D&D: Sidrea 8 – The Ghostwoods

There has been a break in my coverage of our D&D games, for various reasons. So I’ll keep the transitionary update simple:

It appears vast forces of evil are conspiring to dominate the world. Ancient powers of dubious reputation are marshalling. They seem to be mostly snakes, or at least reptiles. This evil has cursed the party with a disease that will eventually turn us into Yuan-Ti, reptile-like servants of an evil god. That’s bad.

The party has also gained and lost some of the various NPC hangers-on that have been following us around. Tadira, the researcher who hired us in the first adventure, met a grisly death along with her dwarf hireling Honier. On the other hand, we’ve picked up Larkel, an Elven noble from the Isle of the Rose, who seems to be insane. Or at least somewhat nuts.

Lastly, Amathyya, half-elf and major NPC hanger-on, has been revealed to be the hier to the throne of Rondor and the Isle of the Rose. In Sidrea, the Elves have a long history of oppression at the hands of the Humans, so my character (Haethyr, an Elf) doesn’t have much enthusiasm for uniting Rondor, a very large human kingdom currently in Civil War after the death of Amathyya’s father, a brutal despot, with the Isle of the Rose, a peaceful stable, and small kingdom dominated by Elves, and the only place in Sidrea where Elves aren’t oppressed.

Anyway. None of this bears much on the adventure we are about to embark on, but I offer it up as background.

In order to escape the last adventure, the party needed to make a deal with Larkel to help him get to the heart of the Ghostwoods, the ruins of an ancient Elven city. So off we go.

The forest is protected by Ent-like living trees. Fortunately, on a tip from Larkel, the party coats themselves with some living-tree-repellant root, which prevents them from detecting us. The pursuing guards are not so fortunate, and get whomped. I guess that’s why this area has been largely undisturbed.

The second tier of guardians are a batch of Shades. Zerkestor, mighty cleric of Zerthunor, blasts them. I’ve always had a fundamental dislike of almost everything about the cleric class in D&D, which after committing to including religion in the game then turns around and reduces it to cure spells and whacking stuff with a mace, but the whole turning undead thing is particularly annoying. It’s got its own lookup chart, it’s incredibly inelegant, and it tends to reduce encounters to an either/or of rolling high enough to blow them away, or rolling poorly and having little effect. It’s just not interesting, and it’s also thematically weak, a holdover from the cross vs. vampires thing, which makes little sense anymore.

Continuing along, we meet some friendly pixies. They warn of traps. We add it to the checklist. Berek sings them a Dwarven drinking song, and So’yoko tells them a joke: “A dwarf, and elf, and a pixie go into a bar …”. They are amused by this and give us a gift. This was a nice roleplaying encounter.

Somewhere in here there was an encounter with some more guardians – air elementals of some kind, ancient guardians of the city – that wasn’t particularly memorable.

We finally make it to the Elven city. It appears that long ago they were assaulted by a plague created by someone or something to destroy the elves. Three sisters, high-ranking in the city, tried to perform a magic ritual to cleanse the city, but two of the sisters subverted the ritual for reasons unknown and fled to the swamp north of here. We are told that Amathyya has the power to undo this damage, and cure our own curse-related issues into the bargain, if we can retrieve a magical harp from the swamps to the north.

That sounds like a good idea.

So off we go again. The swaps are large, so we’re trying to figure out how we are going to search them all. Haethyr sends his Owl familiar up to have a look, and the DM tells us there are caves. Caves you say? OK, we’ll check them out. They turn out to be inhabited by Trolls. 4 Trolls, actually.

Trolls are really nasty. They’re big, they’re strong, the regenerate. Haethyr is only packing one fireball today. As they come charging out of the cave to engage us, Berek – valiant fighter he is – blocks the corridor. With subsequent enhancement by Enlarge, Haste, Circle of Protection from Evil, and Shield of Faith, then his own Combat Expertise, he turns into an Armor Class 30 monster. Despite Haethyr’s screams that we should retreat and regroup until tomorrow, when he can take 3 Fireballs and make comparatively short work of them, Berek continues to hack his way through the Trolls. Assisted by Scorching Rays from Haethyr and So’yoko, and plenty of cures from Zerkestor, Berek just barely manages to hang in there as the last Troll is felled, albeit not without being knocked unconscious a couple times and bailed out by Zerkestor.

Hopefully the harp is in there. We’ll find out next time.

This was an interesting and fun module, with some nice roleplaying encounters (the pixies, the elves), and the knock-down drag-out fight with the Trolls at the end; but it still was a classic railroad job – players go to point A. NPC gives them some information, tells them to go to point B. At point B, another NPC tells them to go to point C and do D, then return to point B. The players don’t get any real feeling of freedom. It’s not bad to have some more straightforward adventures occasionally, but in the main you want at least the illusion of control. The GM has said a number of times that this series is inspired by Babylon 5, and I think this is a critical hazard when using books or movies or TV shows as your primary inspiration for RPGs. Stories have their own set of narrative rules, which are driven by drama, while a game has very different requirements. When Tolkien wrote the riddle at Moria’s East Gate in Fellowship of the Ring, he didn’t have to worry about what would happen if the characters blew their Lore skill checks and failed, or if the players didn’t quite understand something, perhaps because the GM forgot or didn’t present it clearly, and so the players didn’t get it. In a game, the players have to have the freedom to make choices, even poor ones, and even to fail sometimes; in Sidrea, it’s often been obvious that anything but complete success simply isn’t an option, because if we didn’t succeed the whole story arc would be over. Telling an interesting story is a critically important element of RPGs of course, but it has to be balanced against the needs of the game. Since these goals are often contradictory, that’s obviously tough.

Our GM also keeps a blog on our game, in which he covers events in much more detail. If you’re interested, you can find it here.

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