Sunday, August 2, 2020

A Summary of Our Dolmenwood Campaign


Long ago, in the hazy origins of this blog, I wrote narrative descriptions of our table’s Dolmenwood campaign to challenge myself as a writer.

As a kid, I wrote for fun all the time. As adulthood subsumed my life, I fell out of practice. Desiring to not lose that part of myself, I made this blog as a public space to post my writing and hold myself accountable to it, in the same way someone might post a public record of their exercise regimen to ensure they keep up with it.

However, after a few months I quickly realized that my goal of 1200-1600 words per week was wholly inadequate for the pace of our campaign. The cavalcade of events that transpired at our table rapidly outpaced my ability to keep up in writing. Compound that problem with interruptions in my writing routine and you have a recipe for falling behind.

This post is an attempt to finish what I started. I’ve accepted that I won’t finish the “short story” write-ups I began at the inception of this blog, but I still want to summarize the rest of our Dolmenwood campaign in hopes they might provide inspiration, aid, or (at the very least) entertainment to another referee reading them.

We concluded our campaign at the end of April this year. After summarizing the events in this post, I’ll also analyze them through a critical lens in another post.

So without further ado, here is the tale of the rest of our Dolmenwood game.



After accepting Mother’s mission to secure Farthigny’s help, the heroes hired some retainers to aid them and left Prigwort for Farthigny’s cabin. They easily found it on the shore of Lake Longmere, but their meeting with Farthigny quickly deteriorated when he asked them to leave a member behind as a slave for him.

Violence ensued, in which Copper the Halfling and one of their retainers fled. The remaining heroes slew Farthigny and searched his cabin, finding the dwarf Sacristian imprisoned in the basement. (Copper’s player lost his character sheet and made Sacristian as a replacement. Thus, Copper abandoned the party and Sacristian was introduced).

The heroes removed Farthigny’s head to collect the bounty Cranduil the Bard informed them of. Upon their return to Prigwort, they met Sprewdiman Kneeve, representative of the Bardic Guild. Sprewdiman ripped them off by under-paying them for Farthigny’s bounty, then fled to Brackenwold to claim the full value for himself.

Knowing that Mother would likely be incensed at their decision to kill Farthigny (rather than secure his aid, as they had been tasked to do), the heroes decided to “lay low” for a while by returning to the Goatman Tomb and attempting to rescue two clerics that went missing there. (After the heroes initially returned from the tomb with treasure, the Church dispatched its own clerics there to see what they could recover for themselves).

The party had a rough time in Tomb, facing necrotic oozes and a giant, metal goat that breathed petrifying gas. The party found both clerics turned to stone by the monster. Upon the heroes’ empty-handed return to town, the Council of High Brewmasters brought them to trial for criminal negligence (as the last two retainers died in the Goatman Tomb after the first disappeared at Farthigny’s cabin).

High Brewmaster Jiles offered to vouch for the heroes in exchange for a “later favor,” to which the players agreed. Through some skillful oratory, the heroes won over the Brewmasters and talked their way out of imprisonment – though their friend from Mother’s cabin, Amonie, was imprisoned regarding Cranduil the Bard’s disappearance.

At her inquisition, Amonie confessed that Mother used magic to turn single male visitors into animated gingerbread men. The Council of High Brewmasters pardoned Amonie in exchange for her confession, then posted a bounty on Mother and her remaining daughters.

Legal investigations concluded, High Brewmaster Jiles asked the heroes to repay him by recovering the magical chalice of Ethelred the Sober from the nearby Barrow Mounds. (This is where the Tomb of St. Ethelred the Sober originated, which I posted here, and also where they explored a few tombs from Barrowmaze).

Barrowmaze Complete - Greg Gillespie | DriveThruRPG.com

The heroes then recovered the chalice from the Barrow Mounds and traveled to Brackenwold to see if they could find Sprewdiman Kneeve, who had ripped them off. Along the way, a golden knight riding a lion met them in the woods. The knight invited them to the fairy plane of Whyforth to meet the Earl of Yellow, telling them the invitation was “one they wouldn’t wisely refuse.”

