Saturday, August 16, 2014

Lost Mine of Phandelver Chapter 3 – Orcs!

Lost Mine of Phandelver Chapter 3 – Orcs!

Hey, everyone! We're back, albeit for a short update on the third session of the ever truly epic campaign of D&D 5th edition – The Lost Mines of Phandelver. When we left the heroes, they had shattered the iron grip of the Redbands and released the small town of Phandalin for its troublesome oppression. In a desperate search for their ally, Gundren Rockseeker, the heroes had managed to discern the location of Castle Crawmaw where the dwarf, if the saying was true, was held prisoner. Having just slain the leader of the Redbrands, the renegade wizard known as Glass Staff, the heroes were about to explore the remaining part of the hideout.

The heroes were still Delvin the dwarven warrior, Father Fireforge the dwarven cleric of Oghma, Barian the elven wizard, and Professor Grim, the academic human rogue. All of them were third level.
As usual, GM comments are in blue.

Leaving no stone unturned

Having slain Glass Staff and his thugs, the heroes decided to head out for the remaining corridor, which eventually led them to a basement landing in which rested a large cistern and some old barrels. The calm water lulling them into a safe feeling, they began investigating the room, for now ignoring the door and the stairs leading up. They were, anyway, quite certain that they had now found the main entrance to the compound, which would hopefully lead them back outside once they were done. Delvin took a swim in the cistern and found an old leather sack with a strongbox inside.
Isildur using 5th. ed. swim rules
 (This actually had me wonder about another of those little details D&D 5th seems to flush; swimming in armor apparently has little to no effect, meaning we're back at the game in which full plate swimmers are a perfectly viable thing. Ah well, it worked so well in a chain mail during The Two Tower...)

The party battered it up, not thinking about the amount of noise they made, so they were soon jumped by the door opening up and two Redbrands firing arrows at them from across the room. They then retreated back into cover and before the party had time to formulate a strategy, Professor Grim moved up and hurled a bunch of marbles across the entrance. (Why, we were never really sure)
Seeing how the Redbrands were perfectly fine with staying at a distance, making ranged attacks at the heroes, the good guys had to make their move across the ad hoc barricade of the ruffians and dangerous floor of marbles. This sadly meant that the poor Barian suffered the misfortune of bad balance and was hurled to the floor in best comic relief style.

The professor likely had some idea with those marbles...
 Eventually, Delvin and the nimble professor made their way across and killed the troublemakers, rejoicing and finally breaking open the lock box for some gold and a potion of invisibility.

Taking no prisoners but the prisoners
They discovered a hidden door in the cistern-room and journeyed north, behind of which they found two additional doors. Behind one of them they heard the low sound of dice being hurled and some rattling of chains. (I did take some liberties in this dungeon design, I made the crypt-part kind of like a side area because I still found it to be extremely weird and out of context that a random burial chamber with animated skeletons would be part of an aspiring hive of scum and villainry. So here, it was sort of an area the cloaks were afraid of and had more or less just sealed off). Things went as things went, and the heroes kicked down the door with some good stealth checks, blowing down the ruffians before they had much time to act.

They found the woodworker's wife and children chained up in there, and reassured them everything would be okay, that they just had to check one more room before escorting them out. (One time in my campaign world, NPC's will evolve to recognize adventurers saying this as 'Get the hell out of here!!') - the crying woman was ever thankful and told them that while she couldn't pay them anything worth value, she'd recommend checking out the old herbalist store if they would ever visit the ruined town of Thundertree. There they would find a lost emerald necklace, lost by her family when it fled ages ago. So the heroes thanked her and set out to explore the remaining door, which sadly meant almost falling into another trap.

The last door was old and barred up, so it took some energy gaining entrance. On the other side was a small burial chamber with sarcophagi that practically screamed of nothing to be disturbed. Of course the heroes brashly marched into the room and beheld three skeletons animate from their slumber and shamble towards them.

 (This room is quite trivial at best, since at this time the heroes will have plenty of power against the ordinary skellies. So I decided to throw in a wrench and add a little extra challenge. Usually, the wraith is reserved for Phandelver Mine itself, but I thought a little early confrontation couldn't harm, am I right? I ought to add that I have a very hard time sticking fiercely to an adventure as it's written – I need to make improvements and play around with the system, especially if it's new. The heroes had, with only minor exceptions, been doing really well in encounters up till now, and at this time, WotC hadn't released the official encounter building guide, so hey!)

This was also the first opportunity to test out the new Turn Undead-rules, regarding channeling. It worked quite well, sending all three skeletons running at the first attempt (this ability has become a powerhouse, as far as I see it, against the minor undead who often have very bad will saves, and since it pretty much hurls them out of the fight for as long as the party wishes, all the more glory to an ability that was more or less meh for a long time in Pathfinder)

As the third skeleton fell, an eerie laughter echoed A dark shade appeared before them and hungered for the magical life power they possessed. In blind rage it set upon them, going for the poor wizard Barian and scored a critical hit, pretty much one-shotting him. He luckily made his CON save, and it disappeared into the wall. (There are some serious grey areas regarding to incorporeal monsters, I believe, seeing how extremely mobile they've become by the new system. As such, there is no formal statement about what they can see if they stay inside a wall and occasionally glimpse out to attack. Compared to Pathfinder, they are also able to end their turn in solid material now, meaning they take some minor damage. This really made me wonder about the possibilities of, say, having an incorporeal monster pretty much remain in the floor and reach up to attack during its turns; would it have cover? Would it strike blindly with disadvantage? It borders the line of cheesing, but since players, afaik, can also achieve this effect, it may be something that ought to be discussed in groups.)

Fighting incorporeal monsters, pretty much in a nutshell...

The wife and kids started screaming when they saw the Wraith and ran away, yelling. The rest of the party mobilized and got out their one and only magical weapon to take the fight to the wraith. Delvin and the Professor delivered some nasty cuts, which were apparently enough that the apparition didn't manage to hit anything for two turns in a row. Poor Barian, however, failed his first death save and on the subsequent turn rolled a natural one. Meaning, you guessed it;

The party eventually downed the wraith through a lot of healing and good rolling, and with big grief returned to town with the dead wizard. The townspeople were cheering and happy, rejoicing and celebrating once news reached their ears. They even prepared for a great welcoming committee, flags and everything as the party marched into tow, but sadly Father Fireforge was in a very foul mood and told them all to shut up and move aside.
Which kind of put a damper on the otherwise great atmosphere...

