Saturday, June 17, 2017

GURPS Mass Combat: Positional Warfare

Precis: Reducing casualties in GURPS Mass Combat should increase the value of Position Bonus, making for more interesting choices but slowing down battle resolution.

I've been running my GURPS Fantasy Mass Combat game for about six months, and although I generally like GURPS Mass Combat as a quick and simple way to resolve large scale battles and get on to the role-playing, there are some issues.

One that is particularly bothering me is Position Bonus and casualties. Position Bonus (PB) is an abstract value that a force using attack strategies can earn by winning a round of battle. PB improves Strategy rolls on subsequent rounds of battle. Casualties are losses to a force, inflicted in varying amounts to both the winner and loser of a battle round in varying amounts depending on the scope of the victory. Casualties penalize Strategy rolls on subsequent rounds of battle.

The way that the Mass Combat rules read, commanders are supposed to be paying attention to PB, attempting strategies to reduce the enemy PB and striking harder when they have the advantage. In practice, PB increases by 2-3 for a significant victory and by 4 for a decisive victory, while the relative shifts for casualties increase by 2-4 for a significant victory and 8 or more for a decisive victory. In practice, the bonus an attacking force gains from PB is rarely as much as, and often much less than, the bonus the victorious force gets from causing casualties.

It's a bit of a shame that PB doesn't play a larger roll in Mass Combat rules. The following is a house rule that attempts to make casualties less important and PB more important. As a side effect, it should reduce overall casualties for Mass Combat forces to closer to historical norms. More battles should end with a Fighting Withdrawal or Full Retreat after the enemy achieves a sustained (+6 or more) PB bonus, instead of ending when the losing side is wiped out.

Positional Warfare

Resolve the battle as normal on pages 32-38 of Mass Combat. The only change is calculating casualties (p 37). Take the casualty numbers from the Combat Results Table (p 36) and divide them by 5 if the inflicting force used an attack strategy or by 3 otherwise. Round down to the nearest whole number.

Casualties continue to cause a -1 to Basic Strategy Modifier for every full 5% casualties suffered.

Special casualty increases or decreases from battle strategy (winning all-out attack or deliberate defense, fighting a mobile defense or skirmish) are not changed. Nor is the bonus casualties inflicted or save by pursuing a retreating enemy or holding the field.

Example: Using the same base skills and die rolls as the Battle of Drake's Cross from the book, the situation changes. On the first round, Sir Richard's defensive victory inflicts 5% casualties on Strykland's force, while Strykland failed attack only inflicts 2% casualties on Sir Richard.
For the second round, Strykland is still suffering a net -1 skill due to casualties, and will again tie Sir Richard. As both sides are attacking and tied, casualties are minimal, with only 2% inflicted on each side, bringing the total to 7% for Strykland and 4% for Sir Richard.
On the third round, Sir Richard's attack is a win by 10-14. Strykland's loosing defense inflicts another 2% casualties, while Sir Richard's overwhelming attack only inflicts 10% casualties but nets him another +3 in PB.
At the start of the fourth round, Sir Richard is at -1 for casualties and +3 for PB, giving him an effective strategy skill of 15. Strykland is at -3 for casualties and +0 for PB, reducing his effective strategy from 12 to 9. (Though not stated in MC, the numbers for the start of the fourth round would have by -5 casualties, +3 PB for Sir Richard; and -11 casualties for Strykland, or 11 versus a 1). Sir Richard would get another +2 for an all-out attack, while Strykland would have been at a net 0 for a failed Parley (converted into a Defense at -1; Defense normally gives +1 to strategy). An average result on both die rolls would result in a margin 8 victory for Sir Richard. He would gain another +2 PB and inflict another 10% casualties on Strykland's force; Strykland's defense would only inflict 3% casualties (5% on the table, doubled for taking any casualties in all-out attack, and divided by 3 for Strykland's defense strategy).
In the book example, at this point, Strykland's force is supposed to have been wiped out but have actually only taken 80% casualties. Under Positional Warfare, Sir Richard has +5 PB and 9% casualties. Strykland has no PB and has taken 27% casualties. With his position untenable, Strykland attempts a Full Retreat while Sir Richard continues to ride him down with another All-Out Attack. Effective skills are 15 for Strykland and 19 for Sir Richard. Another average set of rolls see Strykland retreating with 0 additional casualties and no more losses for Sir Richard. The good knight now has to decide whether to hold the field (halving his casualties and reducing them by 5% will net him 0 overall for the battle) or pursue Strykland and inflict another 5% casualties for a total of 32% casualties but taking 5% casualties for his own force.


