On Friday, I got the chance to do something really awesome. Chris Sims tweeted that he needed a break. I offered to amuse him. He took me up on it and what resulted was a bit of interactive fiction. I had a lot of fun with it and I loved the challenge of creating the story on the spot. With a little more development, it even might make a great solo adventure.
Me: You awake to the sound of water dripping into a shallow pool. As you shake the fog from your head, you hear footsteps approach. Looking around, you find yourself in a small room. The door looks sturdy and strong, with a small, barred window near the top. As the footsteps approach, you hear the jangle of keys. The steps lack a steady rhythm, in fact, you sense no rhythm at all.
(A brief aside)
Logan: Into view steps Crispin Glover, wearing a suit made of nothing but keys and Scotch tape.
Chris: Since I have crispinglovophobia, I have a heart attack.
Me: You notice that your arm is chained to the wall, but the chain is old and rusted. A good pull might free you from the stone.
Chris: Which arm?
Me: Your right arm.
Chris: So the pain in my left arm is possibly a heart attack, but possibly a buritto. pull the chain out of the wall. (Improvised weapon FTW!)
Me: With a hearty pull, you are able to free yourself from the wall. The steps get closer, close enough that you can hear the source stop every minute to gulp down more liquid.
Chris: Can I lift the burrito?
Me: Sure :-)
Me: From the way the hall echoes, you figure the source of the footsteps is about 15 feet from your door.
Chris: I hide.
Me: You quickly look around for somewhere, anywhere to hide. Seeing no obvious hiding spot, you press yourself against the wall on the hinged side of the door, steadying yourself as much as possible. As you get yourself set, you hear the breath of the guard and can smell the whiskey on his breath. He starts to try his keys, cursing under his breath, until he finds the right one and slowly opens the door, entering as he does so. He rests for a moment against the frame as he tries to spot you.
Chris: "Hey, drunkie, want this burrito?"
Me: "Huh? What?" In his druken stupor he moves further inward, and starts to lose his balance.
Chris: I hand him the burrito. "@countingku said this was for you."
Me: You take him by surprise and he takes the burrito from your hands. "Thank you, this is just what I needed." He sits down against the wall, and promptly falls asleep mid-bite.
Chris: I take the burrito and the whiskey, and the keys and his shoes. Then I scarper. But then I go back and take his wallet, too.
Me: Do you want his hooded cloak as well?
Chris: Hmmm. What does it smelll like? What color is it? Does it match his socks?
Me: Like his socks, it is a dark red. They comprise the uniform of the prison guard. It smells like lavender and used whiskey.
As you leave your cell, the hallway expands in both directions. You hear the sounds of someone quietly crying, from the direction the guard came. It's more of a whimper and a bit high pitched.
Chris: I yell, "Hey, keep it down!" as I put on the cloak.
Me: Your voice echoes down the hall. The crying stops, but a plaintive female voice answers back, "Who...who are you?"
Chris: "Don't you know me?"
Me: "You must be the newcomer, but you don't sound like you are in your cell. Have you escaped? Please, please help me."
Chris: "Newcomer, huh? Where are we?" I go toward the cell but look into any others I pass.
Me: From the quick glimpses you get, it appears the people in the other cells have their spirits broken. They actually turn away from the door as you pass. However, she is looking straight through the bars at you, her eyes full of hope. "We are in the prison of Ashkabar. I know not your offense, but mine was refusing to honor the king's son with my presence." One look at her even in her current state, gives you the full meaning of her words.
Chris: "That makes two of us, lady. Have you seen that guy? Sheesh! What say we get outta here?"
Me: "I would love nothing better. I know a way out. They don't like the lack of comforts here in the cells, so they...take me...."
Chris: "Wait, what? They what?" I unlock her cell door.
Me: "to another one, one with a window. We'll still need to make our way out from there, but it is easy to get to. The guards tend to leave it alone unless they are...visiting with a prisoner." You quickly find the key that unlocks her cell and the door opens. You notice that she is not chained.
She takes your right hand in hers, and closes her eyes. Lightly running her fingers over the wounds, you feel the pain recede.
Chris: "Hmmm. Thanks. Hungry? That's a burrito in my pocket."
Me: "I'm starving. But we must move quickly. This way, come quickly." She grabs your hand and leads you down the hall.
