Sunday, July 10, 2016

TPK

You know what those letters mean: they all died. I'm talking our last game of Lost Songs of the Nibelungs here. Players took it like champs and we talked more about it than necessary. Nonetheless, the discussion after the game was left, as you would have it with half a bottle of vine in the brain, incomplete. Or so I think. And there is always something to learn from the ill fate of characters. So a post it is ...

This will scratch several topics I already wrote about all over the blog and connect to some extent to this post about sandbox gaming and my last post about improvisation and preparation.

This is how I roll

Let's start with a few sentences about how I DM my games. I think it's important to understand where my decisions come from to evaluate them properly.

First things first, it's all random. Down the road I fill it with internal logic where I need to and randomize the rest. The setting is the historical Dark Ages around 550 AC and with a touch of magic. The sandbox the players get to explore is fictional (there are no proper topographical maps of the time anyway, btw) and also random (using this system). Their tribe, at the center of that random map, is also fictional and I allow some customizing regarding appearance and culture (tattoos, burials, and so on).

Character creation is a mix of random results and player customization. I have no story to speak of at the beginning of a campaign/game, just some random seeds (mostly what fascinates/intrigues me at the moment), random tables, background information (many of that as a random result of the setting creation with as much actual history as I can summon and what the narrative already produced) and dice. The rest is interaction with the players, rolling the dice and improvisation.

In this the players are free to do with their characters what they want. A career in the Arena? Not a problem. Becoming drug barons? Show me how to do it ... I propose and react, they do.

I'd like to stress that I'm very laid back about all of this, mostly working with internal logic of a setting or situation. I have no dog in this fight, as they say. Being a neutral party like that should have the great advantage for players to solve problems with as much ingenuity as they can gather and not just by knowing the rules. Everything can be done if it's within the realm of possibility.

It also means that wrong player decisions might bear dire consequences for the characters.

I admit, I will soften a blow somewhat if I get the opportunity. But a blow it will be nonetheless. Nowadays I even roll in the open most of the time and without a DM screen.

That being said, I'd like to add that I'm only human and I make mistakes. So that is in the mix, too :)

Finally, this is play-testing. To some extent this means putting the system under stress to see if and where it might break and that means players might end up in situations the system can't handle some way or another. Not saying it happened here, but it could have and everybody was aware of that.

What happened before

The quest of our heroes started in the (totally fictional) Roman city Ovicuria with a mourning mother (a sad prostitute one of the characters met in a tavern) and her missing child. The group decided it was a proper quest for the heroes they aspire to become, so they promised to reunite the family. They did a lot of questioning and listening before they found out that the mayor of the city, a self-proclaimed Caesar, is somehow involved with stealing babies for some demonic rituals involving orgies somewhere under the palace in the center of town.

Part of every Roman cityscape [source]
Their questioning already aroused some suspicion from several parties and they got followed by humans and phantoms (both spotted by the group, so they knew). But the opportunity arose to infiltrate the catacombs during an uprising against the evil Caesar (was a result of this here random table) and while said Caesar was having one of his rituals below the palace. So down into the catacombs it was. They found a secured entrance easy enough, guarded by two of those sinister legionaries they keep seeing patrolling the streets.

It'd been a short and brutal fight. Although those guys were really tough, they went down. And this was the moment the group found out that those guys could regenerate. Cutting them open revealed that they had strange purple worms residing in their hearts. Cutting them out and killing them killed the legionary, too.

But all that took a lot of time and this being an exit provoked a situation where they encounter some traffic. And so it was, two noble Romans with their escort, another pair of legionaries, showed up. They fought them, but one of the nobles got away and it didn't take long for that guy to raise the alarm. The group cut their losses and off they were.

It had been a wild chase through the city and the group had been lucky that the riots spread into their direction (again, a random roll). They found an abandoned house to lay low for a few days and heal. In the night they heard (and some of them saw) a huge demon flying over the burning town. At that point they had some idea what they are up against.

