Friday, September 23, 2011

Path of the Oracle: An AP Analysis

INTRODUCTION
We had the first real session of our new "Treasure Hunters" campaign, which I'm going to call Path of the Oracle. I think it is worth looking at the session- both in terms of narrative and play. It was our first session using aspects & tags from FATE and the first session I recorded play for.

BACKGROUND
The campaign is going to be eight sessions, set in a fantasy world the players built using Microscope. In many ways, they managed to craft the arc of the campaign in that session. They set up elements for the premise and created the important problems to be solved. While this campaign will only be eight sessions, I image it as the first movie of a trilogy- so if we want to return to it, we can do so.

Mechanically we’re using our house system, Action Cards, which everyone at the table has played before. However for this version I significantly retooled the magic system. More fundamentally I cut out some sub-systems and added the Aspects and Tags mechanics from FATE. The AC system already uses a fairly narrow range of result conditions (Catastrophic, Bad, Just Missed, OK, Great, Masterful, plus a variety of special and player unique results). Adding the Aspects mechanics ended up being fairly easy. Aspects/Tags can be invoked for a repull, a one degree bump, or an effect. This session would be my first full chance to run a game using those concepts.

The premise of the campaign is that the PCs all hold magic items. The Big Bad has declared all magic items must be turned over to the Empire, so they’re on the run. The twist is that artifacts and magical items in this world have personalities- with some items dominating their bearers. The group is mixed between bearer dominating, item dominating and shared power characters. I didn’t play too much on that for this first session, as I wanted them to have a chance to establish their personality. Dealing with the secondary 'voices in their head' would have overcomplicated what I intended to be a simple session to get everyone on board.

CHARACTERS
We had done a character creation session which resulted in this line up. I list their aspects for clarity:
1Batu, Barbarian Warrior (Mysteries of the Desert, High Pain Threshold, Son of Battle, Weapons Don’t Need to be Honed- People Do)
2Alina, Warlock and streetwise former noble (Obsessively Focused, Architect of Destruction, I Can Take It, Social Chameleon, Friends in Low Places)
3Adie Rahl, blind Wizard with compensating spirit sight (Chosen of the Dark, Blind but Marked by Two Worlds, Fly by Night, Fierce Loyalty, Torn between Two Natures- Life and Death)
4Tiassale of the Forgotten Forest, Druid forest-tender, Elven (Precariously Balanced, I’m a Survivor, Strength of the Earth, Guardian of the Forest, Animal Whisperer)
5Avari Fearwhisper, Elven "ninja" (Blood of the Elves, Well-Traveled, A Good Day to Die, Shadowed Purposes, Pride of the Dancers)
6Evendale Minot DuShont, Elven rogue (Facts Get in the Way, Death Defying, Seat of his Pants, Teller of Tall Tales, One for You- Two for Me)

This last character was absent from the session.

SET UP
They met with their resistance group which stressed two threats hanging over the world. On the one hand, the young Empress had been possessed by the spirit of a powerful relic. It was this relic which wished to destroy all other magic items, hence the current hunts and the PCs’ life on the run. But while the Empress certain represents a fierce threat, a greater one faces them. A magic ritual had been twisted, resulting in the Sunblaze. That caused the sun to burn fiercely for the hour before and after noon. During that time, the temperature sky-rockets, up to 110-120 degrees. People had to seek shelter during these hours, weather patterns had gone haywire, crops were burning, and the landscape was being devastated. This had gone on for almost two months.

An artifact existed which might be able to stop the Sunblaze- The Bells of Pelic. The group would have to seek them out. However, they would also be in a race with various factions, including the sinister Night Elves, to gain control of the artifact. Those other factions wished to bend the Bells’ power to their own ends. The group would need to seek out the Oracle, who lived in the lost jungle city of Hesek Pang. To get there, they would need a guide. Unfortunately, their guide had been captured in the northern border city of Darkness. The group began with the following agenda:

1. Rescue Guide
2. Make their way to the Oracle
3. Consult with the Oracle
4. Follow the Oracle’s directions to find the Bells of Pelic.

SCENE ONE: CITY OF DARKNESS
The group arrived in the decaying metropolis of Darkness. I spent some time describing the nature of this rough and half-abandoned border city. The two players with the most socially adept characters opted to investigate the situation. Avari, the ninja, blended in with the locals to see what the situation was in the Imperial-held section of the city. He discovered that they had largely given up on the rest of the settlement, but Imperial Hunters had arrived recently, raising the alertness of the garrison. They had conducted a token sweep, rounding up a number of prisoners who had been taken to the Dragonfly Tower. Avari got a sense of the landscape, defenses and the basics of the prison tower.

Alina, the Warlock, used her advantage to spend a drama point to make a quick and lasting friend. She ended up making contact with a local merchant (Erastos Spew) who took her for a wealthy noble. He explained that the Imperial Hunters had issued an edict that all magic items would have to be turned over within a week. However that would be hard to enforce- the Imperial garrison had split with the locals and were effectively under siege in their wall compound, the Citadel. Local sentiment was stacked against them.

GM Comments: I tried to keep this pretty tight- focusing on just two players doing investigation. I wanted to get the basic situation into play quickly. So I split the information into two halves. I made sure to offer the aspects of the Citadel to the players at this point, so that they could make use of them. They didn’t end up using them here- but later in the session they would catch on to how that mechanic worked.