Positional Warfare changes Mass Combat a lot. Battles go on for longer and are more inconclusive: instead of being wiped out in the fourth round, Strykland successfully retreats with  more than two-thirds of his force intact. Attacks are also riskier: a minimal win results in few casualties and little PB gain, while a successful defense by the opponent results in higher casualties for the attacking side for no gain. Both sides have incentive to take Defense strategies, which convert to Skirmish if they both do, making battles even more inconclusive.

Strategically, the fact that most battles are resolved with the losing force retreating in good order, instead of being routed with 50% of the force permanently dead and the rest dispersed, means that the operational/campaign level struggle is also more inconclusive. Losing forces are not destroyed, but instead can retreat and regroup.

Overall, I think Positional Warfare improves Mass Combat, but it does slow at the cost of slowing down play and making battles less decisive. Standard Mass Combat has an advantage that if one force is clearly superior to the other, it can expect to destroy the enemy completely in 3 rounds of combat. Doing so takes a tolerable amount of time in play. Shifting that so that a superior force chases off an inferior force in 6 rounds, only to have to track them down and repeat the process two or three times until they're fully destroyed, might be intolerable in play.

I'd like to experiment more with Positional Warfare, but it's such a style change for my current game that I think the players would hate it. Everyone has gotten used to destroying the enemy in 2-3 rounds and resolving the struggle; switching rules to make combat less decisive would not be popular.

Monday, June 12, 2017

GURPS Mass Combat: Fragile Feature

Precis: In GURPS Mass Combat, Fragile troops are helpful as long as you're winning - but they cause problems when you start to lose.

This is a new unit feature for troops in GURPS Mass Combat. It's come up in my New Dawn game and I thought I would share it.

Fragile  GM-Assigned

The element is composed of troops who perform poorly under heavy stress. As long as they are part of a winning army, whether on the offense or defense, they act as their training and experience dictate. Should they find themselves losing, they behave much worse than their training and experience would suggest, refusing to move from safe positions on the offense and refusing to fall back from compromised positions on the defense.

If a force contains at least 20% fragile elements (by percentage of total elements or total TS), then the force commander has an additional -2 penalty to Battle Strategy rolls when choosing the Rally strategy or when rolling after losing the previous round of battle. The penalty is not cumulative.
This feature is characteristic of fatalistic warriors, braggarts, some monsters, and troops that have been reformed after being defeated. It is compatible with Impetuous, and many Impetuous elements should also have Fragile.

Fragile came up in play after the PCs started defeating large formations of orcs: even with 100% or more nominal battlefield losses, 30-50% of the enemy force would flee without their equipment (Mass Combat p38). That wasn't a big deal when the PCs were fighting 100-200 orcs at a time, but defeating 1600 orcs meant there were still upwards of 600 dispersed fighters. It seemed reasonable that people would want to gather those survivors up, refit and re-equip them, but it also seemed reasonable that those broken survivors would permanently be less capable. The Fragile trait is a way to mark such units of formerly defeated soldiers, but it's also useful for modeling the tendency of some historical armies to do well as long as they're winning and then fall apart very quickly at the first setback.

Friday, May 26, 2017

New Dawn Session 14 - 16: The Secrets of Stinecrice

Precis: The Resistance visits a mysterious stone circle. There they fight their way through several strangle battles and muddle their way through confusing puzzles. In the end, mysteries are revealed.

I've been running New Dawn on a more or less weekly basis for the past several months, and not writing up the sessions because I'm been lazy. However, the last month has been really good, interesting, and weird, and several subtle clues that have been in the game since the beginning finally paid off and I'm excited about that. I'm also ambivalent about some things.

Cast of Characters

New Dawn is a troupe style game, with each player having two characters. One team primarily does military stuff; the other team has been doing delving and diplomacy.
Eilmyn had to leave the game after the fifteen session. Her former characters got renamed and will become NPCs or temporary characters for players who want to try the game out for a session or two.

The Secrets of Stinecrice

The sessions started a little after the previous session. With all the local orcs defeated and the Flying Boat repaired, it was time to deal with some prophetic visions that Ariana had been experiencing: she felt the need to go to Stinecrice, a mysterious stone circle (like Stonehenge) nearly 100 miles deep into orc controlled territory. She'd also been having visions of extreme danger, death by a dozen different elemental hazards, so everyone stocked up on elemental resistance potions. Then they piled into the Flying Boat and headed upriver.

