Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Hacking & Running B10, Night's Dark Terror: Part 2.

Now begins the second part of my post-campaign reflections on the old TSR UK module B10, Night's Dark Terror (the first part of this discussion is here). As I noted previously, B10 is great fun and a strong resource, but it can benefit from some changes here and there. As I summed up early in my previous discussion:

Here's my verdict in a nutshell: B10 is really good, more a flexible campaign platform than a single adventure, a somewhat-open, sandboxy romp, and great fun. All that being said, the module as written needs some TLC to avoid railroading, maintain logical coherency, and get the most bang for your buck - but the module's flexibility allows all the modifications needed to whip it into really fun shape. Recommended - but so are some changes.

Today's post picks up right around the half-way point through B10, but I'll be continuing with the same goals - not so much to review B10 (look, it's good) but to discuss how and why I modified it while running the module. Apart from a few things, this second part will include more changes that are probably subjective - in other words, for the second half of the module, there are a few things that I suggest any GM should change (and I'll explain why), but there is also plenty of flexibility for whatever each individual GM might want to change. I changed lots, but don't feel that my changes are all somehow necessary just to make this thing work well (though, again, I suspect that a few moderate tweaks in the back half will really make this thing an even better experience for any gaming table). I've tagged each section with some buzzwords about "more mandatory" or "less mandatory" alterations, but you should naturally take these labels with a hefty grain of salt, to taste. Think of much of this just as an individual campaign report.

If you'd like to snag a copy of B10, you can find a copy right here. You don't need, but might benefit from, the old Karameikos Gazetteer, as well (both are affiliate links).

As before, please note that

MASSIVE SPOILERS WILL BE EVERYWHERE,

So stay back if you're a player or would-be player in B10. Otherwise...let's do this.

[EDIT: as before, I ended up writing quite a bit more than expected, so this is now part 2 of what I suspect will be a 3-part discussion. I'm interested in feedback on whether this depth of discussion is helpful and interesting, or whether this is getting too down into the weeds. Gentle reader, what think ye?]


RESCUING STEPHAN: THE ASSAULT ON XITAQA 
SUGGESTED CHANGES ARE LESS MANDATORY ;-) 

Note that this is the point where our campaign shifted from play-by-email using quite OSR, OD&D-adjacent rules, to weekly, live video-chat games using a PbtA ruleset fusing bits of Dungeon World, World of Dungeons, and Freebooters on the Frontier, but all with a GM determined to continue to approach everything from a very OSR-influenced mindset. A few sessions in, I gave the players a chance to switch back, but they all reported enjoying the new system and its dynamism.

Speaking of dynamism...this is one of the things I sought to heighten throughout the second half of the campaign: certainly dynamic consequences to bungled rolls in-game, but also dynamic, unpredictable events in a world where things are happening around the PCs, or dynamic, open choices for players, with real and meaningful consequences and effects on the game-world. This meant that I've continually been delighted to see our world develop through play in ways that surprise me, even though I fully retain the traditional D&D/OSR GM control of narrative reality. I would recommend the delights of this approach near and far, and I suggest that it can be implemented in a variety of ways, even across different rule-systems. The timeline that I'll discuss shortly below is one (potentially) system-agnostic way to do so, for example.

Ok. So - having returned to Sukiskyn to gear up after assaulting the wrong gobrach stronghold (oops!), the PCs prepared to raid Xitaqa, a ruined ancient city set into a ravine across the river to the north. During their preparations, they met a strange old hermit among the refugees at Sukiskyn; the old man offered a staff of striking to the party for their coming battle, if they would agree to owe him a favor in return. To be perfectly honest, this only happened because one of the PCs was looking notably under-equipped in comparison with his peers, so this was a bit of a cheeseball move on my part at the time - I had no clue who this weird hermit was. As you'll see below, however, this worked out just fine - the hermit ended up having a notable role to play, all in due course.

Once geared up, the PCs headed north. As per the module, they tangled with an Iron Ring scout patrol outside Xitaqa...but my players ended up not only sparing one of the enemy for questioning, but they spent resources healing him and tried to convert him to their cause. A good ol' secret reaction roll showed me that the scout in fact refused to actually betray his masters, so he fed them some (mis)information about Xitaqa - just enough to get them in trouble - then pretended to ride off peaceably away from Xitaqa. In fact, he later turned around and shadowed the party there, planning to ride in and audibly warn his master about the intruders.

