Monday, November 7, 2011

Experience Points: A Tale of Two Parties

What a great weekend! I got to play in two games as a PC, which is always nice for someone who spends a lot of time on the other side of the screen. Two very different games with similar strengths. One 4e D&D set in the Eberron campaign setting, the other a home-brew rule set and setting. Both games featured interesting role-playing opportunities and challenging combats. Here’s what made these sessions strong:

We had three days before we were due to depart Sharn on a journey to a remote investigation site aboard Khorvaire’s lightning rail line, a train powered by captive lightning elementals. So, our ace GM asked us each in turn what activities we wished to undertake during that time. Each player was given “center stage” and a fairly free-form opportunity to play. Each of us took a little different approach, but almost all involved one or more of the other characters. It allowed us some time to ease into the game (after a month apart) and introduce our characters to a new player who was joining us. Everyone had a blast with it, and I’d seriously consider adding such windows to my own game when appropriate.

At the train station we were presented a parade of diverse and interesting characters as fellow passengers, including a wealthy and mysterious gnoll with a dubious reputation, and a lot of personal security. Of course the gnoll, a titled noble, attracted our attention immediately. All our attempts to investigate or engage him were rebuffed. Doors were closed and stewards were tight-lipped. Naturally this led to characters climbing about the exterior of a fast-moving train!

Yet we still failed to get access to Baron Gnoll. (He had a much more colorful name, courtesy of our ever-creative GM, but I spelled it out phonetically in my notes, and don’t want to misspell it here.) That’s when the train robbery occurred. And, just so you don’t feel like punching the “cliché” button and exiting the page mid-story, I’ll add that it was the first of two train robberies!

The gnoll’s dubious reputation did not endear him to some members of the party, so when we found him being accosted by two notorious thieves, we did not leap immediately to his rescue. The ensuing tricky negotiation was interrupted by the second, and much more brutal attempt at train robbery. Namely a band of barbarian halflings mounted on vicious, flying mechanical mounts of rather crude design that were promptly labeled “truckasaurs” for their jagged teeth and toxic breath. A wild melee ensued. Between the social chaos of the robin hood vs. bad king john scene, and the post-apocalyptic road warrior assault, the encounter was great fun. Kudos to our GM for successfully blending the classic train robbery trope with enough twists and wrinkles to suit even the most demanding players.

The city of Irongate is a rough and tumble place. Ask a band of adventurers consisting of a pair of berserkers, a young man on a quest for identity, a feral orphan girl with an affinity for bugs, a dashing rogue with a penchant for poison, a wanderer who yearns for the wilderness, a girl who is mastering the halberd (mightiest of polearms), and a girl raised by a mindflayer who dabbles in some of that creature’s mental manipulations. That’s the sort of array of characters that comes out of the Lords of Chaos home brew rules that my friend Randy has developed. They are trying to survive on and under Irongate’s mean streets, where Grancon (the rat-on-a-stick seller) has probably made more money in the past week than they have. Somehow they have escaped a necrotic cult, angered a band of thieves, intrigued a local confidence man, brought prosperity to a the Notched Dirk (an inn of ill-repute), and left a trail of dead and undead in their wake, all while losing much of what they had amassed as their life’s savings.

Lords of Chaos is a rule system that doesn’t use traditional classes, instead allowing players to purchase a wide variety of skills to suit their vision of their character. Characters and parties have an assortment of capabilities that must be explored in order to discover the possible synergies, strengths and weaknesses they possess. It makes for challenging and entertaining gaming. We’re still exploring tactics and strategies that suit our odd mix, working together in an attempt to forge a successful team.

Meticulously tailoring your character means a deep, personal connection with it. This is expressed in the strong role playing that occurs at the table. Each character is unique, and so the process of establishing the character’s role within the party happens, as in combat, in the run of play.

While fighting a band of ghouls in the sewers the party was confronted with the sounds of an unidentifiable approaching menace of potentially imposing size. The challenge of disengaging from the combat was significant and required creative play, as well as inspiring some great role playing from the players of the berserkers (who must manage their battle rage in surges, meaning they can’t just turn off their berserk on a whim.) Spellcasters placed distractions and impediments, an escape route was discovered and secured, and various attempts were made to defuse the berserkers. When one of them finally de-berserked, his attempts to soothe his raging ally earned him a broken arm. Yet another expensive trip to the healer was in store for the party.

Creating a combat situation that is then interrupted by some other event, perhaps necessitating a retreat, is a great encounter idea. Rapidly changing circumstances and elevating crisis levels keeps the pressure on the players and the tension high.

My thanks to both GMs and my fellow players for two memorable game sessions  with unique challenges and immersive role playing!

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