Musings on Our Second Session

Riding on the heels of our wildly successful first session, we made sure to kick Session 2 off with a bang. Folks brought tasty adult beverages to share, Seth thoughtfully controlled initiative, Brent ran our lone NPC, and the missus kept herself and the pets hidden so us boys could have our nerd time.

Sunday’s game taught us a few lessons about keeping track of initiative and status effects. Also: Combats are still taking too long, giving us one giant combat session; little roleplaying took place thanks to the three-hour-long battle.

Session Summary

Session 2 took place on Sunday, March 27, 2011.

The session begins with the group’s arrival at the Gate Pass Depository. There, several men stand guard in front of a massive, iron-wrought gate. The guards seem apprehensive as Kara and the companions approach, but relax with the revealing of the owner’s key. A guard takes the key from Kara and places it against a bronze plate, attached to the stonework adjacent to the gate. An audible click is heard, followed by the sound of giant gears turning somewhere within the wall. With that, the gate swings open.

The Depository stands in the center of a large compound. It looms at the end of a path that winds through a garden, hidden beneath the quickly gathering snow. Sounds of battle echo from the direction of the city gate, three miles distant. Dragons fly overhead, now engaged by the Gate Pass wyvern riders. The dark horns of invasion intermingle with the urgent ringing of bells throughout the city.

Inside, a huge cathedral-like interior waits. Four enormous columns support a gabled ceiling. A large balcony wraps around the inside of the structure, serving as a second floor. Isles of magically sealed lockers stand everywhere, holding those items precious to the Gate Pass people.

Against one pillar stands a halfling; Rivereye, or so Kara suspects. After a few minutes of idle conversation, the halfling invites the group up to the balcony, where he explains that Kara is to open one of the sealed lockers with a password. During this interchange, he mistakenly refers to Kara several times as “Peppin.” Knowing that Rivereye and Peppin have met before, this strange verbal hiccup gives the group pause. Using his arcane training, Arender discovers that Rivereye is under the influence of a Disguise Self ritual and the group attempts to seize the impostor.

Suddenly, the halfling’s form melts away and “Rivereye” becomes a tall eladrin. Though he attempts to make a hasty escape, assisted by his phoenix companion and a pair of magically endowed boots, he is caught—but not before several members of the party succumb to wounds sustained during the melee.

Just as the companions move to save their dying friends, the Depository guards rush in yelling, “Drop your weapons! Surrender!”

Changes to the Adventure

Rivereye’s Race

Up until 4th Edition, gnomes felt like smaller halflings. For the most part, the two pretty much shared the same place in the world’s hierarchy. Of course, as a Dragonlance fan, I always see gnomes as inventors and halflings as kleptomaniacs—but those traits are pretty much restricted to that setting. However, if you were to run into a halfling and a gnome on the streets of Waterdeep in the Forgotten Realms, you would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between them.

Then 4th Edition changed all that and gave gnomes a deep and enriching place in the world. Thanks to that detail, I now have a hard time imagining gnomes as anything other than otherworldly, fey tricksters with huge black eyes. With that said, I really saw Rivereye as more of a halfling—and so I changed him into one.

Encounter Modifications

Shocking Revelation: In The Scouring of Gate Pass, the Depository is a massive, circular building with four stories. Written out on a dry erase map, this would have been no problem. However, once I decided to use 3D terrain for every encounter, I made sure to reconceptualize each scenario with what’s possible under those conditions. Looking at what I had and what I could build, I decided to alter the scene: instead of a tower, the Depository became a giant cathedral-like building with a large second-floor balcony running along the inside of the structure. Staircases provided access to the balcony and giant columns gave characters great places to gain cover.

As for combatant adjustments, I actually made a number of important changes:

Larion’s Companion: Larion (the impostor taking the place of Rivereye) was written in the adventure to have a “solon” companion. Solon’s are a creation of the adventure path’s writers and have a history tied into the early beginnings of the world. As written, there’s nothing wrong with them; I just wasn’t interested in introducing a new race to the players at this time. We’re only through the second session and they’ve had all this backstory to digest… I think that if I do include solons later on, it will be at a more thematically appropriate time where they can be introduced with flourish. Also, I don’t like the name “solon.” This may be nitpicky, but I kept thinking of a bunch of housewives under giant hair dryers. In the end, I changed the solon into a phoenix to keep with the campaign’s fire theme.

New Enemies: The problem with building large, elaborate set pieces for each combat is, you don’t want to see that combat end in 30 minutes. With that said, I upped the length and difficulty of the encounter by adding more enemies. Originally, there was simply Larion (the Rivereye impostor) and his companion creature—a solon (which I changed into a phoenix). In order to kick the battle up a notch, I added four dwarf statues to the mix. This kept more than a few PC’s busy, giving Larion a better chance at escape.

