Arcana Unearthed: Plague of Dreams, Part II

After the excursion into Battlehome in Part I, which ultimately yielded not the object they sought, but a clue to its location, the party is off … for another dungeon crawl! This time, into the bandit’s lair itself, and a confrontation with the mysterious Blue Knight.

[Warning! Spoilers for the module ahead.]

After picking up the bandits Merill Yanis and Den Rudiger, the party heads back to Gahanis to collect on the first installment of the reward. The Jaren reluctantly pay up, but remind the characters that what they’re really after is the book, the Inmagus Libellum, so get out there and retrieve it! The items in the bandit lair point towards a base at the Lake of Lost Voices.

Some basic information gathering in Gahanis regarding the Lake reveals that a) it’s haunted, and b) you’re nuts if you want to go there. With that, the party heads out.

It turns out that the lake really is haunted, it’s not just a rumor set up by the bandits to protect their lair. On the other hand, it’s not that haunted, so there might be some of that too. Charn, the Litorian Totem Warrior (Wolverine) of little willpower, is almost convinced by the voices speaking to him in his head to take a permanent swim in the lake, but resists.

The party scopes out the place… Lake? Check. Beckoning yet foreboding opening on the far side? Check. Raft? Check. Taking some minor preparations to avoid the siren call of the lake, they head out.

It turns out that the opening on the other side is the entrance to an ancient temple used by the former residents of the city in this location, which came to be suddenly and sadly located at the bottom of the lake, much to the inconvenience of its residents at the time. They seem to be a bit bitter about this situation but, being dead, have little they can do about it other than being annoying. The party wanders through an ancient temple in the lower floors, dealing with a few assorted dungeon staples (giant spiders, dire rats), before coming to the stairs up to the main area used by the bandits. This is where the real adventure begins.

The party comes up with a clever plan to draw out and ambush the single guard watching the back door, which works to perfection (despite a botched sneak roll by the Verrik Magister Sfiri, which is matched by an equally incompetent Listen roll by the guard). Sfiri then makes amends by immolating a bunch of guards playing cards in a giant hall (for reference: Bandits have about 7 hit points. 1st level D&D Wizard: Magic Missile, 1d4+1 vs. one target. 1st level AU Magister: Fireburst + Fire template + 20gp Gem component give you a 3d6 blast in a 5′ radius. One of the features of AU that I like is that it’s “smoothed the power curve”; in D&D, 1st-4th level Wizards are almost completely worthless, but 10th+ level Wizards are overwhelmingly powerful. In AU, 1st level Magisters, while still not as powerful as fighter types, are at least respectable, and their power doesn’t get as ridiculous later either).

There then followed a cool chase scene in which the party ran headlong after the fleeing bandits, rolling up their upper defenses one outpost at a time as the bandits retreated in confusion. Lito the Champion of Freedom used his Burst of Speed feat at absolutely the perfect moment to trip the fleeing bandit lieutenant before the upper defenses could get organized. The final showdown with the Litorian Warmain leader is not without some pain (Lito, always on the pointy edge at this point, gets knocked out), but the party is victorious.

It turns out, of course, that the ending is not quite as the Jaren made it out to be. There is the book, yes, but there is also another artifact related to it … whose nature is unclear. Should the party keep it? Destroy it? Return it to the Jaren? And why is the Blue Knight after it? To find out more, you’ll have to play the adventure yourself.

This half of the adventure went more smoothly than the first, as I picked up a bit of steam with my DMing. As mentioned last time, I did away with most of the drawing of maps, and played a more descriptive and abstract style, with only a few critical combats being played out on a battle mat. I ran the combats in a much more rapid-fire style, which certainly befitted the chase scene at the end (this was unplanned, but worked out quite well).

The module itself is pretty nice, but I ended up cutting out large swathes of the second part. There is a lot of exploring the temple that the party could have done, but they didn’t seem to be getting into that stuff, so I deleted almost two-thirds of the very dungeon-crawly lower level of the temple on-the-fly. I’m happy with this decision, as it takes a lot of time to play and none of it was that relevant to the adventure in my opinion, it’s just some weird stuff for the party to play with (unlike some of the cool ambiance in the Giant fortress in part one, which helped to set the background of the world). I’d also suggest that the Blue Knight probably needs to be souped up just a bit unless she’s taking the party on under very favorable circumstances (for her, anyway). I don’t consider my party to be heavily mini-maxed for combat, and still they just didn’t have much trouble with her. I’d suggest making her a level or two higher. I had intended to have her escape using an item she had, but a critical hit at an awkward time meant she couldn’t. She’s an interesting enough villain that keeping her alive would be good for the health of the campaign. If she were two levels higher, I think the party would still have been able to take her on, but she would almost certainly have been able to escape barring appalling luck.

