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[OSR D&D] Actual Play Report – Social Justice Warriors vs. Castle Ravenloft, Session 3

“I’m dead, aren’t I?”

“You’ve fallen a hundred and thirty feet. You tell me.”

So, when last we left off, Anura (Hark’s Paladin) and Svinish Ingmov (E’s Cleric/Thief) were parked in Strahd’s dining room and had flung abuse (and a chicken leg) at the “it’s all done with mirrors” Strahd, provoking his ire and pitching all things into stormy darkness. Unbeknownst to them, the spectre of the powerful evil cleric from the Chapel was still active, and would return after five hours to deliver its deadly screech at an inopportune moment.

They pressed on, huddled in the Continual Light from Svinish’s enchanted garlic clove, and Anura found the fake organ pipe that led into the passage around the outside wall. (Incidentally, the rather uninspiring “there is a secret door here” required a certain amount of dressing up – I would have preferred this to be more detailed since, again, if I’m lazy enough to run a module I’m lazy enough to not make up my own secret door mechanisms.)

Five Strahd Zombies awaited them in the tower floor at the far end; Anura successfully Turned them into hiding long enough for the party to proceed around the corner and fight a rearguard action. The zombies were overcome in a rather cramped combat where Anura took something of a beating and Ismar was guided to step in and finish things off. The Strahd zombies’ dismembered body parts were a nice touch, and much was made of severed hands, orphaned legs and slithering viscera; this really seemed to have some impact on E., who made eliminating these atrocities something of a priority in Svinish’s turns.

(At this level, combats feel like they take too long, with high HP totals being thwapped to and fro. Descriptive fatigue began to set in and after the fourth or so go, the turns were boiling down to “I roll to hit, I roll damage” in an effort to get this random encounter out of the way. Part of it, as E. noted in our after-action review, was the number of cramped corridor fights; one feels like the fights should be happening in places like Strahd’s dining room where there’s more scenery to play off. I don’t know if this is a weakness of my bad self as a DM, if I should be putting more interactables in corridors a la Diablo III where walls can be crashed down and dubious-quality floors broken in, but again, that feels like work that a module should be doing in and of itself… am I missing the point of modules entirely or something?)

The party ascended the staircase on the bottom right corner of the dining room and found themselves on the ramparts, breaking into Strahd’s cloakroom when they found the window thereto and making a big damn deal out of setting light to his cloaks and evening dress (presumably because they found him to be an insufferable poseur). When they proceeded through to Strahd’s boudoir they found Gertrude, snapped her out of her fairytale illusions with Svinish’s claim that “you think you’re the first? Eighteen other girls, babe, eighteen other girls” making her decide that she didn’t want to be in Bluebeard, and demanded that she lead them to the study, i.e. the room next door, i.e. the room where Strahd himself was lurking, invisible and aloft, alerted by the crashing of windows, the smell of smoke from his dressing room, and the noise of Svinish being oratorical.

This wasn’t the easiest thing for me to administer, since Strahd had Svinish Charmed and his stated objective was to capture Ireena, who was being kept safe in the middle of the party. In the end I had him drop onto the top of them as they entered the room proper, and abuse the surprise round and his superior vampire speed to yank her into the ‘Miss Havisham’ dining room next door, Hold Portal on the door and leave them giving chase the long way round, finding the steel door leading to the back stairs up to the next level Held by the time they got there.

Restraining Ismar for as long as they could, the players ransacked Strahd’s study and eventually found their way into the false treasury behind the fireplace. Svinish opened the chest and with a hiss of gas, the unfortunate and increasingly ineffective NPC Cleric Donavich passed out for the next four hours. The party left Gertrude to keep an eye on him and returned to the steel door (now un-Held).

The corridor beyond held another corridor fight with the two wraiths, and this is where I began to regret my “I’ll give you some extra levels since you’re only two characters” choice at the start of play. At the very least I should have stayed within the upper end of the module’s original threshold – two level sevens with a magic item each would have had a much less awkward/boring/player-frustrating fight here, with their Turns strong enough to pin the wraiths in their alcoves and the fight itself amounting to an exercise in punching fog, since there was so little to do in a cross-shaped otherwise-empty corridor. Ismar, who was in the lead and still only fourth level, lost all his levels in a single blow and perished, while Svinish lost a level in Thief from a hit during the first round before he had Shillelagh up and cast.

