consistent with their characters and the situation. When I asked Freyja to pass an Arcana check, I was checking to see if Freyja noticed that the dagger was enchanted. She failed to notice this, so she wanted to call Oizo over to attempt his own Arcana check. However, this is not an appropriate reaction because even though Freyja's player is aware that there is something hidden in the room, her character does not. Thus, her character cannot act on information she doesn't have, even though the player does. Similarly, Oizo needs a reason to stop what he's doing and go into the kitchen to have an opportunity to examine the knife. Freyja can't just say: "Hey Oizo, come here and look for magical enchantments! I didn't find any, but I know they're here!" That's meta-gaming, and it just sucks the fun out of the adventure.

However, finding a body is reason enough to call for help, so Freyja yells out. This gets Oizo's attention, and he goes into the kitchen and succeeds at his Arcana check to identify the blade. It's silvered and bears an Arcane Mark identifying it as belonging to Ulric. However, Freyja's shout first wakes up Harriet, who finds herself in a room where a guy with a sword is stripping two bloody corpses naked. She freaks out and runs out of the room into the main dining area, where she finds the rest of the party interrogating the mage tied up on the table. She runs for the door, but Azryn gets in the way and uses his Intimidation skill on her to get her to stop. He's still demonified from Freyja's Prestidigitation, so he scares her so hard she faints again. At this point, all the screaming has attracted the attention of the city guard, who bust through the front door with a dozen men, ordering everyone to drop their weapons.

The mage on the table is quick on the draw, immediately begging for help and insisting that these monsters came in and slaughtered his friends and the bar owner. The party gives their side of the story, but the guards simply arrest everyone and drag them to jail for further questioning.

On their way in, the party sees the waiting room, a small courtyard for executions, guard barracks, a small courtroom, and a holding area lined with cells. Each member of the party as well as Ulric the mage are locked up in individual cells. The guards immediately peg Clastoptera as a Druid and Freyja as an Eladrin, so they're fitted with Dimensional Shackles so they can't shapeshift or teleport to escape. However, Clastoptera attempts a Diplomacy check to convince the guard not to cuff her because "the shackles are itchy". This was a pretty lame excuse, and the guards have good reason not to comply. However, her player actually rolls a natural 20, which is the highest possible result. Thus, she succeeds in convincing the guard not to restrain her, though she's still in a cell along with everyone else. Their weapons are taken and placed in a wooden lockbox at the far end of the holding area, though Clastoptera again convinces the guards to leave her totem, a small bundle of bones and sticks.

The captain of the guard, Captain Warrik, interrogates the prisoners. He starts with Ulric, who gives his story: He and his friends were in the tavern for a drink when these monstrous freaks showed up and just started killing everyone they could find. All his friends were killed along with the bartender, and they were in the process of torturing him when the guards showed up. Warrick notes that some parts of his story are corroborated by the testimony of the waitress (who saw the corpses and the demon robot), but he wouldn't have seen the murder of the bar owner in the kitchen from the dining area, and the blade used in the murder actually has his name on it. Ulric fumbles through another excuse, but Warrik isn't having it. He turns to the party and asks who else wants to tell him what happened. Freyja is the only member of the party with Charisma benefits, so she's elected to explain the events: The party was staying upstairs for free as payment for exterminating the rats when they heard Jamie's scream and came downstairs. They found four men in robes who attacked them, and they defended themselves, leaving one alive to question him. Warrick notes some consistency in their story, but also points out a flaw: She mentioned four bandits but there were only three found at the scene. This in addition to their interrogation of Ulric, stripping the other bodies, and their presence in the kitchen casts some doubt on their innocence.

Unable to decide either way, Warrik decides to take the night to think it over and come back to them in the morning. The party takes a short rest in the cells, while Ulric spits at them and promises that the worst is yet to come. After a while, one of the guards comes in along with a group of thugs and looks everyone over. He sneers at them and remarks that there have been a lot of these murders in the city lately, and a lot of people would love to see them put to an end. Maybe if they make an example of some prisoners they can put fear back in the populace and keep anyone else from starting trouble. The guard unlocks all of the cells using a switch at the entrance. Ulric makes a break for escape, but he's immediately attacked and beaten down by the thugs, who then move in on the rest of the party.

This encounter was a major challenge for the group for two reasons. One, I went over the XP budget for this one. Two, the party is almost totally unarmed. Even so, they manage to put up a damn good fight. Clastoptera still has her totem, so she can cast her spells as normal. Freyja and Oizo are closest to the weapon locker, so they rush for it and attempt to break it open with a joined Strength check. Their first attempt fails, but together they manage to break it on their second turn and retrieve their weapons. Meanwhile, Pilgrim casts a Cloud of Darkness to blind the thugs closing on him and run past them to escape the holding area. He provokes attacks of opportunity as he runs past enemies who are not blinded, but manages to make it through with only glancing wounds. Azryn just starts punching dudes, as is his way.

The guard in charge draws his crossbow and nails Pilgrim as he's running away. Out of options, Pilgrim takes a risk and runs into the guard quarters to call for help. This was hilarious because the rest of the players were very much against this plan, since it would likely result in even more enemies to fight. Pilgrim busts in and yells for help, which rouses the guards into action. He's unarmed and asking for help, so the guards aren't immediately hostile. They run for the holding cells, and as the guard in charge of the assault notices he's being interrupted, he immediately orders his goons to stand down. Captain Warrik arrives and once again demands to know what the hell is going on. The rogue guard gives his story, that the party had brought these hired thugs in to stage an escape. The story isn't even remotely plausible, given that the party was actively fighting the thugs and went running for help. Warrik arrests his own guard and the hired thugs and calls the party into the courtroom to speak to them.

The session wraps up with Warrik explaining the situation in the city to the party and asking for their help in investigating the murders. After some negotiation, the party is allocated 100gold each, as well as a bag of holding and a basket of everlasting provisions. When we come back next time, they'll begin their search.

When I started writing this campaign, it was basically a murder mystery. I just had to tweak it a bit to make sure it wasn't nothing but a lame CSI ripoff (naming the guard captain Warrik didn't help, though I did get points for King Steve). Everything up to this point has been fairly structured so that the party didn't really have much choice in where they were going. Next time, they'll be free to go wherever they like, and I'll just have to adapt to their decisions. We'll see how that turns out...

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