All in all, it worked out well, and now we’ll be moving on to Siege on Ebonring Keep, by Mystic Eye Games. It’s designed to be run back-to-back with Plague of Dreams. Plague was cool, but a bit combat heavy, so I hope to mix things up a bit more in the next module. Siege is much more customizable, and now that I’m getting more comfortable with the DMing thing, I hope to put more of my own stamp on it.

Arcana Unearthed: Plague of Dreams, part I

After having finished my preparations, and getting the party together, we begin.

[Warning! Spoilers ahead.]

The adventure begins in the small town of Gahanis, roughly in the middle of Dor-Erthenos, or the lands of the Diamond Throne. Gahanis is a mining and commercial town in the foothills, know for the quality of their ore. But it seems they are having problems with bandits.

The characters are contacted by the Jaren, a highly secretive trade guild, with a proposal to kill two birds with one stone: the bandits have stolen a book that is of value to the Jaren. However, the bandits left a survivor in the raid that took the book, and that survivor identified two bandits as local residents of Gahanis who must have been feeding the raiders information. The Jaren believe they are currently hiding out in Battlehome, an old, abandoned Giant fortress a couple hours hike outside of town. If the characters could capture the bandits, retrieve the book, and keep the whole thing hush-hush, they would be well rewarded.

A cursory background check into the two bandits turns up the fact that one is a warrior and one might be a low-level Runethane, so it would be best to watch for traps. With that out of the way, it’s off to the Keep.

Battlehome turns out to be part dungeon crawl, part background spiel. The main historical event in the Arcana Unearthed setting is the war between the Giants and Dramojh, which lasted 200 years and ended about 350 years ago. Prior to that, most of the races of AU (with the exception of the Mojh, who didn’t exist, and the Verrik) had been enslaved by the Dramojh for over a thousand years; even the Dragons had fled before their power. But the Giants fought them, eventually exterminating them and then taking on the role of Stewards of the Land.

Battlehome is a Giant fortress from the time of these battles, so it has lots of interesting background flavor – an intricate and interesting defensive network, as well as Giantish living quarters. There are also a few fairly low-level adversaries, including some flying dire bat things and some Goblins. While none of these seriously threaten the party (and they actually avoided the most serious encounter), the damage adds up, and by the time they are facing down the two bandits, things are a little tight. But they manage to beat them over the head with saps and take them prisoner. While they find some maps and accounting records implicating the prisoners in the bandit raids, they fail to find the critical book – only a hint that it has been removed to the Lake of Lost Voices, a place of dire reputation to which no reasonable people from Gahanis travel.

This was my second attempt at actually running a game since college, and I was a bit anxious since my most recent attempt to do a D&D session was not, I felt, particularly successful. I felt it went OK overall, although I think the party missed some of more interesting stuff in the module by not doing much background research in Gahanis before heading out to the Keep, and then once in the Battlehome things got a bit bogged down at times. I took away a few lessons from this:

It’s good to give the party a little bit of meta-game information up front. If people are expecting a classic D&D-style dungeon crawl (which this does appear to be on first inspection), of course they aren’t going to bother with doing a background check on the Jaren, asking around for what people know on the Keep, etc. – they’re just going to head out and start killing stuff. I think it’s OK to let people know ahead of time what to expect from the module in terms of the meta-game.

In our D&D group, we do a lot of drawing. When the party enters a room, we tend to draw stuff out on a battlemap and play out all the battles as tactical games. When the party is in a dungeon-like setting, we tend to draw everything. I think doing this was a mistake for this module. In most of Battlehome, there is a lot of ambiance but not much real danger – except for the couple high-end encounters, there are only some minor skirmishes, but not much that’s worth actually pushing around metal. In order to keep the pace moving, I think it would have been better to just describe everything as the party explored it, allowing the party to give meta-commands (like, “we’d like to explore the central tower”), and then just running it as a narrative if there wasn’t anything threatening in the central tower instead of the classic: “You see a door. What do you want to do?” “We listen at the door.” “Nothing” “We open the door” “There’s a room with some stuff in it, and another door”. This is unnecessarily time consuming. I could have instead just given a running narrative, with the characters interjecting stuff as they had additional questions or more things they wanted to do, and that would have made the whole thing run more smoothly. And several of the skirmishes could have been run abstractly rather than getting out the grid.