Something like this: A blood demon by albino-z [source]
There is one more incident I need to report before I write about that final and fatal game night. One of the characters had been out of luck with his stress saves and his character was a bit shaken. That was why they decided on a full nights rest. Another character had a light sleep that first night and woke up, thinking some of the rioters tried to force their entry. Not being a fighter, he decided to wake up the shaken character with a kick to the kidneys and the claim that they are about to get attacked.

They all being under lots of pressure, I demanded another stress save from the character with the boot in his kidneys and he fails dramatically. A botch, if I recall correctly, with the character ending up in a corner whimpering and shaking. A real nervous break down for an attack that never happened, as the doors held and the rioters moved on.

A fatal last descent 

Orientation: They came from south, there on the
right, A is where they ended up.
Time was definitely a problem, so they took as much rest as they dared and prepared for their next foray into the catacombs. With the riots just being crushed and their first attack from that direction being as effective as it has been (four dead legionaries and one witch down), the palace guards decided to be extra careful about it. They had sentries early in the catacombs, mainly runners. The group gets spotted then and there. Another fight, two legionaries join the fray. All enemies die, but some characters get wounded, too.

Still, all is well and they press onward. The door those soldiers had been guarding is the next obstacle, but not that big a problem. The group enters the palace dungeon. There are some statues, some doors with magic warding (probably tombs, they conclude) and an opulent entrance to what seems the dungeon proper. Since they have a mission (rescuing the baby) they store that information for later and move on.

The entrance: They had something Egyptian going on down there, too [source]
Two choices, left or right. Left gets the popular vote first and they follow that broad hall way a bit until the get to a crossroads of sorts, with a smaller corridor going off to the right and the hallway going on ahead. On the left the see a ghostly legionary kneeling in front of the wall between two columns. That seems dangerous so they head back and into the other direction.

The never ending watch: Well, I really came prepared ...
[source ... no idea where I got that]
Right it is now, still on that main hallway. It's when they start hearing the screams of tormented souls that things start going south. It threatens their nerves and that allows for a (normal) stress save. Failing this would make characters nervous, nothing more. But the one player with the nervous break down just the other day, well, he fails and with his nerves already being shot, he is not able to move on as the shadows themselves threaten him.

They put him into an alcove and he hides behind his shield, the white in his eyes way to visible as he tries to penetrate the darkness around him in fear and finally decides to move back to those statues before the entrance and between the tombs. He has no luck there, as a creature is imprisoned in one of those tombs, between bones and dust. It is an oracle from another world and the dice decide that he encounters her. I interpret this as him hearing her otherworldly voice singing. He rolls his save for sanity and ... botches. One epileptic seizure later is is out of the game for good. His body just couldn't take it.
The otherworldly oracle by
the great Bastien L. Deharme [source]
One down, three to go ...

The character being unconscious means he can't hear the patrol passing the entrance, moving towards his friends.

Meanwhile the others came to another junction with some legionaries guarding another opulent exit to the right and another corridor opposite of them. Or so the group assumes. Deciding on a course of action, they decide to trick those legionaries into turning away from them with a sling shot and attack them from behind. Tension being high, I decide the legionaries don't move towards the noise, but move back into the corridor they are guarding instead, closing the gate.

That crossroad, the lights leading into A on the map [source unknown]
One of them gets hit with an arrow as a going away present before the two are out of sight, but the noise of the bow in the hallway and the gate closing alerts the patrol coming in from behind the group and they engage.

Having no time, they decide to make a run for it and instead of running ahead, the group aims for the corridor they assume to the right (see the map, at that point the players had figured out that this entrance might correspond with the other one opposite of the ghostly legionary on the other side). So they ran and they had no time to check that entrance or see anything other than that it was actually there. They saw the two stone faces at the entrance, but they couldn't see the shimmering veil between them. A trap ...

A trap [source]
The first ran through and there was a flash of light, but he had cast some magic protection and he managed to pass unharmed. The second character rolls for a full stop and makes it, but the character behind her is not that lucky and she stumbles between the faces, barely avoiding running into the character before her.

That one gets badly burned and she's barely conscious when the horrible, now unfiltered screams, the irregular proportions and the eerie light of the area they just entered gives her the rest and she loses consciousness before she loses her mind (two failed saves later, so to say).