Life (and death) of the party!

The heroes went to the Shrine of Luck, hoping Sister Garaele would be able to help them restoring their slain companion to life, meanwhile addressing Sildar Hallwinter, who weren't exactly pleased to hear they had slain Glass Staff instead of taking him into custody. Eventually he gave up and asked for all the former wizard's belongings, including his staff, which were to be returned to the alliance. It took some sweet talking by Delvin to convince the lord, but eventually he acquiesced and allowed them to keep the item till Gundren was found. (This isn't part of the adventure, but no harm in letting the heroes work a bit for their overpowered items, right?)

Sister Garaele offered to help the heroes for a meager sum of 500 gold, placing the dead elf in the small shrine and started chanting to the goddess to bless him with luck in this life once more. Which was kind of ironic, seeing how it was pure bad luck that killed him off in the first place...

(Now, I know a lot of you out there are screaming at me with errata, pointing out that Sister Garaele is nowhere near capable of such a feat as raising the dead. And you're right, not as it's written in the adventure. But allow me to sum it up like this; I play D&D once a week, and while this can be considered much by several standards, we only game for about five hours. And one thing I obviously don't want to spend time on, is narrating how the party returns all the way to Neverwinter to achieve what might as well be done on the spot. Another thing I really hate, is the party waiting for someone to roll up a new character, especially since he has so few options available and would likely make a wizard very similar to this one. I understand that this system makes Sister Garaele much more powerful than intended, but if this is something that bothers people, one could simply assume she has a scroll hidden somewhere. Or, to put it short, death is a punishment, a setback, not a game-stopper. Feel free to disagree.)

Barian returned to life, not so thankfully and made some rather sinister remarks to his party how he would never return the favor to them and thus wandered off. The heroes decided it was a night to celebrate at the Stonehill Inn, which resulted in a grand night of drinking between the dwarves, the professor seducing the tavern owner's daughter and Barian going to bed with a headache of resurrection sickness (which in D&D 5th has been reduced to a -4 penalty to all rolls, reduced by 1 for each long rest. Much more forgiving, indeed).

Drinking contests; now, I simply used the old reliable system for a DC 5 CON check, which progressively scaled for each drink, allowing the sturdy dwarves an advantage on their saves all along. As it should be. Not all that shit with dwarves going under before the elves, no way. 

And thus, the brave heroes went to bed.

Let's hunt some orc!

The heroes set out the next day; now aware of the location of Cragmaw Castle. However, being curious and severely attention-challenged (they're my players after all, who spent half a year in Skull and Shackles simply side questing) they thought it wise to grind and explore the local area a bit, before heading off to storm the castle. They contemplated on whether to go an confront the spirit, Agatha, for the book for Sister Garaele, or hunt down the orcs not far from Old Owl Well and Wyvern Tor. The heroes decided to settle to the latter.

The lair of the orcs was located within a small forest placed close to the rocky cliffs, some days' journey east of Phandalin. As the heroes approached it, they noticed a lone orc being on watch duty. It hadn't spotted them yet. So Barian hurled a sleep spell at it, unfortunately not rolling high enough to tranquilize it, meaning the orc rolled an 18 on it's perception check and yelled for an alarm.
Soon after, the hills were alive and swarming with orcs. And, a thundering, crashing sound as an obese ogre came crushing out of the cave with a loud roar of “ME SMASH!”

(This encounter is deadly at its full brunt. The ogre can hit like truck and orcs have become extremely mobile, thanks to their free move action towards the nearest target. Don't be surprised if this encounter truly tests your heroes!)

The brave adventurer in his natural environment
 The orcs advanced swiftly on the heroes, and the professor ran and hid amidst the trees, while Barian took cover, leaving the two dwarves to fend for themselves. It wasn't a bad plan, though, as soon after a Web spell between the trees caught three orcs and the ogre, leaving them struggling for two turns, while the professor jumped out from his hideout and stabbed two of the orcs to death. While both Delvin and Fireforge came dangerously close to the dreaded 0 hit points (Father Fireforge ending up at 1...) the heroes were victorious and collapsed with battle fatigue, inspecting the sinister orc cave before them...

And what they found in there will be revealed in the next chapter “The Owlbear and the Dragonborn”

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Lost Mine of Phandelver Chapter 2 – A New Sheriff in Town

Lost Mine of Phandelver Chapter 2 – A New Sheriff in Town

The last times we left the heroes, they were departing from the slaugther that was the Cragmaw hideout. With the goblins and their chieftain Klarg slain, the party rescued their companion, Sildar Hallwinter, from the vile green clutches and set out for the small mining-town of Phandalin. Hoping to find any possible lead that could bring them closer to the infamous Cragmaw Castle and thus their adbucted friend, Gundren Rockseeker, the heroes took to the road. They knew the stakes were suddenly much higher, seeing how a shadowy figure known as "The Black Spider" had apparently pulled the goblin-strings all along, making sure they would strike against the unfortunate dwarf and bring back his map to the lost mines of Phandelver. Thus, it was a race against time, and the heroes didn't want to be late.

(At this time, the party still consisted of Delvin the dwarven fighter, Barian the elven wizard, Professor Grim the human rogue, and Father Fireforge the dwarven cleric. At this time the party had dinged level 2, as prescribed by the adventure. And as always, GM comments are in blue.)

After some much needed rest on the road, Sildar told the heroes that he and Gundren were jumped on their way to town. The goblins had sent Gundren off to Castle Cragmaw along with the map leading to the mythical lost mines of Phandelver, and how their only hope was to seek help in Phandalin.
When asked about his personal mission, Sildar explained that he was on a mission for the Lord's Alliance, seeking an old friend and mage who, a couple of months ago, set out for Phandalin in order to investigate some trouble there. Alas, his friend with the nickname "Glass Staff" hadn't been heard from in weeks, which was concerning from an otherwise prominent wizard. The heroes promised to keep an eye out for the missing diplomat in their journeys.

