Monday, February 26, 2024

Emirikol: Merging Adventures and Locations

One of the things you should do for any sort of D&D is over-prepare your immediate setting as a DM so the players have actual options. When you’re building a dungeon, you make more than one path, after all. Since I’m doing the tying together other peoples work for this it’s easy to set a second “outside the city” adventure, so if the players somehow decide that they are going to stay in the carriage or not explore the cairn.  (In my case it was helpful because the PCs made it some way into Vulture Point during our first session.)

·       Below Vulture Point by Jeff Fairbourne: PCs recover the medicine of the ailing nobleman Randamis Ambleer from the raiders who stole it – said raiders are kobolds riding giant vultures!

·       Is there an Elf in the House? By Rafael Fay & Dan DeFazio: Winter storms keep the PCs in the haunted home of a recently married but grievously ill nobleman outside of town, and while there a trapped in the house murder mystery occurs.

Ok, both use the same damn hook – someone needs to get rare medicines to a sick noble in a manor outside the city – so we can easily tie these together. Does it say something about 2E adventures and cliches that the same hook is in 2 adventures that are 7 issues apart? Maybe. But the post hook adventures are different enough that each brings something to the table. Since Vulture Point calls for 0 level PCs and is much less cumbersome to run than a murder mystery, we start there, but edit it so that we are setting up everything we need for later.

That is to say, we use the map and wealth of Lord Faustmann for now Roland Ambleer, which at least sounds like a name people would have (can we not have names that are in jokes or syllable collections? Is Faustmann a real name? Yes. Is it used here just because it sounds like Faust and means creepy magical stuff? Also yes. Plus it’s German so in Emirikol that would make it a halfling or far southern name). If the PCs spend a night before or after going one of them sees the ghost from Elf in the House in their room. Lord Ambleer has every reason to befriend the PCs, so when it comes time for two future events (his marriage, and then his illness in Elf in the House) of course the PCs will be there, eliminating the need for another hook. And maybe the players decide to tackle the haunting aspect immediately, which makes the wildly over-complex Elf in the House easier later.

So… the wounded servant shows up at the tavern the PCs landed at once their carriage was fixed, and the PCs learn that a) there’s a local lord who needs their assistance and b) there are chaos beasts who have been robbing travelers up ahead. Not being 0 level characters they may just skip a and go straight to b without backstory, which is fine, or decide ‘screw it, we don’t care’ but this is legit ‘go fight monsters for treasure’ stuff so doubtful. Assuming they accept the hook, Lord Ambleer is the setting appropriate version of the module who graciously extends equipment and support to the PCs to go raid Vulture Point and recover his lost medicine.

It is amazing how much wordcount in spent every adventure trying with ‘in case the PCs decide to skip this obvious hook’. If they do you either a) have a problem with your table contract where the players are saying “we don’t care what content you prepared, dance Dungeon Monkey! Dance!” or b) your table contract says you should have lots of options prepared and you don’t, do your damn job, Dungeon Master. Sigh.

The Vulture Point monsters has the same over-backstory problem I discussed before and we chuck it all.  Now

1)      Vulture Point was converted to a fort after the land was retaken as a watchtower for the road. As traffic moved to the river and the threat of chaos receded, it was abandoned by the city militia.

2)      It is outside of Lord Ambleer’s territory so he can’t staff it himself. Instead, he (or someone else) has to deal with the bandits who occasionally set up to prey on the East Road traffic.

3)      This time the bandits are chaos beasts, signs of the degrading times: the kobolds are replaced with dog men and the urd is a vulture man, explaining the giant vulture. 

The adventure is a little delight otherwise – the layout is evocative, the monsters use reasonable strategy, there’s a simple variety of threats to introduce the players to D&D – but it is a 2E design, not 3E.

A big OSR complaint about 3E is the balancing the adventures to the party via math; 3E does away with monster levels (where you might expect to find them in the geography) and replaces it with Challenge Ratings, where the DM is meant to build encounters such that each saps about 20% of the party’s resources for a “Four Fights, Fall Back, Recover, Return” strategy. Gygaxian Naturalism falls away to “the game is most fun when PCs reliably win, so do that”. In adapting all the Dungeon Adventures content I had to decide on a case by case basis to stick with the original risky and attrition strategy or go with the balances to the PCs one.

In this case, I left it pretty much as is. The kobold/dog men are weak opponents (CR 1/6) and I had the PCs functionally 2nd level so the attrition but you need to be careful method worked here. The PCs were at real risk by the end but also were tough enough to see the adventure through without falling back.

The other big bit of Gygaxian Naturalism in the adventure as writ is the room full of kobold women and children. This showed up a LOT in early D&D because of the need to explain why things are, but also led to a lot of complaints of ethnographic slaughter from some players, now and then. They aren’t without a point, but it’s also important to have some situations where the enemies are just the enemies, and it is morally and ethically OK to not negotiate. Not only is this a power-based wish fulfillment, but it’s also a fantasy. Sometimes you have a game where Orcs have a complex culture that is just different from Humans in a resource management way. Sometimes you have a game where orcs are grown out of the mud pits of a wizard’s lair with no souls and no culture. Both are fine.

In my prior 3E milieu I laid out the universal rule of “Mercy Works”, because I wanted a very Arabian Nights fantasy setting. Emrikol is not like that. It’s darker, more political, but also much more at risk. War is always possibly coming, and the things waging that war are literally chaos. The Chaos Cults are very Call of Cthulhu, very Warhammer Fantasy Role Play chaos, very Earthdawn horrors. Chaos Beasts are the twisted remnants of worlds they have already devoured vomited into this one to breed and fester and infest human psyches and open the door. In all the cases where adventures called for urbanized Half-Orcs I replaced them with barbarians from the northern islands outside the empire, while Orc qua Orcs were boar-headed chaos monsters. The world was full of ethical dilemmas about how to deal with cultists, but Chaos Beasts were not ethical dilemmas. They are not of this world, they cannot be acculturated, the remnants of their souls are in torment.

That discussion aside, the only other thing I had to do for prep was go through Elf in the House and familiarize myself with the ghost story and what the PCs need to do to fix it. Since the plot of the original adventure’s sequence of events calls for Ambleer’s young wife to have found the secret room with the ghost’s body in it along with the magic locket that held the adventure’s threat, I can ditch the ‘this hidden room held a hidden monster who has a unique magic item to disguise her as the young bride’ and relace that with “the hag-to-be-named-later kidnaps and replaces the bride”.

Now the secret torture room under the chapel (?!? Serious dick move Lord Ambleer’s ancestor) in Ambleer Manor just contains the ghost’s remains, and those being there are also why the Ambleer family spirits are preventing Lord Ambleer the fire priest from healing his condition. The PCs might solve that problem immediately, or it might still be around when we get to the other half of the module.

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