Had the first session of a new D&D campaign. I’m running it with 5e using Jack Shear’s Krevborna setting. Like all good campaigns do, the first session started in an inn…
I pretty much rely on three opening scenarios to bring an adventuring party together: escape from jail, shipwreck, or solve a murder. Here I was using the latter. Having read some on the Gumshoe system I used the simple rule that the players will always find the clue. Their dice rolls will only determine how clear the information they learn is.
So far there’s only three players. There’s the fighter from a (vampiric) family of Lamasthu nobles who had once been the vessel for a demonic power. Another former soldier from Lamasthu who had witnessed his village destroyed. And a bard escaping the criminal underworld of the nearby city Piskaro. In the middle of the night a murder occurred. The innkeeper and his family brutally slain. The culprit? A guest in the inn. The suspects:
- A gambler and his body guard
- A farmer and his son
- A much less likable farmer
- A merchant
- A beggar woman prone to visions
- An old priest and a young acolyte
Most everyone had a secret. The merchant was having an affair with the innkeeper’s wife and had been seen going downstairs in the middle of the night. The unlikable farmer was a lookout for a bandit gang. The beggar woman had the serving girl’s crushed skull in her bag. The young acolyte was actually a woman in disguise on the run from her family. And there was a dead soldier in the barn.
Things happened. Unexpected things.
The gambler and his bodyguard were designed to be a bandit/thug encounter, but the party negotiated with them. Sort of. One of the fighter players came upon the pair robbing the inn’s till and instead of trying to stop them let them go. The other fighter got attacked by the devourer without knowing where it was coming from. And the bard did a decent job playing detective.
The real culprit? An intellect devourer that was using its ability to hop from skull to skull. It made an attack or two against the party without them realizing what was going on except they felt their skulls being crushed. Its goal was to get inside the priest’s skull and leave the inn. But to do that it had to leave a trail of dead bodies behind it. The merchant, the two adult farmers, and the priest all wound up getting taken over by the devourer with the requisite scenes of player character interrogating one of them only to have the suspect’s head suddenly explode as the devourer fled to another occupant.
Combat against the devourer proved rough. One fighter got knocked out and the other failed a fear check and proved less than effective.* In the end the bard’s spells proved more valuable than either fighter in fighting a creature resistant to so many attack types. Now the player’s have agreed to replace the priest as the acolyte’s escort to a nearby abbey in the marsh.
Next game scheduled for Sunday.
* Invariably the player who writes the longest backstory about what a bad ass they are will not roll above a 10 on a D20 for at least 75% of the adventure.
I’ve run a few sessions of Blades in the Dark (BitD) now and am going to outline some of the problems I’ve encountered trying to teach D&D players a new game. Your mileage may vary, but seeing the potholes I’m hitting might clue you in to what pitfalls to expect when leaving behind “the world’s most popular roleplaying game”.
One big problem is that my players don’t have a common language for RPGs like they do for board games.
Now I don’t think Blades is any more difficult to learn than D&D. But when I sit down to play a board game I’ve never played, my pal can employ a language I can quickly understand. She can say, “this uses a dice mechanic or an auction mechanic or a bidding mechanic” and I’ll know a good bit about how to approach the game. RPGs have less of that. And while you can suss out a board game’s mechanics over the course of a game, roleplaying games require more time and personal investment to learn, especially for inexperienced players. Yes, there’s talk about system mechanics (you use a d20, 2d6, prehensile dice), along with the more esoteric talk about Theory you need to be clued into, but when I sit down to play/learn a new RPG the ways those Theory and mechanics operate and mesh together aren’t often readily apparent. And D&D does you no favors here because its system mechanics (getting good at killing stuff) are at odds with what it claims to be about (creating stories).
One thing a friend suggested as a good way to show D&D players the wider range of game mechanics is to use either The Quiet Year or Fiasco to teach other play styles and things like narrative driven mechanics. All so’s to get away from the sword and sorcery style play. That makes sense. Next time around I’ll do that.
On to the problems. . .