Phandalin – Kind of a one horse town, that probably died.

(Right off the bat, Phandalin can be quite an impression for new players, seeing how an otherwise one-directional adventure all of a sudden turns very open-wide and Skyrim'ish. The heroes pretty much arrive and are set loose upon several places to go, and more than a few offer quests in the nearby area. While more experienced players will likely just start writing a quest-log, mine certainly did, initiates to the road of adventure may benefit more from following Sildar's advice and just start out at the inn and make their way out. Phandalin is meant to be an experience in itself, so don't feel a need to rush, and instead concentrate on making the various locations memorable.)

Phandalin 101

After a couple of days, the heroes beheld a small settlement of buildings before them. While certainly not any random backwater town, they had the impression that this place was an echo of something much grander in the days past. Fields dotted the green landscape and lush forests encapsulated it like a sylvan forest wall with several small paths leading out into the nearby mountains. There was activity in the streets, as they arrived early in the day when townsfolk began their daily duties, most of them just glaring shortly, mumbling.

On their way into town, Sildar advised the heroes to formulate a strategy. Handing in the cargo at Barthen's Provisions would be a prudent start, also returning the goods to the Lionshield Coster for some gold to help things get started. Sildar would go to the local Stonehill Inn to acquire some rooms and wait for them there.

Linene (From the Divinity: OS Artbook)
The heroes decided to head for the Lionshield Coster first. There they met an, initially, suspicious woman who kept a close hand on her sword till she realized the group came in peace and showed her the stolen crates with the logo of the Coster. She introduced herself as Linene Graywind and payed the heroes 50 gold for their trouble and they were allowed to resupply from her stocks. She also told them of the recent troubles with the Redbrands (notice, the official name is the Redbrands, but I went for the Redcloaks because...well, it sounds better. It's up to you, doesn't change a thing) that had started plaguing the town some months ago. They started as minor ruffians, young people out on a rampage, but suddenly things grew dire as they slaughtered the local woodworker and made off with his wife and two children. She was sad that the Townmaster didn't seem to give a rat's ass about the situation, but that was how the cookie crumbled these days. She didn't know of Cragmaw Castle, but suggested either talking to Mr. Edermath up at the orchard, who was a retired adventurer with solid knowledge of the area, or Misses Alderleaf who knew a druid in the area.

The adventurers thanked her and went to the Shrine of Luck, seeing how Professor Grim was a believer of Tymora.

The Shrine of Luck

On their way across the marketplace, the heroes noticed several young people wearing red cloaks, glaring at them with foul intentions. It was evident they weren't welcome.
Garaele (From the Divinity: OS Artbook)
In the shrine, they were greeted by Sister Garaele who was eager to meet fresh faces that weren't rushed out of town by the ruffians. She blessed them on their journey and told them she had indeed seen someone who matched Glass Staff's description some months ago, but she only knew he had stayed at the local Stonehill Inn. The shrine was most of all a small tent with some relics in it, so the sister couldn't offer much else besides good advice; she did, however, ask whether the heroes would be willing to run a small errand for her. A couple of days east of town was an abandoned clearing in which resided a ghostly apparition named Agatha. Apparently, Agatha knew about the location of a powerful magic tome that the priestess needed for the temple. She hadn't had much luck bartering with the spirit, so she handed the heroes a silver comb and asked them to present it to her, seeing she was a very vain spirit.
Being a true believer, the Professor agreed, and Barian, ever eager to seek out magic power, insisted they set out right away!

On the way out, the professor couldn't help but notice a small insignia attempted hidden on the priestess; one he recognized as the sign of the Harpers.
(For some reason I really like this location, it seems cozy and like a nice place)

Life on the halfing farm...
The heroes sought out Miss Alderleaf and her son, Carp. The halfling too was scared by the presence of the cloaks and yet managed to keep her field with only the occasional bribe-tax. She didn't know much about Glass Staff, but she did indeed recommend Reidoth the druid. “There's not an inch of these lands he doesn't know about!” she said and pointed them towards the old, ruined town of Thundertree to the north.
Before they left, they had a chance to talk to Carp, who had all the time seemed very strained when the heroes mentioned the redcloaks. He finally succumbed and told them that the other day, he'd been playing around at the old Tresendar Manor and saw some mean, big ugly bandit come out of a hidden tunnel and meet with some of the cloaks.

Hey, punks! This is our turf!
The remaining time in time was rather short spent, so we'll pass over that quickly. They went for a visit at the Stonehill Inn, in which they heard more dissatisfaction about the Townmaster and learned that Glass Staff had stayed there during his visit, yet his mysterious disappearance left much to curiosity. Heading to Barthen's Provisions, the heroes earned some more gold from the old shop keeper, before stepping back out into the streets.

There, four redcloaks were eagerly awaiting for them, one of them spitting into the ground while playing with his sword. “You've been here long enough, sissies...” he growled. “It's time for you to leave.”

You don't mess with the Redbrands
 Father Fireforge grumbled as the whole group drew arms and the fight broke out in the market place. The heroes smashed into the redcloaks and bashed out some of their teeth, while a well aimed Thunderwave sent several of them flying. It wasn't long till the ruffians lay dead and the cowering towns people crawled out from cover and started cheering madly.

(I admit I tried tuning up this battle, as I was kind of aware the heroes were getting into their stride by this point. Originally there are only three ruffians in this encounter, and what makes them kind of a big deal is that they have multistrike and hit for two attacks each. It doesn't take them long to down low armored targets, but to my delightfully surprise, the heroes did really well).

This triggered the righteous feeling of the heroes, who immediately went to the Townhall to confront the Town Master himself. He was immediately reduced to a quivering puddle of fear when he learned what the strangers were doing, terrified the cloaks would come for him next. The heroes managed to convince him that they were there to help and would bring back the head of the redcloak-leader soon, bolstering the cowardly man with some renewed hope. So much that he in fact told them that the local mining company had a bounty out on the leader's head, and he was looking for bold heroes to travel east and take care of an orc infestation in the mountains. The heroes vaguely accepted the offer, but all in due time. First, they had business to settle!

