Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Campaign Part III: Caldwell's Castle

Old-schoolers may recognize the title from the old module, Castle Caldwell and Beyond.  This is an adaptation based off my copy in the compilation In Search of Adventure.  My understanding is that there are few, if any, differences between the published versions.  This was significantly different.

The story so far

Immediately following the events of Part II, Clifton Caldwell paid the group a 600gp advance for "business expenses".  Christine, the Curate, speculated they were fodder; Caldwell had just bought a castle he intended to renovate so he could afford to burn some money on throwaway recon.  Despite her warning, Kaiser and Caldwell had given the party their first genuine opportunity so they set out for Caldwell's Castle.

The cast:
Rell, the fighter, picked up a longsword, armor and shield.
Elgenstras, the simple minded paladin of Torag, bought a warhammar, armor and shield.
Augustus, the jovial druid, bought light armor, a donkey and a LOT of food.
Isaac, the "sandman" bard, bought a long sword, light armor and. . . not sure what else.
Oona, the bookworm wizard, got a spellbook and a light crossbow.
Mysandra, the half-blind halfling oracle, got some armor, holy water and antitoxin.
Doge, Augustus' canine companion, bought steak.  Just kidding.
Elias the bandit-turned-rogue was not with the group, still serving a prison sentence for banditry.

(DM's note:  Elgen, Elias and Mysandra are NPCs.)
Caldwell's Castle was near Penhaligon, meaning it took the group several days on foot to reach their destination.  The trip was uneventful.

The Exterminators

By "clear out", Caldwell meant clear out -- the payment for returning safely with a report was 600gp, the reward doubled if the place was completely safe to inhabit.  With this in mind, the party approached the job systematically.
The sweep of Caldwell’s Castle began remarkably peacefully, as in the group somehow spared anyone that wasn't a bug or had died at least once.  Some goblins (color spray) and rats (calm animals) were driven out.  A ghoul nearly took Isaac's life, jumping at him as he unlocked a door.  Two kobolds were taken prisoner and left tied up in the bath; one managed to escape his bonds and murdered the other before fleeing.  The work took a comedic turn when the group found a giant centipede near the castle well and -- too clever for his own good -- Augustus knocked it down the well without killing it, forgetting that all threats needed to be eliminated to receive full payment.  With 600gp on the line, the group spent a very long streak of bad luck trying to kill a bug halfway down a well.
The last room was magically locked; Elgen broke down the door, although with all other threats disposed of, the risk of drawing attention was minimal.  Inside, they found a trapdoor leading downstairs.  Thus, finally, the entire first floor was cleared.  The group decided to rest before descending into the basement the next day.
The basement sweep was mostly uneventful, largely because it was almost empty.  Many parts of it seemed unfinished.  Key discoveries were a secret passageway leading outside (though the group opted to use the trapdoor to avoid separating from the animals left upstairs in the care of Isaac), some dead fire beetles and an adamantine pick head.  The party was ready to leave when Mysandra discovered a sealed room.  Elgen fastened the adamantine pick head to his hammer and broke through the wall.  In the room were sarcophagi, a magic circle and ritual items – including a bloody knife.  Rell & Elgen found the items did not radiate evil (although Oona found a bottle and amulet were enchanted), so they were taken as spoils.  The hidden room gave Oona the spooks, although any revelations about the nature of the place would have to wait for later.  Mysandra decided to make a sketch of the magic circle; Oona took the amulet for safekeeping.
As they tried to leave the basement, some bones near the trapdoor gathered into skeletons.  Isaac quickly jumped down and blocked one from reaching Oona and Mysandra; Rell, Augustus and Elgen hacked two of them to pieces.  Oona was brought to within an inch of her life, but a quick cure spell by Mysandra recovered her enough to quickly dispatch the remaining skeletons.

