Monday, March 30, 2009

Playing Around with a Sandbox Campaign

Having fielded a few questions off line about the how and why behind the Hill Cantons campaign, I felt that it would help to have a short note right up on the campaign blog about the style of play involved.

A good deal of inspiration was drawn from the recent online enthusiasm for West Marches-style campaigns (a more intentional and well thought out way of running the kinds of campaigns we ran back 20 years ago in teen years). We essentially had no prefigured plotline in place at the start. The campaign setting was limited to three paragraphs and I tried to pare back all the over-deterministic world-building impulses to a minimum.

Taking a different tack, I sketched out a good old-fashioned sandbox complete with a hand-drawn players' map highlighting a number of obvious dungeons (two big ones and several smaller ones), numerous vaguely-defined points of interest, and a handful of civilized habitations. After handing over the map, I explained that they were free to explore, but that the encounters would not be scaled to be totally appropriate to their level. If they ignored the obvious warning signs of an area above their heads then it fell on them to figure out how to get themselves out.

Interestingly enough, as nature abhors a vacuum, a vague storyline is seeming to develop from the bottom up as the play sessions unfold. Players have started to ascribe meaning and patterns to the characters, monsters, histories, sites, and events (the moving parts behind the scene) they discover--and a player-centered "plot" begins to be born.

You can check out some other interesting examples of the thinking behind sandbox-style games on the links below:

How to Set Up a Sandbox Campaign

Sandbox Play

Old Schoolin' How to Get Started

Cautionary Tales from the Sandbox

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Session Five: Chamber of the Red Planet

Two days later they begin exploring the western sets of rooms. Most are relatively empty with ancient wooden furniture that collapses on touch from the centuries of neglect. Behind several sets of doors at the western end they hear shifting noises. Opening one of the doors the Black Ratter narrowly avoids being buried by rubble tumbling out of the collapsed room behind. Even more dangerous seems the trail of shifting movement right under the surface of the rubble. Rapidly backing off the party pushes back grabs one of the bodies of the spearmen they now dub “elves” and comes back to heave one onto the rubble pile. A two-foot diameter, eight-foot long “mauve” worm snatches up the corpse in its ravenous mouth. Pavise the fighter sinks an arrow into it, but the party backs off thinking the fight not worth the gain of exploring a collapsed room.

Backtracking to the first chamber they enter the eastern set of double doors, yet another large chamber very similar to the last one lies beyond. Like the last there is a simple marble dais and an intricate floor mural (this one charting constellations unknown to the skies of the Overkingdom—and the movement of an unknown scarlet planet). And like the other, there are eight red-robed guardians. Unlike the other though they are armed with long bows and clustered in the two far corners. As the Black Ratter enters the room looking for traps he is hit and nearly killed by one of the barrage of eight arrows let loose by the silent archers. Erak slams the doors shut and the heroes retreat for a war-room session.

After healing the Black Ratter back from the edge of death, Mattias calls on the Black Ratter to help use his bow to take out a few of the archers in their newest “cunning plan.” The thief in a fit of bad morale and sardonic agnosticism tells him where to go. Whereas the resulting theological argument proceeds in a draw for the monk, the promise of a bigger share of the gold mask haul speaks more convincingly.

They decide on forming up a shield wall made up of the tear-drop shaped shields looted from the previously-slain “elves”. For the most part it works, magic missiles and other spells bash out one group and the arrow barrage mostly miss the mark. The barbarians and the fighter bum rush the group in the other corner and swiftly dispatch them.

The mostly-empty eastern chambers are similar to the last set with a one notable exception: a lead-sealed glyph-warded door in one of the middle hallways. After much deliberation—and trap-searching—they simply decide to ax it open. The lead seal breaks free and a broad marble staircase with frescos detailing processions red-robed spearmen looms before them.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Session Four: “Blood and Glory”

When we last knocked off (so much for the “you have to make it back to town at the end of the night” rule), or brave heroes (and lone heroine) were just entering the large pillared chamber lying behind the mysterious giant doors. Mattias the monk was probing the hell out of all things statue and had just reached out the tip of his staff to knock on the golden masks of the alabaster statue closeted to him.