Red Bedding

Following Carp's directions, the heroes went to the old manor east of town and found the secret tunnel down. They also discovered the main entrance along the way, but decided to take the element of surprise. The secret descent led them deep into the cellar ruins, and they were prepared for things to go messy.

(There are a couple of things to know about this place, seeing how it constitutes the adventures' second dungeon. It's a tad bit bigger than the goblin warrens, yet features some nastier encounters along the way. I believe one of the finer lessons of this dungeon, is the importance of alertness. If the entire dungeon wakes up and starts flooding the heroes it almost inevitably will result in a bloodbath. On the other hand, the heroes are rewarded greatly for stealth and cunning and having done their homework. Being able to use the secret entrance is a huge advantage, and not going in guns blazing to every encounter can actually be a great idea. The adventure encourages you as a GM to reward players for acting as new recruits or even making friends with one of the monsters down here. So my point is, allow for creativity. As a bash-dungeon this is certainly not one of the worst, but why not try and make it a bit more interesting for yourself as well?
In my group, the players decided to go for utmost stealth, which turned out wonders. It may not be the most creative, but hey.)

Stealth. My players got it.

At first they landed in a big room with a huge chasm in it and and several passages leading away from it. Instead of running off like morons, they searched thoroughly and discovered a lot of debris down at the bottom of the pit. So they lowered Delvin the Warrior there with a rope and he began searching. It wasn't long, however, till a voice inside his head whispered “Interesting collection, is it not, little man?”

With a yell he sprang back and they all prepared, looking in amazement as a slim creature with a huge eye crawled out from behind the rocks. Its voice echoed in their minds even though they never saw the creature's mouth move. It told them not to be afraid and hear it out, presenting itself as the Nothic, a creature in service of the master of these halls. (I played out the Nothic as slightly childish and socially awkward. It was more playful and bored than downright sinister, seeing as after all it's in fact out to strike a deal with the heroes, if possible). They immediately began asking it questions, but the creature wanted to make a deal. For one hundred gold pieces, it would divulge every little bit of information about the halls. For an additional 20, it would tell them of a nearby secret. At this stage, that was a lot of gold, but the heroes found it useful to trust the creature and coughed up the dough.

The Nothic told the heroes that the leader of the cloaks was known as “Glass Staff” due to his favored weapon, which didn't really come as much of a surprise for them (they've seen so much of this shit before) and that he apparently took orders from someone known as The Spider (the SPIDER!!) - The ruffians were there to keep troublemakers out of town and had been granted the assistance of three bugbears. Yet, the cloaks by themselves had managed to do this just fine, so mostly the buggies sat in their own lair down the hall and passed time by beating up goblins. As for the master, his quarters were to the north-west, and could be accesed through a secret door in the wall to the north.

Seems like Pandaria did inspire 5th edition in some way?
So the heroes thanked the creatures and made their way into an old storage room and started searching. It wasn't long till they spotted the door and made their way through it, rolling up some very good stealth checks along the way. As they emerged on the other side, they saw a mage in silent contemplation, sitting at his desk with a staff of glass within reach. So the heroes ambushed him, and within one turn knocked him out cold and methodically started searching the rest of the dungeon.

(I'm curious as to how this battle would have turned out, had they faced the mage head on. He does pull his weight in a fight, with his nifty magical staff. While there is some uncertainty about its ruling, it potentially raises his armor class to 14, and on top of that comes his dexterity bonus. Throw in the possibility of using Shield with the staff, the mage is not to be trifled with, easily reaching an armor class of 19).

“I would have gotten away with it, if it hadn't been for those meddling kids and that mangy Wolf!”
They went south and soon heard turmoil from a nearby room, it sounded like loud, gruff voices laughing while slapping someone around in pain. Behind the door opposite of it, was the sound of some humans having fun, rolling dice.
The heroes kicked in the door and realized there were three bug bears behind it. Charging in on their surprise round, Barian, Delvin and Fireforge engaged the brutes, while the Professor barred the door behind them, hiding so he was ready for the cloaks.

The bugbears put up a decent fight, but with the solid damage in the surprise round and good initiative rolls, one of them fell quickly, whereas the others smashed the dwarven warrior solidly. Good use of second wind and healing words, however, kept him strong and soon they were pushing the beasts back in the small room. The ruffians had started kicking down the door in order to come to aid, but as soon as they started making their way in, the professor began stabbing them down from behind. It was a solid strategy that resulted in a solemn victory soon after, and wiping their blades clean, the heroes went back to interrogate Glass Staff.

“But I'm a man of wealth and taste?”
Glass Staff was woken up, quite roughly, and once again the heroes didn't waste any breath on unnecessary questions. The mage could only confirm what they already knew, adding to it that as a member of the Lord's Alliance, he'd been contacted by the Spider, a loathsome drow who had great ambitions for the lost mine of Phandelver. He'd promised the mage, that if only he'd keep adventurers away from Phandalin and manage the goblins, he'd make him wealthy and able to partake in the abundance of magic that flowed through the mine.

They beat him up a bit till he gave up and spilled the beans about Castle Cragmaw, revealing its location out in the forest to the north.

Glass Staff then remained polite and surrendered to the heroes, confident the Spider would break him out after he stood trial. With a smirk, he called on diplomatic immunity and asked to be handed over to the local authorities. At that point, Professor Grim stepped up and stabbed him through the neck.

And thus they took a well deserved rest, preparing to explore the rest of the dungeon and eventually hurl themselves at the myriad of side quests that awaited them.

Oh, and they also dinged Level 3!

To be continued in Chapter 3 - “ORCS!”

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Lost Mine of Phandelver Chapter 1 - Kneel before Klarg!

Lost Mine of Phandelver chapter 1 – Kneel before Klarg!

Those who have followed my previous blogs about D&D 5th edition (yes, we're through with that 'Next' thing) know that I have a fond relationship of this system, perhaps as a contra reaction to almost twelve years of the D20 3.x-Pathfinder era. Having played my handful of iterations of the system all throughout the summer last year, I was thrilled that we could finally get started on the released basic set – The Lost Mines of Phandelver.