Solid Crunch vs. Memory Foam
- An example: ghost punching versus Attunement: It takes a bit to wrap your head around the agency you as a player are given in BitD. In D&D you’re a ghost hunter and get a +5 whenever you punch a ghost. In Blades you’re a Whisper and get a bonus to attunement and have a special link to the ghost field and when you’re like “Cool! What does that mean?” your GM will look at you and say, “Well, you tell me?” Some folks will have their eyes light up here. Other folks will stare blankly at the GM and gulp audibly.
Organic development vs. Mechanic development.
- In Blades advancement triggers arise from play and not from killing monsters.
- No builds. If you’re used to a game having the level of crunch where you can go online and find an optimized build, Blades is not that game. Even outside whether or not it’s easy, being a Cutter that rolls 5D6 take-the-highest skirmish is a lot less satisfying then optimizing a guy to do 10D8+10 damage every time he hits someone with a sword.
- On a side note, I hate builds. Sure if the game’s super crunchy and I don’t want to deal with learning rules I’ll hop online and follow a build if that means I get to play the game comfortably. But simultaneously if I’m in a game where a player builds the best killing machine possible, I will intentionally Nerf my character. “What you’re optimizing your thief to be an elite killing machine using some tactical progression you read on an online forum? Fuck you, my barbarian’s now multiclassing as a wizard.” (This raises the question of whether I’m the problem. I can be a shit person at times.) But I hold by the notion that RPG characters should grow organically through play and not be optimized like the Terminator. I also recognize that this very optimization might be someone else’s jam, so I don’t know. Hopefully we get along, because otherwise maybe the best thing would be that we never play games together.
- Players looking around for the boss monster.
- This is likely more about my own bad habits when it comes to adventure design and trying to get out of the habit of encounter-based adventures and more towards heists, but there needs to be a comparable change in player mind-set. If D&D fosters one kind of play style and gives you the tools to play that way, you might see all games as having the same style.
- The heist mindset as opposed to the party exploring mindset. An example: The score is to break into the soul vault beneath the temple of the Empty Vessel and destroy the soul of a cruel factory boss. You hear the high priest has a fondness for blood sports. So PC 1 sets up as a fight promoter causing a distraction, while PC2, a sniper, finds a spot on a nearby rooftop, while PC3, the whisper, breaks into the vault. Except the Whisper PC played D&D and knows you never split the party and go off alone, so he sticks to PC1 and sits at the table checking his phone while the decoy fight goes on instead of being a daring scoundrel.
Hit points and Healing
- Hitpoints vs. Harm-Armor-Resistance-Stress asset management. Hit points are straightforward. You have 30 hit points. It’s right there on your character sheet. The orc hit you with an arrow. It did 5 points of damage. You now have 25 hit points. When you reach 0 hit points you are dead/unconscious. This is simple. BitD does this instead: Harm-Resistance-Armor-Stress-Asset Management. You’re stabbed through the lung and take 3 Harm. Your armor can reduce that to 2 harm, cracked ribs, but you can reduce that to 1 harm, bloodied, by rolling your prowess and taking stress, which from the looks of it might mean you end up traumatized. GM says “What do you want to do?” Player says, “ Can’t I just take 5 hit points damage?”
- I like Blades’s healing mechanics. The rolls and the de-stress mechanics, they add to the gritty, grinding feeling the setting is designed to create, but also it feels gritty and grinding, and if your players aren’t ready for that they’re not going to be happy. Especially if they’re used to short-rest/long-rest, have a healing spell/potion, start the next adventure at max HP. This means their initial reaction to Blades’s healing mechanic is not going to be a favorable one.
The Crew Game in a reactive setting
- My players are having a hard time wrapping their head around the crew game and how that puts them in the setting. No one’s really excited about it. Partially my fault, I suggested they play as vigilantes and everyone agreed to that without having much knowledge of what that meant. But overall the crew game is viewed as an accounting chore and not as a way to generate story momentum.
- With 5e the setting dial is very loose. How much the Forgotten Realms reacts to the characters can be dialed way down or way up without too much change to at table play. If players are used to a game style where they can stomp around a make believe land without too much push back or even organic impact, then the whole faction game is going to be alien.
