Wednesday, June 29, 2016

A Deck of Awful Things: By-Session Draw Results with the Tarokka Deck


Turn back now! Last chance!

Okay, hi! On request, I'm going to post a few of the results from my by-session draws. I've been assured by my (actually rather respectful) players that they won't read this particular entry for spoiler purposes. And you know, if they do read it anyway it fills them with greater dread, that's kind of a win too. Actually, maybe only one of them has a link to this blog anyway. So I think I'm safe. SECRETS.

So as a preface, I ran a previous campaign for some members of this group that happened before Curse of Strahd was announced. As a "veteran" of the setting (St. Cuthbert help me that sounds pretentious, sorry) I already had kind of an idea where and when I wanted to set them in the greater Ravenloft timeline and canon, which doesn't quite neatly align with what they present in Curse of Strahd.

CoS is very much a badass new mansion built atop a very old and sturdy foundation. That foundation is I6 Ravenloft, and the latest adventure module reuses a lot of what's there (Ireena Kolyana is the big one for me). It also has a few aspects that don't really line up with my continuity, and thus needs to be slightly altered.

I will note my joy at noticing the inclusion of a young Bray Martikov in Curse of Strahd, who (even if he is not confirmed to be the younger version of the same character) is in my mind actually Bray Martikova, the innkeeper and owner of the Blood of the Vine in one of my favorite classics, Strahd's Possession. Go get it on, and get the patch that unblocks you at the Ivlis Caverns too. Go go go. Why are you still here?

Anyway, that sidebar matters because in my previous game, the campaign took place chronologically some time after that game. The owner of the Blood of the Vine now is a woman named Anezjka Martikova, and she has a few younger sisters who may or may not be super-ultra-mega important to part of the plot of this campaign, which relies extraordinarily heavily on the chassis given unto us by Curse of Strahd.

Okay. That's cleared up. Sort of. Now onto the card draws.

As I stated a couple entries back, I intend on having the players draw a card each session to determine something that happens in it. Some of the effects are beneficial, many are not. I'm not going to tip all of my hand (and largely because it's written in a marble notebook and it took time to transcribe it here already), I do want to present what I'm doing for a component of the Tarokka deck, the High Deck.

Pick a Card...

There are a couple of references below to tables I did not replicate here for space reasons; assume that item tables and prepared treasures contain a delicious selection of goods, none too powerful, but none too weak, for the party to happen upon. There are also some new monsters below.

It's worth noting many of the High Deck results can be pretty nasty. The other suits (swords, coins, stars, and glyphs) are generally peppered with more straight buffs; High Deck draws are rarer since there are fewer of them, naturally.

Artifact: Select one item from prepared treasures. This item is found in the next treasure dole the company receives, or is given out by a grateful citizen (if in Barovia) who remembers the company from their previous adventure (likely candidates: Aren Cordelaine, Anezjka Martikova, Prosla, Stislav).

Most names mean nothing to all of you, but they are NPCs from the previous campaign.

Beast: If in Barovia or other settled/safe area, a beast stalks the party at night, scratching at windows or doors. If in the wilderness, the beast shadows them and strikes at the first opportunity for surprise, unless challenged first. The beast is a Black Hound of Strahd.

Click to embiggen.

Broken One: During this session, if an ally falls in battle, or a friend of the company comes to great harm, a randomly determined member of the company is afflicted by crushing despair as the Mists attempt to break their spirit. They must immediately succeed on a DC 14 Wisdom saving throw or suffer a level of exhaustion.

Darklord: Strahd himself or a powerful minion intervene during this session when the company is at its weakest. If Strahd is appropriate, he will appear and toy with the company, gauging its strength as needed, for 1d6 rounds before vanishing. If Strahd is inappropriate for the venue, utilize swarms, vampire spawn, or Black Hounds of Strahd as needed.

Donjon: The Mists amplify spells and effects that entrap or imprison. For this session, saving throws (or skill checks) for all characters and creatures against effects causing the following conditions are made at disadvantage: grappled, paralyzed, petrified, restrained.

Ghost: During this session, one of the company members is visited by a poltergeist. This individual will be someone the character has either slain in combat or was a one-time ally from their background (as appropriate). Even if that individual would not realistically be present in Ravenloft, they appear (this is a trick of the land to swamp the character in doubts). This is a roleplaying effect, and resolving it may award an Inspiration token for the pool.