Arriving in Brackenwold, the heroes learned that the leader of the Bardic Guild had been murdered and the head of Farthigny had been stolen from the guild. Rumor said the Drune (a secret organization of Druids) was responsible for the murder and theft, though the Church dismissed the idea of the Drune operating within the most secure place of all the Wood.

At Brackenwold, the heroes resolved to collect the bounty on Mother and protect themselves from any retaliation she might invoke against them. When several tiny gingerbread men with razor blades baked into them tried to force themselves down the heroes’ throats while they slept, their decision was only further reinforced. They hired several new retainers (including Indigo the Elf, the character of a new player) and set out to Mother’s cabin to exact justice. Amonie the turncoat daughter accompanied them.

The heroes arrived at Mother’s cabin with their cadre of bounty hunters. In the following battle, they slew Mother and most of her daughters. Amonie assumed ownership of the cabin, planning to turn it into a haven for victimized women, while the heroes returned to Prigwort to give the Chalice to Brewmaster Jiles and collect their bounty.

Their loose ends tied, the heroes then traveled to the Golden Wood for their appointment with the Earl of Yellow. Upon their arrival in Whyforth, the Earl of Yellow explained that Mother was working for him. By interfering in her plans, the heroes had interfered in his.

As recompense for their meddling, the Earl of Yellow tasked the heroes with kidnapping the Archpriest of the Church of the One True God. He provided them with a magic portal to the holy city of Thule, into which the heroes ventured (and subsequently played the adventure Kidnap the Archpriest).


After successfully capturing the Archpriest and returning via magic portal, the heroes learned that time had passed quickly during their stay in Fairy. What seemed like a few days turned out to be several months. This worked in their favor, as it allowed the “heat” of the Archpriest’s disappearance to die down and the heroes to avoid scrutiny.

Upon their return, the heroes revisited the Goatman Tomb to continue their explorations. After some spelunking, they eventually decided to investigate the disappearance of Violet Harrowmoor and recover the promised reward for her recovery.

Violet’s disappearance led them to the ruined Chapel of St. Clewd, where they rescued Violet from a monstrous flock of child-charming crows called a Gloam. There they also rescued and recruited the elf named Sprung (a fifth player who joined the party), who was part of an earlier adventuring group that failed to rescue Violet.

The heroes returned Violet to Lady Harrowmoor and collected their reward, then returned to Prigwort. After drinking, celebrating, and purchasing fancy clothes, the heroes received a mysterious invitation to visit Shub’s Finger at midnight.

At their late-night rendezvous in the woods, the heroes found an effigy bathed in magical green flame. The effigy emanated a voice that claimed to come from the Drune.

The Drune warned the characters of a pending threat called “Atanuwe” coming from the north. The Drune informed the heroes that, to stop Atanuwe, the Drune would require a magical weapon made from the head of Farthigny (which the Drune already possessed) and the remains of St. Clewd (which they asked the PCs to recover, since the Drune were magically forbidden from the chapel).

The evil unicorn Atanuwe

The heroes returned to the Chapel of St. Clewd, this time exploring the undercroft and recovering St. Clewd’s ectoplasm. They delivered it to the Drune via a magic portal, and the Drune informed the heroes of several other ways to work against Atanuwe.

When the heroes returned to Prigwort, they found its people in panic. A horde of Goatmen had burned the village of Odd to the ground and were working their way south towards the city.

The heroes then left Prigwort to find Gheillough the dragon, whom the Drune recommended the heroes recruit to fight against Atanuwe. Travelling across Lake Longmere, the heroes eventually arrived at the lair of Gheillough, who slept under the lakewater. They defeated Big Chook (a massive worm made of the dragon’s dreams) and awoke the dragon from under the lake.