That was just one of several possible events included on a LOCATION TIMELINE that I drew up to make the Xitaqa raid feel a bit more dynamic. Timelines are easy in a PbtA game that prompts the GM to look for negative consequences when rolls don't go well (the Dungeon World "adventure fronts" system), but they can be implemented in a traditional turn/round-based D&D-game, too: either have a pre-set time when various things will happen, or - for maximum chaos - treat the timeline as a list of possibilities, and whatever triggers your next check-mark - whether it be failed rolls or number of turns elapsed - just roll randomly to figure out which event happens next.

At risk of overburdening this post, I'll share what my timeline looked like. As you can see, it included a number of overlapping fail-states, but also some conditions that might be bad for the bad guys, too. Keep in mind that Stephan is the prisoner everyone is trying to rescue; Golthar is the mad Iron Ring master who's got him prisoner and under torture. The gobrach are the local goblins...but I felt they needed more spice, so I added a shaman with unstable necromantic powers, a giant pet Dire Ape chained up in the gobrach "king"'s throne-room, a secret passage behind that throne-room's wall into the basement of Golthar's tower, and a colossal jackal-headed animated statue capable of mind-control in the basement, instead of a gelatinous cube. What could possibly go wrong?

Each danger represents a separate timeline countdown; each number is a 'beat' on the countdown to some unpleasant thing going wrong.

Danger 1: Stephan is killed 
1 - Stephan screams in pain again / PCs overhear gobrach joking about how the boss is about to kill off another prisoner
2 - …and again, screaming from the tower
3 - …and again, then…
Impending Doom: Stephan is killed!

Danger 2: The Gobrach consolidate to hunt down the party
Impulse: to catch and torment outsiders
Grim portents:
1 The gobrach inform their chieftain of intruders and the patrols begin to coordinate; Lord Vlack (the gobrach shaman) is summoned from the tower.
2 Gobrach patrols begin systematically searching the canyon / Vlack arrives, if feasible
               if/when there have been significant Gobrach casualties, Vlack will unleash powerful magic, but lose control of it - reanimating ALL corpses at Xitaqa, which will turn on ANY bystander, from both sides of the fight!
3 Gobrach locate the players and begin hunting them relentlessly (BUT - whenever significant casualties have occurred, Vlack will reanimate them, and lose control!)
Impending Doom A: The gobrach horde locate the PCs and close in with all remaining troops
Impending Doom B: Undead hordes tear apart Xitaqa!

Danger 3: Golthar attacks the party and/or escapes
Impulse: to discover the location of Hutaaka, then escape
Portents:
1 The treacherous Reaver rides urgently into Xitaqa, shouting a warning to Golthar
2 Golthar finishes with Stephan (or his hand is forced and he flees)
3 Golthar blasts open his tower and flies away to the W/SW (toward Kelven)
Impending Doom: Golthar flees and acts on his educated guesses to find Hutaaka 
Finally, I also kept a simple tracker of two gobrach patrols moving about the city, which ended up boosting the tension...

Let's see, it's been a while now, but if memory serves...the PCs infiltrated the city, shot dead some pterodactyl-bat-things that the shaman keeps around the tower (but neglected to drag the bodies into hiding, so...) as they progressed deeper into the city, they ended up hearing a trumpet-blast from the direction of the canyon where they shot the flying critters dead (a patrol had just arrived and crossed paths with the arrow-festooned pterodactyl corpses). Important to note - don't make the timeline itself be a straightjacket - if something happens that should change it up or advance it more quickly than expected, then just go for it. The PCs ended up in a giant rumble as they tried to scout out the "king's" lair quietly but got detected...after this, they fled through the secret tunnel into the basement of Golthar's tower. Here, not one but TWO of the PCs voluntarily submitted to the colossal statue's urging to "open your mind to me" (I mean, some days players just hand you candy, right?). Two of the characters, temporarily re-assigned as GM-NPCs, marched off upstairs. One player followed them, another got distracted and searched a room for treasure (!!!!), and eventually they found Golthar, his brute torturer friend, and poor Stephan (still alive!) upstairs. There was an epic fight, of course, and Golthar almost got away...he blew a hole in the tower wall, but got torched by a fireball (a one-shot fireball using my "titans' tears" magic system). Then he tried to fly away, badly wounded, but a very lucky long shot by a player-character archer killed him off.