Bear in mind, this is about the adventure itself. My general opinion about the 5th edition rules is reserved for a later entry, in which I've had the chance to complete an entire adventure with them, and likely when I've made my way through the Players' Handbook, which is soon due to hit the shelves. Till then, enjoy this adventure log in which my players hurl themselves at the first published adventure from the 5th edition era – The Lost Mines of Phandelver. If you're going to run this as a GM, I hope you can benefit some from the way I handled things. One of the cardinal traits about D&D 5th is how open it is and the free reins we're given over the story, so it goes without saying that a lot of creative GM's will likely have their respective lost mines turn out quite differently. And this, my ladies and gentlemen (and all the bastards), is how we ran through our first session.
As always, my personal GM comments appear in Blue.

Some preparation...
We didn't go with the officially made characters since we played the beta extensively and people knew much about the rules already. So Silverglass went for the dwarven fighter, Delvin with a criminal background, whereas SorenAH got in contact with his inner stabby feelings by rolling up the infernal rogue professor sage Grim Dundragon. Thuborg went for the arrogant folk hero elven mage Barian and Tobias was stuck with the academic sage dwarven cleric, Alberich Firegorge.

(The adventure doesn't incorporate backgrounds that much; that is so say, not at all. So it's mainly used for the game mechanical benefits, and whatver roleplay the heroes decide to do between themselves.

As for stats, I went with pure point buy and I will likely swear faithfully by this in every adventure from thereon. It's the most fair to everyone and makes sure you won't be having 'that guy' in the party who comes up with two 17's and an 18

As for the music and soundtrack, I mainly used the soundtracks from Baldur's Gate and Divinity: Original Sin)

Some backstory...
The heroes were explained how they one night had been dragged to the Sunken Flagon Inn in Neverwinter (yes, this takes place in Forgotten Realms, THANK YOU, WIZARDS!) by their common friend, the dwarf Gundren Rockseeker. Rockseeker told them an old story about a mine known as the Wave Echo Mine that several years ago housed the Phandelver Pact between dwarves, gnomes and human mages. An alliance that secured the respective races the riches of the mines and the construction of a Spell Forge from which they could harvest and prosper for ages to come, while the nearby town of Phandalin prospered. Sadly, (you guessed it) the ever foiling element of nasty orkzez disagreed and launched an attack upon the mine, resulting in a dire battle in which much of the mine as well as the location was lost. Several treasure seekers had taken their chance in the times to come, trying to find the remnants, alas without luck.

Things, however, were about to change according to Gundren. He was in the possession of a map that revealed a way to the lost mines, and he wanted to get an expedition starting. Henceforth, he wished to hire the heroes to take the cart of supplies to Phandalin and check in with the local shopkeeper Barthen's Provisions.
Gundren himself would travel in advance with his companion, Sildar Hallwinter and meet up with the characters once they reached Phandalin.

And from there, the crazy story was spinning.

(I deviated slightly in this regard, because the heroes knew Gundren so well that he led them in on the story from the beginning. Alternatively, they're just hired to escort some stuff to the small town. It doesn't really have an impact on the story either way, and I thought it was a good hook that got them interested from the start.)

And so they went south... (and a little bit east)
The heroes set out with the cart loaded with supplies and made their way south along the high road, having only a mere description to go by. None of them had been to Phandalin before, so they made some speculation along the way, wondering what to expect. On the road they met an old traveling merchant who warned them that the roads east of here weren't as safe as they used to be. Rumors of green-skinned devils and beasts were told, and from what he'd heard, some local ruffians were stirring up quite the trouble in Phandalin (the plot thickens, yes!)

Thanking the traveler, the heroes went on into the lush vegetation that surrounded the road. Things had been rather quiet, till Professor Grim and Father Alberic suddenly noticed that the road up ahead was blocked by two dead horses, both turned into pincushions for several black arrows. Next to this carnage lay several rummaged through backpacks and scattered supplies.

The two of them moved up to investigate for a bit while Barian and Delvin remained in the cart; speculating for a bit, the professor snappily concluded that this had to be the work of green skins. He also concluded that these were indeed the long dead horses of their two friends, Gundren and Sildar.

With this, they suddenly heard a foul screech pierce the otherwise calm breeze of the forest, and four goblins jumped out from the bushes, wielding bows and scimitars. Being a surprise round, one of the goblins scored a critical hit on the professor, nearly downing him in one fell hit. Cursing, it scuttled back into the dense growth and hid as a bonus action. The other one fired a shot at the Father but missed, whereas the remaining two charged the wagon and started hacking away at Mage Barian and Fighter Delvin. One gave the dwarf a nasty cut and then the real battle was on.

Professor Grim immediately started slicing some goblin throat up in the front, while the Father invoked the power of the gods to heal the poor rogue's wounds. Barian took flight down the path, but was shot in the back by the hiding goblin, that managed to roll enough damage to down the wizard in one hit. Delvin was dealt another hit and started seeing the world spin, only through his inner reserves did the dwarf manage to pull through and cut off the head of both goblins in one fell swoop.

(Let this be the first warning of several; Lost Mines of Phandelver is certainly no joke when it comes to encounters, and I even ran this rather mercifully to kick my players off from a great start. Not only do the goblins hit rather decently for...well, goblins. They also inflict a dangerous amount of damage, especially once they start ganging up. The worst gimmick, however, consists of their bonus action in which they can freely disengage or hide; meaning they have the potential for some dangerous hit and runs. Also they're able to pop out of the bushes, take a wild shot, and then run back behind a big tree and hide in the dense foliage, all in the same turn. Meaning the heroes also have to locate them before striking. You can turn this encounter really lethal right off the bat, if that is your fancy. Me, I decided the heroes had a rough enough time as it was...)

The first fight didn't go well for Barian at all...
On the trapped road to (more) adventure!
After a short rest, the party brought Barian back to his feet and contemplated on the dire news. Apparently, someone knew Gundren was coming and had put the poor dwarf in an ambush, stealing the highly prized map. The heroes decided they couldn't continue to Phandalin without knowledge of the dwarf's fate, so they set out along the narrow goblin trail. Barian's keen elven-senses quickly picked up several goblin footprints along with signs of two bodies being hauled along. Later on, they also discovered huge footprints that were likely from a bugbear (the plot thickens even more!).