Executioner: Critical hits are deadlier in this session, both for and against the company. Roll one extra set of damage dice on a critical hit (2d6 becomes 6d6, 1d10 becomes 3d10, etc.).

Horseman: One of the steeds of the company becomes restless when exposed to stress during this session. If it is not brought under control, it will attempt to bolt, taking with it anything that is on the saddle or in the saddlebags. It can be found after an hour of searching if not caught, but will likely be slain by wolves or other creatures. If the company succeeds in calming the beast, add one Inspiration token to the pool.

Innocent: If in Barovia, Anezjka’s sister Marika finds the company during this session and “tags along” until either brought back to the Anezjka or convinced to go home. She may be in danger from one of Strahd's minions or another enemy, as Marika has a poorly-functional sense of self-preservation. If elsewhere, this draw instead grants the party the effects of the bless spell for the remainder of the night if they manage to rescue any innocent during the course of the session.

Marionette: The company finds a Blinksy toy during the session. It is of some humanoid shape. If allowed to remain in their possession for more than three nights, it becomes a hostile carrionette at midnight the following night.
Click me! I grow!

Mists: The Mists unleash a mist elemental into the domain this session. This effect is cumulative; keep track of the current number of mist elementals active in the campaign, and add them to encounter tables in place of the top result. They can be present at any location and will be hostile to all creatures that are not Strahd himself or one of his servants.

Click to enlarge. Also, I'm an update of the 2e monster of the same name. LOVE ME!

Raven: The company is shadowed by a wereraven this session. Should they fall under attack, the wereraven will intervene on their behalf as is appropriate, vanishing if questioned for too long.

Seer: The company sets this card aside and draws two additional cards for the session. The effects of both are in play.

Tempter: A cursed treasure item appears in the session, given out either in the first treasure dole of the night or showing up as seemingly discarded in a conspicuous location. Select from the list of cursed items for the campaign.

Evil Awaits...

I am super-dee-duper looking forward to this game, which is due to start in two weeks. Expect more updates and items from the campaign making an appearance as the heroes step into the mists one more time.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Observing the Power Growth of a Party

My long-running 5th Edition campaign that runs on Sunday nights reached an interesting crescendo last night. See, while I can talk all day about what I think about the balance of the edition, nothing actually matters until one sees it in play. As this campaign has walked a path of legitimate, in-campaign growth, adding and losing players, it's the only organic playthrough of the edition's tiers of power I've been involved in so far. It's been very enlightening.

So you know exactly what I've been dealing with throughout, the current party consists of the following:

  • Eiranil, Half-Elf Cleric of Selune (Moon domain, a homebrew spin that's pretty similar to the Light domain with less laser-cleric stuff)
  • Wren, Elf Ranger (Hunter archetype)
  • Eldingar Volk, Human Paladin/Sorcerer (Storm sorcerer; paladin levels are not yet high enough to choose an Oath)
  • Cyarra Farlong, Aasimar Fighter (Battlemaster, Protection style; I've house ruled Protection to increase its usefulness slightly, so that the shielded target has resistance to damage from the triggering attack even if they hit)
  • Leyla Katinmah, Human Monk (Shadow)

For several sessions, the players have been exploring a fair-sized dungeon that was once a dwarven keep, now overrun with frost giants and their slaves (bugbears, ogres, and a handful of young and wyrmling white dragons). When they entered, they were already 9th level; nothing to sneeze at. I've already been surprised by the firepower they can bring to bear when the chips are down. It's a fairly unorthodox party with surprising secret techniques and powerful synergy.

In particular, I rather enjoy the glass tank that is the paladin/sorcerer. With plate armor, shield, and a magic sword pilfered from the party's treasure heap, he rolls across the battlefield like a thunderhead, blasting enemies with lightning and using quickened blur to minimize incoming damage. He's fairly fragile, but forms excellent front-line synergy with the battlemaster fighter who uses Goading Attack to keep focus on herself and the monk that blips in to deliver a barrage of deadly blows before darting away.