- So when the setting reacts to players in ways that should be obvious to them, and the players aren’t aware of or picking up on how they could shore against those setting reactions, it can start to look like the setting is out to get the players. If your players aren’t picking up on how reactive Duskwall is to their actions, and how they can be impacting other factions, Blades gives the impression of being out to get the PCs. This is part of its design and why I like it, but my players aren’t used to such a reactive setting and I think this leads to paralysis on their part. “We can’t do anything without pissing off somebody and I’m uncomfortable taking risks.”
- Solution: have the players make characters but hold off crew creation until after a few sessions. For players unfamiliar with how the game operates the crew level game might be the advanced game or the goal of the entire first season. At least give the inexperienced player time to get their feet under themselves. I definitely think the Crew game is 3rd level, expert blue book kind of stuff. Once the players get a feel for the setting, they’ll be in a better space to start an enterprise.
A last point about buy-ins and touchstones
- Your friends will lie to you. You’ll say, “It’s like Penny Dreadful meets Watchmen.” And they’ll say, “Cool.” But when you get to the table and two adventures in it’s not that they’ve never watched Penny Dreadful or read Watchmen. It’s that their default game style is Teen Titans Go! And they’re not going to change that. This is fine, I guess. My player pool is not deep. The other option is that we don’t play a game.
- But what do you do? The players said they’re into what the game’s about, but two three sessions in you can see they’re not really onboard. Part of that is my fault. I could’ve done a better job in the early adventures showcasing the series from the start. I tried, but feel like I failed.
- Also a bit about theme songs… no matter what ambient acoustic ethereal blues crunk you say your game’s theme song is, when you sit down you have to work hard to prevent your theme song from becoming Yakety Sax.
Adventure the Fourth: Saint Atsun’s Day
Boulder the Templar’s order needed him to escort the remains of Saint Atsun from the city docks to the small chapter house the order maintained elsewhere in the city, a task not only complicated by the threat of evil apostate knight, Sir Osric, but by the fact that getting a wagon across town can be a chore on the best of days.
Characters included Oscar Gordon, Wilson, Ahthera, Micah, Boulder, Geth (one of the Rogue/Mage playbooks – the Dilettante?), and Haragrin (a Young Warlord).
I always wanted to run the old Slayers of Lankhmar module (actually more its sequel Avengers in Lankhmar) and this was my riff on that. Also I really like the Road Warrior. I handed the players the city map, showed them where the docks were and where they had to go, and sat back. For each district in between I had a series of timed encounters. There was a whole bunch of possible events: a cult parade, a naval press gang looking to abduct crew, a belligerent band of barbarians searching for a lost companion (he’d been press ganged), a cursed pilgrim, and a belligerent drunk of a wizard named the Dread Mancuzo. Depending on time of day and which streets the players went down determined what they encountered.
The party avoided most of the above save for one trap by Sir Osric’s goons (Micah hopped on the horses when they bolted, removing his shirt in case any ladies might be watching), a pie eating contest (Wilson’s wendigo side manifested here when he won the contest, swallowed the contents of a garbage pail, and tried to eat one of the other pie-eating contestants), and the Dread Mancuzo who they found in a partially ruined tavern harassing a serving girl. He started to drunkenly lob fireballs about. Oscar knocked him out and Ahtera managed a well-placed kick to his nuts. Oscar then hired the harassed serving girl to help out around their headquarters.
Of course Osric was waiting for them at the chapter house where there was a big showdown. No one died although Oscar took an arrow that put him out of the fight, and Mancuzo would return in the next adventure.
Oscar and crew fought a ghost, bought a house, and set up shop as monster-therapists.
Adventure the Second: Tooth Soup
Oscar Gordon, Boulder, Ahtera, and Micah (now Micah) investigate the horrible deaths at a local bathhouse. They discover a secret passageway into the city sewers and learn the bad way that the tunnels serve as the lair for some magic-warped monstrosity. This adventure was a way to point towards the undercity as a potential area for dungeon-delving. The party encountered hints to other things such as a Midian-like community in the sewers, but never followed up on it. There was lots of running around, slipping into dank water, and jokes about poo gas. The monster was basically the creature from The Host. No one died.
