Sunday, July 16, 2017

Of Wormpriests and Epic Challenges - Hard Lessons in Play-Testing (LSotN Design Post and Campaign Recap)

Last time I did one of those it had been about a TPK and how it came to pass. That had been July 2016, pretty much exactly 1 year ago ... time flies, friends and neighbors. Well, the game never took up again after that tpk, mainly (I think) because testing the low levels didn't need any more testing. The game worked at this stage and playing didn't generate new insights. So we paused and I went back to tinkering on Lost Songs of the Nibelungs behind the scenes again. Mid-level play is the next challenge. Here's what the campaign looks like right now and how the game holds up. 

Procedures (campaign prep)

I'm still doing the "everything is random"-schtick. I started with the campaign area, using the Random Terrain Generator, bastardizing the hex-map cheat sheet for it I did for Monkey Business (Apendix 1, for those interested):

Example, not part of the actual map
Basically I roll 3d10 with the first digit indicating what the area looks like (results 1-6) and if a hex has layers (results 7-10). The second digit for an area result gives the altitude, the third gives the complexity of a terrain. If a layer is indicated, second and third result indicate how that exactly shapes up. I went with a maximum of three layers per hex and moved to the next letter if more came up (ignoring the first digit, using the second and third as altitude and complexity in the next hex).

That's how I generated the lay of the land and some of the secrets hidden in the layers (red digits on the example above, the one after the # are altitude and complexity). Going from there I can establish the flow of the land (red arrows show changes in altitude from hex to hex, "=" indicates same altitude) and borders where other tribes came up (red lines, of course). The size of the tribe territories where established as common sense dictated, going by the lay of the land and what the layers add to it, never going more than one hex beyond the one indicating another tribe.

Now you know where rivers flow, where weather is clinging, where the growth is dense and where the populations are, even a good bit of the history of the land. We assume somewhere in Europe, in an area that had been occupied by Romans at some time in the past.

The tribe the characters are with is always in the center of the map (A). That's where they settled for whatever reason (which can already tell an interesting story, see below).

There you go, instant sandbox. Takes about an hour and has all the gaming material you might need to start a game (that is: describing the land and it's inhabitants to degree that it inspires the players to go in some direction, with enough hidden in the shadows to set up some nice little campaign arcs). It'll get more and more specific as the characters explore it.

The Sandbox (Player Version)

(A) is a high plain just south of the highest Mountain in the area. The land falls into rich forests and valleys in all directions but north. The tribe settled here, coming from the north-east, as their holy man saw the god in the mountain and told them tat this was the place. A rather political decision, as this had been the only unclaimed territory on the map, the rest being under the rule of several different and mostly hostile tribes.

A Holy Mountain [source]
If you have some land to go with, it's quite easy to establish a sense of the culture of the people living there. "high plains, south of a mountain" tells me that the area is pretty barren and that this might very well be a folk of riders and (aspiring) miners. Their buildings will mainly be stone, their art will be in stone and horses are important animals for them (also roaming the plain). As a matter of fact, the rite of passage of this tribe is for each young one to catch a horse.

The cultures surrounding the center hex are a hostile people in the east who follow a strange faith (they smear ashes on their faces and wear raven bones and feathers), a tribe of warriors following the old pagan ways, but seem to have adapted the Roman art of weaponry in the south-east (they are hostile to the point of threatening to go to open war), another tribe of fugitives just south (they stay out of everyones hair and are mainly cautious and neutral), some Roman culture to the west (having an alliance with the warrior tribe in the south-east, since they produce Roman weaponry) and a strange tribe of people worshiping a goddess in a fjord just west of the mountain (rather elusive and neutral, for now). There's also a tribe of goblins in the north-east.

The players decide that the tribe is mainly mining salt, but they don't sell much of it, as the surrounding tribes remain to be hostile towards the intruders. The main reason for the warrior tribe to be so hostile is the mining operation, as they themselves are miners and weapon smiths who see their economic advantage threatened.