As you get closer to your destination, they decor changes. The stark stone walls now have decorations, tapestries and paintings. Alcoves dot the hallway, holding sculptures and other works of art. As you near a corner, you can hear two people approaching.
Chris: "Hey, take my cloak."
Me: She quickly takes the cloak, pulling the hood over her head. You can see the shadows of the approaching figures; their footsteps growing ever louder.
Chris: I pull down a large tapestry and hide us under it.
Me: The guards round the corner. You notice that the foot steps stop for a moment. Then a low chuckle replaces the silence. "Be sure the replace that before Prince Kagen sees and puts an end to our fun. The room is free, if you want it." The steps continue past you and slowly fade from hearing.
Chris: "We'd better hurry. They'll be back soon." I get up and go, then remember she has to lead.
Me: She takes you by the hand and you both run towards the room. She lightly knocks on the door, waits a moment, and then slips in. The room has a sturdy bed, with simple bedding. There is a window. You look out it and notice it's about 20 feet off the ground. A small ledge decorates the building and a thick tree limb is about five feet from the window.
Chris: What's lighting the room?
Me: Currently, it's moonlight streaming through the window. The moon is full, providing light yet still many shadows.
Chris: What's lighting the hall?
Me: Oil lamps line the hall. It appears that the oil was recently replenished for their wells are quite full.
Chris: I take one of the lamps.
Much of my session planning starts with a focus on a little tidbit, usually an event I would like the PCs to participate in. Then I work backwards to figure out why they might be there and also try to tie it in with the rest of the story. For instance, when I wanted to do a play on Rumpelstiltskin, one of the NPCs asked the party to deliver a baby blanket to her niece. When they delivered it, the niece was obviously upset and the PCs were able to figure out that she had promised her first born to a goblin. From there, they were able to explore further and learn about the oni, C. C. Clementine, and her business procuring hard to get items.
Recently, the Shadow Army introduced itself to the PCs via a raid on the Tower of Lilith. But, to be honest, I wasn't really sure where to take it from there. This morning I started playing with words and created a poem. I'm finding it a great jumping point for filling in the info about the army and the motivations behind those creating it. For me, the nice thing about planning this way is that the end event isn't defined but its flavor is. This allows me to adjust things according to player wants and desires while still being able to give out hints and move the story forward.
Beneath the earth in rock so deep
lies a shadow bereft of sleep.
Yet he dreams of the day,
when he'll be free and minds will sway.
Shadow legions will hear his call.
The good will turn, and their cities fall.
Oh, how great the feast will be.
When the door opens and he is free.
Since I'm not sure how much information I'll give the players at the next session, I'll have to leave it there for now. But I can't wait to see what unfolds.
 Oh gosh, a footnote. There are some issues with the poem structure but it's for a game and doesn't need to be perfect.
Since not everyone had read the teaser before the session, we started off by having one of the players read it at the table. We started the session with the PCs in the receiving hall of the Tower of Lilith. The party, particularly the bard, was in the midst of a discussion with the Handmaiden of Lilith, Elessandra. Pretty early in their conversation, they hear a blood-curdling scream that is cut short. The PCs turn to see a woman and child running towards them while 3 creatures attack the Mirror Keepers, felling them instantly.
1 Kir-Lanan Voice (Level 6 Controller Leader) [DDI]
Note: I adjusted the levels of these creatures using the Monster Builder.
The creatures come out in stages to add to the drama of the situation (light being extinguished by the dark). The Kir-Lanan came out of the same mirror as the first group and used the top of the mirrors to perch (Reach of 2+ needed for melee attack from ground). The creatures in the third round came out of a mirror on the opposite side of the room, making it harder for the ranged PCs to stay out of melee range.
A bit of flavor was that the Dark Servants were reskinned to be normal looking humans with a black collar around their necks. Their shadow powers seem to come from those collars.
With a lot of effort, the party was able to kill all of the dark servants and one of the masterminds. The other mastermind and the Kir-Lanan were able to escape back through the mirrors. Our session ended with the encounter, and the rest of the aftermath will take place next session.
- Add a skill challenge to turn off the mirrors during combat. They would have had to work quickly for it to work but might have been interesting.