The rest of the party suddenly remembering Old School Dungeon Rule #138 (That All Statues Must Come to Life and Try to @#$&* You Up) have all gingerly stepped around a sinking soft spot in the wooden floor of the chamber and backed up behind the double doors they came in. They are duly not disappointed then when with a soft, whirring sound up swings the sword arm of the statue. Mattias makes a hasty retreat back to doors as the eight warrior statues slowly lower themselves from their pedestals and begin clumping their way over to the party.

Closing one of the set of doors, they try and set up a chokepoint to battle the mindless automatons one at a time. A loud crashing noise from inside signals the collapse of a section the floor as two of the statues slide off into the nether regions of the cave system below.

The first statue through the door is a tough opponent though. And to the chagrin of the barbarians stationed near the chokepoint successful hits with their axes and swords (and failed Dex checks) mean that their edged weapons remain inexplicably lodged into the bodies of the statues for the duration of the fight. A number of quick, hasty (and hilarious) improvisations follow with the party making full use of various kinds of tackles, trips, pushes to knock down and pin their slowly advancing foes. Sister Anya with her trusty blunt-edged mace (and several marvelous to-hit rolls) serves a number of coup de graces. The barbarians and fighter take a number of hits, but the party ultimately triumphs again with no fatalities (it always seems close though).

Searching through the carnage the players find heavy-metal sealed cylinders inside the statues and salvage what they can of the valuable gold masks. Now they have some time to thoroughly explore the chamber beyond. A second pair of giant carved double doors lies along the opposite wall and is barred from their side. Two other sets of doors lead out on the side doors.

Opting for the side door on the west they enter another equally massive chamber. Elaborate mosaics with swirling planets and galaxies smashing into a super nova cover the floor. A dias with simple marble benches and two short honey-combed pillars are also in the room as are the room guardians: eight crimson-robed face-veiled lithe spearmen standing at attention against the opposite wall. Centuries of dust cover most undisturbed areas of the room. The spearmen make no noise nor any movement at all as the monk and mage examine the pillars, which they now notice to be filled with ancient scrolls. Removing the venerable scrolls proves to be real problem as many of them crumble to dust (failed Dex saving throws) on contact. What is salvaged proves to be complex mathematical calculations and charts of elliptical orbits. Happily for the mage he also discovers arcane scrolls detailing Water Breathing and Tiny Hut spells.

When the party steps beyond the plane of the pillars all eight spears lock down in simultaneous unison and the spearmen advance toward them rapidly. In the ensuing fight a number of characters take a good deal more hits as their Sleep and Sound Burst spells prove to be ineffective against the silent warriors. Lifting back the veils on the bodies (they do bleed like living creatures, they note) they find pale-skinned thin-boned humanoids akin to the statues.

Taking stock of the declining health of all their frontline fighters they decide to hoof it back to the partially-collapsed underground tower for a couple eerie nights of dungeon camping.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Campaign Map

Map courtesy of AKS Mapper, a nifty (and free!) map-making software package.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Session Three: “Around Town and Back”

Party additions
Black Ratter (1st level NPC Thief substituting for Von Schadenfreude). The Black Ratter is the loyal follower of Pavise.

Hightailing it back to Ostrovo, the party finds that actions in the past adventures have triggered events in the present. A sobbing old man near the landsknecht watchtower bemoans a plague of goat-headed humanoids raiding the scattered hillside huts of local shepherds. Vengeful landsknechts also reportedly hung four young villagers in (misplaced) retribution for their fallen comrade. On returning to Ostrovo they also note signs of a recent battle between the town's militia pikemen and the soldiers of the Overking.

