Thursday, October 6, 2011

Path of the Oracle 2: An AP Analysis

ROLL CALL AND SET UP
Our Cast- Batu, Barbarian Warrior; Alina, Warlock; Adie Rahl, Wizard; Tiassale of the Forgotten Forest, Elven Druid; Avari Fearwhisper, Elven "Ninja"; Evendale Minot DuShont, Elven Rogue

Previous session summary can be found here; campaign world built by players using Microscope described here. Last session ended with them reaching the Oracle, but finding our their further journey would require a series of choices about destination.

SCENE ONE: BAD CHOICES
The session opened with the group deciding between the two paths ahead of them. On the one hand, they had the option of trekking out into an arctic wasteland, devoid of life or vegetation. They saw and landscape of snow and ice. On the other hand, they could charge forward into a twisted woods- one which the Druid, Taissale, recognized as the Forlorn Shadow Forest, home of the faeries. These awful and malicious beings had been attacked- leaving their woods dying. This had made the fae even more dangerous and hostile. Neither choice was attractive- especially since they had no indication as to what task needed to be done in either place.

The group argued back and forth about their choice. Avari pointed out that they had little or no preparation for a trip into a hostile winter wasteland. While the Druid might be able to offer some protection, it would be a difficult situation. Tiassale spoke for going to the forest, given that she'd been there before- a fact which unsettled some of her companions. Batu the Barbarian spoke strongly against going anywhere near the faeries. The others held off, but leaned towards going to the woods. Neither option was good, but eventually the non-frozen choice prevailed. They consulted with the Oracle again to see if they could obtain any further information, but gained nothing. Then they stepped through.

GM Comments: This was an interesting moment. As I mentioned, I left off last time with the choice between the two routes standing in front of them. That meant I had to sketch out each in preparation for this session. I’d deliberately keyed the choice for the Druid- between some place familiar but dangerous and some place where her abilities to help the group survive would be taxed. The group discussed- but pretty quickly it became obvious that the woods would be their choice, given the lack of survival gear.

It was a tough interaction to GM- I had to keep myself out of the discussion while answering questions and offering some narrative color. I told myself I was completely neutral on their choice- but honestly, I felt more comfortable with the Arctic path. When that clearly wasn’t in the offing, I tried to not say too much. One problem with having a choice like this at the beginning of a session, at the beginning of a campaign is that it can put players into adversarial positions over those choices. Good players will have fun with that- bad players will get their noses bent out of shape. Luckily, I have a pretty good group here.


SCENE TWO: DEAD WOODS
They entered Forlorn Shadow Forest- immediately noting the woods’ decay. As the Druid explained, some unknown foe had drained the life magic from the area. Nothing grew here- and collapse had begun. Tiassale’s fellow Druids has been working at the forest’s edge woods trying to come up with a solution. Uncertain of their goal or direction, they tried to consulted Tiassale’s sentient magic item, a wand made by the fae from the wood of this forest. The wand, however, offered them taunts rather than advice. Eventually they detected some noise in the quiet woods and followed it as best they could.

After a time they came upon a dead body. The sound they’d heard had been the swarm of hornets eating the corpse’s flesh. With magic they pushed the insects back and examined it. They discovered it to be one of Tiassale’s fellow druids. A quick investigation revealed that dead man had been pursued and run to ground by the fae, judging by the wounds. They found the Druid’s tracks- but also the tracks of other humans. That party had apparently come upon the body and then doubled back the way they came. The players decided to follow those tracks. However, events overtook them.

The woods burst with animals, small and large, running in a herd past them. The party could hear a larger beast coming this way. They took off as a group, hoping to evade it. Despite the gripping woods and the treacherous terrain, they made good time. However, when they reached a gulley, they realized they would not be able to outrun the beast. They looked to see if they could perhaps box it in, but the low cut would not be enough to do that. Instead Adie the Wizard lifted them up into the air on a platform. Even as they reached the top of the tree line, they saw a giant, crazed boar smash into the clearing. It sniffed for a time- smelling the blood on the party from their battle with the Garesh last session. The Wizard attempted to clean them by summoning a brief rain shower, but that made their footing more perilous upon the air platform. To distract the beast- which was hungry for magic and blood- the Druid created a noisy spell in the distance. The beast took the bait and the party fled quickly.

GM Comments: Here’s one of those places where pacing and planning can create problems at the table. I’d built the Giant Boar as an obstacle/environmental threat/combat. I had printed out a large paper flat of the beast- it would take up a chunk of the table. It was a litttle reference to "Princess Mononoke" as well. When the players decided to run, I had them all make tests...which they all passed by huge margins- three players getting critical successes. So now I faced three choices: have them get caught anyway and be the bad GM; have them simply escape and toss away that tension; or have them have to face the beast but with significant advantages accrued from their results. I went with this last choice- with the group getting ahead but realizing that they wouldn’t be able to outrun it. At which point, they took to magical means to simply avoid the fight- a reasonable option. They did so- but I wasn’t going to let them get away that easily- I had the Boar continue to sniff around. It wouldn’t be able to get to them- but I had another plan. I figured if could apply pressure and perhaps one of the players might jump the gun- either attacking the boar or running off by themselves. As it happened, the nightly pizza arrived in the middle of this. So the scene had a massive break in the middle, and when I came back to it, some of the players were clearly edgy that we’d spent so long on it. I tried to wrap that as fast as I could when I caught those signals.