- Add a series of skill checks or a skill challenge to disable the collars during combat. Shouldn't totally disable these creatures, but could have removed the shadow keyword and maybe a power or two.
- My players really worked through their resources on this one. Many dailies, encounters, action points, and healing surges were spent during the encounter. Had this been part of a series of encounters between extended rests, some of them might have been in trouble at the end of the series.
- I was a little sad about running this encounter. My mind is always coming up with stories and I have to admit the Tower of Lilith is one of my favorites. I almost didn't run this part of the adventure because part of me wanted it to remain unscathed. But the truth is, it didn't really make sense for that to happen, and the encounter was just too nice to pass up.
I just sent this to my group's discussion list which means I finally can share it with you all. When time allows and particularly after missing a session or two, I like to send a teaser that helps set the tone of the next session. I really wanted this one to be special and I hope my players think it is too.
Our last session left off with them traveling through the mists at the center of the Lake of Lost Memories. Legend holds that the mists part for those who are in need, and, well, we left the last session with the mists parting. Tomorrow night, they'll get a chance to see the islands of the mists for themselves and maybe even meet Lilith.
As the boat approaches the islands of mist, their features become clear. One larger island is surrounded by three smaller ones, with arching bridges connecting them all together. On the hill of the center island stands a magnificent temple with a solitary tower rising from the center courtyard. Light appears to radiate from its walls. One thing that becomes instantly noticeable is the lack of any defensive measures. There are no city walls, no gates, nothing but open space, punctuated here and there with a home or shop.
As the boat lands, a small group of townsfolk comes up to the dock. One of them steps forward and shouts a hearty and heartfelt welcome, "Hello and welcome to the islands of the mists. Fear not, for you are safe." As you disembark, he organizes the town folk to help you with any of your things and offers to show you the way to the tower. He introduces himself as Tellador and you notice that he is missing his right hand.
While your eyes continue to watch the light dance off the tower, you take quick glances at your surroundings. The rest of the island is covered with modest homes and shops, backyard gardens and children playing. The people themselves walk around with a radiance that comes from true happiness, yet ancient lines of worry have not been completely erased from the faces of some of the older residents. No one carries any weapons, just tools of their trades. Many of them echo the same welcoming sentiment as Tellador, offering you food and their assistance.
As you approach the tower you notice that it looks to be from another time. Reliefs decorate its walls, depicting the stories many of you heard as children. The entrance is a set of wooden double doors, decorated with flowers and vines. Two stone lions guard the door, with necklaces of fresh flowers adorning their necks. A calming presence washes over you and you get the sense as though the tower just has always been.
You are led into a receiving hall, its walls decorated with huge floor to ceiling mirrors. Small groups stand beside a number of the mirrors, quietly discussing matters amongst themselves. On the opposite side of the room stand two chairs. A large one, ornately decorated with vines and flowers on its legs and arms and two doves forming a heart at the top of its back, sits empty. In a simpler one sits a woman dressed in a simple white dress tied neatly at the waist with a belt of red silk. Behind her are another set of wooden double doors, decorated with reliefs of doves perched on the branches of a young tree. As you approach, she rises and addresses you.
"Welcome," she says, "I am Elessandra, handmaiden of Lilith. We welcome all who are in need, particularly those who travel through the mists."
Recently, my emphasis has been on playing boldly. A lot of that is due to the play-by-post campaign I'm in where my swordmage is getting the reputation of being a bit of a loose cannon. However, I don't want to leave out another aspect of playing I really love, playing deeply.
When I say this, I don't mean amateur theater at the table. If that's what you and your table are into, great! But I'm a bit too shy for that and I'm not sure I would have the support of my table either, unless I was really funny. What's great about playing your character deeply is that most of it happens between your ears and no one else has to know about it for it to be fun and exciting.
Perhaps the easiest way to explain the phrase is to give an example. First, a spoilers warning because my example comes from my very first campaign where we played Keep on the Shadowfell. My poor little half-elf rogue/warlock was acting as the tank. Since it was my first character, I made this her first time away from home, so we could both be scared together. My group was in area 7, the Skeletal Legion right outside of Sir Keegan's Tomb. Soon we were surrounded by skeletons. The party wanted Sarah to check over in the chapel area to see if she might be able to disarm the sarcophagi. When she got there, she was confronted by two altars. Reliefs behind them depict soldiers in plate "on their knees in prayer." She frantically searched for a switch or anything that she thought might stop the skeletons but found nothing. Taking a moment to look around she noticed the reliefs.