Triumphant Return to No Fanfare

The trip back to the Keep was uneventful.  The group was in high spirits, but they returned to find Lt. Nadale, Capt. Ehlsim and many of the soldiers bloodied, if unwounded (apparently healed by the Curate).  While they remained wary of the Keep's inhabitants, thoughts of reward were set aside to find out what happened.
Ehlsim explained that the bandits joined forces with hobgoblins and drew the garrison out by "double ambushing" a patrol just beyond bow range.  When the reinforcements arrived, the main force struck.  The Castellan emptied the Keep in response; the result was a victory but a bloody one.  Ehlsim asked for the party's aid against the bandits, and requested a duel to evaluate their capability.  With both sides given time to prepare, Himika knocked Rell unconscious in a single blow.  (Oona tried to identify Himika's magic but failed; she later revealed she used mage armor, bull's strength and true strike.)  Ehlsim decided the party was too inexperienced to use just yet, but asked to meet them tomorrow morning.
Meanwhile, the party pondered how they will sell their riches.  Mysandra suggested the Winports or one of the feuding families in Specularum.
Caldwell paid the party the promised 1200gp (200gp/head) for their services; he also offered his services as a seller of their spoils, and provided his room at the Keep at no expense, stating he will be in Selenica for the foreseeable future.

DM's Metacomments

The 100gp/head budget meant this adventure took on a "gutter" feel; with scale mail being the best armor the money could buy.  The threats in the Castle were scaled accordingly, and while the action had the desired "gritty" effect, it might have been plodding for the players.
My preferred style is to design adventures according to what's plausible, scale them roughly in the realm of "doable" and let the players sort it out.  For the most part it worked out; each of the characters had moments to shine.  However, there were a few notable hitches.
First, the party was genuinely confused by the kobold murder.  They managed to drive out some goblins with an overwhelming show of force, but the kobolds knocked themselves unconscious and were later left unattended.  They attempted to reason with humanoids but this is an "old school" campaign that runs away from 21st century moral relativism.  Exceptions exist, but humanoids -- while generally not actively magical themselves -- are largely "corrupted" by magical forces that make the vast majority of them irredeemably evil.  The kobold murdered his fellow for no other reason than the opportunity presented itself.
The group's pacifistic approach was largely successful in a tactical sense (the druid even managed to drive out the ROUSes uneventfully) and fun to DM, so I didn't mention that I considered all that they drove out as good as dead.  The goblins would resume quarreling as soon as they were out of earshot, and rats driven from safety & food don't do too well.  There were some harsh lessons to be taught yet about the tone of this campaign, but they did so well I wasn't going to be a killjoy.
Another hitch:  as you might have noticed, the NPCs led the party to the hidden room in the basement.  I really wanted the players to discover it themselves and they indeed noticed the huge void in the middle of the dungeon, but I think they thought too conventionally to mention it.  The problem was that I stashed a key item there (the amulet) that would be an adventure hook later, so it was all but imperative that they find it.  I don't like being a deus ex machina but I honestly thought the clues (the blank spot on the map, the adamantine pick head) were obvious.
The group was disappointed to not gain a level; this was part of a particular plan where I did intentionally put the campaign on rails.  I didn't script the actual die rolls, but Himika was a Level 4 NPC so by holding back Rell's experience the outcome of the duel wasn't in doubt.  This was to segue into the next part of the campaign.
I added a lot of depth to the loot, using a Random Treasure Generator of my own design to create goodies of various size, shape and value.  I also fleshed out how the characters could sell the goods, but in the end they decided they didn't want to spend their time on that and thus opted to cash out.  Fair enough; I made Caldwell available in case they weren't interested.
Overall, the campaign was still very much going through growing pains.  I expected this to an extent; I was deconstructing a number of "new gamer" tropes, from gray-and-gray morality vis-a-vis the humanoids to the expectation that adventurers would be trusted and showered with gifts & power.  To reiterate, this isn't out of sadism but to set the tone for the rest of the campaign.  This wasn't a complete fall back to "old school", either; I basically used the map of the castle and little else -- actually, I even modified that to add the "secret" room.  Unlike the original adventures which tossed threats in various rooms willy-nilly, much effort was put into making the scenarios plausible.
However, I still hadn't managed to get any chemistry going between the party and the Keep, which was by far my biggest disappointment.  If anything, the emotional detachment seemed worse than ever.  I insisted on playing up the "tough times paranoia" angle but this left me with little means of breaking the ice.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Campaign Part II: The Runaways

OK, let's talk campaign.

The story so far

Everyone in the party had a similar story:  Each was on the road that connects Penhaligon in the south (and on evetually to Specularum) to Selenica when they were ambushed near King's Road Keep by bandits and captured.