Two down, two still moving forward

With the legionaries approaching and two characters already being in the other side, the third character decides to go for it, too. A spectacular save later, she passes the stone masks unharmed. The legionaries don't follow them and they realize they have entered a labyrinth of sorts. After having the second unconscious character stored somewhere in a dead end, the remaining two characters head towards the screams.

What they find is disturbing: people, pinned to the walls and knotted into unholy symbols, forcing their souls into infinite torment. The proper thing to do is to free those souls, so they cut their throats and silence them. As the last soul dies with a thankful sigh, one character starts to hear children crying and they find an air slit leading downwards. They immediately start looking for a secret door. The silence also alarms one of the residents of the labyrinth and she comes looking, but the characters find the secret door in the last moment and barely avoid detection.

They find themselves atop a narrow circular staircase. The noise of crying babies is way louder here and the make their way downstairs. But this secret laboratory in the heart of the inner sanctum of the palace dungeon is protected by a bone maelstrom that makes the unwary lose their balance and fall into it, grinding them to death. The first character falls and loses consciousness, but the second is able to catch her before he himself fails his save and falls towards his doom ...

Another trap [source]
Death scenes

They infiltrated a highly protected and well guarded area and although none of them died, they did all lose consciousness one way or another. So they got caught and all of them found horrible deaths. One ended up at the wall where he just hours before freed those tormented souls, two got sacrificed in a blood ritual and the last one, the guy that had the seizure, well he got gutted by the oracle for one of her readings.

At this point, I really was left with no choice at all.

Discussion

The players took it really well. They had been happy with the campaign and Lost Songs as a system so far. We'll make new characters and explore other directions. They also get the xp their characters earned from that sessions, so chances are they won't start at level zero. So that's something.

A few points came up, though, and I'd like to address them. There is a point in the system where failure starts a cascade of effects that will harm a character way more before the body gives up and denies consciousness. That needs to change. It wouldn't have changed a thing here in the end, but if the characters somehow managed to get out of there, they'd have more damage to heal than is reasonable.

Instead there is a threshold of pain now, where if the disadvantage on a roll is higher than the save, the save fails automatically instead without doing any further harm than the effect (losing consciousness, that is).

One other point of critique had been that I reveal too much in my narrative and descriptive parts as I give interpretations for the characters. I do that mostly because I believe if games are longer apart as a few weeks, details get lost on the players and the game suffers a bit because of it (the opposing argument was that what the players don't know anymore has no place in the game). I also like to talk a lot. There, I said it.

Joking aside, I'm not sure I want to tune that down in the future and I think it's worse if the characters end up in a situation where I have to say "Well, that's bad luck. You have been warned about this three games ago ... you know, two months ago, talking to that swamp witch?" (or some such thing) because that just doesn't sit well with me. I have to think about it some more, but it directly leads to the last point (and the one I definitely do not agree with).

Where we didn't agree

That final point was that I, as a DM, have to balance encounters for the group so a TPK doesn't happen. That I won't do. It is a sandbox game and the course of action the characters chose brought them where they ended up. I didn't enforce any of that and kept is as fair as possible. The dungeon was set up before the game so their decisions mattered and their observations had value, stuff like that.

Interestingly enough, the case of the missing children was a direct result of the randomized setting creation. Something dark stirred there and affected something combat related. I decided early on that the legionaries where connected (actually long before that campaign started) and the missing babies were connected with tat, too (they bred the legionaries out of them ...). So it was very likely that they encountered people with missing babies (still was a random result, though).

But they saw the warning signs and decided that what they did is what their characters would do because they are inexperienced Germanic warriors from the country. I don't agree. Or not completely. It would have been totally legit to consult a holy man before taking on that palace dungeon. Gathering more information would have been possible. They already got some allies in town.

I admit that time was a pressing matter and that the challenge was hard. But it was impossible if you just run into it unprepared or careless (or both). And I don't bend narrative or setting just because some players miscalculated or can't remember important details (see above). But there is also no need to for highly trained and well tuned tactical group machine to make it happen.