Oh...outside, pandemonium had broken out, as the gobrach shaman's attempts to raise undead forces had gone awry...the PCs hastened their relieved rescuee, Stephan, out through the bedlam of a gobrach zombie outbreak, and escaped back to Sukiskyn. Yeehaw.

Some Wonderful Internal Art from B10, by Helen Bedford


AFTER THE RESCUE - WHY STOP THE IRON RING, NOW?
SUGGESTED CHANGES ARE OOOPER-DOOOPER-SUPER IMPORTANT

B10 really consists of two interlinked mission-arcs: first, it's oh no, we must find and rescue Stephan! and second, it's oh no, we must help Stephan find and loot Hutaaka before the Iron Ring does! As the party transitions from the first to the second, I would STRONGLY SUGGEST making some simple changes to the setup of the latter adventure goal.

Once he's safely home at Sukiskyn, the battered Stephan reveals that a MacGuffin tapestry is actually a magical treasure map showing the location of Hutaaka, a lost and forgotten city, supposedly loaded with fabulous treasures, of an arcane jackal-headed precursor group known as (wait for it) the Hutaakans. Stephan also reveals that his captors were the Iron Ring slaver organization and that they are searching with all their might for Hutaaka, so they can loot its treasures (and no doubt invest the whole thing unethically in tax-sheltered offshore accounts...ok, that last bit may be an extrapolation). Stephan, having just been tortured repeatedly by the Iron Ring, clearly understands that The Iron Ring is Bad People, that Bad People Do Not Deserve to Get Even More Treasure, that Honest Good Folk like Stephan and the Player Characters Do Deserve to Get Rich Soon, and therefore that Somebody Really Ought to Do Something About This.

Honestly, I thought this was super lame.

You may not, in which case power to you. There certainly is a venerable tradition of S&S or OSR adventurers who are purely in it for the Benjamins. Several of my players (and I) have a more heroic streak, so something a bit more motivating was in order (to be clear, the lure of giant treasure-piles certainly would play a factor, too...). I also felt that this was an entirely uncompelling way to handle Stephan, not to mention his relationship with his family. ("Hi Mom, I'm home from being kidnapped and tortured! So sorry you all had to go through that emotional agony while I was gone! Anyway - I'm ... um ... leaving tomorrow to keep tangling with the bad guys, because legend and a city of gold and reasons! Ok? See ya!"). Finally, the Iron Ring itself seemed a bit daft if they were willing to pour so many resources (including personnel - my PCs ended up killing a LOT of servants of the Iron Ring) into a vague hunt for a treasure-pile that might or might not still exist, when by all accounts they were already raking in the gold through their usual extortive means. No, some higher stakes were called for.

How you change this is not particularly important, but I would suggest you make some kind of change.

As one (too) often does, I turned to another MacGuffin. No, wait, come back! There's more. Not just a MacGuffin. A relic with potentially world-changing significance...with setting-breaking potential...posing a significant moral dilemma...with zero strings attached on what I'd allow the bad guys OR the player characters to get away with. Let me explain.

In my non-canonical version of Mystara, the Hutaakans' desperation to protect their hidden valley motivated them to open contact with dark forces beyond the firmament (thus letting in Kartoeba, the Lovecraftian beastie that prowls their ruined city). They used these powers to create a magical weaving-loom with almost Norn-like powers over the unfolding of destiny (which my players immediately christened The Loom of Doom).

If one sits at the loom and weaves a picture or map of a kingdom, then within one month's time that kingdom will be utterly destroyed, one way or another. 

This was the jackal-headed refugees' nuke-option to remove any power that might one day threaten to overwhelm hidden Hutaaka. Having learned of this dangerous relic, the Iron Ring's motivation was not just to gain riches, but to gain ultimate power and be able to force any kingdom to its knees by threatening it with total annihilation. Stephan's motive, and the party's, was to prevent this from happening.

Yet...there was another complication. One of the key elements of our campaign that I really played up was the ethnic tension between the outsider Karameikan overlords, of Thyatian descent, and the native Tral (Traldar in the book) population conquered by them in earlier generations. That tension is active in canonical Karameikos, but I really ramped it up.

AN IMPORTANT ASIDE: let me acknowledge a potential elephant in the room. I started incorporating themes of what we'd now call imperial or colonial oppression and ethnic tension in this campaign right from the beginning, a year ago. Our version of Mystara is an Iron Age setting, and such issues certainly were already relevant, in different forms, in ancient societies. Yet without context, I suspect that some aspects of our campaign - ethnic tension between settler-rulers and a local native population; heavy-handed enforcement provoking street riots; and moral dilemmas about the appropriate limits of resistance - will currently sound either like an over-trendy attempt to cram the latest current events into our gaming for commentary, on the one hand, or a blithe attempt to make light entertainment out of what are all-too-serious problems affecting our society right now.