The magic of the boat only works for four hours a day. To maximize visibility and simplify navigation, they flew about the boat's maximum altitude of 100 yards, but that also made it easy for orc garrisons to spot them and they saw goblin wolfrider couriers being dispatched from hostile strongholds as they passed. As long as the boat was working, it was trivial for the PCs to outrun the couriers and the patrols they spawned, but they realized that those patrols might become a problem when they stopped for the night. In the end, they had just enough range to reach Stinecrice before the boat stopped flying, and that's what they did. I just laughed silently and wondered what they were going to do to leave the area.

Stinecrice itself was protected by some lightning throwers and a company of elite orcs: these orcs were both skilled in battle and not insane. Around ten orcs were in the immediate vicinity, with another ten close at hand as reinforcements, and both groups attacked the PCs as soon as they emerged from the nearby swamp.

The resulting battle was marked by some pretty poor tactics by the PCs but eventual victory anyway. Nayla and Mikael each attacked a different orc knight that was galloping toward them, but the combination of range and solid defenses meant they mostly shot up the knights' shields. Nayla did spend a couple of seconds laying waste to any orc priest or crossbowman that she saw, and those guys and the orc infantry were pretty ineffectual. The knights finally closed to lance range, but Ariana and Hloomawl defended against their lances and then the archers finished them off. The remaining orc infantry were quickly defeated.

At the magical stone circle itself, the team carefully worked their way past the defenses. When they got close, they were sucked into the weird glowing colors in the center of the circle and things got weird.

The Test of Faith

The PCs found themselves in a 30' wide, 30' corridor, made from an unknown smooth gray stone and uniformly lit by unknown light sources. Ahead of them, they saw a 30' wide pit with a 30' wide chimney above it and some glowing letters.

When they got closer, they could read the letters which said "The Divine are real yet ineffable. To accept the Divine wisdom requires a leap of faith." While they were puzzling that out, I privately told Kiara that Nayla could see a solid stone bridge across the pit, which she immediately walked across. Ariana and Nesta tried to follow her, but they could neither see or nor touch the bridge, and backed off. After some discussion, Ariana volunteered to jump across the pit and everyone else waited to see what would happen. Unfortunately for that plan, I told them that the nature of the place required each of them to choose before any of them saw the results. Mikael and Nesta, unsure of their ability to make the leap, each took a narrow ledge that allowed a safe crossing of the pit, while Hloomawl elected to jump. Ariana and Hloomawl easily crossed the pit and then everyone saw a flash of white.

The Trial of Metal and Wood

When I actually ran the game, I missed a step in my notes. I did run this next little bit later, and it works okay where I ran it, but I'd rather record it how it was supposed to happen.

The PCs found themselves in a 30' wide, 30' corridor, made from an unknown smooth gray stone and uniformly lit by unknown light sources. Ahead of them, they saw a 30' wide pit with a 30' wide chimney above it.

When they got closer, they saw five figures walk up the far wall of the pit - a big minotaur, a tall tzavarim, a large armored human, and two humans in mail. The figures were standing on the wall as though it was the floor. Then one of the humans walked vertically up the air, crossing the hall on the other side of the pit. The armored human and the minotaur then jumped up the wall while the other two edged up along a lip in the far wall. The PCs quickly realized they were watching themselves perform the Test of Faith, but they were too boggled to do much. When the Test of Faith completed, there was another flash of white light.

This time, the PCs found themselves in a 60' cubic room. They were standing on the floor. On each of the four walls, there was a metallic, demonic figure with a kusari, standing on the wall as though it was a floor. On the ceiling, there were four monsters made of vines, also standing on the ceiling as though it was a floor.

Obviously, this was incredibly confusing to map out. It would have been somewhat easy in a face-to-face game, because I could have used miniatures and flight stands and just put the figures at the right height. Using MapTools, which really only wants to have a single 2D map at a time, was much harder. What I ended up doing was drawing three maps: the floor/ceiling, the east wall/west wall, and the north wall/south wall. Each monster had three tokens representing its position on each of three maps, so the demon standing on the east wall had a token just off the east edge of the floor/ceiling map, in the middle of the east/west wall map, and just off the east edge of the north/south wall map. It took a little explaining, but pretty soon every got what was going on.

The map, midway through the fight. Most of the vinemen are unconscious on the ceiling and most of the demons are on the floor, but Nesta and desmon and dueling on the east wall.

The biggest downside to the maps was that I had use squares, instead of hexes, to get everything to line up consistently. As it turned out, adopting GURPS tactical combat rules to squares on the fly was probably more confusing that the 3D set-up.

