A Walk in the Woods (session 24-26)

After this update I will be only 2 sessions behind in having a synopsis of our game on this blog! I’ve been struggling simply to get prepared for each session, which means there has been no time for the blog. Unfortunately. So this is a bit of a long read.

The walk in the woods begins after the party defeated the second hag of a coven in her massive crystal tower.

When I began planning this part, I had to consider strongly how many game sessions I wanted this journey of hundreds of miles to last. There were many points of interest on the map, and the potential for a lot of encounters, but I didn’t want them to spend too much time on this part of the campaign, as it wouldn’t result in much resolution of any of the main plots. That said, the trip underscores my exploration theme, and it was their first big introduction to the wider world around the local area of their settlement. So I used the trip to expand upon the knowledge of the world and planted a few potential plot hooks and adventuring sites.

Session 24

The characters start their journey through the crystal forest south to the more regular vast woodlands where the settlement lies.

eva-widermann-tob-alseid-final-v2
The Alseid from Tome of Beasts, which I wrote about in my last post.

Inside the crystal forest, they find a Alseid (a sort of deer centaur from Tome of Beasts) infected by the crystal and ripped by a large creature. Some hours later they are attacked by four land sharks infected with the crystal. The characters defeat them with some luck.

A couple of days later they reach the regular forest, and they notice that the elf Sekhlas is a bit nervous by the whole thing.

At one point they rest in a small cave, and it turns out it has a sprite guardian, who gifts them with some sleeping poison, after a bit of mischief.

After a few more days of travelling they reach the area of the elven tribe, and they arrive at their camp one evening. They parlay and agree to let them visit the tribe. Here they are hospitably met and they establish good relations with their leader. He agrees to supply them with information and assistance in their journey in return for help with destroying a band of hobgoblin slavers that have entered the forest.

The group has already learned from the centaur they met that the hobgoblins live on the plains and are building a great city, so this is extra information for them.

Session 25

The group finds a good place to ambush the hobgoblins, which has a captain, more than 30 warriors, a few armored ogres, two low level clerics, and a warlock among them. But the advantageous location (based on great survival roll), and a couple of fireballs, ensures that the group has the encounter well under control.

The information they get is important. First of all they learn of a black dragon living in the ruins of a keep by a ruined bridge, and where its territory lies. They learn of the Land of Decay, which is full of fungi, and a goblin tribe in the area they have to pass through. They also learn of the elven tribe Two Tears, across the river, and how to contact them.

4e_black_dragon
They didn’t want the treasure of an adult black dragon. Perhaps wise, as it is CR 15, with some additions of my own…

The group deliberates and decide to sneak across the river as quickly as possible and move south. They avoid an encounter with the dragon, and obtain elven guides through the forest until they reach another big river, where they can see ruins on the other side and pillars of an ancient bridge.

The ruins on the other side are on a hill and desolate. It also looked like someone made a fortification inside the town by digging a deep trench and throwing up ramparts in a large circle. They enter this area and discover it is another fort, called Fort 27 (they already heard of Fort 25). They find two magical flags and a tunnel has been dug in the middle of the fort.

Down in the tunnel they discover rooms that were the site of intense combat with lots of bones, broken weapons and sign of spell damage. When they enter the central chamber, they are attacked by a Neothelid.

Session 26:
The full group of 7 level 7 characters deal swift death to the CR 13 Neothelid with 325 hitpoints. It doesn’t get a third round. It is a demonstration of the difficulty of balance with more than 4 players. A single monster needs multiple actions and the ability to counter player moves, if it is to survive. OR perhaps I should add 75% hitpoints for more balanced encounters? It was fun though, and had one player missed a save, they might have been in much greater trouble.

Beyond the Neothelid they locate an ancient war council chamber, with the bodies of two ancient commanders, their magic items, and three message stones with the following ‘voice recordings’.

Ascendant_runestone
The message stones look something like this, and can easily fit in a palm.
  • Commander, proceed north and delay hostile forces approaching Ivanith’Laril. Archmages are working to protect the Towers of the Stars, but they need time. Make sure they have it.
  • Commander, you will receive reinforcements. The 8th Legion is retreating towards your position. Secure the bridge at Serahin. The tirelessness of our allies should enable you to fortify the position against the horde and buy us more time. That, and King Wailmorr’s mercenaries, may be enough.
  • These are the last words of Commander Thelketh. Our position is almost overrun. Our allies’ efforts have ensured we have lasted this long. I never would have thought to end up owing them a debt. We saw the flash from Fort 25. Gods have mercy on them. The other forts must be overrun. Whoever finds this, please pray for my soul.