There followed some discussion over what to do with Ismar’s body, since nobody wanted him coming back as a vengeful undead wossname (good job too since Strahd had that Animate Dead burning a hole in his spell list), and eventually they shut him in the chest in the fake treasury, spending some time staring at the dead guy and the torches, certain that there was something they should be doing but not twigging what it needed to be. In the end they took both the torches and proceeded up the stairs beyond the steel door, where they encountered…

… Leif, the Count’s Accountant! Deploying all the oily charm and Charisma at their disposal, they convinced Leif to show them into the King’s Chamber, wherein were kept the Sunsword and the Holy Symbol of Ravenloft both. Anura’s cursed +1 sword of genericness fused with the Sunsword to create, well, a sword of Strahd-murdering, and Svinish claimed the Holy Symbol. (If the players hadn’t both been kinda pissed at D&D combat I’d have had a random encounter here for them to test out their new toys and pose them a major challenge, but that wraith fight seemed to have left a bad taste in their mouths. Perhaps that evil cleric spectre should have showed up again…)

There then followed some… confused… exploration. My notes on this part are a bit scanty, but I recall a lot of trawling through corridors, finding the deep deep shaft through which the ‘elevator’ trap operates, and E. trying to climb down it, botching the roll and technically sending Svinish to his doom.

(Here follows a lengthy discussion of good DMing practice ‘twixt myself and E., in which I explain that this sort of “you did something dumb and now you reroll and start over” play is meant to be part of the game’s charm. E. was not convinced, or perhaps not entirely clear on why this was a good thing – it wasn’t a death that served any particular dramatic or narrative purpose, and she’d done the stupid thing because she had no idea what else to do with this room, no dungeoneering experience to draw on. Now, building up that experience through repeated character deaths is again, part of the game, and I wonder if we shouldn’t have started out as lowbies and learned those lessons instead of engaging with this module that has a kind of narrative shape to it. At least one of the authors was implicated in Dragonlance, allegedly the true birth of story-gaming, and it’s true that Ravenloft feels at times like something that’s not meant to work as a deathtrap dungeon in the old school sense. You’re meant to get through it and uncover Strahd and once you’re in there it feels a bit contrived to just… have a new PC turn up out of nowhere. I know that’s how old school works, but Ravenloft is so concerned with Strahd and his motivations and its own attempts to be rooted in a literary genre that it fosters a different set of expectations and creates a clash between narrative and the pure game.

For the sake of getting through the module I allowed a backsie, which I still feel was in some way the Wrong decision, a compromise of my integrity – but then I’d fudged around Hark’s arbitrary ‘whoops you rolled less than 5% and now you fall through the drawbridge to your death’ death at the beginning too, which I suppose outs me as a storygamer Swine who has no business feeling guilty about ‘proper DM practice’ in the first place. I think the difference here is that a player did something dumb and I have, in the past, stated that ignorance and carelessness are the things that will get characters killed, so it does feel like a betrayal of my principles. I felt, though, that E. hadn’t engaged with those principles, that we didn’t have the sort of good faith and common understanding that that was how the game worked, and that putting her out of action with this rather self-contained module incomplete would effectively put her out of the game, and leave the implied Gothic novel narrative of Ravenloft with a poor sense of closure. I wonder if that couldn’t be avoided with having each player control more than one character, so that there can be casualties along the way without a player being left out – but the ladies expressed that they definitely didn’t want to do that, so it wasn’t an option.

This is rapidly turning into gamer angst of the sort that I’m trying to get over and give up and avoid. Let’s just admit that I’m a storygamer and that the reason for Orks is Orks and that all this “but was that Right?” is MUKKIN ABAHT and move on.)

At some point during the confused ramble through corridors, with player frustration mounting due to Ravenloft’s no-real-castle-is-like-this internal structure, the party elected to go down the set of stairs through which Strahd had escaped. Hark expressed no desire whatsoever to pass through the guardroom full of mould – “stuff’s going to jump out at us, probably skeletons, we’ll all get poisoned, let’s not” (at least one of us has a sense of old-school dungeon savvy). Instead, the party went on and startled Cyrus. By this stage the girls were sick of Ravenloft’s interior bullshit and I was sick of the schizoid module and the further disconnect between the players’ expectations and the provided material and so I did what I always do when I try to run anything By The Book and skipped to something dramatic. Cyrus was startled and fled up the servants’ staircase and ladder into the spires, the party followed, and there was a final confrontation at the top of the 230-foot shaft.