The monsters were obviously hostile, and combat started. The vine monsters threw enormous barbed darts that could penetrate Ariana's armor and were near certain death for Nesta, Nayla, or Mikael. The demon's chains were magically agile and fast, and they could attack and defend with them. The demons tried to beat on people, but mostly the PCs dodged or defended and counterattacked. Ariana's magic shield destroyed any inanimate object that she blocked, so several of the demons lost their weapons pretty quick.

At some point, Nayla used an Imbuement. All the demons immediately freaked out and started concentrating fire on her, screaming "Not her! Not yet! The ward holds! Destroy her!" Hloomawl and Ariana did their best to protect her, but at some point Nayla got separated from them and knocked down. The demons didn't let up and she took a couple more hits, though at least one vine man on the ceiling managed to splatter one of the other demons by missing a shot at Nayla and hitting the demon instead.

Eventually, Ariana and Hloomawl managed to force the demons away from Nayla and pour some healing potions on her. Nesta had jumped onto one of the walls and ran up onto the ceiling. Her magic sword was perpetually coated in a dangerous poison, and while it was entirely ineffectual against the demons, it did a number of the vine men. They could regenerate 2 HP/turn, but she was doing 70+ damage per second to them, and they just couldn't keep up. We handwaved the rest of the battle because Demons of Old and Trolls (the DF Monsters 1 entries that I'd based these particular foes on) are not hard to defeat once they're down, they're tedious to defeat once they're down and I had more weirdness to get to.

With the monsters eventually defeated, medium large emerald and pearl appeared floating 4' above the ground in the middle of the room. Nayla tried to grab one but couldn't touch it. Nesta grabbed the pearl and Mikael grabbed the emerald and the whole room disappeared in a flash of light.

The Test of Purpose

The PCs found themselves again in the wide corridor, without the precious stones or any evidence of their hard fight in the previous room. Ahead of them were a pair of wide wooden doors and the glowing words To be a servant of the gods is to be the tool, not the work. Expect to be valued accordingly." The door opened to Ariana's touch. Beyond the door was a huge room filled with stuff: weapons, shields, tools, and various nick-nacks and items including a quill, a set of dice, and some hand mirrors. On the far side of the room, there was a dais and an altar, with a faded fresco behind it. As Nayla entered the room, she teleported onto the dais and didn't feel like leaving it.

The other PCs could approach the dais but when they got close, they felt like there was something else they needed to do and they stepped away. Nayla examined the fresco: much of it was hard to make it out, but it seemed to show an epic battle. Only two figures were clearly visible: a figure in black armor with seven spikes on the helm, and an armored cavalryman (or possibly woman) carrying a white asymmetric bow. As part of Nayla's unpublished backstory is that she briefly owned a mysterious white asymmetric bow named South Wind, and that she started being able to perform her uncanny feats of archery at that tie, this was extremely curious.

Hloomawl declared that he wasn't going to touch anything, and then he felt a gentle compulsion to join Nayla on the dais. Ariana observed that not only were there a lot of things, that there were three copies of each thing: one copy made of precious metals and adorned with gems, one copy made of steel or wood and well used but well maintained, and a third copy that was rusty, decrepit, and abused. After some hesitation, Araina took a set of damaged forge tools up onto the altar. Nesta picked up a set of well-worn surveyor's tools, and Mikael finally selected a well-worn gardening shovel. When they reached the dais, the room disappeared in a flash of light.

The Trial of Fire and Water

The PCs again appeared in a large room. This one was checkerboarded with 20' squares of ice and 20' patches of fire, with the PCs standing in the middle of one of the patches of ice. It was freezing cold where they were. In the adjacent fire tiles, they could see weird portals in the floor that seemed to lead to the diagonally adjacent ice tiles. A strange sluglike monster, armored in ice, stood by each portal in the ice square. In each corner of the room, in the fire tiles, stood a flame lord (as the DF Monsters 1 entry). There were weird distortions in the air by each flamelord, which turned out to be one way portals that opened near the flame lords and exited near the PCs.

While they were evaluating all that, the flame lords started throwing fireballs through the portals, at the PCs. The PCs immediately split up: Mikael charged northwest, Hloomawl charged northwest, Ariana charged southwest, and Nesta tripped on the ice. Nayla tried to fire an arrow through a one-way portal, but it didn't go through and hit the wall instead.

The ice slugs surged to attack, growing 12' long pseudopods. Much to Ariana and Hloomawl's annoyance, their icy armor not only regrew as it was damaged, it also fastened on to anything that touched them. Although the pseudopod's attack was weak, it was obvious that meleeing these ice monsters was a good way to get bound up in ice.