Gheillough the Phlegm Wyrm


The Drune then appeared and tried to magically enslave the dragon Gheillough. The heroes balked at this idea, however, and attacked the Drune to prevent them from taking control of the dragon. The Drune retreated, and the heroes successfully convinced Gheuillough to help them save the Wood from Atanuwe. The heroes had broken their alliance with the Drune and could no longer count on receiving the magic weapon the Drune had promised them, however.

Riding on Gheillough’s back as he swam upriver, the heroes travelled north and found a stronghold of goatmen at the Hall of Sleep. With Gheillough’s help, they defeated the Goatman commander and his legions stationed there. While searching the fortress, the heroes found a crystal ball that allowed them to communicate with Atanuwe. He provided them with an invitation that would magically teleport them to his court in the north, promising no harm would come to them if they accepted.

Unsure whether to accept the invitation or not, the heroes held onto it and returned to Prigwort. However, upon their return, they found the city burned to the ground, sacked by goatmen. Refugees had retreated to Castle Brackenwold.

Incensed at the destruction of their hometown, the heroes retaliated by accepting Atanuwe’s invitation. It magically teleported them to Atanuwe's feasting pavilion, where the heroes attacked and slew him in an epic battle.

(Though the players attacked Atanuwe immediately and thereby robbed him of his "evil villain monologue" explaining his plan, he invited them to his court to keep them from defending Brackenwold while his goatmen attacked it. He also had a vendetta against them, and therefore saw a chance to "kill two birds with one stone" by teleporting the heroes directly to him. Being an overconfident demigod, however, he wound up underestimating the power of the heroes).

Meanwhile, while the heroes were at Atanuwe's court, goatmen descended on Brackenwold. Against all odds, the humans of Brackenwold defeated the goatmen and retained their tenuous grasp on the Wood. The flickering flame of human settlement in Dolmenwood lasted another day, and the Heroes of Prigwort pressed on, past the pages of this story.

FIN

(Note that this is a very high-level overview of events in this campaign. There are several interesting details, such as Austache Bounder's bloody nose, a custom-made silver chastity belt, the tragic death of Chadwick the Naive College Student, and the immolation of an entire fungus-goblin society that have been omitted. But by reading this, you can at least get the general shape of things!)

Sunday, July 26, 2020

BONE MARSHES: Review

BACKGROUND

I had this adventure in my wish-list for a while after Bryce Lynch recommended it on tenfootpole in 2019. Then, Ben Milton on Questing Beast reminded me it was on my wish-list with his review of it on YouTube, so I bought both the print and PDF versions earlier this month during DriveThruRPG’s Christmas in July sale.

I make numerous references to Ben and Bryce's reviews throughout mine, so you can find them using the links above if you're interested. I won't restate anything they said.

I ran the Bone Marshes as a solo adventure for my partner. So I’m writing this after running it for only one player, though I think the good things (and the problems) I found would still hold true for a group of players.

I have a different version than Ben Milton from Questing Beast did, so I’m guessing there was an update or something between our reviews. Thus, the page numbers I reference in this review come from a different version than Ben’s. I use page numbers from my print copy, not the PDF.

For the sake of thoroughness, this review contains SPOILERS. So if you plan on participating in this adventure as a player, don’t read ahead.


GOOD THINGS

First off, this adventure has a brilliant creative spark. Many elements of this adventure (i.e. the merchant who points at birds, the rotating section of earth, the alien metal silfer) are all absolutely great. This adventure is unique, original, and emblematic of a lot of good things in adventure-writing. I also love the “local” inspiration Schirduan took for the adventure. I think that inspiration really shows in the flavorful descriptions of the Bone Marshes as a region.

I really enjoy the mini-systems the game included for fire-fighting, exploring underwater tunnels, and getting covered in mud. Beyond the unique place/people ideas, Schirduan also includes simple-but-effective mechanics to support players as they interact with the environment. The exploration rules that divide each day into six four-hour periods are excellent.