Adventure the Third: The Mold Dwarf’s Due
An Elfin prince exiled to the city hired Oscar Gordon to rescue his mortal child from the evil Volod Brothers, a trio of mold dwarfs. The Volod’s have plans on selling the child once they return to the Twilight Realm, and some ancient truce prevented the prince from openly stopping the dwarfs. The party consisted of Oscar Gordon, Boulder, Micah, Ahtera, Wilson, and Nibless (Nibbler?).
First the party had to enter the fairy realm via a portal in the city park (Micah got charmed by a dryad and had sex with a tree, when he wouldn’t leave the tree Boulder punched him out), then they had to traverse a corner of the Twilight Realm (Wilson the Village Hero ate some cursed food and unbeknownst to him slowly began to transform into a wendigo over the next few adventures). Finally they caught up with the Volod Brothers and their thrall-borne carriage. The kid was rescued but the Volod Brothers survived, and Nibless, got killed in the fight. I only remember this because the guy that played Nibless was two for three with his character fatalities.
Also this was the adventure where the Beyond the Wall playbooks became tragic like an After School Special. Not that this was a bad thing.
Nibless and Wilson had the backstory of being childhood friends that had a small village adventure and now have come to the big city together. And what happens on their first adventure: Wilson gets cursed, and Nibbless killed (although I think his fate was even worse than that. He was incapacitated in the fight with the Volods, but had stabilized at 0 HP. Unfortunately he was too far away to be rescued when the rest of the party ran, so… it’s best not to think of his fate, left for dead and abandoned by his best friend in the Twilight World.)
The bibliography in the back of the Numenera core rule book is pretty decent, but like most book lists, it could always use some expansion. Gene Wolfe, Michael Moorcock, and Jack Vance are only one way to look at the future a billion years from now. Here are seven more books to inspire your Numenera campaigns.
Dancing With Bears by Michael Swanwick: Darger and Surplus are a pair of conmen traveling across a “post-utopian” future. Here they are escorting gifts from the Caliph of Baghdad to the Duke of Muscovy. One is a young man. The other is a mutant dog. Sorta steampunk. Sorta cyberpunk. Picaresque through and through.
Celebrant by Michael Cisco: DeKlend is trying to reach the city of Votu where time runs backwards and gangs of pigeon girls battle rabbit girls in the streets. Not an adventure novel, so much as a travelogue to an utterly strange land populated by organic machines and the strange societies that worship them.
The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin: Mixes the personal with the epic as Essun hunts her murderous husband across a landscape torn apart by cataclysmic forces. This is a world dotted with the ruins of countless previous civilizations, all of which have been destroyed by their own cataclysms to make a landscape alternately elegant, strange, and brutal.
Fain the Sorcerer by Steven Aylett: Fain’s your Cugel-esque rogue caught up in adventures, except Aylett’s imagination is weirder and stranger. You can open this short book to any page and encounter some wonderful insanity you’ll want to steal: “Fain walked among trees which bore fruit like resinous organic gems, until he reached a chasm of steam… the Bridgekeeper had an espaliered head, a bone lattice through which veins and tendons were woven like vines.”
A Double Shadow by Frederick Turner: the book with the lowest rating on Goodreads of all those listed here, it seems to generate the most ire against it, but I love it. A disgruntled terraformer on a future Mars writes a novel about an even further future Mars lampooning the vanities and psychosis of his current co-workers. The resultant novel depicts a society centered on a status economy and the status war that breaks out between the scions of two noble houses (the “top cocks”) when one insults the other.
Memory by Linda Nagata: Your teen on a quest to save a loved one through an alien landscape novel. Jubilee’s world is threatened by clouds of “silver” that alter the landscape and consume those unfortunate to be caught in it. When a stranger steps out from the silver searching for Jubilee’s missing brother, she sets out to find him and solve the mystery of her world.
Gilgamesh translated by Stephen Mitchell: As someone once said the remote past would be as strange to us as the far future. Or, as someone else once said, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” Gilgamesh is one of the oldest texts we have, and this translation by Stephen Mitchell is a great one that makes it read like it could sit side by side with Jack Kirby illustrations. The other great thing about Gilgamesh is it’s really short. The book on tape is only two hours long. Give it a listen here on youtube.
And feel free to add your own bits of far future weirdness in the comments.