"Guys, I think I need to kneel."
"Well do that."
Sarah kneels. "Ok, any ideas of what to do now?"
Around this time, one of the party members who could read Draconic finally made his way down and read the inscription. Sarah quickly offered some words of praise to the Platinum Dragon and the skeletons stopped attacking. I then proceeded to "collapse" at the table, resting my head on my forearms. "I think I need to kneel," I giggled and the rest of the table laughed with me.
To this day, my husband and I will randomly say something from that game that to each other whenever we need a little laugh. However, if I had never bothered to get into my character's head, it never would have happened. Doing this might not be everyone's favorite thing, heck, my favorite part of D&D is battlefield tactics. But I find getting into my character's head brings the tactics to life and increases my fun. Do you have a favorite "play deeply" story?
Since its inception, there have been a few bits of mythology that served as the basis for my campaign. However, I've been struggling for awhile on figuring out how to bring these elements into the story line, especially since the majority of the population of Newham has no idea about them. Now that my players are finally at the Tower of Lilith, which has its own mythology, I can start to bring the larger mythology back into play. For this week, I will use a letter to bring in some world history.
The letter is from Hallomak Stromm to Lilith. Hallomak is an interesting character. His line goes all the way back to old Arcadia and his father was part of the group that sealed the passage to the Underdark and defeated Magdorr's Army. When Corellon and Sehanine shared their plan to cover Arcadia with ice for a thousand years, his family was put in charge of orchestrating the return of the humans. However, things went wrong and the humans returned early, under different leadership. Since then, his family has attempted to fulfill their duties as stewards of Arcadia without holding the title of ruler.
For those interested in such matters, Hallomak is mentioned in the Dungeon Delve book as someone who owned a lot of magical items. My players really wanted to know why he owned so many things and who he was. From that tidbit, I created this version in my campaign world.
Lilith is an Eladrin princess born near the end of the Age of Song, so well over a thousand years old. She was tricked into marrying an evil Oni who wanted her family's wealth and resources. Once she figured out the deception, she fled with her family's treasure to an island in the middle of what is now called the Lake of Lost Memories. There she created a haven for all those who have need and, through the help of Corellon and Sehanine, protects the land with powerful magic and provides avenues of escape to those who most need it.
With that information, I came up with a letter between Hallomak and Stromm. It helps introduce some information about the previous ages and well as hint at the problems facing the land of Newham Shire.
In times such as these, it's important to remember our history in hopes that we don't repeat the sins of our fathers. I know that you remember all too well the Age of Song. I wish I could have seen it, the resplendent beauty of both wood and city, flower and painting, bird and choir. My hope had been to bring such delights once again to the fertile soils of Arcadia, to recreate our mortal Arvandor, but I fear those efforts have been in vain. I feel the fear and uncertainty rising from the ground and taking hold in too many hearts of her residents.
To this day, not even the wisest sages or most travelled bards know exactly what led to the end of the Age of Song. Some point to the orc invasion of Andernach and the subsequent failure of her allies to rally to her aid. Others point to the rise of a group called Free Arcadia Now, intent on overthrowing the human nation of Avestra. Still others say to truly understand, one must go back to the betrayal of Corellon and Sehanine by Lolth. Regardless of the reasons, the death of the Age of Song serves as an important reminder that even a peace that lasts for over a thousand years is built on a fragile lattice work that can break at any moment. But I fear the same powers that caused the rise of the Age of Legends so many centuries ago are at work again and our dear beloved land will fall into ruin and despair.
However, not all is lost. A small group travels our lands, fighting against these shades of darkness. They told me about a plot by five evil creatures to enslave the population of Newham and I believe they may be our only hope in stopping them. From what little I know, I fear that someone has learned the secrets of Magdorr's Army and is recreating it again. If true, all who have the old blood in their veins must be protected so that the ritual can not be performed. Unfortunately, that is not such as an easy task, as my own son has joined the Free Arcadia Now faction and ran off about a week ago. The only other way to stop them would be to put an end to the evil band. My best guess is that they will seek to break the seal that keeps Arcadia safe from the horrors of the Underdark. If you come upon my friends, please send them there with all haste. I know you have your ways.