The other thing I wish I had done was to provide all the characters with some basic personality sketches. I don’t know what they would have been exactly – maybe something along the lines of “Lito is a lighthearted guy who enjoys telling tall tales and taunting his enemies” – but given that many in the group were basically new to roleplaying games, I think it would have helped. They wouldn’t have to be long; something simple and specific would do. I know when I go to Origins, the characters I get usually have these background sketches, but sometimes it’s hard to know what to do with it when it’s more of a rambling background piece instead of talking about the character’s actual personality.

Still, though, all things considered, I think it went well; people seemed to have fun, and most have signed up to continue playing. I learned a lot of good stuff too.

Origins Report – RPGs

Although Kim and I are primarily board gamers, over the past few years the focus of Origins has slowly been shifting to RPGs for us. The good reasons are that we’ve found a group (Amorphous Blob) that generally runs events that we really enjoy and because as we’ve become more experienced we’re enjoying the RPGs more. The unfortunate reason is that the situation with board games (wargames in particular) has been slipping a bit.

This year I had signed up for a record for me of 14 hours of RPGs: two D&D events, one Arcana Unearthed, and one Paranoia. Due to my illness, I was only able to make it to one of the two D&D games and the AU, and was really only able to fully participate in the AU.

P6300034The AU game was the personal highlight of my shortened con, though, as it was being run by Monte Cook, the designer. The adventure he ran was a heavily modified version of The Severed Oath, a module available on his web site. The theme remained similar, and it used the same characters, although the details were altered enough to make it unrecognizable. I played the Mojh Mage Blade Karzagedaren. Kim played the Giant Champion of Life Tor-Gerren.

I had a little trouble working with the Karzagedaren character – he was supposed to be a strong-willed, impatient warrior – but I found it hard to find his zen. I, like others I’ve talked too, have been drawn to the Mage Blade class because it’s the sort of spell-slinging warrior you always wanted but just flat-out can’t do in D&D. But I actually wonder if it’s one of the weaker classes in AU from a roleplaying perspective. Compared to the wonderfully thematic Akashic, Greenbond, Oathsworn, Unfettered, and Champion (just to pick a few) with their easy roleplaying hooks, the Mage Blade is a little generic.

Kim had better luck with her Giant character – Tor-Gerren was a noble sort and had some good roleplaying tie-ins in the adventure, so she was able to really get into the character. It helped that she was devastating in combat, as she had enough Giant racial levels to become Large, which means a longer reach and bigger, more damaging weapons. Of course, when it came to time to sneak around a bit, that’s a bit hard to do when you’re 12 feet tall and wearing Full Plate. And the 20 foot movement was kind of a bummer.

I had a good time with this, and it was a pleasure to meet with Monte Cook (and get him to sign our Arcana Evolved book!). He also introduced us to Tact-Tiles, which are a great alternative to the traditional battle mat. He has his own writeup of Origins on his website, which is a good read.

My other event was a D&D adventure from Amorphous Blob, which was more in the roleplaying/humor vein. A Wizard hires the party (which is all 12th level – I was a Ranger 8/Arcane Archer 4) to rid him of a pesky dragon that has taken up residence in the mountain next door. However, the more the party delves into the problem, the more things are not as they seem. For one, there are large numbers of demons wandering around for some reason. It turns out that this is more in the way of a suburban squabble over a fence than anything else, and the Wizard (who might be a weasel) may have summoned a high-level Demon Prince from the Abyss to kill the Dragon, but there was a miscalculation of size which left the huge demon bound and trapped in a tiny room from which he could not escape, but the gate to the abyss was jammed open, letting smaller demons through. The party had to sort out this mess, eventually convincing the Dragon and Wizard to make up and combine their might to seal the gate and unsummon the Demon.

This was an amusing and very entertaining adventure, and I had the opportunity to play with some very good roleplayers who really got into it. I think there was all of about 1 combat sequence which lasted only a few minutes (it was amusing too … we had to take down two Demons, so all the spellcasters in the party just took a couple rounds to pour every enhancement spell in their arsenal into our Dwarven Warrior, who then single-handedly ran screaming towards them and took them out with a few quick axe blows).

I had to bail on the Paranoia game unfortunately, but Kim played and had a very good time, so she’ll be running a session or two for our local buddies sometime soon.

I didn’t buy any new RPG books at Origins, as GenCon is where most of the new RPGs get debuted it seems, but I did pick up a set of Tact-Tiles, and I added to my collection of Iron Wind Metal’s Arcana Unearthed figures a few minis appropriate for my current game. Iron Heroes, the next “Variant Player’s Handbook” from Malhavoc (Monte Cook’s label) which will be released later this month, looks extremely promising and might be something to move on to in a year or two. But for the moment, between Arcana Unearthed, Paranoia, and D&D, I’m pretty much set.