Schirduan also explores an interesting way to write descriptions of keyed locations. The adventure uses bold text for key features, more details in parentheses, then blocks of text in paragraphs – which isn’t necessarily unique to this adventure, but still good to see. Schirduan’s writing in the descriptions is terse and evocative. I think there’s still room for improvement there; I had to include some information from the paragraph text in my descriptions of the environments, which made the distinction between them feel meaningless. Why set the paragraph text aside if I'm going to have to read it to players, anyway? But that sort of organization and formatting for keyed locations is a lot better than the boxed text you see in other adventures.

Some issues other reviewers raised weren’t present when we played it. The problem Ben mentioned with the art for the Cavern and Mud Pit being awkwardly arranged was fixed in my print copy. And the issue Bryce saw about “where are the fires” is moot because there certainly are enough fires in the random encounters - so many that about half the hexes my player explored became burned. So Bryce mentioned how the fires “may be a play thing,” and I think that’s exactly right. The fires show up when you’re rolling for random encounters.

To close this section, I’d also like to say that Schirduan has excellent taste in music and literature. I totally appreciate the “touchstone” section (especially the reference to the Princess Bride) and I downloaded the songs by Hudson due to the recommendation from this adventure.

Awesome adventuresome album, and I'm grateful to the Schirduan for the recommendation

CRITIQUES

So I’m going to jump in with the most significant problem I found, then describe some other incidental stuff later.

The central conceit of this module is that the marshes are burning. That’s the problem for Azimech (the mage that recruits the PCs), Puddin’ Jack (the bandit that steals people’s water), the Guardian of the Spire, and so on. The marshes are burning, and lots of folks want to put out the fires. Good stuff. All on board.

However, the reason for WHY the marshes are burning confused me to no end.

I think the marshes are burning because the sun is stuck in the sky above the marshes. I think this because the adventure says on page 5, that after the Vault of the marshes flooded, “The vault’s onboard intelligence… attempted emergency meteorological procedures to dry itself. Unfortunately, all this has done is lock the sun in place above the spire.” The adventure makes several other references to the “constant daylight,” the “never-setting sun,” and trying to restore the “normal day-night cycle.”

And I'll admit - that's a bit outlandish for me, but I could work with it. I generally prefer more "low-key" problems for players to solve, but for the sake of a good hex crawl I can suck it up and have them save the sun.

However, the reason I say I think the sun is stuck in the sky, rather than I know the sun is stuck in the sky, is because the adventure later directly contradicts this idea. On pg. 13, describing how Azimech got involved with the marshes, the adventure says “she tried to sleep on the problem… but night never came. The sun set and rose as it always has (emphasis added), but the sky never grew any darker.”

What!? How can the sun “set and rise as it always has” AND be “locked in place above the spire?”

This isn’t the only place where the idea of the sun being frozen in the sky is undermined. When talking about sleeping the marshes, the book is “business as usual.” There’s no mention of how the sun keeps night from falling for the players. In fact, on page 7, the adventure says that the PCs have to burn a torch at night “to keep the bugs and darkness at bay” (emphasis added).

So after making it hardly a dozen pages into reading, I’m finding myself questioning what I read – having to go back, re-read, double-check, and cross-reference just to ensure I’m understanding the core conflict of the module correctly.

It doesn't help that the description on DriveThruRPG makes it sound like the source of the fires is some mystery the players must solve. All you would have to do is look at the sky and see the sun stuck there, right?

From DriveThruRPG: "The marshes are burning, and we don't know why!"

There’s also the fact that Azimech and all the other swamp NPCs seem to be most concerned about the fires in the swamp. So apparently, the biggest problem with the earth’s rotation stopping (or the orbit of the sun, if your game is in a geocentric universe) is the fires in this swamp… ?

Forget all the problems for the natural rhythms of wildlife, the effects on global weather and climate, or the inability to measure time in a pre-clock society. According to this adventure, the fires in this marsh are really the only problem that emerges from the sun stopping in the sky.

It's implausible (even for a fantasy game) that, were the sun to freeze in the sky, 1. A batty mage and some random adventurers would be the only ones to respond to it, and 2. In her flyer to recruit adventurers to the marsh, the mage doesn’t even mention the sun being stuck in the sky! She’s not even that concerned about it! Apparently, the day/night cycle stopping forever would be totally fine - if only it weren’t for these marshes in the middle of nowhere catching on fire!