I do have to change my mind a bit on the core ranger now that I've seen it in action at this level. She is extremely powerful, using cover and stealth to ensure maximum battlefield advantage (usually with actual, mechanical advantage) and riddling enemies with arrows powered by the Sharpshooter feat. That said though, I don't know that she'd be anywhere near as effective if she were forced into melee (perhaps rightfully, she didn't exactly build toward that), or if even a melee-built ranger of equivalent level would be as useful in the same situation with the same relative build (that is, a ranger with a two-handed weapon using the Great Weapon Master feat). It's hard to beat her mobility.

I also find myself monumentally impressed by the crowd-control options in 5th Edition. For all that 4E had its Controller classes and archetypes, the spread of spells available and the smoothness of their mechanics is appealing. In particular, accolades go to the banishment spell, which serves as a great equalizer when there are two nasty monsters in the same encounter.

Anyway, last night they ended up finding the big bad of the dungeon, a frost giant thane with a small clutch of white dragons in his company (four wyrmlings and one young). He had a few legendary actions which allowed him to order the dragons to make extra melee attacks and do retribution cleaves once he was below half health.

(I'm still sad to see the bloodied terminology from 4th Edition go the way of the dodo, since I always felt it was a neat trigger point for certain effects. But I digress.)

This combat was brutal; not the hardest they've yet faced at-level, as I think that honor still goes to the Red Wizard they fought back at 4th level, but pretty nasty. Still, they handled themselves admirably and I didn't quite get anyone to drop unconscious. They were already at about 60% of their resources after a battle the previous session and hadn't any time to rest. Banishment took care of the young dragon early on (at least for a while), after the fighter and monk absorbed the brunt of its initial breath weapon. I had a moment of cackling joy when the giant thane hurled a treasure chest full of coins at the battlemaster in place of his usual rock-throw.

("Can I Parry the treasure chest?" The answer is, sadly, no, since that maneuver requires it to be a melee attack.)

All in all it was very eye-opening about just how strong this particular party configuration happens to be in the right situations. They seem to be rubbish against large groups of low to mid CR enemies, but small groups of equivalent or higher CR? They easily hold their own and fling out a few new surprises for me each session. I enjoy challenging them and seeing them come out on top, and I never need to pull my punches.

I almost dread seeing what happens at the level 11 spike. I predict, but in no way can be sure, that the ranger will begin to fall a little behind the other damage dealers, and that 6th level cleric spells and 5th level sorcerer spells will change the face of the battlefield in significant ways. I look forward to it.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

House Rules for Ravenloft

In a few weeks, I will be running a continuation of a Ravenloft campaign that started a couple of years ago and ran for seven awesome months. My surprise and glee when Curse of Strahd was announced and subsequently released can't be adequately described here, so when it arrived I had no choice but to commit to running a follow-up campaign.

In the last campaign, the company ended up unwittingly working with Strahd, though they had good reasons for doing so -- a genocidal Gundarakite ghost who wanted to eradicate all Barovians proved to be the more imminent threat. It's a lot more complicated than that, but suffice it to say, the company ended up surviving by the skin of their teeth and safely fleeing the Land of Mists -- at least, for a time.

Now they are due to return. I need to make heavy modifications to the proposed adventure material in Curse of Strahd to align with what came before, but this in and of itself is not overly challenging. Instead, I want to try my hand at refining some mechanics and introducing some slight randomness to the game each time we play.

To wit, my proposed house rules, a work in progress at the moment. Among these are a small expansion of the Fortunes of Ravenloft mechanic from the adventure module, a Frankenstein's monster of various reincarnations of skill challenges that some of my cohorts have made, and the idea of an Inspiration pool.

Fortunes of Ravenloft and Tides of the Mists

The Tarokka deck is an instrument of prophecy and divination for the Vistani, wanderers of the land whom the common folk shun and fear -- unfairly or not -- for their strange ways. While a card reader may be located throughout the course of your travels in Ravenloft, there are two ways by which the adventure will be influenced based on this deck of mysterious cards.

First and foremost, as the adventure begins, an elected member of the company will draw a single card from a freshly-shuffled deck. This draw determines the Fortunes of Ravenloft, which will alter one aspect of the campaign permanently. This may manifest as a hidden item of power somewhere in Barovia, or a special encounter that only occurs due to the draw of the card. The result of this draw will not be immediately apparent, but clues will reveal themselves throughout the course of the campaign.