Me: Ok brain, we're caught up on Medium and Ghost Whisperer which you said you needed for "research." Time to write this week's D&D session notes.
Brain: But I'm sure there are some NCIS episodes I haven't watched yet, I think I need those too.
Me: NCIS has nothing to do with the Tower of Lilith and you know it. What gives? I thought you loved this story. You included it in the original map and even hinted at it during the Lizardfolk temple session.
Brain: I do! But I'm afraid the players won't love it as much as I do.
Me: Don't worry about it, they're going to love it. Don't you remember how interested they were at the end of the last game?
Brain: If it's not written yet, how can you know that they'll love it. Sure, the parting of the mists for their boat made them sit on the edge of their seats, but what if what I create doesn't match their expectations. Why did you set me up with Arthurian legend anyway? You know they all know it too well.
Me: Well, you know it too. Don't hide behind that whole I'm not as geeky as they are thing because you don't have Star Trek and Star Wars memorized. Just write what you love and let me sell it to the players.
Brain: Ok, but can we get some caffeine first.
Me: It's a deal.
I'm pretty sure this happens to everyone at some point. When the focus is on the DM to create a great story, eventually nerves will get the better of even the best DMs. Which mean mere commoners such as myself have little or no chance of escaping this phenomenon completely. What should you do when this happens?
You're not writing a novel
Sometimes the problem is that the words just won't behave themselves on the page or refuse to make their way onto the page at all. Changing focus from the fine details to the broad brush strokes might help. Create an outline or at least just put down various ideas on the page or index cards. As inspiration hits, fill out each individual one. Don't worry if you can't go into too much detail for any particular one. Remember, you're not writing a novel, just trying to get the essence of world so it seems real enough at the table.
The world isn't always logical
Most of us were educated to think logically and sometimes this really hurts us as we try to create stories. We see all the holes in our stories as we write and sometimes we put so much energy into trying to fix these logic leaps that we just get frustrated. Logic has its place, but it doesn't rule everything.
Remember the DM isn't the only story teller
The players at the table will be interacting with this world and, even more important than the story you want to tell, is what excites them and their characters. If you are comfortable enough with the idea, come up with a brief outline of the important things about the world, and let your players' questions fill in the rest of the detail. For instance, if you are dealing with a legendary location, you might even have a night of improv. The players can help fill in the details of the legend with versions their characters heard as a children.
How do you guys deal with this when it happens?
For a few weeks now, I've been involved in a great play-by-post game over on Google Wave. Our DM, Michael, is a great guy. He lets my character do lots of interesting and exciting things without letting her get away with too much. He's also really good at coming up with descriptions, which is great because I still have a problem visualizing and then describing some of the neat stuff my character does. The rest of the players have been really great in this regard as well.
As for game play itself, Google Wave really makes it easy. The basics of game play are based on suggestions from Quinn on the At-Will blog. One nice thing about it is that it's easy to go back and edit and delete things like out of character comments in the in character combat wave. Given some of the quirks of wave, we create new waves every so often with one wave serving as an index to all the others. For dice, we are using Tuxaios and we are using the RPG-Bones Battle Map for combat. Finally, we have our character sheets on iPlay4e for easy reference.
While I'm not the best at it, one of the things I really like about play-by-post is that I can get more immersed in my character than I can at a physical table. Part of it is that the play style is just different, with a built-in emphasis on description over action. It's rare that we are all on at the same time, so there isn't a sense of rushing to get things done that happens when a group is trying to pack as much gaming as possible into a limited time window. Those of us who are on a lot find other ways of amusing ourselves, like goading each other into jumping off of cliffs. Also, I'm much less shy online than I am in real life. So I'm much more willing to take the leap and really make the game interesting.
However, there are some downsides. Keeping up with all of the info can be a little challenging at times. One feature I hope Google adds is the ability to have two waves open at the same time on the same web page. When you switch between waves, your current editing block closes. This is fine unless you have die roll tags, at which point it will also roll the die for you. If you have to edit the text right near the die roll, this edit will trigger a reroll, which is a bit annoying. Also, when real life interrupts and keeps a player away from wave for long stretches of hours or days, game progression halts. That can be a good thing, too, as it gives the rest of the players a little more time to think of something interesting to do with their characters.