Strahd was there, attempting to put his ‘fluence in Ireena, who had her back to the drop. When she saw the players arrive, she took a dive into the shaft. (Note: for reasons of Making This Thing Interesting I’d made Ireena a Bard rather than a Fighter, which was a mistake and something I’d not do again. She cast Feather Fall on herself as she fell. Now, in another time and place I would have killed Ireena off and let the whole thing stand as a Pyrrhic victory, a no score draw as it were. Doing so would have underlined the futility of Strahd and his curse – no matter what he does his ‘bride’ always ends up plunging to her doom. I sort of regret not doing that but I think it would have been a wasted effort since the ladies were both sick to death of the module and of Strahd by that stage and we all wanted proper closure.)

This ended up as a weirdly bathetic climax, and yet with traces of the epic about it. Anura managed to lose the Sunsword on her first attack, a natural 1 sending it spiralling down the shaft. (I have no idea if that’s actually in the rules but we were already mishmashing OSRIC and 2e and fuck knows what else, and I’ve always had the ‘lowest natural roll is a fumble, highest natural roll is a cric’ house rule in play and I don’t intend to stop now. Von fails at Refereeing yet again.) Hark lost two levels to Strahd’s return attack, but Svinish’s Turn Undead triggered the Holy Symbol‘s sunlight power and pinned him in place long enough for a Call Lightning to mostly fry him and the Shillelagh to batter off his head while Anura rammed the stake-dagger from the first session into his heart, mercifully sparing us the obligation to do another session of catacomb crawling to find his tomb. Another lightning bolt took the roof off the Spires as the party descended to find Ireena alive and well, lowering the drawbridge to admit the mob of peasants roused in the second session. Sergei manifests, is reunited with ‘Ireena’, Ravenloft is reclaimed for the followers of the Raven Goddess and her last surviving cleric, and all is once again well.

Now. Despite this being a mixed bag of a long session which left my DM chops on questionable territory, neither of the ladies hate either my DMing or the game of D&D – they just want some better material next time. E. even has an interest in taking over the throne once we’ve done a few one-shots to give her an idea of what other rules systems and other, less schizoid games are like (see above point about Ravenloft kind of pulling against itself a lot of the time). The irony of it all is that what E. is interested in is the kind of political, discursive domain-level play which a) forms the Original Game’s ‘endgame’ and b) is my default setting as a World of Darkness GM, and following the clearance of Castle Ravenloft I can see how that form of play could easily unfold.

With Barovia freed from Count Strahd’s curse and the upper Spires of Ravenloft destroyed, the old monastery can be rededicated and serve as the centre of the PCs’ domain. There’s the small matter of the catacombs themselves left to be cleared, possibly by a group of lowbies so that some proper dungeoneering can be learned. Strahd’s banshee apprentice/lover Patrina could well make an appearance there. Helga, the other named vampire in the module, wasn’t encountered and would be interesting to deploy. There’s a lot that I could do to redeem the experience of Ravenloft, but I think we’re all a bit sick of it and want to move on, find or build something that’s more in tune with itself and with the expectations of these players.

For my part, I feel vaguely unsatisfied, but I’m determined not to brood over it. Posting and writing these reports has served as reflection, but it’s left me with no clear resolution. Rather than sit here being all autistic-persistent and fretting over the same dilemmas I’m turning the conclusion over to you, dear readers. What lessons do you think I should learn from this?

[WM/H] CLOSING DOWN SALE! Everything Must Go!

As I grow older, I grow less and less patient with the nitty-gritty of complex mechanics. I grow less and less inclined to care about line of sight and angle of charge to the point where a laser pointer and a set of screw-together chrome measuring rods EXACTLY one inch in length seems like a good idea, and where I spend whole minutes bent back-wrechingly double trying to place a blast template just so, like a fussy grandmother with a doily in hand.