Arcana Unearthed – preparing for the Plague of Dreams

(2014 note: this piece originally had a ton of links to both the other games I talk about and design diaries and such on Monte Cook’s site. I was surprised to find that after 9 years, I could not find a single live link – not just product pages for all the moribund RPGs which went by the wayside or whose licenses expired or companies went bust, but for the Arcana Evolved and Monte Cook content also. I’ve updated links where I could and removed the rest. You can find the games on if you like. A few dead links are still here where required to maintain the integrity of the piece. And by the way, Arcana Evolved is still awesome).

I have been promising (sort of) more roleplaying content for a while, but it has not been forthcoming despite my monthly-ish ongoing D&D game.

This is due in significant part to my rising levels of frustration with D&D. This should be held distinct from my feelings for d20/OGL, which is not a bad system inherently. Sure, it’s overcomplicated – attacks of opportunity, for example, are needlessly opaque and a common rules complaint. Why do you think they need a D&D For Dummies book? But the real problem with D&D is not the d20 core, but the world that the class, skills, and spells of D&D describe, which is not always very coherent. At the risk of revealing the ending of this particular story, rather than subject you to my own rantings I’ll refer you to a couple of Monte Cook’s columns that clearly encapsulate a few of my issues. So while I enjoy the D&D off and on, I didn’t want to just write posts that were going to be me ranting about the broken rule/feat/item/prestige class du jour, or how the oddities of D&D often seems to inhibit the roleplaying experience.

So I went looking for an alternative to D&D. I’ll need to run it, so given my inexperience as a GM, there was a hard requirement that it had to have a good off-the-shelf introductory adventure. And being d20/OGL helped a lot. The candidates were …

Star Wars d20: This is a much better system than D&D, but the feel of the game is more Extended Universe Star Wars than George Lucas Star Wars, which – regardless of what you think of the prequels – is not good. Despite the appeal of the theme, my feeling is that the storytelling options here are somewhat constrained and the cheesiness which is such an endearing part of the genre might grow old in an ongoing RPG. I would be more than happy to play in an occasional one-off Star Wars game, but can’t get excited about putting the effort required into running it, especially given the serious dearth of published adventures. Next!

Babylon 5 d20 is an interesting and promising universe, and the system is well-supported by Mongoose with some good sourcebooks (along with a couple very poor ones) and a few reasonable pre-made adventures. But the system has a whiff of inadequate playtesting and lack of concern for game balance, and mini-maxer fodder is one of the things I’m trying to avoid here. Next!

Lord of the Rings RPG (Decipher) is very thematic and has a lot of really good stuff, but it is also clearly underdeveloped and has significant problem elements and rules holes, and I just don’t know that I’m up for filling in all the gaps at this time. I also don’t know that I want to compete with Tolkien, and the downloadable adventures on the Decipher website are almost indescribably lame. It also appears to be dead. Next!

Fireborn looks very, very cool. But even though it’s significantly simpler in the end than d20, it’s also absolutely nothing like d20 and has higher startup costs in terms of learning, and so is a tough sell. Plus, the published “intro” adventure has some issues, and of course there are persistent questions as to whether Fantasy Flight actually knows how to develop a game of any kind. Very high on my list to try, but not this time. Next!

Paranoia XP looks like a lot of fun, it’s vaguely d20, and knowing the rules is treason for the players anyway. But it’s the sort of game you run as a one-off. There are a couple of short adventures in the Crash Priority book that look great and I’d like to run them sometime, but I was looking for something with a bit more meat. Paranoia is also a demanding (if particularly entertaining) game for the GM.

So … we come to Arcana Unearthed (or Arcana Evolved; they’re the same game).

Rather than tell you why AU is so appealing to me, I’m going to just suggest you read Monte Cook’s design diaries (start at the bottom and work your way up), which are a good read. Much of what I could say would simply duplicate what he’s already said more clearly. In my opinion, AU is a significant improvement in terms of game design over D&D in virtually every way. Crucially, though, AU is, at its core, D&D done right. So if you know how to play D&D, and are familiar with the concepts, moving to AU is almost (almost) painless – it’s just that the abusive feats and spells have been eliminated, many elements have been brought into better balance, things have been streamlined, and characters have been given more, and more interesting, options. Spellcasters in particular have vastly more interesting options than in core D&D, even the lesser spellcasters. The setting is richer, more interesting, and makes sense. D&D leans heavily towards combat (if I wanted to play a tactical war game, I have better options), and while AU certainly retains those roots, it was also designed with a great deal of thought towards encouraging interesting roleplaying. And the game clearly was not burdened by the needs of a somewhat reactionary fan base.