Overall, I'm super glad that Michael let me join in the game and I'm having a ton of fun with it. It gives me a great chance to blow off some steam, learn a lot more about playing rather than DMing, and make some great new friends. My character, however, is going to need some healing help soon if she's to make it. She's already burned through her second wind and a healing potion. Hmm, maybe I should start on my next character now just to be safe.
Recently I got in trouble because I suggested to someone that they play boldly. The person in question took it to mean that I was asking him to change his personality type, that he should act like an extrovert. While I can see how he came to this opinion, that's not what I meant at all. Heck, I'm an introvert.
For me, playing boldly means a few things. Most importantly, it means coming outside your play style comfort zone and having your character do interesting things. It's really scary, I know. D&D doesn't have save points and there is always an underlying risk of character death. But the truth is, I'm not some heartless computer adjudicating the rules exactly as written. And the players aren't some sort of kill bots looking to rack up the most damage possible against the big bad guys. (Well maybe they are, but that's a different story.) Doing the same thing week after week, using the same powers in the same way, over and over again, makes for a boring game. I can try my best to shake things up by adding different challenges, but if the players approach them the same way, then I've accomplished nothing.
Besides, it's these moments of vulnerability, of epic wins and epic failures, that make for great gaming stories. We all hate to fail, the sting is great and it lasts for quite some time. When I was a kid, I played softball and always was quite scared of striking out. Instead of doing the rational thing and realizing that even the heroes of the game fail 7 times out of 10, I would put a tremendous amount of pressure on myself to just make it on base. As the strike count increased, I would try to make the strike zone smaller and smaller. I had a great on base percentage but nobody was patting me no the back over it and I don't have that many great softball stories. This same scenario translates to the gaming table. Jump off a cliff onto the back of a giant spider, and you are probably going to love every moment of it. Do the safe thing and spend two turns climbing down a rope, and nobody's going to get that excited, including you.
If you're introverted, like I am, doing this will take some work. First, you need to decide that you trust the rest of the table. This is a huge issue, I know, and incredibly scary. But until you show that you trust them, your fellow players are never going to trust you. So you'll still be thinking of those cool ideas in your head (and I know you are) but no one is ever going to know how awesome you can be and they aren't going to help you get there. The truth is, they are often just as nervous and scared as you are. Sometimes it helps if you invent a persona for yourself. Base it on the true you but just tweak a few things that hold you back from fully participating. If you are still full of that inner monologue of failure, read Just a Geek by Wil Wheaton. Totally changed my life. True story.
So, how this different from asking a player to be an extrovert. For one, I'm not asking players to do these things in front of a large crowd or even in front of complete strangers. I'm also not asking them to play act or even get into precise detail. A player totally can act boldly while keeping things in terms of game mechanics. Sure, everyone might not get the cool factor as easily, but the player sure will, and that's what's important here. The best gaming moments often don't sound that way at the time, but later, when everyone is doing a recap, they will sound legendary.
It's true, coming up with truly bold, brilliant ideas all the time is near impossible, but doing it just a small percentage of the time is likely to enliven your table and make your experience a better one. It can be scary and nerve-wracking for sure, but remember that your DM is a person and he/she probably has a small idea of what you are going through. And by deciding to give your character, well, character, you might become more engaged with the game world and you might just find that your DM really isn't out to get you after all. Unless your DM is Chris Perkins. At that point, all I would have to say on the matter is "Don't split the Party" and "Aeofel Lives!"
The Tome Show released a special episode on skill challenges last Friday and everyone should check it out. Not only will you get to hear my lovely voice, but the episode is full of great ideas. Quinn ( @gamefiend ) is an animal when it comes to these things and he provides tons of great tips. Jeff Greiner ( @squach ) and Mike Shea ( @slyflourish ) are awesome as always. My husband plays but doesn't DM and he really enjoyed the episode as well. If you want more information about the skill challenge I ran, you can find it in my post Random Rumor Tables FTW. I'm hoping to do more of these things in the future, so keep an eye (or ear) out for me as I shake off my inexperienced title.