They conclude that the elves actually were allies with the undead Bones of Sarakhon. And that the Towers of the Stars are inside the ruined city close to the settlement (more on that next time…)

And all this ties in to the backstory of the world they are in. And a small pieces of the greater jigsaw puzzle. 

Ash_Spawn
The idea for Ash zombies were lifted from the Ash Spawn of the Skyrim expansion. 

On the final leg of the journey the enter an ashen plain, where nothing grows, and it turns out, the barrier to the elemental plane of fire has been worn thin. They cross it, and meet some Ash Zombies, and at the center find a very large crater, with a big fire elemental in the middle, surrounded by Ash Zombies and mephits, and in the heat haze they can glimpse into the elemental plane of fire. They decide not to approach the elemental and move on.

Beyond the ashen plains they travel through the woods and finally get back to their settlement. The final surprise is that the barmaid Lara is pregnant, and the young paladin Jarn has had a very close relationship with her.

Ending a 6 years campaign

We had our 90th and penultimate game session with our Warhammer group Wednesday.

It is with anxiety, joy and sadness that I end the campaign. I am quite anxious to end the campaign on a high note, and it is a joy to see the players revel in it and enjoy the epic finale, and it is with sadness that I am saying farewell to a story line and a group of characters that have lasted for that long. As a GM I’ve never had a game experience like this. The characters are like old friends, who easily fall into their old habits and quarrels.

Capture32415152
The siege of Middenheim. The illustration is from the Fantasy Battle book the Storm of Chaos, which I’ve consulted since the beginning of the campaign.

The end has to come now. The system is at its absolute limit and the story is reaching an epic conclusion that cannot be topped.

If you are familiar with Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (or Battle) you will know what the Storm of Chaos is. For those unfamiliar with it, it is basically the apocalyptic invasion of a great general, who has united the four Chaos Powers and part of the world canon, described in quite a bit of detail. When I dreamed up the campaign, I wanted to have the character’s lives and fates intertwined with that story-line. That has succeeded. They are invested on a personal level and get to experience, as central protagonists, defining moments in the Warhammer world: the Siege of Middenheim and the death of Valten, the reborn image of the God Sigmar.

So the climactic battle last session was pretty wild, with player’s who started as lowly rat catchers,

The über-bad Games Workshop evil guy who wants to destroy the world.
The über-bad Games Workshop evil guy who wants to destroy the world.

smugglers and mercenaries facing off against multiple chaos giants, ogres and finally the great chaos lord Archaon himself and subsequently a greater daemon.

It was definitely fun, and awesome and epic.

From a mechanical and narrative perspective the battle worked really well. I had a strategic level, a tactical level and an encounter level in the battle. They had to allocated the strength of their relieving undead army to various crisis-points, with pre-determined outcomes, depending on the strength committed. When they had to save the gates to the city from being breached, we played with minis on a company level, with the characters as single unit, with several special abilities. When they moved into certain areas of the causeway they had encounters with their characters, and the resolution of the encounters impacted the tactical struggle and the future encounters.

I would have loved though if the final two encounters (which was basically one long encounter) had been a bit more on the edge of their capability, making it a more tense affair, just like their last big encounter (in a previous session) with Vardek Crom, the Herald of the End Times. However, in a system like Warhammer, it is incredibly easy to tip the balance completely. And I didn’t roll well either.

The artifact warhammer Ghal Maraz. The brutal and simple warrior from Kislev, Stanislav, picked it up and hit the BBEG in the face. When he returned it to the Emperor his answer was: 'it is alright. I have a flail.'
The artifact warhammer Ghal Maraz. The brutal and simple warrior from Kislev, Stanislav, picked it up and hit the BBEG in the face. When he returned it to the Emperor his answer was: ‘it is alright. I have a flail.’

Looking at this Swordsman’s guide to creating encounters Encounter Guide I did a couple of things wrong. I stayed within the rules, but in the interest of tension, I should perhaps have added wounds (HP in D&D parlance) to the evil guys. I followed Ringo’s advice on mixing up the battle half-way, and pushed the characters around the battlefield. But I should have confounded expectations more, and maybe screwed with the battlefield in some interesting way. I could also have added a lieutenant or two, because it does create a much more interesting dynamic. However, as it was the Siege of Middenheim I also felt somewhat constrained, as they meet the Lord of the End Times shortly after he had slain Valten in single combat.

Ultimately, you want the characters to succeed, but it should be really difficult.