Now, AU is not perfect. Being OGL it is still a bit over-complicated, and you need to get familiar with the setting. There is still the issue with balance amongst the various skills; there is too much of a range, from the broad and very useful Diplomacy and Sneak to the highly specialized and rarely-useful things like Use Rope and Innuendo – they all cost the same, so where do you think the players are going to invest their relatively small number of skill points 99% of the time? But if you’re frustrated by the imbalances, inflexibility, and strange worldview of D&D, it would behoove you to check out AU.

So, with the longest intro ever out of the way, we can now get down to preparing for the actual adventure.

Plague of Dreams is an introductory adventure for AU, published by Fiery Dragon. It serves a couple of purposes. Firstly, it’s an introduction to the world and history of AU, as the PCs interact with all the AU races in Gahanis, a typical small town, and explore some ruins with a connection to the major event in the recent history of the AU world (the war between the Giants and Dramojh). Secondly, it’s a low-power and low-complexity adventure that can serve as an intro to roleplaying in general, with opportunities for some combat and roleplaying. Normally I wouldn’t start PCs off at 1st level, as I think the options are too limited, but in this case it works. The town of Gahanis is a small one, so there are no 8th level Warmain Sheriffs or retired 10th level Unfettered to overshadow (or serve as a crutch, or raise awkward questions) for the PCs. And Gahanis is well spec’d out by the book, so the characters are pretty free to go “off the grid” and explore, although the main mission is fairly straightforward and as the GM it’s hard to imagine even the most ornery PCs going too badly astray (although one thing I do know, as a GM, never underestimate the ability of your players to wander off in some bizarre and unexpected direction if you give them a chance. Things often seem quite different from the other side of the screen).

The first thing I did in preparing the adventure was to sit down and, with Kim’s help, come up with pre-generated characters along with some simple backgrounds. In my experience, generating characters is a chicken-and-the-egg problem. Players like to generate their own PCs; but they don’t know what skills will be useful, what will be interesting story-wise, or nearly as much about the world as the GM does. In the past, I’ve always wanted to come up with some cool background for my PC as a player, but then have run into the wall of not knowing enough about the world or the mission to do anything sensible. When combined with the fact that most of our players had last done pen and pencil roleplaying sometime between never and high school, and at any rate I wasn’t going to ask them to spring for a $50 sourcebook (or $24 for a PDF), I figured it was best to take control of the situation and do it myself. In retrospect, I wish I had developed these a little more, but on balance I was reasonably happy.

Secondly, I dug up some Avery inkjet-printable perforated index cards and made up an encounter template. Having adversary stats handy is a huge advantage in running combats, which have to be run briskly or the game bogs down. Entering the stats into the template also had the side benefit of giving me a chance to consider each opponent in turn, getting familiar with their abilities and thinking a bit about their tactics. Plague of Dreams has a couple cool encounters, and my experience was it’s a very good idea to prep these thoroughly. You can always read off the descriptions of an area from the book if you forget; but if you’re inexperienced like me, the combats can really bog the game down if you aren’t prepared.

Thirdly, rather than tackle the whole module, I realized that we were only going to be able to play the first half in one weeknight. The first half is fairly well self-contained, and just the right length for a weeknight session, so this actually worked out all right. I just read it over several times, and made some overall notes of locations I thought it was highly likely the players would visit (the library to do some research, the apothecary, etc). I focussed on the one most important NPC and tried to work out how I would play him. There is one major location with an interesting architectural layout that I wanted to make sure I had a clear image of in my mind. I then made photocopies of all the important illustrations in the book so I could give them out as visual aids. The goal, of course, was not to memorize everything – there is a lot there – but to be ready to look things up in case the players visited them.

Lastly, I came up with an intro section about how the players came together. The old “you all randomly meet in a tavern …” thing is a staple, but it’s lame and gets the module off on the wrong foot; I have found that getting the party together in a sensible way with some basic but rational motivations and reasons for being there gives excellent bang for the roleplaying buck. As you can see from the background snippets, I knew why everyone was in the town of Gahanis, so I just figured out exactly where they were staying and what had happened at the time they were contacted by their new prospective employer.

That’s it. It was a bit of work, but really not too bad, less than I expected, and a lot less than if I had tried to roll my own (and the adventure is better that what I could have done to boot). Next time, we’ll see how the first half actually played out.