The heroes were just about to spring a snare-trap on the ground, which Barian proudly acclaimed to his superior elven senses. The grumpy dwarven warrior, Delvin, scoffed at this and stubbornly marched on, only to trigger a pit trap. With a scream, he barely managed to hold on to the ledge instead of falling into his doom. Those goblins were truly playing hardball.
(I can't help but feel these traps are mostly there to kind of annoy the heroes. They sure are fun!)

Delvin had a hard time with the Goblin Traps

After about five miles, the heroes reached a cave opening that the tracks seemed to enter. A stream of water ran from the opening and out into the forest, leaving them behind with an eerie silence, impending a confrontation soon to come. The heroes continued with caution and climbed one of the tall rocks in order to get a better view, which allowed them to spot a tiny encampment of goblins keeping watch. None of them managed to spot the heroes. (This may be a good time to mention something about this party composition and the 5th edition rules in general – My players decided to go for a much more stealthy approach this time around, meaning most of them could muster stealth checks above 14 most of the time. Meaning that often they would beat the passive perception of the monsters and thus got the drop several times. Surprise rounds in 5th editions are much more advantageous than they used to be, seeing as the heroes get a full round worth of actions in advance. In the words of SorenAH; adventure-SWAT Teams have indeed become reality now!)

The heroes decided for a surprise opening and Barian cast a Sleep spell on the goblins. (Talk about one spell that certainly didn't need an upgrade and yet had one...) Then they slit their throats (there are no rules for coup de graces in 5th edition, but I allowed it for the fluency and elegance) and put the corpses so it seemed like they were still on watch. The heroes then decided to hide in the shrubbery and wait for the replacement patrol to arrive from the cave (I should've seen this tactic coming from a mile away; I know my players love this shit) – once that happened, they cast another Sleep spell on them and hauled them off into the forest for interrogation. 

When it comes to interrogations, my players aren't shitting around...

The goblins were tied up and slapped, threatened and intimidated for information (my players have been through Wrath of the Righteous for half a year, they really had some evil-doing that needed an outlet) – They revealed that Gundren and Sildar were both hauled off to the cave by the order of Klarg the Bugbear, who was ordered by the King of Cragmaw Castle, who was ordered to do so by...the Spider (he is in fact called the Black Spider, but I aimed for a “...the SHADOW!” moment here). Gundren was already sent off to Cragmaw Castle along with the map, but Sildar was currently in the eating pit with the cook. So the heroes bashed the goblins out cold and entered the cave.

Dungeon tripping 101
The first thing the heroes noticed was the howling coming from the room on the right; it was a kennel of sorts in which three very hungry, tied up wolves were hurling themselves at them. Delvin took pity on the poor beasts and decided to feet them one of the dead goblins... (yeah...) The canines quickly tore it apart and seemed much calmer as a result. As they then inspected the tunnel they saw an overcrossing bridge further up ahead, with a small cave leading west from their position. The sound of laughing goblins and a fire was eminent, so the heroes engaged in stealth and their darkvision supremacy and moved towards the sound. It turned out to be a big cave, in which two goblins and one big goblin chef were gathered around a fire, a bashed up human, elderly male on the ground next to them. From what Barian and Professor Grim understood, they were cheering the soon to be supper. (There are originally four goblins in this encounter, but the heroes had slain two of them who went out to patrol, of course)

The heroes charged into the cave and slashed open the guts of one goblin and the casters hurled fire at the cook, who screamed and dropped Sildar to the rocky ground where he fell unconscious. This encounter was, however, no problem at all for the well equipped party who suddenly started having much more dice luck. They even decided to sneak further up the hall only to find the bridge and one bored goblin guard, who was quickly taken out by a sneak attack and a firebolt.

(From the Divinity- Original Sin Artbook. Seriously; Buy this game!!)
The heroes woke up Sildar, who confirmed the goblin's story; Gundren was indeed gone and dragged off to the king of Cragmaw Castle. He strongly suggested that they moved on to Phandalin to try and find someone who could know the way there, but the heroes decided to push on and take the fight to the leader of the caves – Klarg the bugbear.

After crossing the bridge, they charged into the next room and brought battle to the three goblins in there. Sadly, one of them managed to disengage from the encounter and stormed off into the next room, screaming “BOSS! WE'RE UNDER ATTACK! HELP ME!”
So there was little else for it; the heroes followed troop and were shocked to find one of the biggest, meanest bug bears ever seen before. King Klarg rested on his mighty throne in front of the fire and stroke his wolf while laughing to himself. “These puny bags of flesh will be no problem!” he bellowed and stood up, “they will submit to KLARG! Otherwise Klarg will build a new throne ouf of their BONES!...Maybe just a small throne, those dwarves are really short! Now, kneel before Klarg!!”
Father Fireforge clenched his hammer and spat into the ground. “Your evil reign ends here, beast!” the dwarf sneered. And then the initiatives started.

 Klarg's wolf charged into the group, hoping to get some good trips in, sadly it didn't manage a single scratch. Neither did the goblins with their sad rolls and the wolf was butchered by a smash to its face soon after. Delvin charged into the bugbear but his strikes barely penetrated the thich hide of the beast. Barian spoke out his arcane incantations and fairy fire spread on the enemies, allowing the Professor to advance and sink his rapier and dagger deep into the stomach of the king. Klarg raised his savage morningstar and struck the dwarven fighter, but despite his fierce strength, he only dented the armor of the sturdy dwarf (curse those damn 5'es on the rolls!)

And then shit went crazy... Father Fireforge toasted one of the goblins in righteous fire and the Professor sliced the bugbear once more before Delvin rolled a 17 and a 20 on his to hit rolls... With a precise swing, the dwarf cut both kneecaps of the bugbear, grinning as he fell to the floor in pain, and then planted his axe right between its eyes. With a short sigh, Klarg was no more...

(Klarg is beyond doubt one of the toughest; if not THE toughest, encounter in this adventure. He hits for a smashing 2D8+2 damage on a level 1 adventurer. He also musters a +4 to hit and a fully specced out fighter with a maxed con will be sitting tightly at 15 hit points at this stage, meaning that on an average hit he will leave him with 4 hit points left. He doesn't have to roll much higher than that to down him, and he pretty much just needs to hit everyone else. Let him crit and you're definitely kissing your character goodbye.