End of the session leaves the PCs in separate duels against ice slugs while the flame lords in the corners toss fiery doom at Nayla in the center. 
Nayla used an imbuement to try to hit one of the ice slugs, and once again, all the demons went nuts and started focusing fire on her. She got hit by a couple of fireballs but they were fortunately at a long enough range that the damage was diminished. Everyone else struggled with the ice slugs, and that's where we stopped play.

Over the break, people strategized and batted around some ideas for a bit. At the start of the sixteenth session, all that paid off. Hloomawl released his flail, pulled out a potion of Alchemical Fire, and set the slug he was fighting on fire. The ice holding him at bay quickly melted and he hurried over to give Nayla his potion of fire resistance. At the same time, Nayla tried to free Ariana by firing an arrow at the slug the priestess was fighting, but missed at hit Ariana instead. Gravely wounded, Ariana dropped her Fireproof prayer for Divine Might, growing huge and strong, which also made her strong enough to ignore the slug's attempts to shift her. Counting on her armor to protect her, Ariana pulled the slug through the portal into a fire square and quickly finished it off.

All the while, the flame lords kept lobbing fire at Nayla. She dodged and jinked and used her allies as cover  - sadly, Ariana got set on fire by a particularly potent fireball and jumped back through the portal to use the ice to put it out but fell unconscious. Mikael helped kill a couple of ice slugs and then launched scores of arrows into the flame lords. The flame lords had super-instant regeneration and were unkillable as long as they were in fire, but that didn't help much when they were taking 50+ damage a turn and they all fell to the ground. One last slug strove valiantly to kill Nayla but died slowly from fire damage from her magic bow.

Nesta had been protected by a Fire Resistance potion from the start. She finally reached a flame lord, picked him up, and dumped him into the ice. With his regeneration nullified, it was trivial to kill him. With the ice slugs dead and the flame lords easily nullified, I handwaved the rest of the fight.

When the monsters died, a ruby and a black opal appeared in the middle of the room. Ariana picked them both up, and the room disappeared in a flash of white light.

The Ultimate Test

The PCs appeared, unwounded, in a 30' hallway, without any of gems they'd retrieved. Ahead of them were four mudmen armed with great axes. Above the mudmen where the words "Blessed is he who lays down his life in the service of Divinity." The mudmen charged forward, all-out attacking with intent to decapitate with their axes for 6d+18 (2) damage. Only Nayla was spared.

Ariana, Nesta, and Mikael ably defended themselves, and the mudmen exploded into nothingness after attacking. Hloomawl alone gritted his teeth and took the hits. Surprisingly, and somewhat annoyingly, he was only dropped to -3xHP and change, and made every HT roll to avoid death, knockdown, or stunning despite taking over 100 HP in damage. His attacker, too, disappeared, and the hallway disappeared in a flash of white light.

The Trial of Air

The PCs found themselves - alive and unwounded - in a square chamber, devoid of air, but filled with a yellow poisonous gas. A 20' tall spire stood in the center of room, topped by a glowing yellow gem. Just below the gem was a sign reading "Fight your way through this, you meddling round-eared vermin. -K" Uhuk acidly pointed out that Hloomawl doesn't actually have round ears.

All of the PCs immediately began holding their breaths. As Mikael is a tall but very skinny guy and Hloomawl is a tall but very strong guy, it was trivial for Hloomawl to boost Mikael over his head, enough that Mikael could easily grab the gem. As soon as the touched it, the room disappeared in a flash of white light.

Judgment, Revelation, and New Mysteries

The PCs found themselves in a huge doomed chamber of white marble, laced with veins of gold and decorated in precious gemstones. An uncountable, unknownable, and shifting number of alcoves lines the walls, each filled with a divine power. The Gods spoke as one, and the power of the voices drove the PCs to their knees.

Each of Hloomawl, Nesta, Mikael, and Ariana were judged and found wanting: Nesta and Mikael lacked faith and were unwilling to make the ultimate sacrifice; Ariana had faith but misunderstood her role and was unwilling make the ultimate sacrifice; and Hloomawl, though possessing faith and willing to sacrifice, had refused to make himself a servant. There was some scowls and sniffing, but no one really disputed the judgment.

The PCs were then told, "The Usurper can not be truly defeated without the Hope. The Usurper has locked the Gods and the Hope away behind these five wards.You have destroyed one of the wards, but to to truly liberate your lands, you must liberate the gods and liberate the Hope. You must destroy the other wards." As they heard those words, they knew the location of the other wards.