The final session (or two), will be have a more personal focus, with the group trying to use their strategic ability to rescue their home town from a subsidiary chaos force and perhaps confronting their arch enemy, Baron Wallenstein of Würzen. My challenge as a GM is to make it a fitting conclusion to all their struggles, failures, victories, retreats, cabbage eating and hardship.

Running War and Battles in roleplaying

As I decided to run a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying campaign 8 years ago centered around the Storm of Chaos (a great invasion into the lands of men), I naturally had to introduce war and battles as key elements of the fiction. I’ve describe 3 methods to include battles below.
Battles have since then worked as backdrop, motivation and important story and character development opportunities. Urs_Graf_Schrecken_des_Kriegs_1521

In general, in my roleplaying campaigns I do put a significant emphasis on the ‘game’ part of ‘roleplaying games’. We have to roll some dice, follow some rules and let part of the tension and drama emerge from the randomness of letting the dice fall where they may. Therefore it is important that we also have a ‘game’ around some of the battles and major skirmishes of the game, and that they outcome of each battle came into question. The characters influence on the outcome was in the beginning very limited, but as they grew in power, the influence has become more significant.

I thought my experience with it could be helpful to others who want to include that element in their campaign.

The Story mode:
When the characters were weak and socially and politically unimportant, I let the mood, action and drama evolve around the build-up, march to the battlefield and the aftermath of the battle. This includes solving supply problems, scouting, recovering lost messages, surviving assaults on their supply lines and so on. I used the pushing paper method (below) for a minor skirmish. The battle itself can be entirely narrated, particularly when they are very weak, or you can add an event element. In my first use of this method they lost, and the whole retreat (read, fleeing in panic), was a central element of the story, and the events around that gave a lot of mood and depth to the story, and both a feeling for the characters that they were unimportant, and at the same time had an impact by rescuing some and creating some order in the chaotic aftermath.

Pushing Paper:
To have a battle that involves dice, but without using 300 minis, I’ve used a Warhammer Fantasy Battle Light game using paper and card board. I make a map on our white board battle map, and create a card board counter for each unit. We roll D6 for their weapon skill (3+, 4+ etc. to hit), and D6 for armor saves, but I cut toughness rolls to reduce the number of dice rolls. Casualties were simply counted off the unit’s strength, either at a 1:1 ratio, or using whatever ratio that seemed appropriate for the size of the battle. I also have some rudimentary rules for movement, cover etc.

In a battle where the characters were leading their town militia and a contingent of knights, the characters were their own unit, and I reverted to regular role-playing rules, when they entered into combat with the opposing champion.

This worked quite well for large skirmishes and minor battles. It has gotten the characters really involved, it is a fun break away from the regular roleplaying combat, and it creates its own narratives about the heroic squires who routed a group of beastmen taking only one casualty and so on. It also has the group invested in getting more troops to defend their town, as it has an actual game impact.

Event-based battle:
I’ve run two versions of these types of battles:

Type 1:Alexanderschlacht_(Soldaten)
You can have a battle where the characters have no impact on the outcome of the battle, but each experience events during the battle. This could be individual opportunities for heroics, or the opposite – to skulk away or flee a challenge. The key element in my view is that there are significant choices to be made. In one instance, as they were part of a company, they had the chance to rescue or help other members of the company before they got killed or maimed (or not). I also enjoy keeping the events partly random, as it adds to the ‘game’ element and prevents me from designing challenges that were specific meant to be just the right difficulty for any character.

Type 2:
A second type is a battle where the characters are powerful and can, as a team, significantly influence the final outcome. I introduced a victory point system for this type of battle. In essence, each event can lead to various numbers of victory points, and the battle will have different outcomes depending on how many victory points they score. The victory conditions obviously have to be predetermined. Again I think a key point is having hard choices for them to make, as the Warhammer universe is very grim. Thus sacrifice and bitter choices are central parts of the game. For example, they had to indirectly select which commander they wanted to lead the human forces. There were three choices, and all three had benefits and drawbacks, but they couldn’t get an “optimal” commander.

By introducing victory points I also force the direction of the campaign into the hands of the characters, and prevent myself from fudging it into the result I prefer. I think it is very satisfying to play, and reinforces that we are playing a game.

All in all, I find the battles to be very fun and dramatic elements in the campaign, and as a theme for a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay campaign, it has worked extremely well.

One a side note, the format was initially inspired by Bernard Cornwell’s excellent Sharpe series of novels, about an English soldier fighting all the way through the Peninsular Campaign of the Napoleonic War.