The last SWN post I did was adventure 004. We got in another month or so of sessions before stopping. Here’s how it ended:
The crew’s managed to befriend a group of mutant space gypsies that wander the local systems walking a tightrope between the two rival powers: a mad cult that appears to worship one of Rana Bai’s ancestors and a cyborg army that worships an unbraked AI.
Here’s how they got there:
The crew opened the box, got the coordinates to get them across the nebula, jumped, and found themselves in an unknown star system with most of their onboard systems fried and requiring immediate emergency repairs. Meanwhile they watched and snooped on the few ships in the system. One was a military patrol boat, but it failed to notice the party. After a few days they managed to enter the orbit of the gas giant where the derelict Wild Card waited.
They made a number of forays onto the ship looting pretech treasures, fighting an “insane” crystalline repair nano and some decidedly toxic flesh monsters, and contracting a disease or two. They knew they weren’t the only ones on board, but didn’t really want to make contact with whomever else was around. Instead they stuck to exploring the massive ship’s engineering and navigation decks, where on their last run they came upon a group of mutant human fugitives.
These folks wanted off ship and managed to explain some of the political situation in the system. At least their version of it… the crew agreed to help and let the prisoners board the Far Drifter (although there might have been some fracas regarding whether or not they could stay armed) before high-tailing it out of the system ahead of another military patrol boat.
And that’s when boardgames took over game nights…
Healed up, regeared, and after getting a brief earful of archaeological palaver from the local expert, they left Logodav station and made for the asteroid. Inside they found the sky tomb in much better condition than the previous one they explored. For one thing, no pirates had drawn dicks all over everything.
The party set about exploring, Zhukov in the lead, Felipe and Jonah in the middle, Rana Bai bringing up the rear. They quickly encountered a strange garden of flowering (and edible) plants, large organic insectile pods at odds with the interior construction, and bas-reliefs sculptures depicting the tree-aliens, the Ushan, worshiping the sun.
They encountered a group of large scarab-wasp-like aliens. Felipe attempted to communicate with them by using an Ushan greeting, but only succeeded in provoking an attack. The firefight ended. The party was victorious. Explorations continued. Rana Bai cautioned the party against tampering with anything in the tomb since it might be an environmental control. They found some more wasp-beetles, and Zhukov thought he had the drop on them. But all he ended up having the drop on was his fumbled grenade. The wasp-scarabs retaliated while the party was confused and did some damage before getting wiped out.
The party rested and discovered several dead wasp-scarabs lying on platforms. They also found the scarab hatchery when they opened a door and had a rain of live baby scarab-wasps fall on them. The room inside contained four casket-like structures. The first two contained recently dead Ushan, their bodies hollowed out. The other two contained live Ushans.
Both of them were in debilitated conditions and terrified of the party. However, Rana Bai was able to forge a psychic connection with them and communicate. She learned that the wasp-scarabs used the Ushan as a food source and hosts for their offspring. Even now other Ushan were alive in the tomb and locked in conflict with the Chittick, the wasp-scarab aliens. The Ushan wished to go back to their fellows and the party escorted them there without incident. The party communicated with these new Ushan, learned where the Chittick were holed up, and said they’d help the Ushan get revenge. But first they wanted to check out this room the Ushan seemed to be in awe of.
This turned out to be a meditation chamber constructed by an ancient Ushan high priest where he went to atone for his failure to save his people. The room was guarded by a large chittick that knocked out Jonah and Felipe before getting splattered by a shotgun. Deeper in the chambers amid strange holographic projections the party discovered the Sun Tower, a powerful Ushan artifact.
After a bit more exploring (and resting to at least get Felipe back up on his feet – no one could repair Jonah and the Ushan carried him for the rest of the adventure) they reached the main chittick nest for the boss battle. Felipe was knocked out, Zhukov managed to remember the correct way to throw a grenade, and even one of the Ushan managed to get some payback for a millennia of enslavement. At which time we were all tired and decided it was time to go home.
So the party returned to the space station, not much richer, but having to settle for single-handedly rediscovering a lost race of aliens and freeing them from enslavement. Before finishing, one of the Ushan (the psychic one) approached Rana Bai with a message.
“Your sister waits for you,” he said. “Beware the Still Lady.”
None of which made any sense to anyone.