The adventurers spend a week selling off some of their small store of loot and finessing various cunning plans. Mattias, convinced that holy water will vanquish the disturbingly unclean fish demons, has a local glassblower manufacture special glass balls to hold the sacred liquid. Meanwhile, August and Sister Anya hunt for local information to help them to take stock in what they face. After an unsuccessful attempt to find the local hedge wizard and a successful attempt (thanks to the influence of the Sister) to find the local women's knitting circle for Celestial Lady worshipers and witches. The two discover that a ominous, cosmic alignment of celestial bodies is causing great consternation in these circles. A large gathering of secret society mages, initiates, and clergy to counter this is expected in the region soon. The two convince Anya's contact to get themselves on the invitation list.

After much bickering back and forth about the relative dangers of a second approach to the Ennsmuth dungeon, the party makes its way back to the village. Skirting the main centers of the now-roused town, they make a wide detour around the ravine and back to the cave mouth.

At first, Mattias' view that they should go straight back to cleaning up the foul unclean lower caves prevails, only to be abandoned after the new thief hears bellowing, stamping sounds at the base of the chute entrance. Under August's insistent urging, they instead decide to lower themselves a further 40 feet down to the floor of the entrance cave.

On the cave floor they encounter a curious sight—the conical roof of a rickety ancient tower protruding from the center. Carefully lowering themselves down to the precarious floor and to the relative safety of the tower's circular staircase they make their way down to the rubble strewn base floor. In the rubble, they find a gold ring on the finger of a skeleton and an obstructed door leading out.

The room beyond the door is even more strange and mysterious. Two large outdoor planters line the sides of the room filled with ash-covered shriveled hedges. Several plaster-cast looking human shapes are curled into fetal positions at their base. And most dramatic of all is the 22-foot wide, 10-foot high double doors on the opposite wall. The doors are carved in intricate patterns with several panels depicting the orbits and trajectories of celestial bodies in the summer and winter skies—and unknown viewpoints. Bands of script in archaic languages and glyphs protecting the structure from the outside world cover the door. All in all a situation which the party treats with great care.

A detect magic spell reveals the door to stink of strong magic and that a magic field keeps the loose soil of the ceiling in place. While remaining safely back in the tower, August casts an open spell on the door. The two giant portals swing open revealing a large, barrel-vaulted chamber inside.

The party cautiously enters to find a large chamber with an carved orange-red wooden floor and a pillared arcade running on both sides. Eight faintly-glowing gold-masked alabaster statues of lithe warriors stamping on fishy/froggy creatures line the walls. Mattias carefully approaches the statues probing with his staff. When his staff to great suspense reaches the gold mask of the statue nearest to him...the scene fades to black and we end the night on a cliff hanger.

Session Two: "Shadows Under Ennsmuth"

Party additions
August (LN, 2nd level Magic User, played by Joshua). August, a former academic and scholar, has been drawn to the arcane arts as magic walks the land more and more. Apprenticing to one of the handful of known mages in the borderlands, he has had a hint of the mysterious underground circles of practitioners of sorcery—and yearns to learn more.

Von Schadenfreude (N, 3rd level Thief, played by Brian). The roguish, black sheep, fourteenth son of the prolific nobleman, Frantisek Von Schadenfreude, wonders how best to advance his career.

Thundarr (now played by Caleb)

What happened
Little does the original party know, but they are not alone in their explorations of Ennsmuth's environs. The apprentice mage August and his thieving companion Von Schadenfreude have also been drawn to the town. The two had glimpsed a hideously-proportioned, yet strangely-attractive gold tiara possessed by August's master and deduced its origins in the decaying village. Hungering for gold and knowledge the two have covertly investigated Ennsmuth for two days. Unfortunately they themselves did not go unnoticed. After finding a ladder leading down to a long tunnel under the fishing huts near the ravine, an angry mob of pitchfork and fishing hook-wieldingvillagers purses them. Running at full steam the two—and their pursuers—run head long into the first party now all down the rope on the first ledge.

The heroes make short order of the villagers with mighty sound bursts from the clerics and a sleep spell from August. But victory comes with a price, a lucky jab from a villager (critical hit, she goes to -2 hp) plants a pitchfork into the neck of Sister Anya nearly killing her. Her wounds incapacitate her for days to come.