Oh, and did I mention that he comes with two goblin adds and a wolf?

My group annihilated Klarg before he even had the chance to hit anyone, and in a way I'm glad for this. He is a merciless encounter that sadistic GM's can certainly look forward to. If you want to give your heroes some reprieve, you could let Klarg be such an egomaniac that he sends in his minions and dog first to do the work. He is a huge mouthful for most parties, especially with his 27 hit points. Of course, you take the risk that a lucky wizard rolls high enough on his Sleep spell after this, so be warned!)

The heroes looted the cave of Klarg and found some stuffed away loot, along with boxes belonging to the Lionshield company, a trading company with a seat in Phandalin, and after conversing with Sildar (who was severely surprised to see the rotting bugbear) they decided to bring the supplies along and leave the place for Phandalin. Hopefully they would there find someone who could point them in the right direction for Castle Cragmaw!

Along the way, the heroes set the wolves free, except for one of them that decided to follow Delvin (who managed a good Animal Handling check) along for the journey. So at least that was a new best friend for the road! (This is one of the freedoms I love in this system; while the wolf certainly won't level up like a companion or anything like it, it tags along with the party for now, dropping clues and roleplay opportunities. With good Animal Handling checks, it can even join some battles and would defend its master)

And so the heroes progressed on their journey towards Phandalin. What they would find there remained a mystery to see, but they knew that this journey would likely be much harder than they had expected. They also had the joy of dinging to level 2 and there was much rejoice.

To be continued soon, in the next chapter “A New Sheriff in Town”

Saturday, June 14, 2014

ArcheAge impressions – Part one

It's a curious thing...
I can't honestly say what pulled my attention towards Archeage above the rest. It's a game that has, to my knowledge, been out for some time and yet it's one of those very few people in my social circle had even heard about. Somehow I can't blame them; it was one of those that suddenly just popped up and you either went with it or you forgot about it. A few people were streaming it, even fewer really talked about it and the general impression of it was that it was “different” from the rest in some way. At least the general talk made huge claims for it to be so.

Personally, I think what really had me going was the way that it didn't focus on being yet another clone of WoW; at least not in the initial sense. There seemed to be a big emphasis on crafting and social interaction with several elements of the game being player driven. Also, naval combat, trade organizations and an open world PvP that could work? The fact that a guild would be more than just a green chat-channel with everyone sharing one huge bag for loot appealed to me, greatly; yes – I am one of those old people who believe that people were generally nicer towards each other in the old MMO days, and the more mainstream you go, the bigger dickheads you start socializing with. So is Archeage any different?

We've got to have...money.
Archeage is currentlyin alpha, with no indications but rumors for when it will hit closed beta. That means you need to dish out the savings if you want access to the playground. And hold your horses, because it's one expensive ride – around 150$ for an alpha access, along with some additional rewards once launch hits (more credits, a 4 day head start which I believe will be extremely valuable and some additional equipment). Alternatively, you can book for your beta ticket for a lesser price, but it's still steep for a game you don't know whether you'll like. I hope to bring you some more information in this essay about it.

For me, it took several days of consideration before I cashed out in the webshop. There were some minor problems at first accepting my payment method, but from thereon you'll download the Runic client and the game pretty much works as you know it from, say, the Battle.net application.

As of now, you don't really get that many advantages for your amount of money, except for the entry. I perfectly understand how some people will back off by this amount of money, but in my view, it's still less than what some of my friends will pay this summer in order to go to concerts or trips. So har-har.

 Culture Shock
I read some guy at Reddit who said that if EVE-online was the Olympic swimming disciplines, Archeage is the kitty-pool right next to it, which I believe is about as spot on as it gets, in a non-patronizing way.
At its core, Archeage doesn't deviate too far from the basic MMO-formula – You create your character, you bash monsters by clicking your abilities as they go off cool down and harvest XP and items so you can bash bigger monsters. The world itself is somewhat generic fantasy with an obvious touch of Korean/Eastern mentality – something I haven't really been that into in other MMO's such as Aion. Mostly because the manga-final fantasy-themes just never...appealed to me and seemed so strangely out of place; yet it feels controlled in Archeage to the degree that at some times I kind of forgot about it entirely. Of course, you will see strange blue impish creatures, Furry-races (ugh...) and just about all the male characters look like something out of a cosmetic commercial – but put that aside and we're about to hit interesting land.

The world of Archeage is split into three factions, which has an extensive impact on the game. The westerners (who're basically elves and your typically plain human race) and the easterners (a strange race of furry-people and what reminds me of feudal Japanese) – And then, to the north, you have the outcasts, the pirates. And yes, you can become a pirate too!

As you progress into Archeage, you will learn that the meat of the game is how these factions strive for control and dominance of the world. Initially, you will settle down in your familiar homeland and start crafting and establishing your foothold, perhaps with a guild, but eventually you will need to do trade-runs if you want your hands on some of the good stuff the game has to offer. And this often means crossing vast distances into enemy territory where world PvP quickly becomes an issue. Add on top of that, that your own faction can turn traitorous against you and player-pirates stalk the oceans and lands in search of your hard earned goods – you will learn the value of having friends. And ships of war, merchant ships, transport vehicles, submarines, gliders and much more if you need to make a stand.