The Trap: I decided I wanted a statue of Drakus Coaltongue in the Depository, and after looking at all the cardstock statue models that were available, I saw that one was perfect—but it held a trident (it came from an Atlantis-themed set). Five minutes in Photoshop later, that trident became an everburning torch. Suddenly, I had a perfect place for the “trap” to come from—but instead of a lighting bolt (as written in the adventure), it seemed more thematically appropriate to make it a fireball.

For a more detailed account on how Shocking Revelation was reconstructed for my group, please see Redesigning Encounters: Shocking Revelation.

Things That Could Have Gone Better

Player-Run Initiative

Seth ran initiative, which was great for me (see below). For him, however, it was a mess of confusion. Flipping back and forth between combatants, keeping track of hit points, and marking down each status effect started to distract him from being able to play his character. What we’re going to do for the next game is attempt to run initiative from a laptop, utilizing some of the digital offerings that can be found on the Internet. This way there won’t be cards to flip through and typing is always faster than writing.

Also, with someone new taking charge of initiative, I discovered that there was a pretty consistent break of between 15-20 seconds between turns. This was caused by players finishing their turn, and then immediately looking into what they were going to do next, but the next person hadn’t noticed that it was now their turn. This can easily be fixed by the person who completes their turn giving a clear “I’m done” to the initiative taker. Additionally, once initiative has gone around at least once, everyone should know their order in the round; if I go after Brian, then I should know to pay extra attention when it’s Brian’s turn.

Player-Run NPC’s

Having a player run Kara Ravencaster—the NPC formerly known as Torrent—needs to be tweaked for future games. On average, her turn took as long as the other PC’s. Now, there wasn’t anything wrong with the way Brent played Kara; he used her to her full capability. He asked questions about the environment, attempted to figure out her motivations, and looked for tactically advantageous moves. In essence, he played her like a person instead of a Chess piece, which is exactly what I would wish of any player playing a character. But that effectively increased our group to six PC’s.

For our next game, I’ve given the group two suggestions:

  1. We keep NPC actions to moves and attacks—nothing more. No stunts, no fancy descriptions (unless they’re quick), no skill checks, nothing. The only exception would be wading into battle to help another PC.
  2. I have her “fade” into the background. In the narrative, she’s attacking and defending like everyone else—we just don’t focus on it. If a PC goes down, then she will fade back into the foreground and we’ll pop her into initiative as normal.

Both options have their strengths and weaknesses. We’ll see what the group decides.

Keeping Track of Monster Hit Points

As I’ve said in the past, I use an iPad to run everything during the game: notes, initiative, etc. Hell, if I could get an IR attachment for my iPad that worked with my LED lights and fog machine, I’d run them off it too. Well, when I passed off initiative, I lost an easy way of keeping track of hit points (since the initiative app was what I was using). I had the idea of having the player who controlled initiative also track hit points. No, it wasn’t ideal having one player know the hit points of the monsters, but it freed me from having to add another app to the roster, just to keep track of hit points. And, since I’m trying to run things paper- and pencil-less on my side of the screen, I didn’t want to resort to something more old fashioned—like paper and pencil.

By the end of the session, I realized it wasn’t going to work out. For example, once a monster was bloodied, I knew they were near death. And so, in order to keep their actions realistic, I had to have their hit point totals updated in my head, resulting in me having to ask Seth every few attacks. Suffice it to say, the experiment was a failure. Luckily, I discovered that the PDF app I use to view monster stats on the iPad also allows me to make annotations directly to the PDF. So I’ll be back to tracking hit points—and I won’t have to use a separate app to do it.

Combat Grind

Lastly, combats are still running too long even after limiting monsters to the Monster Manual 3 design shift. The Depository encounter took up almost the entirety of our session: three hours! In a perfect world, combats would last one to one and a half hours. This would give us enough time to have a satisfying encounter and enjoy all the 3D terrain, music, lighting, and atmospherics put together for the encounter, but not so long that things begin to drag. I feel cutting NPC turns down will help. Also, getting used to keeping the momentum between turns will assist greatly. In the end, cutting monster hit points down by another third might be called for.

Things That Went Great

Player-Run Initiative

Having a player keep track of initiative was amazing! Even though Seth had a tough time getting used to it, it was his first time and we all know things smooth out as we get used to them. For me, it was one less thing—one huge, less thing—that I didn’t have to keep track of. I was able to focus on monster motivations, movement, and attacks with greater ease and a quicker pace. I seriously doubt I’ll ever want to take those reigns back in the future. The genie’s out of the bottle!

Combat Descriptions

I also noticed that attack and movement descriptions got more detailed during this session. I think just about everyone received a Fortune Card for adding to the game; although, now that I think about it, Cody didn’t get one and he really should have. Giving out those Fortune Cards will eventually become a better process. Of course, since no one’s used them yet, I don’t want to put too many into circulation!

Photographs

Last, but not least, here are the pictures from our session.