On Friday we played the first session of my Fallen Crowns campaign. There were some interesting lessons learned both by the players and by myself as referee, which I'll write about after recounting the brief events of the session.
Loosely connected to the previous Edge of Empire campaign, this campaign takes place in the same world 300 years after the events of the prior one, long after the titular Empire has fallen. We're using Adventurer Conqueror King System and I've set it up to accommodate an ever-changing player roster for maximum flexibility. Being a hexcrawl sandbox, this wasn't hard to do.
No, the hardest part turned out to be the adjustment to the old-school, Basic Dungeons and Dragons play style. My players weren't taken by surprise; but it's one thing to know intellectually that monsters and traps are deadly and treasure is the goal above all, because I had been telling them that all month, and an entirely other thing to actually know the terror of having only 1hp left facing a screaming goblin and looking up at that first 2,200XP hill to gain 2nd level with only 6XP earned for the entire misadventure.
All of my players have experience with 3rd Edition D&D. Some additionally have experience with 4e and 2e, but I think no-one at the table other than myself had played Basic, and even then I had played it only once with an inexperienced DM who was raised on 2e-style campaigns.
But on with the story…
The party of five were the incorrigible bard Jacques de la Coeur, the aspiring necromancer Branwell the Ominous, the honourable dwarf Able Stoutfist, the former shopkeeper Marcello Bending Rodriguez who liquidated his share of the store to set out as a fighter, and the apprentice wizard Gennady the Anæmic. Having met for mutual protection and adventure in the large village of Grandfields that is the capital of the Duchy of the same name, they compared notes on the region (Marcello being a village native and having heard some few rumours) and set out immediately south for the Caves of Chaos two leagues south of town, gear on their backs and leading a donkey to carry the equipment of the less muscular party members. It was the 7th of the 1st of Early Summer.
This set the stage for the first lesson of the game, which didn't really come to light until the middle-end of the session. I was committed to being an impartial referee, and when the party was unsure how to proceed I mentioned several times the possibility of gathering further rumours or even seeking retainers. Everyone wanted to get to the adventuring post-haste though, so when Able declared that she was leaving by the south gate, the party left town. Possibly this was exacerbated by another factor of playing an unfamiliar system: despite being fairly simple, character creation still took two hours all told. I expect it will get much faster as we gain familiarity with the system, but there was definitely some "c'mon, let's go" among the party by the time they were all gathered on the village green.
Entering the wilderness
Following directions from the gate guards, the party walked south along the east bank of Elescene River for an hour before turning directly away from the river into the rolling hills and vales. Copses of trees increased in frequency and density until a half-hour's walk brought them near a ruined Imperial watch tower or some such on a small hill, the tower missing most of its second-floor walls. After their repeated hails went unanswered, they approached and entered the apparently-unoccupied tower with the intention of gaining a view of the land ahead and locating the ravine where the caves are located.
An indecisive encounter
On the first floor they noted a door and a stairwell in the opposite wall dividing the round tower's ground floor in two. The dwarf lead the way to the stairs as Gennady lit a lantern. Everyone but Branwell followed; he instead approached the door, only to find that the tower was in fact occupied. The creatures beyond the door spoke Common and claimed the tower as their own, brusquely telling the party to get lost. The dwarf had already got a look at the land ahead, so the party obliged. As they entered the denser woods around the Caves of Chaos, the party noted a figure watching from the ruined second floor of the tower.
The Caves of Chaos
The party spied a ravine choked with trees and tangled underbrush, with several dark cave mouths visible in the limestone slopes. Deliberating on how to approach the ravine, they opted to sidle up the left and, leaving the donkey outside and lighting a torch and a lantern, unhesitatingly entered the first cave mouth they found.
Rough limestone walls quickly gave way to worked stone walls and a four-way intersection, and moments later the party heard a cry of "Bree-yark!" go up as a patrol of six goblins charged them from the left-hand passage. Branwell cast a sleep spell as Marcello and Jacques (who were on the left flank in marching order) held their ground and Able stepped forward on Marcello's right. Sadly, Branwell's spell caught only two goblins – the fewest possible for the spell – when the party had been betting on all six falling asleep.
A brief melee ensued between Able, Marcello, and Jacques on one side and the goblins on the other, as Gennady held back, opting to save his own sleep spell. Three goblins were quickly felled, but not without felling Marcello and Branwell, and inflicting grievous injury on Able and Jacques that brought them down to 1hp each. (Gennady had only 1hp to start with, so now everyone was even!) With a single goblin standing with its morale unbroken, and everyone standing having a single hit point to their name, Gennady won initiative and put it to sleep. With cries of "Bree-yark!" resonating from deeper ahead in the dungeon and an ominous growl from the right-hand passage, Jacques administered some hasty first-aid to Marcello and Branwell as Gennady scooped up the sacks and pouches on the goblins.
