Sunday, October 16, 2016

Writing a DCC adventure

My previous campaign was using my Empress rules, and I was going for something relatively low-magic, or at least a setting where magic is subtle.  I was going for something a little grittier and low-key, with plenty of intensity but not much flash.  That way, I reasoned, it would be all the more exciting and mysterious when characters encounter the supernatural.

Well, I've largely abandoned that approach, for now, and instead embraced the gonzo ethos of Dungeon Crawl Classics.  That doesn't mean I'll never return to a more low-key approach, but I've come to believe that getting players to engage with that kind of material requires a better GM than I am - at least, at this time. I've taken a step back from trying to create everything from scratch, and taking my cues from something undeniably successful.

That said, I haven't given up entirely on creating my own content.  Towards the end of my run with Empress, I had a number of ideas for an adventure, and I think there were some very strong concepts in there.  Long story short - it didn't quite work, in practice.  But I still think there were some great core ideas that I'm not ready to give up on.

So now I'm trying to take what I've learned from DCC, and incorporate it into a new treatment of this adventure.  I'm going to talk about some of my ideas, here, and in future blog posts, I'll probably release bits and pieces of content.

Be warned: if you're one of my players, there will be a lot of spoilers to be found.  You'll ruin some of the fun if you read these posts, so I'll be sure to keep any such material "below the fold."

With that in mind...

The adventure is called The Cursed Blade, and it's basically a heist with a twist. C'mon, there's always got to be a twist.  The heist itself is its own hook for most murderhobos: there's a wealthy aristocrat with a collection of magic swords.  There you have it.  The heist shouldn't be very difficult, but of course, there's that twist.

The swords are all unique, and while they all have their useful powers, none of them threatens to upend a campaign like a bladed nuke.  In fact, some of them have...drawbacks.  And therein lies our twist.  One of the swords has its use, but is as much a trap as a useful item: The Screaming Sword emits a chorus of loud screaming as long as it is unsheathed.  It's very easy to botch the entire heist, or at least cut it short, by handling this blade unknowingly.

But that's not the actual twist.  The real twist is the one sword that isn't locked down: The Blade of Discord.  This sword is really nice in battle, doing a big chunk of damage.  But it comes with a curse (hence the title of the adventure): as long as it is separated from its enchanted scabbard, the owner will have to use it everyday to kill an increasing number of foes.  Failure to meet this quota will result in nightmares that slowly drives the owner mad.  This property only becomes apparent days after the heist.

That means the original owner, who is familiar with the sword's curse, will be ready for a return visit.  In fact, he will not even accept the sword if returned, as he like the initial thief to be punished for his actions.  Thus, the party will probably have to break back into the owner's mansion, and of course, he will be far more prepared the second time around.  

In my first attempt at this adventure, I was really expecting the players to go an Oceans 11 direction with things, so I made the sword owner the mayor of the town, with plenty of guards at his disposal.  The point was the encourage players to use magic, skills and clever planning to pull off their initial robbery.

Unfortunately, I made things a bit too intimidating for the players.  I really think they underestimated themselves on this one, as I had planned for all sorts of vulnerabilities and sources of information, not to mention complications.  However, I blame this mostly on my ability as a GM, as I really should have done more to frame an expected approach.  Not in terms of exactly how they should have performed the break-in, but more in terms of how they should go about obtaining information and planning things out.

Even so, in this new attempt to adapt this adventure to DCC, I'm taking a decidedly more gonzo approach to this concept.  I'm still going to season the situation with various sources of information and vulnerabilities, and I won't spoon-feed them to the players.  On the other hand, I'm going to keep the whole thing a lot simpler, and more straightforward.  At least for the first heist, the party might even be able to brute-force their way through things.  

The owner is no longer the mayor of the town, and in fact, his estate is no longer in the middle of town.  There aren't even many guards.  This time around, I've added a new wrinkle: the mansion is normally protected by powerful magical wards, supposedly carved by a great dwarfish runecaster for a king's ransom.  However, the players have learned from a knowledgeable source that there is a subtle crack in a rune, and so the wards are currently inoperable.

As a result of this, the estate doesn't even have many guards, as the master of the house is used to relying on his powerful dwarfish enchantment.  He does have a small squad of highly skilled bodyguards to protect himself and his family; this should keep the party from staying too long or wandering all over the place.

Of course, after the first heist, the runes will be repaired, so they will take effect for future intrusions.  The way they work is designed to create one of those DCC set pieces.  When an unsanctioned act of violence or transfer of property occurs, the wards activate.  The first thing they do is seal the doors to a room with any perpetrators.  Then, the house animates various objects and furnishings to disarm and detain violators, and wait for the master of the house.

The twist to this is that the wards slowly gain the power to animate larger and larger objects.  At first, it cannot do much more than attack with dinner plates (or any decorative weapons...).  By around the 16th round, if things last that long, it will be able to animate large stone statues, at which point, the PCs should be overmatched, and need to concentrate on getting out alive. 

Meanwhile, they will need to find ways to get through the sealed doors.  The brute force approach will require multiple rounds of hacking through the polished wood, so the party will have to split their focus between attacking the doors and fighting off angry sofas.  

Did I mention that the master of the house has a thing for gardening?  This means that would-be intruders will have to cut their way through animated topiary.  

The trick here for me is to get the game balance right.  Right now, I'm working out the statistics of different kinds of animated housewares, and things like how many pieces are available in each area, how many can be animated at once...things like that.  The powers of the swords and the stats for the bodyguards have been largely settled upon.  There's a possible side-plot if the party kills the master, in which case his deranged youngest son, a budding necromancer, will take over the place.

To hit the right balance, I want to target a few points:

  • The initial heist should be easy, but not trivial; there should be a tough fight with the bodyguards, where it character death should be possible if careless.
  • The swords should not be too powerful.  Ideally, the characters should not be able to get all of them unless they are clever or very lucky.  Most of the swords should be locked, and those locks should be trapped.
  • For a successive heist through the wards:
    • Good intelligence gathering and planning should help.
    • Clever ideas should also be rewarded, but total shortcuts should be minimized.
    • Even with good strategy, it pretty risky, and character death is possible.
    • A careless party should risk TPK.
    • Poor planning shouldn't doom them outright, however.
Anyway, this is pretty much where I am with adapting the concepts of The Cursed Blade.  Like I said, I'll be posting content to the blog as it becomes available.

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