Archeage is much about crafting. In fact, it has 21 professions that you can all master and yes, they will take a lot of time and dedication to master. In addition, you're limited to a certain pools of Labor-points – crafting mana, if you will, that dictates how many projects you can undertake at a given time. Since gathering materials also counts towards this, you kind of have to agree with yourself on a set goal.
And make no mistake, while the prospect of having your own ship, your own house and even become a part of a navy is grand and appealing you'll have to cover a lot of groundwork by yourself, especially if you're not with a guild.
To try and describe the depth of the Archeage crafting in just a few lines would be a gross simplification. Suffice to say, you will likely need plenty of components from the various professions if you wish to progress far. Of course, some of these can't be crafted but must be cultivated, which is why the game handles you your own mini-farm early on. From here you can grow various crops, trees and livestock that are all utilized by the 21 professions. Of course you can also feel free to plant outside your chosen land, but that is to be done with care, since it becomes free game for anyone to steal. You'll quickly realize that a small farm isn't much at all, and in the current state of alpha, even finding a spot for it may prove challenging. Farms, houses and guild castles are non-instanced and already now, cartels have risen that occupy big plots of land and sell it onwards for good sums of money.
Goods are mostly handled in the classic take-one-space-of-inventory-way that you may know from WoW and other games. Yet, once you start building ships and structures, or wish to trade goods with foreign traders for valuable currency, you need to turn them all into a trade-package. This is a huge pack your character can carry around that will severely impede your movement speed, unless you have means of transportation, such as a carriage, a ship or even a humble mule. Often you will need to transport the pack from the crafting bench all the way to the construction site or trader, and all during that time you're a high-valued sitting duck. Pirates and the opposite faction (hell, even your own faction at times) will want to jump you, kill you and steal your packs. Packs that are often the result of long real life hours of dedicated work, all gone within seconds.

Once you get it going and construct your first ship, the game is a bit more forgiving that its bloodthirsty brother EVE – As some may know, if your ship gets blasted into bits in EVE, it's pretty much gone from there. While ships and be damaged and even stolen in Archeage, you'll always have them back and can repair them up in 10 minutes or so. Your house and farms can't, to my knowledge, be destroyed either, unless you neglect to pay the weekly taxation.

A pirate's life for me
I have little to no experience about becoming a pirate, but from what I've seen it's kind of interesting too. In general, you earn infamy for doing mean things. Stealing from farms, killing your own faction and waylay traders. As you reach a certain threshold, you will be voted outlaw and other players who have earned the right to be bounty hunters can take you down and bring you to justice. This results in a global trial channel, in which people can sign up for jury duty and pass sentence to these people. If found guilty, they'll be going to prison where they will serve their time or perhaps even escape. Sounds interesting, right? It is, except for the issue that the highest sentence I've seen passed is around 80 minutes. Often it's around 10-12 minutes where people just can't leave their cell and it kind of deflates the whole point.

It all takes class...
So far I'm level 25 only, so please take these general impressions for what they are. The class system in Archeage is a bit different, in that it contains a small handful of specializations, such as a Battlerager (warrior) or Sorcery (...well, yeah) and as you hit level 5 and 10 you chose two additional classes to the one you started out with. As you level up you also gain XP in the various classes you have chosen and spend skill points sort of like you do in talent trees. A lot of these are, not surprisingly, PvP oriented and already there is a solid handful of “Top 10 builds” with the usual emerging “Must include” abilities favored by almost all players. That is likely to be expected at this early stage in the game.

Going on a quest!
There are a few things you'll need to know about the current state of questing in Archeage. First and foremost, while all the menus have been translated into English as well as the quest text, the spoken language in the game and the cut-scenes have not. That means; unless you're fluent in Korean you likely will get very little out of the progressing story for your character. I did my best, initially, to try and make a narrative with what I had, but it didn't take long before I threw the towel. Especially because most of the quests are dull, uninspiring and very unimaginative. Don't expect the reinvention of the genre in this regard. You're provided with kill-quests, fetching, gathering and the entirety of the usual song and dance you've come to know in the MMO's. I never had the sense of any bigger story unroll and blindly accepted everything Manga-land asked of me, but to be honest I had the same feeling when I quested in Mists of Pandaria. I have a hard time giving a damn about that stuff.

Room for enthusiasm...and concern
I've had a brilliant time so far in Archeage, let me make that clear. Is it worth the 150$? A cautious yes, but I believe you have to be hooked on the concept. You need to love the grind, the long walk, the defiance and challenges that will inevitably strike you. Naval battles on the high seas, dueling with pirates and massive trade caravans are all part of the end result; the huge impact of the comet. But remember that comet has spent a very long time getting there in the first place. So if you aren't up for the challenge and burn out easily on such tasks, Archeage is definitely not for you. Even I have my doubt whether I'll manage to keep up with the game, once I see my packs of lumber and stone disappear with some snotty, little fat kid who's had a bad day at school. And on the other hand, that also serves at the appeal. The feeling of anarchy and dominance, that for once there isn't a caring, loving system holding its hand under you in case you fall – if you want something you take it and live with the consequences.

It is my impression that there is a lot of potential in Archeage, but just as it relies on the investment of the average player, it also sets itself up for gruesome failure that only time will show. As of now, the player base is very limited due to the outrageous price for entry. And even now we see a severe lack of space for farms and houses – something that people believe will be easier once there is more than one server. But then, on the other hand, the game will also go public at that time, and I'm kind of cautious about the results.

It's also another study in the field “What looks good on paper meets the internet”. For example, the developers have clearly tried to bring variety to what you can plant and care for at your farm. Different trees, seeds and animals ranging from geese to cows to turkeys. Only thing is that people quickly optimize the best results, meaning you can suddenly see long streaks of farms that have nothing more than white aspen trees and endless sights of goats because they're currently the bast farming method. Another example involves the bounty system, where someone will go criminal, let his friends kill him and share the bounty afterward.

While initially not a problem, I can wonder about the future economy of the game in the sense that structures and ships aren't permanently destroyed, like in EVE. Instead, you can bring them back for a reasonable sum and MUCH quicker than buying a new one. I can't help but speculate whether this is a good idea in the long run, and whether we'll see a ruined economy after the game has been out for some time?

I'll definitely keep on with Archeage, not only because I've thrown in that much money. I genuinely believe it to be a very potential game with a lot of room for further improvement. As of now, we're only seeing the alpha and some quite important things have changed already since I began. Again, only time will tell whether these changes will work out for the better once the game hits Beta and all characters wiped. Things such as forcing us to run trademissions on the enemy continent is a great idea, but the notion of daily quests is something I could really, really do without. Likely because I've grown so tired of pandas with blue exclamation marks above their heads...

I wouldn't say you should storm out and hurl 150 bucks after this game, but if you're like me and been sitting on the fence for so long, I hope I have inspired you to at least give it a decent thought and try. I'll say this game, if tweaked a bit more than it already is, and the right player base, could become a really big thing and a contender in a niche that has pretty much been dominated by EVE for several years.

I'll be back with further thoughts as I hit level 50!