And with that, they grabbed their injured fellows and fled the Caves of Chaos. Branwell looked back as he was hauled bodily along: goblins glared at them from the cave mouth before retreating in the darkness, followed by an ogre of monstrous proportions who leered at them, but declined to pursue. Was that the sound of argument issuing from the cave, or just beastly gibberings…?
The aftermath of the Caves
Branwell and Marcello both lived, but were crippled by cuts to their legs. Hidden in a copse of trees a half-hour from the caves (which took one hour at their limping speed) the party fashioned travoises from young trees and inspected the take: 21 pieces of silver and four days' standard rations consisting of bread, cheese, and sausages of surprisingly high quality. Between the five of them, 6XP were earned for the goblins. The silver, split evenly, was insufficient to earn even 1XP each should they survive the trip back to civilisation.
Tower ruins, redux
Hauling themselves past the ruined watch tower, a figure approached down the hill, waving and greeting them. The man, dressed in leathers, introduced himself as Gildan. Noting their injured state, he bade them rest by their fire in the tower. Wary, the party accepted nonetheless and were introduced to Gildan's companions, a similarly-dressed man named Mark and a man named Sal dressed in robes. They whiled away the afternoon companionably, sharing the men's stew and adding the food taken from the goblins and their own beer and wine to the pleasantness of the company. Though Sal and Mark remained cool, Jacques caught Gildan's eye and, serenading him with music, they became quite friendly and retired to the empty partial second floor for some recreational activities. Sal and Mark remained cool, but enjoyed the wine and company and remained relatively relaxed as night fell.
It came out during the conversation (mostly from the enamoured and consequently incautious Gildan) that the three were brigands and had done quite well for themselves taking from merchants travelling up and down the Elescene. Sal and Mark retired to the back room (the inside of which the party had still not seen), and Gildan opted to spend the night in Jacques' company. As the brigands retired for the night, Able conspired with Gennady to either kill them in their sleep or prepare an ambush should they try to do the same to the party. Option for the defensive approach, the party camped out in the open air of the second floor, taking watches against the possibility of attack from their dinner companions.
Night passed, and the morning of the 1st of the 2nd of Early Summer came without incident. Able was disappointed, as her player very much wanted to close the gap between Able's 6XP and the 2,200XP that would raise her to second level, but the party left the tower without violence for the road to town.
Marcello retired, poorer but wiser, and intends to found an adventurer's guild in Grandfields. Branwell similarly retired, now aspiring to become a sage in town who could say, "I used to be an adventurer like you, but then I took a goblin to the knee." Able, Jacques, and Gennady were also wiser for the experience. Determined to make it in the life of an adventurer they are looking for others so inclined to join them on their next expedition.
- The biggest lesson wasn't that B/X (as embodied in ACKS) is deadly since everyone "knew" that already in some intellectual sense, but rather the reality of what that meant for party preparation, tactics, goals, and the swiftness with which a character can go from full health to death's door.
- Goblins are not to be underestimated as they can easily kill a 1st-level character in a single round.
- Charging ahead to find the story is a natural reflex for post–Wizards of the Coast D&D players, and the indifference of a sandbox setting to players' desire to "find the story" really came home.
- Gathering intelligence before an expedition is a good idea.
- Missile weapons might have made a first-round difference in combat. The party and the goblins had none, so this is more a guess of mine than something viscerally learned through play.
- What constitutes good combat tactics are non-obvious, and very much an emergent product of the whole network of game rules, including encumbrance, character creation method, experience system, available combat actions, initiative system, and more. While (for example) holding your initiative and standing ground to receive a charge is a great idea in 3e, it's risky in ACKS and therefore the soundness of it as a tactic is contingent on the situation. Similarly, the particular balance of a few bits of math vastly changes the resilience of 1st-level characters.
- The lack of magical healing at first level (clerics don't receive spells until 2nd level) makes falling in combat a potential career-ending event instead of an expected event that's barely even a setback in WotC D&D.
- 1st-level characters can sometimes afford to hire retainers if they budget for it or roll for wealth well. The degree by which bringing more warm bodies along on a dangerous adventure can increase the margin of safety isn't really obvious until half the party is down and the rest are all needed to drag bodies and loot to safety.
- The players are hungry for XP now, and starting to see how being wily and merciless is necessary for survival in dangerous places.
- My dice are out to get the players. The goblins didn't miss once. The roll that took down Marcello was a 15 plus two due to charging, which was exactly what the goblin needed to get past his AC 7. The hit that took Able down to 1hp was a natural 20 (which doesn't crit in ACKS, but would have been an automatic hit regardless of AC). We'll see if the dice' animosity holds beyond the first session. I actually hope not, since I want to see the ebb and flow of fate. They're a nice Gamescience set, so I'm going to trust that they're fair.