Finally, Nayla was addressed individually. "Harbinger, Battle Maiden, Mistress of South Wind: You have failed before, and darkness has benighted the land. You have been given another chance. Free the Hope, defeat the Usurper, and bring a new dawn of freedom to the lands."

With that, there was a final flash of white light and they appeared, whole and unharmed, without the gems but with all the items they had used in Stinecrice, back on the surface inside the stone circle.

"I don't understand what just happened!"

As Ariana has Guilt Complex, Kevin decided that she went into despondency on learning that she'd failed her god. She dropped her magic hammer and started trudging off into the swamp. Hloomawl, a bit more sanguine, picked up the hammer and trotted after her. Nayla followed, complaining that she had no idea about what had just happened, why she'd been singled out, or how or when she had failed before.

The rest of the Stinecrice garrison was soon on the PCs' heels. The flying boat was no longer capable of flying, but it still floated, so Hloomawl improvised a pole and took it deeper into the marshes. The PCs spent the rest of the day dodging the orcs, occasionally battling groups of orcs, and restraining Ariana's suicidal urges to charge the orcs and end it all. The next day, they flew back to the army at the fortress of Hortskink and had a council of war.

They quickly realized that although they had a mission from the gods to destroy the other wards, there were severe difficulties in doing so. The closest ward was in the dwarf lands, which is an active war zone between the Empire and the last of the dwarves. Two of the other wards were on the far side of the continent. The fifth ward was possibly the closest, but it was in the middle of the Dodenrike, the lands of the dead where nothing lives. In the end, they elected to continue their plan to liberate the country of Hanist and move north to aid the dwarves.

After some prodding, Hloomawl recalled the legends of the Incarnate Hope: a group of demi-gods made flesh that had fought against Dread Emperor Karsen at the founding of the Empire and lost. As Karsen is generally depicted as a man in black armor with a crown of seven black spikes, and because of various other clues, Kevin and Eric figured it out: Nayla was the first of the Incarnate Hope to have been reincarnated, and she was charged to gather the others and strike down Karsen. It seems likely that all the PCs are potential demigods.

I felt this realization was a good place to stop the session, so even though it was a little early, that's when we stopped.

Review of Play

There's so much to say that I'm not even sure where to start. At the end, I think and then I'll work backwards.

Last things first: I'm very excited, but also a little ambivalent, about the fact that the game is embracing its epicness, and the scale of the epicness is revealed. It was always my intent that the PCs would become demi-gods, and though they aren't even there yet, that outcome is now openly on the table. I put clues about that into the backstory from the start, but I didn't play them up very much. The events at Stinecrice where the first time when those clues were really pointed out to the players, and they picked them up and figured them out pretty quickly. So that was a big pay-off and I feel really proud of them, for figuring it out, and myself, for threading that fine needle between "so obscure that you have to tell them outright" and "so obvious that there's no moment of frission when they put everything together."

The reason I'm a little ambivalent is because I feel like there might have been a bit of bait and switch involved. I'm not sure how true that is - it it really bait and switch to go from a very loose pastiche of Tolkien to an even looser pastiche of an obscure alternate setting for Legends of the Five Rings? That's what I'm doing, basically. I've been hinting for a while that I've been okay with the PCs becoming fantasy super-heroes. I don't think that fantasy super heroes was really in the original campaign precis, since originally the game was "justify Mark's purchase of GURPS Mass Combat" but I don't think that anyone feels betrayed by the change in emphasis.

Next I'm going to work backwards through the trials and testings, and doing the testings first. My concept for what was going to happen in Stinecrice evolved as I thought about it, but one thing settled out pretty early on: Stinecrice was both a challenge to defeat Karsen's defenses and a mechanism for the God's to find new priests. The challenge part settled out pretty quickly, but the search mechanism wandered around for a bit. I was on the GURPS Discord channel and saw a chance remark about tests that didn't test the PCs' ability, but instead testing their intentions. That really crystallized what I needed to do: come up with a bunch of tests that weren't so much about the numbers on the sheet or even the cleverness of the players, but on their willingness to do things. I didn't want to make them too easy and I really didn't want to make them too hard: I knew that at lot of them would possibly come off as pixel-bitching. The end result were fairly simple tests, with somewhat cryptic instructions written in glowing letters.

The last test was the ultimate sacrifice. I deliberately set it up as a combat situation, with an initiative count and a hex map, to lure the PCs into familiar thinking. Uhuk commented afterwards that she knew something was up, because the straightforward combat encounters didn't have glowing instructions and the weird tests did. I was a little surprised that Kevn didn't make the same leap. Overall, I thought this was a pretty straightforward and fair test: the instructions were fairly straightforward, and it only required the a player to be willing to let his character die to pass.