As a historian who spends a lot of time pondering these kinds of weighty issues, I included these factors in my campaign because they are part of the human social experience and I wanted to consider their effect on Karameikos, before they were dominating current headlines. It is a very unfortunate coincidence that the real-life tragic killing of George Floyd and the dramatic events since then, which have drawn needed attention to many underlying injustices, took place during the same year that I GM'd ethnically-related tensions spilling over in Threshold, for example. The in-game conversation was not meant as a reaction to specific current events, but neither was it meant to make light of very real concerns that have marred our and many other historical societies. Although you will not normally hear politics discussed on this gaming blog, I believe that Black Lives Matter. Please don't turn my comment feed into the latest battleground for the culture wars, whatever your stance, but also please don't think that I intended to make light of any of this stuff.

What incorporating Thyatian-Tral ethnic tensions in our campaign did mean was dramatically heightened stakes and questions when it came to the Loom of Doom. As Stephan asked the party sometimes during their overland journeys, what do we do with the Loom if we find it? Just destroy it...or maybe try to do some good with it? Destroy the Iron Ring outright? Destroy the Karameikan regime?  Can you even use such an evil object for good means? And can we live with ourselves later if we hold the means to destroy the Iron Ring in our hands, and let them go? I didn't insist on specific answers, and left this up to the players. This meant that even though I was firmly in control of the narrative world as the GM, I had real uncertainty throughout this campaign about how it would end - whether with a destruction of the loom, or with an overturning of crowns.

In my opinion, emphasizing the tensions between the different groups living in Karameikos also helped explain why it wasn't logical simply to go ask the authorities for help. I was a bit puzzled, reading through B10, as to why the nearer authorities in Kelven are never expected to send the cavalry, at least eventually, to smack down the goblin and Iron Ring forces causing havoc across the countryside. In my version, this was partly because the ruling elite at Kelven were clearly compromised themselves by Iron Ring influence, and there was enough underlying suspicion of the authorities that no-one was eager to go hand the Loom of Doom problem off to them.

Ok. Nuff said, I hope, on that front.

So. With that change, the whole motivation for the second half of the campaign changed to something larger, much more dynamic, and (in my opinion) far more interesting than simply wanting treasure first. If you're settling in to run B10, consider whether your particular table make-up tends to favor loot-first missions, or not. If so, then you're good to go. If not, however, consider inventing some plausible reason other than just loot for the baddies to want Hutaaka. It's a half-ruined, post-collapse treasury-city hidden in the mountains, wracked by civil war, and stalked by undead and cosmic horror. Seriously, there's gotta be more than just money involved there, right?

Whew...I'm going to stop here, again, because once again this has gotten longer than I intended. I invite you to comment on whether this level of detail is helpful and interesting, or not really; perhaps such discussions should be more to the point? Or is this useful?

Either way, thanks for reading!

5 comments:

  1. No, no your deep delving into the matter is very insightful and a delight to read! Not many people look this far back into the old Mystara setting and your vaguely Iron Age take on the matter is very inserting.
    Also I must say that I love the macguffin being a 'Loom of Doom' weaving is trajectory left out of many fantasy tales so its good to see it used.

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  2. Did you consider that the loom may have been the cause of the thyatian invasion in the first place?

    Definitely find this stuff interesting. The Loom of Doom sounds like it came right out of a Greek myth, I might put it somewhere in my campaign

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    1. That's a great idea. If I ever get to run a Karameikos campaign I'm including the Loom in this way. Will need some foreshadowing of the original invasion being made for what looked like good reasons at the time but seem crazy with the benefit of hindsight.

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  3. Another brilliant entry! Glad to see this continue. I like the idea of the Loom of Doom, if a little McGuffin-y. Has a very strong mythic feel to it, much like the Nemean Lion's Hide which I guess makes sense for the setting.

    The Loom of Doom plot is an enjoyable modification, and steps the quests up from just another loot run adventure, into a plot line that characters with higher aspirations can take interest in.

    Can't wait to see the third part of this story whenever it is released.

    P.S. It always surprises me how much a player's curiosity gets them into trouble in DnD games.

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