Well, let's take a closer look at the action without any narrative. Granted, my last write up was very straightforward, however, when I catch up in time with the actual game, and given I find some hidden free time I never knew existed, I might be able to start to write actual game narratives rather than recaps. Regardless, here's how I see the first session:
As I said before, the party composition was pretty damn good for a 4-man group, Fighter and Ranger up front, a multi-class Cleric/MU to provide the magical power, and a Thief to round out the group. Probably the most balanced selection you could ask for.
Unfortunately, the party did not equip themselves well. The Ranger did not buy a melee weapon and only purchased 12 arrows. No one bought rations either... I learned later that half the group is very new to table top gaming, having been brought in mainly from video games. I was under the impression that they had a little more experience under their belt, so I was not as careful to monitor the character creation process. Sadly, the two members with the most experience did not pitch in a lot of help either. That will be a reoccurring theme.
Due to some combination of rust on the DM's part and the PCs being unfamiliar with old school gaming styles, they had a tough time in the beginning trying to get going. Which of the two reasons was the biggest case remains to be seen. I gave everyone a starting rumor flat out, then laced more of them into NPC conversations. Nothing really struck a chord beyond gossiping, and when it seemed that the PCs had no idea what to do with themselves, I sprung the cliche plot hook on them to get them moving to the spider farm.
Chalk it up to inexperience or unfamiliar gaming style, but they were having a hell of a time trying to find adventure. Contrasting that with the regular DM, Justin, who uses a very straightforward plot that is always visible and mostly predetermined. On to the encounter.
The Spider Farm is set up as a test in basic skills, focusing on several key areas. First, the PCs know they are walking into a hostile environment; this will test their ability to assess a situation and come upon an encounter. Mainly, the important things here are the ability to remain undetected in the hopes of gaining surprise and avoiding ambushes, considering the option of reconnaissance, and tackling a situation from different angles.
The encounter is set at night against goblins with dark vision. Hence, approaching the farm with any significant light source will immediately bring upon an ambush and likely TPK. Here, the party did a good job with a little bit of luck thrown in. They are all demi-humans themselves, so there was no need for light sources. Second, with a Thief, Ranger, and half-elven character, 3/4s of the party could be sneaky and gain a better chance at surprise. They did separate their party according to sneak-ability and overall, made a good approach.
However, they did make some crucial missteps. First, they separated their sneaky people into 2 parties, effectively splitting their force into 3 parts, the Thief, the MU/Cleric and Ranger, and the Fighter. Second, they did not coordinate their actions or arrivals or contingencies between the 3 parts. The MU/C and Ranger arrived on scene first and gained surprise on a small group of Goblins.
Here is where things fell apart. Whether this was intentional or a lack of clear thinking, the group used the advantage to open an attack. While they could have gained some intell, sometimes choosing a bold attack with surprise can work. However, only 2 PCs were upon the goblins, with the rest of them 1-3 rounds away.
The opening rounds went rather well. There were 2 goblins in the open looting, with 3 in a nearby building. The Ranger and MU/C went to work with ranged weapons (bow and darts) while the Fighter lugged his ass into range for the next round and the Thief for 3 rounds later. Half of the goblins returned fire with short bows while the other half engaged in melee with the Fighter. All the while, no effort was made for a silent kill, so the alarm was rasied.
Each round 1-2 more goblins emerged from looting other buildings. Gobos with melee weapons hung back and formed up, while the ranged ones opened fire at will. As the first 3 rounds go by, the initial group of baddies goes down between a hail of arrows, darts, and sword slashes. However, the party is coming under increasing missile fire from the growing number of goblins across the farm. The Thief arrives on round 3 in time to fell the last of the 5 gobos.
At this point, the PCs are gathered for the first time in the NE corner. They are hurting pretty bad, the MU/Cleric is out of darts, the Ranger is out of arrows, and the other two don't have ranged weapons. They face about a dozen goblins total, half and half between ranged and melee, all about a round away.
The raiding party's leaders emerge with a female captive, and all the melee monsters move to the middle of the farm where the spider's nest resides, and toss the hostage in. This is all moot, as the ranged fire, now at a climax in rounds 4-5, drops the MU/C and the Thief. The Ranger did manage to take cover and try to find arrows in the farm (?!?), but he couldn't return fire. The party breaks, dragging the downed PCs, and take another round of missile fire, putting everyone very low on HPs.
I gave the PCs a small break and ruled that the goblins would go back to looting. A lucky set of rolls for random encounters, and the PCs make it to the aforementioned farmhouse. There were a few surprises in that house, but none of them were found. It would have made an interesting encounter otherwise...
That covers the bulk of the action for the first session. Here's my (biased, as always) take:
The guys are very passive in their play. A lot of it has to do with their gaming style; they expect the DM to "lead" the action. Like Final Fantasy, there is a structure and formula that the players fit into, rather then the PCs making their own journey. Hence, they kind of moved forward tentatively, waiting to be ensnared in a plot. Had I not planned a guaranteed encounter the first night, they may have not done a whole lot at all. But once the escaped worker from the farm arrived in town, they jumped into action.
As far as the actual fight, the party lacked cohesion and imagination. It was just a straight up fight in a situation where they could have done more. Fighting all of the goblins at once is a recipe for disaster, even though they gained surprise.
I will touch more on this in a later post, but the modern/3.5/FF7 type of gaming is implicitly rigged. Encounters are scaled to the PCs power and deliberately planned and sequenced to be just the right challenge. Not so in this case. There are goblins and they are meant to be conquered. They will fight to the best of their ability and they are not scaled to any particular group. I am fully aware that the party would wipe if they made no attempt to conceal themselves and walked into an ambush. I am fully aware that a straight up fight is a losing proposition in many cases. But there are a lot of ways to approach the situation that all end up in victory.
In the end, the approach they took had the potential to work. Gaining surprise on a small number of goblins, taking a few out, and then disengaging has a high probability of success. Splitting the enemy's strength, engaging them piecemeal, and working attrition upon them are all great avenues. The PCs did none of that, instead just slogging into a battle toe to toe.
In 3e, the DMG basically suggests that all the encounters of a session should be weighted and summed to an arbitrary difficulty point that would bring the PCs to the brink of death. Meaning, each encounter is listed by % of party resources (HPs, spells, healing, etc) that it would take to win. Sum them to 100%, and that is your gaming session. Perhaps the PCs were operating under that assumption, the FF7 assumption, and didn't think they needed to be any more crafty then to let the DM only throw what they could handle at them.
This concept is the crux of my next blog post...