The middle test was probably the most obscure, but I love the Bujold quote that was the basis for the instructions so much that I couldn't pass it by. It also had elements of the chalice choosing scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, so I felt I was on pretty good territory, difficulty wise. Uhuk missed that session, so I'd asked her ahead of time what Hloomawl would do in that situation, and it turned out fairly well.

The first test was the easiest and most obvious. I wouldn't say it was directly lifted from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but the basic concept was from that. My biggest problem was handling Nayla: I loved the idea of the personal bridge that only she could see and interact with, but since no one knew that Nayla was a demi-god at that point, it got confusing and a couple of people almost stepped off to their deaths. I probably should have just teleported her across the room.

I was sad that none of the PCs passed all the trials. That might be a sign that the puzzles were too obscure, but I talked it over with the players afterwards. They all mostly agreed that I'd given adequate clues, but they'd just overthought the puzzles. They couldn't believe that the answers were as obvious as as they seemed to be, and then after they completed each one, they said "no, that's exactly what it was." So for those puzzles, I didn't do as good as job on threading the needle between obscure and obvious.

The trials were meant to be hard, and weird. Peter Dell'Orto has said that a good rule for stocking a dungeon is use the cool things as early as possible, because you can't guarantee the players will make it to the secret lair in the eleventh floor on the dungoen but you can expet they'll make it to the third or fourth room. This was something of the same principle: I thought it would be cool to have fights with weird gravity like the ones in Dr. Strange or with portals like in Portal. Stinecrice was a good opportunity to have weird stuff happen and reinforce the idea that they were in another plane of existence. So that worked out well together.

The trial of air was a nothing-burger. I figured that the combination of poison air, a climbing challenge, and the lack of visible enemies would make it a good change of pace from the previous trials and also challenging. I forgot/did not plan for the fact that Uhuk's characters tend to be big and very strong and that Mikael was tall, so it was pretty trivial for Hloomawl to boost Mikael and for him to grab the stone. Not every challenge can be challenging and at least it moved quickly.

The trial of ice and fire was interesting. We started it at the end of session 15 and finished it in the next session, and as designed it was possibly a little too tough. Kevin was convinced it was a nigh-unwinnable total party kill, whereas I always thought it was a breeze if the PCs just had 5 potions of Fire Resistance: drink potions, ignore the attacks of the flame lords, wrestle the slugs into the fire areas, beat them to death, then go chase down the flame lords. As it turned out, the PCs mostly used alchemical fire to defeat the ice slugs, but I maintain that they weren't necessary. The flame lords, despite their superfast regeneration, turned out to be very vulnerable to arrows. I had planned for an exciting chase and wrestle as the PCs had to drag each fire lord into the ice to kill him, but as it turned out, even regenerating their full HP every turn wasn't sufficient. The actual portals didn't have much effect in the game, but Kevin used one a couple of times to tactically transition between ice and fire in a hurry, so they did have some effect.

The trial of metal and wood was just strange. That was the plan, so good, but I still feel I may have bit off more than I could chew on that one. I had thought that the 3-D projection of the walls was fairly clear, and I guess it was no less clear than any other way I could have done it, but it was still confusing. The trolls that I used for the vinemen were terrible: regenerating 1-2 HP/turn, in a GURPS combat, is just not a useful ability. I had to retroactively give them Homogeneous and recalculate the damage they'd take to prevent them from just dying to arrow storms, and even then, they were clearly a secondary threat. As soon as Nesta got up among them with her sword of massive poisoning, they just dropped so far into the negatives that they weren't a threat. Nayla was almost killed, but mostly because of poor PC tactics: she moved out of the reach of the two guys with Shield Wall Parry and got knocked prone and subjected to a couple of rounds of fire from the vinemen. The melee guys then beat on the demons ineffectually instead of standing over her, providing cover and shield blocks against incoming attacks, which would have done a lot more to reduce the risk.

Like I said, I had always intended for the PCs to become demi-gods, though the exact details of how that will work are still unknown to the PCs. The process and meaning is complicated, for a variety of reasons, including my hatred of inheritance as a source of power and the need to be able to swap PCs in and out of the game as players leave or characters die. Nayla as the first demi-god to emerge was mostly a matter of happenstance: Kiara had chosen the default Imbuement package for her, and that meant she had Imbuement without the Magic or Divine modifiers. Since she was clearly doing supernatural things with her arrows, in my mind that meant her cosmic nature was leaking through. But obviously it had to be a secret to the player and the character until things were revealed. Kiara was charmingly flustered every time Nayla got a pass on a testing or got confusing information from the gods, so that worked very well and was entertaining.

