Thursday, January 14, 2010

Post Mortem: 1e Game, Session 1, August 23rd

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...

Saturday, January 2, 2010

1e Game, DM, Session 1, August 23rd

This is the second half of the write up, continuing from the character generation thread. Of course, now it's been nearly 4 months since this session occurred, so bear with me.

We last left our group as they finished their characters. They have a pretty good set up for a 4 man party, 2 fighters types, a cleric/MU, and a thief. It would be a safe bet with a good front line of fighters with a decent amount of healing and magic support, plus the all around goodness of a thief. They even are all demi-humans, granting infravision and an effective stealthy strike force, matching this first adventure perfectly. However, this didn't work out as well as it could have...

As I mentioned before, I was planning on running Stuart Marshall's 4 adventures that are loosely linked together around the town of Melford. It offers a nice, contained setting, a good number of low level dungeons to explore, NPCs to interact with, plus plenty of room to expand the setting.

I'll stick to a game narrative for this post, then add a post mortem to take a look at the tactical details.

I start the adventure with the standard party set-up: a bunch of young adventurers looking to start their journey to fame and fortune have all met and joined together to improve their chances. Yea, cliche, but it's a suitable start for the time being while we all work to establish a rhythm.

They approach the pastoral river town of Melford and I let them get the lay of the land, interact with NPCs, and offer everyone a chance to acclimate to myself as DM. Of course, I slip right back into my "apparently" habit, so I will have to break that fairly fast, they picked up on it in only one session...

It is tough going at first. I get the feeling that the PCs are not accustomed to being handed the reins to run the adventure, they seem to be waiting for me to start a story rolling or whatnot. Josh seems to be the de facto leader of the group, mostly based on the fact he's one of the few ones who is speaking up. Chris is the terminally shy one, Justin is RPing a "dumb" character, and Terry is very passive. He has the habit of narrating himself; instead of taking an action, he talks about why he might want to do the action. I'm not sure if it is some dramatic look-at-me-and-my-thoughts RP kind of thing, or a gentle acquiescence to the approval and will of the group...

Well, after dropping some rumors with adventure hooks for the immediate session and setting up future hooks, I get the ball rolling on a quickie setting based encounter to round out the 2nd half of the session. A farmer from the area runs into town, exhausted, and informs the town that the spider farm is under attack. He doesn't have much intel since he ran at the first sign of the attack, but this also suggests that the baddies don't know someone escaped.

The PCs graciously take the hook and set off to the spider farm immediately, even though it is night. They approach the spider farm by way of the road, taking no precautions for most of the trip. After repeatedly prompting them for more (You're a 1\4 mile away... nothing... 1000 feet away... nothing.... etc), they decide on their plan.

The Thief plans to skirt around the farm to the opposite side that backs up to a forest. The Ranger and MU/Cleric form an advance party that goes directly to the farm, utilizing their improved surprise chance for race/class. The Fighter follows behind with his clunky armor. It's a damn good start, only, they all march out at the same time to arrive at different times rather than coordinating an arrival... They don't change their plans even though I point this out.

They are able to win surprise and spy the farm from just outside. It's a roughly circular arrangement of buildings and houses centered around a gash in the ground that is the spider lair. A few goblins are seen looting in the NE corner, so the Ranger and MU/Cleric engage. The Fighter and Thief then start to hoof it to catch up, the Fighter 1 round behind and the Thief 3 rounds behind.

A few volleys of missile fire are exchanged then melee is joined. As the party descends on the smaller group of goblins, the alarm is raised and the rest of the invading goblin force assembles themselves in the SW corner of the farm. The first group of goblins is dispatched with only a little trouble, but at this point, the goblins from the SW have formed a small line of archers and is pelting the shit out of the PCs, while the melee Goblins form up for a fight.

The PCs fail to close to range and break under the missile fire. First the MU/Cleric drops, then the Thief. The Ranger runs out of arrows and the party flees, the surviving members dragging the unconscious ones. I play it easy on the PCs and declare that the goblins do not pursue them beyond arrow range since they were there to loot the farm.

The party pushes on into the forest and rests for the remainder of the night; thankfully, nothing comes upon them in their weakened state. They strike out the next morning heading NE, away from the farm and the town. Thankfully, the two comatose party members are a halfling and a half-elf, so they are able to be dragged and carried to at least make a slow crawl along the way.

At this point, I'll diverge from strict narrative and mention that the PCs have no rations or portable food whatsoever, except for a bottle of brandy and a jar of honey.

The PCs limp along to an abandoned farmhouse with a black mark painted on the door. Desperate, they barge into the dilapidated, ruined home. The house is found to be empty and some furniture is salvaged to get bed rest for the downed adventurers. Realizing their plight and listening to hungry stomachs, the Half-Orc Fighter stays behind to guard the wounded while the Ranger goes to find some game to hunt (borrowing the Halfling's short sword... I would have chuckled if he went out in his current unarmed state).

The Ranger comes upon a pair of wild boars and throws caution to the wind, attacking with his short sword! The boars take particular exception to this attack and gore the piss out of the Ranger, sending him running. Now I know why hunters use bows or guns, rather than trying to bag game with their bare hands...

In the meantime, a rider comes up the road on horseback, and the Half-Orc waves to the figure. Pausing for a moment, the rider instead turns on his spurs and heads back down the road from where he came.

The Ranger returns from his hunter-gatherer trip, only bringing home what he could gather. It is enough to quiet their stomachs for now, and they set back out on the road. They travel farther north, away from Melford, fearing the goblins may still be lurking behind them. Coming to a fork in the road, the PCs choose a path that leads them to a small gathering of buildings and a set of standing stones. They've come across an Oracle.

The party barters their adventuring prowess for magical healing and a meal, bringing the party back from the brink along with another plot hook. There is a lair deeper in the woods that the Oracle has divined, but the previous scouting party has not returned. Since the Oracle fears that they are already dead, the PCs are charged with more of a recovery mission rather than a rescue mission.

So concludes the first adventure. A post mortem with more detailed analysis and game mechanics discussion is to follow.