There are some forests just south of the plains that are mainly no man's land, with all surrounding tribes either traveling through it on a regular basis or even trying to expand into the area. It's the main resource for wood and game for the character's tribe. Naturally there'd already been some minor clashes with other tribes. The situation is tense.

And that's that. Lots of opportunities to go around and explore stuff. The rest is developed in game, in the early stages even to a degree where they can set some cultural quirks of their tribe.

The Campaign (so far)

The characters are level 5 and well established heroes in their tribe. They are the spear tip of the exploration. The two players of the first session create a hunter (Widukind) and a warrior (Swasut the Gentle). Both have a touch of fairy in their blood and Widukind ends up with the magical ability to sense the aura of beings and seeing in the dark, while Swasut has the ability to copy every voice he has heard once.

On a campaign level things are random, too, and the Random Narrative Generator is still my tool of choice to achieve this, so I start by putting some story seeds around the characters. Turns out that the warrior tribe in the south east is preparing an invasion, but held back right now, as their allies in the west (the Romans) struggle with some political unrest.

The players can decide what they deem most interesting in the sandbox and what their characters want to explore. Widukind wants to explore the holy mountain in the north, Swasut states that he had a dream about some evil that somehow prevents souls from reaching the afterlife. Both go to Bui, the holy man of the village, to seek advice and guidance.

Bui questions the oracle about exploring the mountain, a journey that already killed some young adventurers of the tribe, and the oracle came up with all kinds of bad omens, so they decided against that (for now). But Swasut's dream spoke true and the shaman tells them that he feels the tribe surrounded by evil and some of that gets stronger and stronger to the west. The decision is made to travel west. A diplomatic mission, no less, as they'll try to use the political unrest to their tribes advantage.

There is a short intermission where the characters expose and thwart the evil ploy of a goblin shaman to get a mountain ghost harmed, so the goblins seem to be up to no good, too. Anyway, to give them the proper sending off, the chief of the tribe decides that a ritual bout is in order and they have a huge ritual that night during a thunder storm at the foot of the mountain. The omens are good for the quest. As they prepare to leave their village they are joined by Lucius, Swasut's cousin of noble birth and a diplomat of high repute (player 3).

On the road they meet an opportunistic Roman merchant. The guy (and his mother) are in the area using the political unrest in the west to initiate some trading contacts with the tribe. He's more than willing to share his (ten days old) knowledge about the whole affair: the ruling elite of the remaining Roman culture that has itself established due west is situated in a city named Divocortorum and led by Aristophontes Melunus. A guy, if the merchant is to be believed, who controls all the other senators by intimidation, black mail, the occasional violence and even dark magic. A dirty politician if there ever was one and the main reason for the hostility towards the tribe, too.

Divocortorum could look something like this [source]

But something went down. A fight in Melunuses palace. Some say it had been a military coup, others say that the political opposition (namely Soteris Cervidus, the one senator who couldn't get intimidated) finally made its move against the corrupt Senator. But no one knows, as the palace was still under lock down when the merchant left the city. All who dared enter, never came back. And there are unnatural screams every night coming from the estate while Cervidus struggles for control over the streets. A huge part of the military force has in addition to that left the city with three senators who had been firm former allies of Aristophontes. A real shit storm.

So the omens are indeed good to make some powerful new friends in the west and the group makes haste to get there. However, they avoid the main roads and being in an area they don't know, they get lost as they try to avoid enemy contact. They wander around until they come to a crossing over a wild river with a Roman signpost indicating the direction the city is barely visible on the other side. They are back on track, but the crossing is guarded and passage denied.

Turns out the whole area is in tumult, as the whole military seems to be drawn back to the city and the patrols usually providing a sense of security, law and order, are all gone. The result is chaos and anarchy, as war bands form all over the place, either using the opportunity to revive old feuds, to get rich fast or to bring their own sense of law and order. Some of the latter are guarding the crossing and they are not happy to see strangers.

