Sunday, March 30, 2014

Return to Mar Tesaro: The tale can now be told

It's been roughly six months since this D&D campaign ended, and nearly as long since I last wrote about it. There are several reasons for why this series has been on hiatus for so long, and just as many for why I'm finally starting it again.

Since it's been a while, a recap might be good (or you could just start here).

The land of Mar Tesaro has a troubled and storied history. The current queen, Alessia, fought tooth and nail to get recapture this land from a supremely powerful lich, consolidate her power in a devastating civil war (culminating in the return and defeat of said lich), and then rebuild in the aftermath. Along the way, she made friends and enemies. One particular group of enemies wouldn't forget the civil war, determined to overthrow the queen and restore the previous ruling order, calling themselves the Boland Brotherhood. The players cast their lot with the "Rebel Alliance."

It's a lot like this, except instead of space ships we had wizards on gryphons. Otherwise, exactly the same.
The telling of this story will be interspersed with commentary about actually running the game. Those bits will be in block quotes.

Speaking of which . . .
(Read the rest below the fold.)

The first session of any RPG is difficult to put together, even under the best of circumstances. It's a cliche for D&D games to start in a tavern, with the players sitting together "just because," when a mysterious person approaches and implores them to slay a terrible evil/plunder valuable treasure from a nearby dungeon of mystery. Often times, that stuff happens either because the GM doesn't have any clue what his game is about, or because the players haven't bothered to make characters with personalities beyond having a name and a character class.  
In this case, I was lucky: The players had already determined that they had been working together for the same organization for some time. The characters, in theory, would be comfortable interacting and would have similar goals. That doesn't change the fact that you're selling the campaign on the first session or two. If you haven't convinced the players by then that this is an interesting place that they'll want to go adventuring, your campaign is dead in the water. If the Hobbit were a game of D&D, the players would have rebelled after four sessions of dwarf songs before actually hitting the road. 
Back story, blah blah blah. How long until we get to fight the dragon?
The story begins with our band of plucky rebels meeting with a contact from the Brotherhood, their "dispatcher," in Crossway. Their contact is Jericho Direbane, bugbear, a middle-aged, grizzled veteran from past wars. He arrived with a mission of critical importance: One of the Brotherhood's agents from the capital, Fol Thron, was in danger. The man had failed to make his regular report; in place of his normal report, a cryptic letter, torn in half, was delivered to the normal dead-drop location by a courier. The courier didn't have much to say about the circumstances of being asked to deliver the note, only that the man seemed very troubled. The half-letter that remained gave cryptic clues about danger for the rebellion, with a quickly scribbled riddle on the back of the sheet.

The players were to head to Fol Thron and determine what happened to the missing agent, doing whatever it would take to keep the rebellion secret. They were also given a second task, this one of lesser importance: One of the Brotherhood's allies, a member of the Family and leader of Dockhouse, was asking the Brotherhood for martial assistance. Although not a priority, it'd really help keep the movement cohesive if they took care of the errand.

Quests freshly in hand, the party headed south. Since Dockhouse was on the way, they decided to stop there on the way to Fol Thron. How bad could it be?

Dockhouse is the name given to the "village," although it's a bit of a joke. The entire settlement is a series of docks, a dock house, and a couple of houses or barracks to house workers. It's a center of operations for the fishermen of Lake Kheldram, as well as the ferry that runs between Dockhouse and Sar Diga.

When they arrive, the two guards who keep order bring them to the one reasonable house in the handful of buildings. At the home, a drowsy halfling named Colton greets them, becoming much more enthusiastic after learning they were from the Brotherhood. A few weeks ago, some mages from the Enchanters' Union showed up to run some tests in the lake. They were testing a new event for the queen's tournament, summoning a rather large kraken to the lake. Their project was cancelled midway through testing, so the mages returned to Fol Thron without sending the kraken back where it came from. Petitions were sent to the capital about the mess, but bureaucracy and squabbling between factions in the city had left the beast there for weeks. In the meantime, the ferry and all the fishing boats weren't going anywhere.

"Did we forget something?" "Beats me. Oh well, what's the worst that could happen?"
The players agreed to kill the beast. A lure was placed in some shallows near the docks, drawing the kraken into the area. It wasn't easy, but the players put the beast down. After a brief and sleepless night (halfling couches are terribly uncomfortable for big people), the players continued on their way to find the missing agent.
This was probably a cheesy setup, but one of the things that inevitably needs to happen in the first session of a D&D game is combat. The game is built around the idea that you'll be killing monsters, delving dungeons, and arming yourself with ancient relics of incredible power. One thing that sits heavily on anyone's mind in the first session of a new game is, "Is my character build effective?" Perhaps the scenario wasn't elegant, but it drew the players into the setting and gave them a chance to test their characters in battle. Besides, I wanted this campaign to reflect the players taking on challenges far beyond the standard "entry-level adventurer" fare. Killing goblins and bandits didn't seem worthy of the PCs' standing.

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