Additionally, at the beginning of each session, an elected member of the company will draw one card from a shuffled Tarokka deck. This draw determines the Tides of the Mists, the subtle twists of fate that influence each session. The result will be made clear when the card is drawn, and may manifest as a blessing or a curse -- the Dark Powers are fickle, and may help or hinder you in your quest.

While I don't go into detail here, the effects could be beneficial or not based on what occurs that session. I like a little randomness in my games to keep the players and myself on our toes. For example, drawing the Darklord will have Strahd or one of his minions make an appearance in the session to hinder the players. Drawing the Artifact will place a magic item from my prepared list of treasures somewhere in the session for the party to potentially acquire. It's a little metagamey, so I'll see how it feels for a few sessions. 

Skill Challenges

Difficult situations, or challenges that require staged progress, may call for skill challenges. During these situations, any player may contribute skills relevant to the situation (which the Dungeon Master will call out) to help achieve success. Each member of the company is allowed a single contribution to the challenge, and the number of total successes required will differ based on the situation at hand.

If the skills relevant to the situation are not ones you feel comfortable rolling (be it due to low bonuses or lack of faith in the dice), you may instead elect to give one other member of the company advantage on their roll. This increases the chances of a success, but lowers the net number of total successes the company might achieve. Each player states whether they wish to roll or give advantage to someone before any dice fall. You may also propose an additional skill that may be relevant to the situation, with sufficient explanation.

For example, examining the scene of a gruesome murder for clues allows everyone to contribute an Investigation or Perception roll. Three members of the company are proficient in one of those two skills, and so elect to roll. One is not proficient in either skill, but proposes that they can use their training in Medicine to examine the body; the DM agrees and allows that skill to be used. The fifth member is not proficient in any of the proposed skills and has poor flat bonuses, so instead elects to give one of the proficient members advantage on their roll.

The number of total group successes determines the significance and clarity of the clues gained. Continuing our example, three members succeed on the checks, which the DM has set to DC 12. One fails. The group has accrued three total successes, revealing the largest number of clues with the most clarity.

If all contributors to a skill challenge fail, the challenge is unsuccessful. Even if there is a seemingly total failure, there will always be another potential way of circumventing a situation -- never give up even if fate is cruel.

This is really just 4E's skill challenges with a new coat of paint. I mostly go for this method to reduce the number of times people will fail a roll and then someone else says, "Well, can I try instead?" and succeeds, making the first player feel crappy. Instead, everyone can try -- succeeding or failing -- together. This will be used for searching rooms, investigating crimes, chase scenes, and similar situations. I've borrowed elements from skill challenge discussions from both Harbinger and Stands-in-Fire over the years I've known them, so credit to them for their ideas even if I've altered or butchered them for my own necromantic purposes.

Inspiration Pool

Inspiration is a useful mechanic, but not all players will necessarily be able to make use of it, or may accrue Inspiration when they already have it. As such, rather than losing the Inspiration, all Inspiration is accrued in a pool that any player may draw from on their turn. Players may hoard Inspiration in this way, but never will the pool be able to contain more than five Inspiration tokens -- one for each member of the company.

Inspiration is retained between sessions. At the beginning of the campaign, the Inspiration pool is empty. The company gains Inspiration tokens in the following ways:

  • Commitment to roleplaying. Doing something at a detriment to yourself because it is what your character would do is always rewarded, provided such behavior does not become masochistic.
  • Acts of true heroism and valor. Ravenloft is a land of horrors and despair, and only true heroes can push back the darkness.
  • Unveiling secrets of the Domains of Dread. The natives of Barovia know very little of the true nature of the land in which they dwell. Bringing light into the darkness will reward you with knowledge -- but not all secrets are meant to be dragged into daylight.

Inspiration is a great mechanic, but all too often I see it go unused or I forget to hand it out. With a dish of little blood-red beads in the center of the table that is consumed and resupplied with regularity, I hope to encourage more use of it. I almost went more insidious with it, allowing it to pool above five, but amounts over five that are expended go into the DM's pool for use... but that felt too evil. I already have a lot of tools for mayhem at my disposal, after all, so I didn't want to go overboard.

I'm really looking forward to this campaign in general, so expect more updates on it as I go along. I adore Ravenloft and can't wait to drag my players back into the mists -- perhaps to their doom.