Good thing the group has a diplomat amongst them and it is agreed on a challenge. The characters are to retrieve a sparrowhawk's eggs from a plum tree. The catch is: that plum tree is upstream on a cliff side over a raging part of the river they try to cross. All gather there and witness Swasut getting those eggs and gaining lots of respect for the deed, too.

They spend the night with the tribesmen and learn a bit more about the state of affairs. Apparently the old faith has a huge comeback right now and druids are actively facing some sort of evil infestation that seemed to get stronger after the mysterious events in the palace (or whatever happened in the city that night). Lucius works the crowd and makes new friends with a member of the druid council. They make a deal and Lucius receives a brooch as a sign of their allegiance while Swasut drinks himself to sleep with his new friends and Widukind asks lots of questions about the threats ahead.

Turns out that the warband guarding the river-crossing just recently fought a couple of undead which where blocking the main road to Divocortorum with the help of some druids and that a mysterious figure called the "wormpriest" started making the rounds with his acolytes. They gain more and more support the closer one gets to the city. That night Widukind dreams of a stream of black tentacles that triumphantly engulfs a golden mask of Roman origin.

The next morning group is joined by the guide Gullrönd (npc), the druid Vadelma (player 4) with her bear Otzo and the wanderer Burgh with his dog Hund. They leave camp the next morning with a storm brewing above them. The storm forces them to find shelter early that day. Swasut has the third night watch. The weather outside has calmed down a bit and he's sitting by the entrance of the cave they made camp in. The wind goes through the trees and he thinks he can hear voices in the wind mocking him, daring him to come outside. He uses their voices to mock them back and they vanish into the forest. He goes to bed hours later, not telling Widukind a word about the incident.

As Widukind goes to take his place at the cave entrance, he sees four figures coming out of the forest as dawn start brightening up the sky. The are short, stocky and glad in black. He recognizes them as dark dwarves (which is totally a thing in Germanic folklore!). The creature they have with them is big as an ogre but has two heads and is carrying a huge club in each claw. Chains are dangling from its wrists and the dark dwarves seem to have some sort of control over the monster.

It taunts the characters in the cave and dies after a couple of very effective attacks and a control-shattering command by Lucius (who used the cave's acoustics to his advantage to intimidate the creature. The dwarves didn't join the fight and as the creature dies, they bow in respect. It had been a test and the characters had past it beyond expectation.

Poor thing, just died ... [source]
They start to talk and the dwarves tell how their ancestors had lived in these hills a long time ago and all that is left of them is bones. However, those bones had been desecrated by a power from a realm beyond the nine worlds, just out of reach of the last branches of Yggdrasil. A force of pure evil that tries to gain power here in Midgard. That's why they came here. They are weak in Midgard these days, so they are looking for worthy allies to exact their revenge. The characters agree to help and gather yet another branding: a bone whistle that can be used once to summon the forces of the dark dwarves as aid against the Darkness from Beyond.

Soon after they are on the road again. They are heading for the pass where the undead had been blocking the passage. Widukind is getting more and more paranoid the closer they get to the city and decides to scout the natural choke point before they travel through. And what do you know, it actually is an ambush: 30 to 40 warriors are hiding here and waiting for travelers.

The group discusses their options. Widukind thinks it possible to lead them through the pass under the cover of night, but it'll be difficult. Lucius decides to work his diplomatic skills in the situation, Swasut accompanies him. Lucius addresses the hiding warriors and demands to speak to their leader. It takes a couple of heart beats, but eventually a huge warrior comes out of the woods, riding a magnificent red horse. They talk and agree on a duel to the death. If the group's champion wins, they gain free passage. The huge warrior, who calls himself Hönir, is answering the challenge himself . Swasut is facing him.

It's a short but intense fight, however, Hönir has no luck at all. He's humiliated to a degree that even the gods turn away as Swasut beheads him with a cut so clean that the head stayed in place long enough for a mighty second blow that split it in half. And thus gain the heroes their third branding: that beautiful horse, a mare called Tausendschweif (thousand tails).