Things I really liked about running ACKS
One of the best parts of the night for me was the ease with which I could referee unexpected situations. I didn't plan for the ruined tower along the way – Marcello's player asked if there was something like that and I turned to the dice, which gave me the 1-in-6 answer "yes". I chose an easy layout: two ground-floor rooms and a single "room" half-open to the sky on the second level. I rolled for a wandering monster and got one, which further rolling revealed to be 1d4+1 NPCs. My first thought was that humans are boring but I persevered and got two brigands and a mage, all male. I rolled for whether they were in their lair according to the percent chance in the Monsters section of the book, to find out whether they were passing through or based there. And… I won't reveal which because I want to keep my players, who read this, guessing about whether there's any treasure to be had off Gildan, Sal, and Mark. ;-)
Furthermore, I had no idea how the NPCs should react. Should they be on guard? Sleeping? In ambush? Fleeing out a back door? My default was "suspicious and hostile", but again I asked the dice. They were… Indifferent? So I had to figure out what that meant. Furthermore they didn't hear the PCs despite the hollering, which I determined by checking for surprise – allowing for the chance of surprise at all due to the distances and the possibility they had been sleeping. These gave me everything I needed to know to adjudicate on-the-fly the PCs' interactions with these NPCs. Later, the same Reaction Roll mechanic was easily repurposed to find out whether Gildan was susceptible to the androgynous Jacques' charms when the Magical Music charming attempt was made: boxcars said yes!
Overall, being able to turn to the dice when I didn't know what would happen next provided for a much more interesting, easy, and entertaining GMing process than I've been used to playing Diaspora. There's still plenty of creative work to be done, but whereas in Diaspora I have to decide how things will happen next both when I'm inspired and when I'm totally lacking a good idea, in Basic D&D I can disclaim the role of Decider any time I'm unsure what to do and put the question to chance. Given what psychology has revealed on the subject of decision fatigue, this leaves all of my energy to be used for efficient purposes when running the game – vivid descriptions, quick thinking, being generally lively and engaged, projecting my own excitement to the group – instead of draining it away in troublesome struggles of indecision. Though I do love the story-driven and collaborative mechanics of Diaspora, the structures that emerge from the chaos and chance of Basic D&D without undue effort from me are wonderful and easy to play with.
Another lesson I learned is that I didn't know how to use the Mortal Wounds table. It's really not clearly laid out, and the text does not make it clear whether the modifiers apply to both the d20 and the d6 roll or what. I played it at the time that the negatives modified the d20 downward, giving me the row of the effect, and that the d6 was modified upward by the negatives (since that way seemed worse on the matrix at a glance – which is incorrect once I realised what I was missing), in order to give a table cell that was the entire result of the injury. The result was that Marcello and Branwell were tended, woke with 1hp, and were found to be crippled in the legs (they rolled effectively the same results). That's wrong as I discovered on further inspection, but that's the ruling that was made at the table and stands.
How it actually works is only the d20 is modified, and the confusing language on 104 simply mean that what the d6 means is modified by which row the d20 indicates, not that both rolls are modified numerically. Then, both the effects of the first, unnumbered column and the effects of the numbered column indicated by the d6 are suffered by the fallen character. Upon careful inspection, the unnumbered column is the general state of the character: alive, instantly killed, concussed, and so forth, indicating in general to how much healing is needed (or possible) to recover. The numbered columns are specific permanent injuries that are suffered in addition to the necessary healing time (or instant death). On this reading the two fallen adventurers would have suffered permanent brain damage, and regardless would have die in a turn since Jacques could only perform recuperative healing that aids hp recovery per day, not the emergency healing necessary to immediately heal hit points. (Jacques had taken the Healing proficiency once; in ACKS, taking it twice allows the equivalent of cure light wounds with a successful roll. However, Jacques might choose to carry comfrey to prepare for poultices next outing, as these do restore 1d3 hit points when applied with any skill in healing.)
Despite this confusion, I really, really like the Mortal Wounds Table method of doing things. Unlike most system that use critical injuries, the Mortal Wounds is a sort of "saving throw" that occurs only when a character is reduce to 0hp or lower. Instead of instantly dying at 0hp as in Basic D&D, or tracking and rolling for bleeding out in 3e and 4e, in ACKS you just note the zero or negative hit points and then don't do anything until the character's wounds are treated. Only then does the player (and everyone else) get to learn the state of the fallen character's health: whether they were killed instantly, or are bleeding out, or are alive but unconscious, or were just dazed and need to walk it off. It neatly takes all of the bookkeeping out of dying and adds a flavourful injury system on top in a very simple fashion. Though it may seem like the results of the table are cruel and unusually maiming, it's relatively nice to PCs when you consider that the alternative in B/X is plain old death at 0hp. The suspense that it achieve with no bookkeeping is especially awesome.
We're playing again on Monday. I'll be reminding them to seek hirelings and rumours again, and I think their experience this session will make the difference. I'll also be suggesting missile weapons, military oil, and comfrey to increase the party's offensive options and survivability. I'm also going to make up a few characters to keep on hand as backups; with a rotating roster of players, such a file of characters will likely be useful for the unexpected deaths and for drop-in players who want to start playing right away.