Following the battle, the adventurers investigate a nearby cave. Though currently empty, the cave floor contains a steep, circular chute at its end. A rock dropped by the barbarians, brings a creature thundering up the chute—and then inexplicably stops before the chute's entrance. Thundarr breaks off a large piece of limestone from the cave wall to drop it down the chute—and then is promptly beaten by the four strong arms of the Barsoomian White Ape lurking just inside. The ape is a strong opponent wounding many of the fighters before being charged by a staff-wielding Mattias who slays him and knocks him down the chute.

Ignoring the dire warnings of August (who claims a vague knowledge of the powerful horrors of the lower levels of the Undercity), the party slides down the 100-foot chute and finds itself in a cave complex. The crumbly limestone of the upper caves gives way to the volcanic basalt of the lower—and a growing foreboding sense of general unwholesomeness the deeper they journey.

Creeping forward into a torch-lit chamber with a long ladder extending upwards, the point-man thief is ambushed by a largish fish-spawned demon from the long-forgotten nightmares of humanity (etc. etc.). The sight of the Deep One instantly makes him fall to his knees in nausea (failed saving throw). The creature proves to be even stronger than the white ape and both barbarians are beaten to an inch of their lives before the foul beast is slain.

The party ventures on and finds more strange caverns including an underground tidal river complete with coracles and secret doors leading into sloping tunnels downward. One particular door emanates a strong foreboding sense. Perhaps unwisely, they kick the door open and see a room filled with a horribly-proportioned statue to a hideous, bulbous elder god wearing a gold tiara. And more urgently the room is also filled with no less than three of the Deep Ones, contently flaying a human on a stone table in the room's center.

More wisely, the heroes choose discretion this time and flee. A flask of burning oil flung by the thief slows but doesn't stop the demons and the party runs all the way back to the bottom of the chute. Hastily stuffing themselves in the chute and inching their way back up it, their untimely deaths are stalled by the simple fact that the Deep Ones hot on their heels can't fit inside.

Fleeing up the rope and out of the cave, they find Bobo loyally guarding their steeds and the inert body of Sister Anya. But the Deep Ones are not the only thing they have to flee, a large mob of villagers led by tiara-clad half-human priests has gathered in Ennsmuth's square. Galloping full tilt out of town the party barely misses being cut off by the lopping horde.

Session One: "Birthright"

The party
Mattias (NG, 1st level Monk/1st level Cleric, played by Scott). Mysteriously losing his parents at a young age, Mattias was brought to the monastery of the Brethren of the Supernal Skies as a toddler by his somewhat famed adventuring uncle, Gustavus. Raised in the disciplined ways of a warrior monk of the Celestial Lady's Morning Star society, Mattias now has a single-minded devotion to restoring the cosmic balance ripped asunder by the decadent followers of the Sun Lord. His obsessive cleanliness flows naturally, in his mind, from this discipline and devotion.

Erak (CN, 2nd level Barbarian, played by Dave). The son of a Jarl of the frigid northern lands of Thule, Erak was also orphaned at a young age when the Skha, a displaced and now-genocidal race of seaborne raiders, sacked the great hall of his father. His revenge fueled-rage—and strong axe arm—have found guidance from the monk, Mattias.

Pavise “the Good” (NG, 2nd level Fighter, played by Andrew). A natural warrior by temperament, Pavise grew up on a small farmstead near Mattias' monastery. Growing ashamed of his humble roots, Pavise left his plow for the lure of the sword. Smart, yet unwise he now looks to Mattias for leadership.

Sister Anya (NG, 1st level Cleric NPC). An ardent feminist follower of the Celestial Lady and supporter of the righteous cause of Mattias. Sister Anya is known for her wise (if not book learned and clever) ways amongst the women's cultural and arcane circles in the Hill Cantons.

Thundarr “the Barbarian” (CN, 1st level Barbarian NPC). Thundarr was a member of the Jarl's bodyguard, now without a clan he guards his master Erak with his own life.