They also see black worms crawling out of what was left from Hönir's brain.

The passage is free and the group could move on, but as the remaining warriors ditch Hönir's dishonored remains on the side of the road,  Vadelma rallies eleven of them to follow her in their holy fight against the enemies of the old faith and Lucius convinces 5 more to follow them towards the city.

As they moved on, now a war band of 22 plus bear, spring makes itself known again and a huge storm blows into their backs, from the holy mountain towards Divocortorum. Another good omen, but a storm so strong that they have to seek shelter again. One of the druid's new followers, Regin, offers to lead them to his cousin's steading close by and this is where they go.

A homestead ... [source]
The characters learn, that the ambush had been for them, as their reputation already precedes them and the wormpriest wanted to make sure they don't make it. His minions are all over the place, gaining influence with promises of power.

The weather got really bad as they reach the homestead. Regin's cousin welcomes them, they took care of the horses and went to the main hall. Widukind gets a short glimpse of a figure in a black cowl spying on them and tells the others that one of the wormpriest's acolytes might be with them here. Vadelma made a speech about the evil that threatens the forests and how those of the old faith have to resist it's temptations. There was a tense moment, then some servants went into the rooms of the patresfamilias and came back with the priest, throwing him on the floor in front of the characters.

The End (for now)

Play-Testing Insights/Outsights

THE GOOD - Setting and story come together quite nicely. The Narrative Generator constantly forces me to develop the story in totally different directions. Directions I wouldn't have chosen if on my own. It gives the game exactly the kind of epic vibe you can see in the old stories the game tries to emulate. I'm not sure if I was able to give a glimpse of that feel in the summary above. They are challenged and tested, gain followers and renown and mixed in are beliefs and encounters with fairies and that old cosmology of the Dark Ages.

It's not all the Narrative or the Territory Generator, but they deliver the frame and working that frame does wonders in facilitating a certain kind of narrative. One of my players also started using those tools in his games and comes to some of the same conclusions (which made me quite a bit happy, I have to admit).

THE BAD - The combat system needs some working on. Mid-level game revealed that characters turn out to be very strong. Stronger than anticipated. It also ends up being quite fiddly, with lots of dice. I don't mind it that much, but I admit it is a problem. This needs a couple of new impulses. It's not broken, but I think it needs to change quite a bit to allow for a satisfying mid-level experience. They players don't mind either, but since it became quite hard to even harm them, I'm not very surprised.

THE LACKING - Still no magic. Just didn't have that one great idea that clicks and makes it work. I hope I'll get there eventually. For now, it's just not there. There are some more tools that need to come into existence, mainly a culture generator that helps me giving all those tribes some depth and some random tool to throw some more toys into the sandbox, like ruins and what-not (I did something like that for Monkey Business, but I think I might have to think a bit more about this ...).

It also needs rules for mass combat (way earlier than I thought) and I need to tackle monster stats (which might be a bigger issue than I thought). 

THE NEW - The core system keeps maturing. One of the last problems I got solved was giving hurt areas of attributes some effect for failed saves. Characters get weaker all over the place if their characters get hurt. It works to great effect, I believe. Will be worth a post in the near future. All the little rules I've presented here over the last couple of months also work fine. Confidence/Overconfidence fit, skills really get some use now.

The mass migration ... [source]

That whole business about writing a game, I love it. We start the mid-level campaign and it's all kinds of challenges, all over the place. Never gets boring. I wish I had more time. Or more brain. But I wouldn't miss a minute of it.

Here's also a shout-out to all the play-testers I had the honor of DMing for, the current ones and all the others in the past. Something like this isn't done alone, it needs to be tested and exposed and challenged. So far I had been damn lucky with my players. Thanks!

Well, I hope you guys enjoyed this extensive look at Lost Songs of the Nibelungs and how the campaign shapes up. I'll keep posting this stuff here as the game grows and changes. I think I had been a bit too enthusiastic when I announced that the rules would be done by the end of this year. Very unlikely.

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