I have bemoaned, time and again, the obsession with tournament play and the photocopy special lists that emerge even in ‘casual’ games (‘casual’ here having the meaning of ‘I’m going to bring my top-end list and expect you to let me get away with not playing it properly’). I have kvetched about how I have a profound dislike for painting units, even units of six or ten or twelve dudes, and I believe I have frothed and groaned about restic and the repackaging of everything into ten-man box sets. Am I the only one who liked that you bought a minimum unit, and if you wanted a full unit you bought two minimum units and had the option to field them that way? With the ten man boxes there’s no two ways about it, if you want to field two six-man units (twelve dudes) you’re buying twenty models rather than twelve. I’m sure I’ve observed, from the comforting throne of literary criticism, that Privateer’s fiction hasn’t had the same humour and breadth since Bryan Steele left and has, with the ever-increasing number of factions and characters clamouring for time, dealt with their characters in less and less depth?

You’re getting the idea. The game I started playing ten years ago this November and used to love is presumably still in there, somewhere, but after a while you have to ask yourself “self, you spend more time complaining about this thing than you do doing it, you don’t like one of the things that’s a prerequisite of doing it, and every time you do do it your first recourse is to complain about it: so self, WHY YOU DO THIS THING?”

CRYX!

At RRP, would be something like £470 at today’s prices. Difficult to tell since they don’t make units of 6 or 100% resin Deathjacks any more.

All this could be yours for £300 with free shipping, or you can have it for £250 if you’re in London and can spare me the posting effort. Would really rather not split but will consider it provided you’re not taking the piss. One caveat; hardly anything has a stat card. It was like that when I got here, yeronner.

Pictures here and here.

Battle Box (metal) (Deneghra, 2 Deathrippers, Defiler, Slayer), assembled, basecoated
Iron Lich Asphyxious (2010), assembled, painted
Lich Lord Asphyxious, assembled, painted, some chips
Witch Coven of Garlghast, assembled, basecoated
Nightwretch, assembled, basecoated
Leviathan, assembled, basecoated
Seether, assembled, basecoated
4 Stalkers, assembled, basecoated
Nightmare, assembled, basecoated
Deathjack, assembled, basecoated
Cankerworm, assembled, basecoated
2 units of 6 Mechanithralls, assembled, basecoated
3 Brute Thralls, assembled, basecoated
Necrosurgeon and Stitch Thralls, assembled, basecoated
1 unit of 6 Bile Thralls, assembled, basecoated
1 unit of 6 Bloodgorgers, assembled, basecoated
1 unit of 6 Bane Knights, assembled, primed
1 unit of 6 Cephalyx Mind Slaver & Drudges, assembled, primed
Withershadow Combine, assembled, painted
Skarlock, assembled, basecoated
2 Pistol Wraiths, assembled, basecoated
Gerlak Slaughterborn, assembled, painted
Bane Lord Tartarus, assembled, basecoated

RETRIBUTION!
Battle Box (Kaelyssa, Griffon, Chimera, Manticore), assembled, unpainted, with cards – £25 with free shipping

BOOKS!
Warmachine Prime (hardback) in good condition plus Hordes template set and Iron Arena template set, all for £25 with free shipping
Iron Kingdoms RPG (hardback) as new plus a grab bag of painted IKRPG adventurers, £40 with free shipping

Proper post on Wednesday, all being well.

Romance in RPGs

Ahh, Obligation Day. A day for thinking about mawwiage. Twu wuv. And, if you’re me, for wondering who the hell schedules a roleplaying event for Obligation Day. (Answer: bitter singletons who are trying to kid themselves they don’t care.) Still, the convergence of roleplaying and romance has set me to thinking about how the one manifests in the other (kinky) and how the other manifests in the one.

Obligatory “but why, Von, why?” out of the way first. Romance in your RPGs offers something a bit different, a pleasant and crunchy side salad to the Murderfuck Buffet normally served up at gaming tables, something which at the very least enriches the quality of funny-voices banter going on between characters if you’re into that sort of thing. Something I’ve always wanted to do in that line is play half of a ‘battle couple’ who’ve been together for ages and ages, done all their longing glances and big damn kisses and are now settled, competent and playing off one another like actual people rather than elements of a plot arc. Just really practical people who happen to be banging and whose actions might or might not be affected should one of them die.

via elder-geek.com

via elder-geek.com – and I cry, EVERY TIME.