Bobo (the NPC manservant formerly known as Baldrick). Former manservant of the great Uncle Gustavus, now in the service of his nephew Mattias. Perpetually dirty and scratching at mysteriously-flourishing scabs, Baldrick nevertheless is the ultimate survivor of many an adventure. Though incredibly dense, he often has a “cunning plan” on his lips.

What happened
Upon learning of an inheritance from his recently-deceased uncle, Mattias convinces his flat broke and desperate adventuring companions to accompany him on a trip to find his inheritance in the provincial town of Ostrovo. The party finds the will's executor, the corpulent, skeptical Father Pavel, luxuriating in the rays of the Sun Lord under the garden trees near the parish temple. Pavel presents Mattias with his birthright: the trusty manservant Baldrick, the more-trusty mule Bocephus, a rusty dagger, a 10-foot pole, and, most important of all, a treasure map marked with points of great danger and opportunity throughout the Hill Cantons.

Keen on making their fortunes--or perhaps merely looking to not starve to death--the heroes bravely ride out on the southeastern road leading out of town. Several miles out of town they run into a watchtower in front of which is boisterous group of six landsknechts (mercenary soldiers of the Overking) roasting pullets over a fire and drinking from a barrel of ale.

As the party approaches the giant-of-a-man leader of the drunken louts orders the party to hand over their boots. Perplexed at first, the party notices a large pile of boots—some of which still hold the severed feet of their former owners--behind the soldiers and decides that bravery may be the better part of discretion in this case. Battle ensues. Despite the considerable fighting skills of the landsknecht leader, the thoroughly drunken soldiers are quickly overpowered by Pavise's sword, Erak's axe, and the thundering noise of Sound Burst spells from Mattias and Sister Anya. Leaving the bodies on the top floor of the small watchtower, the party absconds with a handful of gold and silver coins, a silver altar plate, several fine hats, and a silver-plated pair of boots.

Wary of pursuit after not being able to catch a watching rider up in the hills, the party spends several days hiding out on back-country mule paths before deciding to detour back into the hills to visit a spot marked simply on the map as “The Oracle.” Said Oracle turns out to be an exquisitely-sculpted statue that dispense advice in the main to local shepherds. All oracular utterances begin with the demand that the supplicant kill and bury a goat in the northeast corner of their abode (and deposit a gold piece in the offering box in front of the statue) before answering. The party quickly suspects that the mumbling elderly man on a nearby marble bench may be the source of the statues' utterances.

Sneaking back under the light of a full moon later that day, they discover an eight-foot tall gray giant of a creature with a single horn protruding from his snout emptying the contents of the offering box into his giant purse. The old man is nowhere to be seen. The party follows the creature to a grotto underneath the oracular hill and return in the morning. Sneaking into the grotto they find a cave—and the cave's 11 goat skeleton guardians. Raising his holy symbol, Mattias turns the goats and the party makes short order of them. A chest is discovered and when Erak tries to open it he is overcome by a murderous compulsion to kill his fellow party members. After subduing the berserk barbarian, the party finds more gold and silver.

Finally deciding upon their dungeoneering destination, the party decides to make out for the Undercity marked under the seemingly-sleepy fishing village of Ennsmuth. The fishing village of Ennsmuth lying over the caves to the Undercity, of course, turns out to be more than the party originally reckoned for. Sinister villagers--bug-eyed, stinking of fish, and with curious mottled folds around their necks—suspiciously eye them as they pass through the mostly ruined town. Disturbing, fleeting glimpses of figures in their peripheral vision and the crazy utterings of the town drunk direly warning the adventurers to stay away from the Esoteric Order of Dagon's temple in the town square set the mood further.

The party finds the cave mouth in a ravine that divides the lower town from the high mound of the richer houses. The session ends as the fearless Pavise is lowered by a rope down 50 feet to the first ledge in the cave pit.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Hill Cantons Setting and C&C House Rules

The campaign is set in a frontier region of the Over-Kingdom of the Nemetz Lands, a sprawling, loose federation of vaguely Germanic and Slavic domains ruled by an Overking elected by the Lords Temporal and Spiritual. Our down-and-out heroes have just ridden into Ostrovo, a small, provincial town of around 3,000, located in the Hill Cantons, a wild and woolly borderlands region of independent-minded freeholders and petty aristocratic micro-states.