In her flyer, Azimech says "we don't know how the fires started." It seems like the sun being stuck in the sky would be a pretty obvious reason?

It's one thing to write fiction that's a bit fanciful... but this defies suspension of disbelief.

This problem led me to try and rewrite parts of the module to have it make more sense. Which I don’t like doing. I buy adventure modules to save me prep time as a referee – not to assign me editorial work. If I hadn’t spent the money to buy a print copy, I probably wouldn’t have bothered – but because I had the “sunk cost,” I wanted to somehow make use of the adventure.

The issue about the sun isn’t the only contradiction in the module. The Swurmps are described as being “mute, semi-sentient humanoids” on page 18. According to the adventure, the Swurmps cannot speak, instead communicating with “simple images and emotions telepathically.”

Yet Puddin’ Jack (a swurmp), the King Swurmp, AND the Queen Swurmp are all described in their entries as having normal dialogue as they interact with the players. The text even gives you explicit lines for them to say. How is Puddin’ Jack supposed to communicate, “Welcome to the future of the Marshes! Give me a reason why I shouldn’t drain your water?” (on pg. 36) when he’s a mute creature?

Those contradictions aside, I couldn’t find a key telling you which terrain is which on the hex map (ex. which colors are forest, wetlands, pluffs, brambles). After re-watching Ben Milton’s review, I saw that Ben’s print copy actually had this, because the region descriptions were all on separate pages – but mine doesn’t have that explanation. I’m guessing an update or revision shuffled things around, and these labels got lost in the mix?

CONCLUSIONS, ADVICE, & FORWARD-THINKING THOUGHTS

Bryce Lynch gave a glowing review at tenfootpole (which is quoted in the adventure’s description on DriveThruRPG), even putting this in the category of “the Best.” So I’m wondering if perhaps I’m misreading the module? Maybe I'm being overly critical? Or maybe Ben & Bryce, being professional reviewers, just read the module and didn’t try running it for players.

But the issues I found made running the module a lot harder than it had to be, and they caught me off-guard because I tried to do my due diligence beforehand. I felt like I was reading & playing a rough draft, not a finished product. It'd be one thing if the inconsistencies and contradictions were ancillary to the module, but they have to do with its core premise & the problem the players are trying to solve. So it's a problem with the roots of the plot, not the branches or trunk. Though ultimately I don’t think I regret buying this module since it was on sale and I didn’t pay full price.

RATING: ⭐️⭐️⭐️/5 Stars (Recommended with reservations)

In case you do run this, there's a really cool roll-table that generates bandits that was left out of my copy. You can find it in the online handouts here. The table for travelling through the underwater tunnels is also much better in that PDF, as it has color that separates when the tunnels are wet or dry. I wouldn't have known about these handouts if I hadn't read the discussion page of this module looking for someone else talking about the issues I saw.

I'd also recommend changing the adventure's instructions to roll 2d6 for a random encounter with each hex the players enter. Four random encounters per day (plus the chance of another one at night, if the players don't keep watch) got old quickly. It's an easy fix, though. Labyrinth Lord says the chance of an encounter in swamps is 50%, checked 3-4 times per day. So instead of a definite encounter with each new hex, say there's a 50% chance of encounter with each new hex and another 50% chance if the players don't keep watch. Done and done.

In summary, I’d recommend this adventure if:

1.      You like the Knave system and want to use this game’s version of it (or something VERY similar). I wouldn't recommend running this with Pathfinder or 5e

2.      You want to run this mini-hex crawl as a few separate one-shots or as a mini-campaign separate from anything else. It compatibility with the Knave rules and the potentially world-destroying nature of its central conflict (ex. the sun stopping in the sky) makes this thing hard to “drop in” to an existing game

3.     You don’t mind filling in the gaps of a published product. This thing will take some work to prep, run, fix, and generally figure out