Sunday, February 12, 2017

Empress session report - The Rise of the Murderhobros #1

As I mentioned in my last post, I am now GMing for a weekly crew using my homebrew rules for Empress 2.0.  Now, I still need to catch up on session reports from the Blackrock Manor campaign, but due to its monthly nature, it won't be hard to bring this blog up to speed.

A legend is born

So as for my Empress gang, a bit of history...I was previously GMing a group with Empress 1.0 as a weekly thing, with all players connected to an audio group chat in Roll20 (later using Roll20 for shared maps and Google Hangouts for the audio).  With that group, we had some great moments, but I didn't feel that my campaign was working for the group, and we tried to transition to a weekly DCC campaign.

That campaign eventually ran into scheduling issues, and as a result, it's become my monthly DCC group aka Blackrock Manor.  And I have to say, the rules and whole sensibility of DCC are a much better fit for this crew, as are in-person sessions.

Unfortunately, the mix of in-person and online players didn't really work for the people online (crosstalk at at the gaming table can become very indistinct over webcam).  As a result, I lost one of my original players, but he wasn't done with our campaign, bless his soul.  Instead, he wrangled up a couple of players in HIS area, hyped them up on probably-untrue stories of my GMing prowess, and drafted me into being their GM.  Well, I always said I wanted enthusiastic players.

The new blood

This group has become the weekly E2 crew, aka The Murderhobros (that name is no idle boast...these guys will straight-up waylay priests because they need their tongues).  Ed is the one who brought it all together, and he introduced me to Dylan and Jeff who are fantastic players.  Everyone wanted to play a thief, and so far, it's been working.

The setting isn't one that I built from scratch.  One big condition for Ed was that he got to keep playing his character from the extant campaign, an unscrupulous rogue known as Duncan Dervish.  However, I had some very specific ideas for what kind of setting I wanted to run (more on that later), and it wasn't the one we had been playing in to this point.  I had been going for a low-magic thing, and now I wanted to go Full Gonzo.  What to do?

Baiting the trap

Do you even have to ask?  This is an elfgame, with wizards and shit.  I could have just had a demon banish them to another dimension, but that's kind of diabolus ex machina, and fortunately the campaign already had a nice way to explain a total setting shift.  That explanation came in the form of a network of caves and hallways called the Nexus, which is actually a kind of network of spacetime portals to other planets, eras and universes.  So that makes the explanation easy.

The motivation was even easier.  Duncan and his compatriots were branded by a dragon's enchantment, bound to provide it three services to be determined at a later date.  Unfortunately for this dragon, everyone in the party but Duncan died while attempting to figure out how to use a steampunk radiation beam.  The dragon hadn't been very fond of Duncan before, but since he was now the last of its remaining catpaws, it suddenly had an important purpose for him, and magical tools to help him accomplish this purpose.  Since the mighty Krakatoka is essentially imprisoned within the Nexus, it's not like it had much choice.

Krakatoka The Deceiver had two quests for Duncan: first, bring it two more capable adventurers to bind to its service.  Second, travel through the Nexus to another world, in order to provide it with the raw ore for a metal with extraordinary properties.  Properties that could help the ancient dragon leave the Nexus for the first time in millennia.

The name of the metal: protonium.  The name of the world the party must venture to: The Land of One Thousand Towers.

The new old school

Does this ring any bells?  If you've been in this OSR scene for any length of time, you've no doubt recognized these signposts to the great adventure, Anomalous Subsurface Environment.  Yes, I wanted to go Full Gonzo, and ASE is ground zero for that shit.

Of course, what kind of GM would I be if I stopped there?  No, I'm not just serving up ASE with a conversion to Empress.  ASE describes not just an awesome megadungeon, but a dead perfect rendering of Appendix N OSR play. We're talking about Jack Vance meets Thundarr the Barbarian.  The setting was as much an appeal as the adventure itself, but the setting wouldn't be worth much if it was only a place where the titular dungeon existed.

So I started out by deciding a few other adventures that I wanted to slip into The Land of One Thousand Towers.  To start with, I've figured out ways that I could fit The Well of Souls, and its sequel, The Treasure Vaults of Zabadab, into this setting.  The players could run into the first of those within the next couple of sessions.  Perhaps a bit further down the road, I have potential locales for Deep Carbon Observatory as well as that infamous adventure, Death Frost Doom.  

On a more granular level, I've already inserted my own ideas in the setting, but these have emerged in a very organic way.  I don't have twenty pages of backstory about the secret history of Denethix, and the other continent on the other side of the planet.  I've been introducing stuff as it comes to me, usually a session in advance, and I like what I've come up with.  I'll be sharing that in these session reports, of course.

The adventure begins!

For our first session, I resolved to keep things simple.  Jeff and Dylan would roll up their characters, and we'd role-play the party's first meeting.  I'd take a bit of time to clearly explain my ethos; failing to do this has allowed for players to end up unhappy, as their expectations for my world have been violated, and now their characters are dead.

A quick aside: this is possibly the kind of problem that can easily crop up in today's OSR scene.  OSR, in general, tends to take a stand in favor of lethal situations and a GM ethos of letting the chips fall where they may.  Obviously, the GM of such a campaign is going to be very familiar with this approach, but his or her players might be more familiar with D&D in its more recent incarnations, which are decidedly less lethal.

This is not to imply that 5e is Cakewalk City, but just that there are a different set of expectations regarding the inherent protagonistic qualities of the PCs.  The GM needs to be aware of this, and thus make things clear to players.  