For me at least it's about finding that sweet spot between what a character should do (or be) from the "playing a game" perspective and how that could be explained in the narrative (the storyteller perspective). So if you as a player thinks that his character should check for traps and move silently, but he is an oaf from the country and wouldn't do that, it's for the player to find a way to make it work. And there always is a way. 

What happens next?

I don't know. I really hope we get to play more together, because I had loads of fun with those guys. And although I don't necessarily say their character decisions had been, well, wise there in the end, I definitely say that they made for a great story and I'm looking forward to continue in that tradition :)

Lost Songs of the Nibelungs is a demanding game, both on DM and on the players. You get a very detailed picture how your character feels and if you ignore that, it might result in dire consequences. Sandboxing i demanding, too. Morrowind is still my high standard here. Do what you want, make it work. It sure means investing into it and it means you might fail by chance. But if you play along, it can be very rewarding. On the one hand I'm very happy with that, on the other hand I hope it isn't too much. Either way, the game keeps growing.

Damn, that's a long text again. Couldn't help it. Still left things unsaid, too (I think). There is, for instance, something to be said how filling the narrative with information might be a good way for the players to dam the randomness to a point where you make success almost impossible with established facts. Taming the narrative, of sorts. But that is for another post and you can read it here.

Next week I'll finish the Dragon's Cough scenario here on the blog and after that ... I don't know, maybe another review?

Thoughts and comments are, as always, very welcome.


4 comments:

  1. Great little tale there... a horror story as it turned out, but a good one.
    I very much agree that 'balanced encounters' and sandbox play don't mix. As a Player I wan't that sense of a dangerous and mysterious world... and I'm denied that if the GM puts up safety nets and training wheels on everything.
    As for not giving too much away... I played with an Earthdawn GM who would do that. He just loved the setting and couldn't seem to help himself. So we were always privvy to far more information than our PCs could plausibly have. Then again, when there was some mystery afoot his plots tended to be so convoluted and his clues so vague... it all sort of evened out... but not very satisfactorily.
    That same GM also liked to stress your point about PC knowledge vs. Player knowledge. He'd use the example of PCs coming across a vampire who had no prior knowledge/experience with vampires. It would seem off to just grab some wood stakes and stab the fiend... but he expected the Players would find a way to 'accidrntaly' kill the thing... such as missed shots smashing a covered window and letting in the sunlight.
    I think there's always a bit of that at play, but I really do prefer to keep my Player knowledge at bay as best I can.

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    1. Thanks, man. I think the main reason for the players being relatively content with the end was that they really enjoyed the story and it was a fitting end for a horror story. Yeah, I'll try to tune the talking down. Not that I gave away anything or told them what to do, but I did include context. It's also the first group that had a problem with that (well, they thought it's nice but unnecessary, if I understood that right). And my plots tend to get very complicated, too ...

      Yeah, make it part of a story (I see a familiar soul in the DM you are describing there!). In the case of the vampire you describe, it depends a bit on the circumstances. If the players know it and the characters don't but can assume that something is wrong, than it's always possible to ask someone or do some other research or even gather information on the spot. If directly confronted with such a beast and with no way for the characters to conclude what need to be done, well, they'd be screwed anyway without player knowledge, right? Or the DM makes it part of the confrontation, like you say, by giving hints, like the beast avoiding sunlight and so on. There are always possibilities. I think it's the right balance that does the trick here :)

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  2. Lesson learned. If you want to wake someone shake someone. Don't kick then in the kidneys so hard they go insane :-)

    It seems to me that their dice were betraying them. Perhaps easier saves are in line?

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    1. I tell you, it was that character's Shining moment (pun intended, Kubrick would be proud).

      Well, yes and no. Bad rolls tend to do that in a game, that's one point. Another one is, that Lost Songs emphasizes on saves because they damage ability scores if they fell (in three stages: slightly, hurting and permanent). There is a broad range of effects, actually, from only needing a good nioghts sleep to shake the effect up to never getting rid of a scar. So it's not unusual to get some damage in a game as characters get stressed, mad, unlucky, exhausted and so on. There was some bad luck involved, sure, but pressing on with weakened characters didn't help either :)

      That being said, I'd like to add that I'm already working on some fine tuning for the saves ...

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