SCENE TWO: RESCUE FROM THE CITADEL
The group opted to split into two halves, with one pair crossing over and breaking into the tower and the remaining three setting up to assist and create a distraction as necessary. Avari and Tiassale, the Druid, went in, while Adie, the Wizard, readied an invisible escape bridge from one of the tower windows, Alina the Warlock picked a section of wall she could blow up to draw attention, and the Batu, the Barbarian, went to the front gate to watch. The initial operation went well and quickly. I wanted just a few quick checks if they offered a decent plan. However, they seemed to enjoy the mission and tension, so I threw in a complication.

One of the Imperial Hunters returned, observed by Batu. The Hunter crossed the grounds and then stopped- having sensed the magics cast by Tiassale the tower’s upper level. The Hunter broke into a run toward s there. I’d intended this to be a "clock" to put some pressure on them. The players saw it as a more dire threat. Batu made a nuisance of himself at the front gates in hopes of drawing the Hunter’s attention, bot only succeeded in riling the gate guards. But the Alina, having spotted the Hunter- decided to act. She lobbed a fireball over the wall and struck him- which immediately changed the whole situation.

The Avari and Tiassale found themselves under sudden pressure to move quickly. Batu tried to force the issue- which meant that he nearly ended up overrun by guards. Alina continued to exchange spells with the Hunter- protected from reprisals by Adie’s magics. We had a couple of rounds of abstract combat, before the rescuers managed to escape the Tower on the invisible bridge, carrying with them the information they needed. Everyone took off, save the warlock who waited until the street guards investigating the situation approach- at which point she immolated a dozen of them.

GM Comments: I had intended to have this go faster than this, but everyone seemed to enjoy the challenge. I’d initially thought about having the group ambushed in town- but since we’d had some physical conflict there, I opted to make the next couple of beats different. That would give the players a chance to catch their breath and allow the next combat to have its own life.

SCENE THREE: THE JUNGLE TREK
With a map given them by the dying contact, they made their way into the jungle in search of the lost city of Hesek Pang. While unprepared in terms of provisions and gear for this journey, they had two survival experts to lead them, Batu and Tiassale. Along the way they saw evidence of how badly the Sunblaze affected the world: rivers dried out, fruits and gourds at the top of the jungle canopy exploding from the heat, and animals driven mad from the changes.

GM Thoughts: This ended up a nice scene which allowed some interactions between the PCs. I required survival checks. The margin of success determined the exhaustion stress the characters took. The mages also couldn’t clear the damage they’d taken from casting because they couldn’t adequately rest on the road. I had some nice travel and scene description and- I think- brought home the environmental impact of the Sunblaze. It also allowed a break between the combat scenes, which can’t be underestimated.

SCENE FOUR: AMBUSH IN THE RUINS

The group arrives in the ruins of Hesek Pang and make their way forward- straight into an ambush. A party of Garresh, intelligent twelve-foot gorillas in armor, awaited them. Though the PCs briefly attempt to parlay, they quickly realize the force wants their blood. A melee breaks out. The PCs face overwhelming odds: a commander, several sub-commanders, two mages, two senior legionnaires, and standard troopers make up the ambushers-eighteen opponents in total. The group quickly splits- with the Batu charging forward and the Avari assaulting those behind. In the meantime, the three mages gather in the center to unleash spells. The battle swings back and forth, with the PCs taking many wounds. The Taissale the Druid desperately tries to keep up- buffing the warriors and healing the wounds before turning to offense. The Wizard and Warlock let loose with offensive spells, managing success mixed with a few miscasts. Eventually the tide turns and the group manages to dispatch all of their adversaries. They check the bodies and discover orders which seem to implicate the Night Elves and a renegade band of assassins- who may be arriving in force soon. The group presses forward to the Oracle.

GM Thoughts: This was the first fight we had. I talked a little bit about that in this post- particularly the time breakdown. This combat, against an overwhelming force, pushed the players to really explore their options. The mages tried some new effects and saw how those could work. More importantly, the players saw how aspects and tags could be used effectively. I stressed the environmental tags early in the fight, and about halfway through they began to make use of those. Players used their own aspects in interesting ways. They also looked at how spin (large success margins) could be used to tag enemies and set them up for fellow players. It felt really good. The aspect system played easily, worked naturally, created a strong visual, and encouraged the players to work together. This is only a single session, but I’m hopeful about these mechanics and our group.

SCENE FIVE: AUDIENCE WITH THE ORACLE
The group made their way under into an abandoned temple. There they found a spinning mirrored disk- the Oracle itself turning out to be a magic item. They petitioned the Oracle for aid in locating the Bells of Pelic. The Oracle explained that it could, but not exactly as they wished. The Tree of Manoc- itself an Oracle- had been cut down and desecrated. That act had fractured the power of prophetic visions. The future could only be seen in fragments, with connections uncertain and distorted. If the group would accept it, the Oracle could offer them a choice of Paths- and the choices they would make there could open other paths. The group agreed. The Oracle split in two- becoming two disks, each large enough to pass through. To the left, they could see a frozen, arctic wasteland- barren but for the snow and ice. To the right, they could see dark and twisted trees- a scene Tiassale identified as the Forlorn Shadow Forest, home to the awful and vengeful faeries...

GM Thoughts: I moved to this fairly quickly, as it had gotten pretty late. I wanted to make sure I set up the twist clearly. The players should walk away with the sense that they had a fairly basic choice: snowy wastelands or sinister woods. I also wanted to establish that this would be the structure for the next couple of sessions- make a choice, explore the location, come to a solution, and be presented with another pair of choices to lead them forward. It will be linear- but with a healthy dose of player choice. Given the brevity of the campaign, I think that will work. The only regret I have is that I left the choice off because of the time. That means that I have to sketch out two different adventures for next session. If I’d had them choose then I could have reduced my prep time.