Also note that it's not enough to simply say that things are "realistic" and unforgiving.  The GM should be aware that even the most careful interpretation of reality, as rendered by any GM, is going to be inherently faulty.  The GM should be honest with him or herself, and thus realize the need to explain to the players how he or she envisions the activities of a typical adventurer, what should be tracked (Encumbrance?  Mapping?), what kinds of things are rolled in what ways, etc.

/Quick aside

Back to the story of how these three murderhobos became...The Three Murderhobros...

For the first session, I asked which one of the players wanted to have his character have an interesting background detail.  Dylan volunteered his character, so I designed the kick-off encounter around him.

I set the stage: the characters are in a very seedy tavern in the middle of the day, and Duncan is regaling two new companions with tales of astonishing exploits and the glory that ensues.  They were interested in what he was selling, and as he was explaining more about his current quest, the trio was rudely interrupted by the entrance of a motley group of individuals.

The four that entered were even seedier looking than the environs they now occupied, especially so because one of this party was led on a chain leash by one of the others!  The other two members of the group looked like simple thugs, and after a whispered word with the leash-holder, one of them dashed out the door.

Dylan's character, Zabijak, recognized this quartet: they were the lackeys of the local ganglord, Boss Blue.  Of particular concern was the man on the leash: Wretched Jimmi, formerly Jimmi the Splendid, a sorcerer who had crossed Boss Blue in the past.  Already unbalanced by his occult knowledge, after the torments that he suffered at the hands of this gang leader, Wretched Jimmi is little better than an animal.  Still, who knows the extent of his remaining power?

Zabijak realized that these men were here for him, so he sought the assistance of his new companions in extricating himself from the situation.  The trio approached Boss Blue's men, and began negotiating with the chain-holding lieutenant.  As per usual, Duncan insulted the person they were talking to, and things got out of hand.  Naturally, a fight ensued.  Duncan and Zab struggled against the dagger-wielding thugs and Wretched Jimmi, the latter of whom belched streams of acid in their general direction.  Jeff's character, Radjick, cunningly cowered in the corner.

In the melee that ensued, the thug and the lieutenant were taken down through force of arms, and the debased sorcerer was set aflame with a candlestick.  The tavern quickly evacuated, and Duncan took the opportunity to fall upon a fallen thug for his latest bloody meal.  The gathered crowd was aghast.

Quickly, the three fast friends realized that they would not be welcome in Hoblington any longer.  That was well, though, as Duncan knew that their destiny lay elsewhere...and next time, he'd remember to avoid drinking the blood of human beings in crowd settings.

Wrapping up

And this ended our first session.  The players seemed jazzed about the encounter; I decided it would be good to get things started with a big blast of weird flavor, and I think they responded well to that.  My impression was that this would be a strong group, since all of the players were very engaged with finding their own appropriate way to respond to the situation.  Radjick's abject cowardice was a very active form of craven behavior, so I fully approve.

Of course, hindsight allows me to say these things with confidence, because we've already had four sessions at the time of my writing this.  I've had the opportunity to see these predictions proven accurate.  Not only is there solid interaction with the game world, but so far there has been just the right amount of inter-PC drama.

Future posts about the team will discuss my experiences adapting ASE to Empress, my own custom content, and a discussion of lessons learned. Speaking of which...

Lessons learned

I think there's always some value in seeing what can be learned from each of these sessions.  For the most part, the session report is not going to be terribly interesting to anyone who wasn't actually there.  But by finding something universal to take from each game session, not only do we have something more interesting to talk about, but we can reinforce anything we learned.

That being said, this session wasn't very long, so there probably wasn't that much to take away from it.  Still, I would say that my experiences here confirmed some of my more recent observations about GMing.  If I may elaborate...

When it comes to details, be colorful and sparse

What I mean by this is that you want to throw in just a few super-vivid images into every scene.  But just one or two!  The magic of the storytelling art form is that the audience paints most of the picture for you.  By providing a few highly-memorable details to anchor their imaginations, you can trick them into thinking that you somehow conjured all of that in their heads.  Meanwhile, the audience does all the heavy lifting.

Conversely, avoid lots of exposition and narration.  As enchanting as you find your genealogy chart for the local elfish nobility, this is going to put everyone else on the planet to sleep.  It's totally awesome that you have this written down in a binder somewhere.  But the best thing you can do with that binder is to open only as needed, so you can answer any question that the players ask you about elf politics.  It will be the real-time events that get them interested in that backstory, not the other way around.

If you try to get really florid and hit the players with ten paragraphs of literary detail about the room they just entered, you'll achieve the opposite of what you intend.  Instead of a really detailed and specific mental picture, they will have remembered only one or two of the things you mentioned, and filled in the rest with absolutely generic background scenery.  How is this possible?  Because you deactivated their imaginations with your boring details.

Which leads back to the guy with the giant binder of content: sometimes it's better to leave that whole thing at home, because a little absence of detail will activate your imagination.  If you try to design every corner of your world, you'll have so many details that you can't remember them all at once, and you'll be flipping through your own documents in the middle of play.

If you leave a lot of that behind, conversely, it will force you to quickly come up with interesting ideas on the spot.  Sometimes these are more creative than anything you can come up with from hours of brainstorming, or at least more relevant to the situation at hand.  Then, you pause after the precipitating event to record your innovation, instead of pausing beforehand to frantically flip through your binders and Google docs.  Much better from a pacing standpoint.

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