SCENE THREE: HEARTH OF DARKNESS
The group continued to follow the tracks and came upon a fenced human settlement- something that shouldn’t exist this deep into the hostile woods of the fae. After some debate, a few of the group approached- noting that the village, though quite old, showed damage from a recent attack. A party of representatives from the village would only speak with and allow the characters into the village after they’d been tested by being pricked with a cold iron needle. They agreed and then entered the village of Knockma’s Shadow where they were taken to the mortally wounded headman, Draupadi.

Drupadi explained that this village was made up of descendants of humans caught by the fae and forced to live here. The fae had struck a bargain with their ancestors- they would live here and not be molested by the faerie, but neither they nor their children would ever be able to leave the woods alive. As well, children over a certain number would be given to the faerie. It was a horrible bargain, but not one these people had made. There was clearly more to the obligations, but the characters did not press. Draupadi told them that the woods had begun to die some months ago- causing them problems. The village had been trying to decide what to do- risk leaving or remain and hope for some salvation. However, one of the groups of the faeries, the Red Pact, had decided that the bargain with the village had been rendered moot. They had attacked two days ago, stealing the relics of the village and taking all of the children. With little debate, except for naysaying by the rogue Evandale, the group said they would go and rescue the children.

GM Comments: About halfway through the scene with the villagers testing the players with the needles, it occurred to me that this would have been a great device to transmit a disease or a curse. I’ll have to save that for another game. The players were paranoid about the villagers- as they had a right to be, but eventually recognized the situation. This was the first time the other players got to see Evandale played, since he’d missed the first session. His arrogance and disagreeable nature will probably cause the group headaches in the future.

Also, sound out your NPC names before actually using them. Draupadi looked good on paper, but actually sounded stupid when I said it.

SCENE FOUR: PLAN, WHAT PLAN?
Led by a volunteer guide from the village, the group made their way to the tower of Knockma, a massive fortress made of ancient trees grown woven together. Deciding that valor was more important than discretion, the group marched up to the front door, discarding stealth or scouting.

The Wizard, Adie, walked up and grabbed the doorknocker and promptly vanished. The rest of the group immediately grabbed it as well, not wanting to leave their comrade alone. Adie appeared in a large chamber within the fortress, confronted by what appeared to be a representative of the fae, one who simply called himself Redcap. The rest of the group soon appeared as well. Recap pressed them for their purpose, a courtesy before having them killed.

Tiassale stepped forward and explained that they’d come to heal the forest. That wasn’t the answer Redcap expected. The Druid pressed on- the fae needed to return the children and relics to the village. A series of back and forths went on- with bargains and demands. The rest of the group chimed in from time to time, clarifying issues or defusing anger when the crazed fae started to go off the rails. Evandale almost cost them the bargain with a few offhand comments. Eventually they settled on an agreement- the party would quest to repair the woods after completing their current efforts to fix the Sunblaze. In return, the fae would release the children, return the relics, escort the villagers out of the woods, and allow passage of the Druids within the forest. It was a hard fought battle of wills, with the Redcap nearly calling the deal off and letting loose his troops on them. However, once the group accepted offering one of Evandale’s fingers or toes, he became more amicable.

GM Comments: OK, that was a weird section. The group literally marched up to the Fae fortress- without looking around, figuring out a plan, etc. They decided the fae would know they were there so they shouldn’t bother being subtle. They would simply issue demands and not bargain with the faeries.

So I was all set to kill some PCs. It would be the perfect chance- they’d walked in eyes open and hadn’t taken steps to have a backup plan. As well, it was early enough in the campaign that killing a couple of them wouldn’t be a big deal- they could make up new characters. I was seriously ready to let loose the full measure of the faerie wrath I’d written up, with home field advantage to the fae.

However, the Druid came out of left field with her offer- focusing on the one thing the fae really wanted. Anything else and I probably would have gone to the fight in a few moves. As it was I kept pushing it- these creatures are not precisely stable or sane. Evandale nearly blew it. But every time I got close to pulling the pin, the party zigged and zagged to offer a compromise.

In part I wish I’d pressed forward with the earlier boar combat- because not having that happen meant that the players expected a fight in this scene (even though I would have quashed them under my boot). But you never know where a game’s going to go, so you play with what the PC’s offer.


SCENE FIVE: VICTORY?
The party returned to the village. Shortly after, the fae arrived with the missing children and the items. They began to escort the people of Knockma out of the woods. Redcap appeared and handed over to them the relics they’d taken- including a magical gong ringer. When the PC’s touched that, the air shifted and the Oracle’s portals appeared again. The question of their purpose here had finally been answered. Through the left hand gate they saw what appeared to be the deck of a ship becalmed at sea. They could make out little detail beyond that. Through the other gate, they saw what Avari recognized as the sacred grounds of his order- a place inviolate. Outsiders could not be taken there on pain of death. After some discussion, Avari decided that he would have to put aside the rules of his people to carry out the quest. They stepped through into the sacred grounds and immediately began to hear the wail of an alarm.

GM Comments: Not having a clear objective in these episodes does add confusion. It means the player’s aren’t sure of their purpose. However, I think they’ll likely realize that following their better instincts will lead them to something- either a win big or a win modestly result, depending on their choices. I was glad to get the decision out of the way at the end of the session as it means only a single prep for next time. I’ve also made it clear to them that each set of choices will be related to a particular PC- with this one relating to the Ninja- choosing between his old obligations and a place where he’d be at a significant disadvantage. The nice thing about this set up it that it lets me begin the next session shooting right off of the marks- full speed ahead.