As the curtain lifts, the Over-Kingdom teeters on the brink of chaos. It is a land so very different from our own. Two long grueling overseas wars against distant sultanates, the collapse of the large merchant banking houses, bumbling incompetent national leaders, and other sundry calamities have fractured the already fragile and decentralized realm. The Overking's authority is now mostly nominal in outlying regions. Magical happenings have become more common and some say long-banished elves, dwarves, and things that go bump in the night have returned to forgotten homes.

A monotheistic church, the Supernal Orthodox Temple of the Puissant Sun Lord, also ostensibly dominates the realm with its monopoly on the manufacture and distribution of gunpowder. But powerful new heretical movements such as the Morning Star and Evening Star societies seek to restore a spurned female deity, the Celestial Lady, to her “proper” place in the pantheon. The weakening of the Overking's power has also allowed old pagan religions kept alive by country folks to be worshiped publicly again in the Hill Cantons. Further ominous rumors abound about the reawakening of slumbering Elder Gods and unspeakable evil...

House Rules
(a special thanks to Jeff's Game Blog and Sham's Grog and Blog for inspiration)

Starting Characters
--Must be human. Roll 4d6 six times, throw out one die and apply each set of dice rolls to attributes as desired. Pick class. Multi-classing must be ok'ed by the GM.

--Characters start with 3,000 experience points. Characters receive maximum hit points for each starting level.

Starting Assets
--All characters start with up to 300 gold pieces worth of equipment. PCs with a plausible back story reason may be granted one or two items from the equipment list.

--Expert-crafted, non-magical weapons (+1 damage) and armor (+1 AC) can be bought at 8 times the list price, masterwork weapons (+1 to hit, +1 damage) are bought at 20 times list price.

--All characters can start with at least one Loyal Follower (1st level NPC/back-up PC, see below). Characters with Charisma over 15 can start with an additional lackey, hireling, or hired blade.

--All unspent gold over 20 gp is removed before the first adventure starts (you are down and out after all). So spend while you are still in your salad days and help stimulate our fantasy economy!

Experience Points
--Instead of simply earning experience for treasure, PCs gain 1 exp for each gp worth of treasure spent on training or research. The PC must find and recruit a mentor of the same class that is at least three levels higher than their current. Game time spent on training sessions will be determined by the GM.

--PCs can also receive 1 exp for each 2 gp of treasure spent in sword-and-sorcery-hero style debauched spending sprees (food, drink, romantic partners, fancy personal accoutrements, etc). Obviously, no mentor or training down time is necessary, but there is a 1 in 6 chance that a “complication” may follow (mammoth hangovers, duels, hostile constabulary, angry spouses, etc).

Style Points
- PCs can spend style points to re-roll a die roll of their choice (to hit, saving throw, skill roll, whatever)

--PCs gain style points for doing “cool shit” during an adventure session. Cool being things such as solving difficult problems coming up in adventure; exceptionally entertaining role-playing; daring feats of danger and the like.

Monthly Wage Scales for the Guild of Condotierre, Linkboys, Roustabouts, and Stevedores
Hire “union” for your quality NPC labor needs.
Lackey (0 level, under 3 hp), 10 gp
Hireling (0 level, over 3 hp), 20 gp
Hired Blade (0 level fighter, over 4 hp), 30 gp
Henchpeople and Loyal Followers (1st level and above NPC), 50 gp/level

Overtime, combat pay, treasure shares, dental benefits, and other sundry bonuses increase NPC morale during and after adventures. Lack of said perks may decrease morale over time.

Loyal Followers
Pick one or roll up your own
1.Thundarr, 1st level barbarian
2.Black Ratter, 1st level thief
3.Rhialta “the Magnificent”, 1st level wizard
4.Carlos “the Dwarf”, 1st level dwarf fighter
5.Sister Anya, 1st level cleric
6.Mongo X, 1st level fighter