Hell, if you’re part of a real long term gamer couple you might even have the survivor going on to make a new friend, start a new romance… just as something that ticks along beside the busy lives of full time murder hobos. After all, romance can figure into those lifestyles without snogging princesses and brooding over dead wives…

Romance, after all, is the A+ source for character motivation: “I seek my fortune to win fair maiden’s heart!” and “Beastmen killed my wife. I will kill all of theirs” are hackneyed as fuck but they have a certain resonance for all that. More to my point, there’s an implied relationship between beings of opposite genders implied in the backstory of any character born by conventional means. It’s something you could ask of any character, but it’s brought into sharp relief by the the semidemihuman options in D&D. There are of course the boring stock options – twu ewven wuv and orc rape – but here’s a couple of others from my back catalogue, just to indicate the potential for thespian wankery here.

Example #1: The half-drow who was born to one of those “he was a renegade drow turning his back on the cruel matriarchal spider-worshippers below, she was the human he saved and served with all his cringing pedestal-humping heart” couples, the white knight and his lady love, who turned his back on that sickening guff and really got in touch with his inner drow – or maybe she’s the daughter of a female slave and a male drow, who can never amount to jack shit in drow society and hit the surface world because up THERE she’s an exotic grey-skinned beauty who can be treated like the goddess she expects to be.

Example #2: The half-orc whose parents were a tribal union come good; they didn’t love each other, but they tolerated each other, ’cause it was the simplest way to bring their tribes together, stop them fighting, make them all kith and clan and engage in the far more profitable pursuit of duffing up everyone else in the world. Naturally their second son went off into the world to seek his fortune and came across as a surprisingly savvy barbarian who understood the direct approach to diplomacy.

On that note: if you’re playing a political game, chances are there’ll be some equivalent to the arranged marriage, a union which acts to signify a contract duly made. The romantic arc here is the obstacle, the conflict, the thing-which-makes-interest. One or both of the parties are in love with someone else and the players now have a complex situation to manage, one with a double handful of potential outcomes. Force the union through? Help one or both of the betrothed NPCs to elope with the people they actually like? Supplant one party to the union with themselves and get in on the deal? Get themselves OUT of the arranged marriage by deflecting their hubby-to-be onto someone more eligible?

Hell, maybe the romance is just the reason they’re on the adventure in the first place, something a bit different from “uh, because it’s there” or “you’re all in a bar and this wizard walks in and hires you”. You all work for a stony-broke noblewoman who needs a dowry and knows of a treasure beyond the Black Caves of Nelpha Dong… maybe one of you is the noblewoman, maybe one of you’s the intended and doesn’t know it, maybe one of you wants in on that. At it’s core it’s a simple “someone’s paying you to go here and get stuff” adventure hook, with a sliding scale of thespian wankery to suit any palate.

We haven’t even touched on the potential of charm spells, blood bonds and other apparatus of dubious consent, all of which can – if deployed with care and taste – have players gnawing the table in frustration or concern. I wouldn’t roll these out for a convention game, but for my long-term Vampire group (in which everyone involved has known each other for going on ten years now, we know where the boundaries are and we’re not so nervous that we’re constantly worried about squicking each other out)? Sure, why not. The blood bond isn’t something I forced into play but it came up naturally as a course of one player sticking his character’s fangs where they shouldn’t be and another deciding to romance a scheming Setite, and since it’s there… it’ll be used.

That last example demonstrates a core point that I’d like to be uppermost in your minds as you leave this post behind. None of this stuff is going to be right for every group. None of this stuff is something you should force on every group you play in or – dear Eris on a waffle iron – run for. Shockingly enough, romance isn’t far off graphic violence in terms of how you test the water to see if it’s acceptable. If you’re all feeling terribly boring and mature you discuss it in advance, set boundaries, work things out – if you’re a bit more devil-may-care or if it just springs up unexpectedly in play then you need to Pay Attention. Learn to read the expressions on people’s faces, to look for the complaints they’re not making because you’ve made the whole situation awkward. Goodness knows it’s not easy – “I can’t read your expression, what are you trying to tell me?” is a sentence I utter at least three times a day – but, at the risk of sounding like your dad, you’ll never get anywhere in life if you can’t at least pretend to take notice of how your actions affect other people.

If nothing else, it might mean you get to give a toss about the next Obligation Day.

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