The battle at the surface of Stinecrice was another mixed bag. Kevin and Uhuk correctly figured out that they needed to block for Mikael and Nayla, but the archers couldn't figure out that they correct way to handle charging horses is to shoot out the horses' legs, not bounce arrows of armor. They also each kept shooting at a different orc knight, lettting them use their blocks effectively. If they'd concentrated fire, so that the same orc had to block two different attacks, they would have done much better.

Anyway, all in all, these were an excellent trio of sessions. Mysteries were revealed and clues put into context, but there are new mysteries and clues in their place. The weird battles were weird, but (mostly) enjoyable, and reminded everyone that the game involves a lot of magic.

What Next?

I need to do a lot of maps and stuff that I've been neglected. The PCs have pretty much conquered the entirety of southern Hanist, the starting campaign area, and I need campaign maps for the rest of Hanist and the surrounding countries. There's still some debate as to whether they're going to west and clear out a border, east and try to make contact with the minotaurs, lizardmen, and fae, or north to get to the dwarves and the second God Ward quicker. No matter what, I'll need to prepare and make maps.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

New Dawn Session 8: The Going Gets Tough

Precis: The Resistance goes to explore an evil sorcerer-general's castle, and finds outs to their dismay that evil sorcerers-general can teleport home in a hurry when they need to.

I ran the eighth session of New Dawn last Thursday night. It was a good session, though my prep work for it was a little rushed. Fundamentally, from the GM's perspective, it had the disadvantage of being something of a filler session. That's not completely accurate, as it was more of session to set-up of some revelations. It should pay-off pretty quickly, and it had merit on its own, but it wasn't as great as it could be.

Cast of Characters

New Dawn is a troupe style game, with each player having two characters. One team primarily does military stuff; the other team has been doing delving and diplomacy. This session focused on the diplomacy team.

GM Difficulties

Like I said in the write-up for the seventh session, my initial plan for this session was horrible. The PCs needed to complete a pair of minor battles to liberate Cape Har and earn a lot of character points, which they needed, but two minor battles is not a sufficient narrative thread to hang a session on. I mostly dealt with this problem by ignoring it, which was a bad decision, and finally around Tuesday I confessed to the players that while I wanted the climax for the liberation of Cape Har, it wasn't going to happen narratively and did they mind if we just skipped that and moved on? They were okay with it, so we did.

By scrapping a weak plot, I got to replace it with a stronger plot: the investigation of the mysterious Black Library. The Library is a repository of books on magic in southwest Hanist, believed to be owned by a sorcerer-general named Arcane who left Hanist to fight in the civil war at the capitol. All that is the rumor, anyway, but the Empire's sorcerer-generals deliberate cultivate an aura of mystery so parts of that are not actually true.

Crossing the River

The PCs head south, fighting battles at the
ford and again at Duzen Iken.
The game started with the PCs figuring out which characters were going to accompany the army south. I didn't have a strong care, though I thought it made sense for both of the magic focused characters to go, they needed someone who could lead the troops, and it would be helpful if they had an intelligence analyst, a scout, and a strong guy. Kevin was a little perturbed when he realized that meant leaving the leadership to Skyler, who has a tendency to only do all-out attacks and take huge casualties against skilled enemies. But Eilmyn promised to be sensible, and Kevin played Ariana instead of Aisling.

Skyler led the field army (reinforced by some recently trained heavy infantry and the stone golem they'd found beneath Costvud) down to the ferry and crossed. There was an orc garrison company on the other side of the ferry, but excellent reconnaissance and Intelligence Analysis on Nesta's part meant that the PC's managed to surprise them. Skyler launched three all-out attacks, and the orcs didn't manage to rally until after the second one, after they'd already taken 85% casualties while delivering none in return. The orc commander was actually especially skilled at attacking, and relatively skilled at Strategy, but was had something like a -13 skill penalty to Skyler's +19 skill bonus when the orc finally got his troops organized to attack. So that didn't work.

A pair of wolf-riders managed to flee the battle. The PCs could have sent the golem and their fairly incompetent heavy cavalry after them, but I warned them that they didn't know where any other orc forces might be in the vicinity. They decided not to risk their golem in a possible ambush, but instead made a forced march on Duzen Iken, the castle guarding the Black Library, to limit the orcs' ability to bring in reinforcements.

The Battles at Duzen Iken

Duzen Iken was held by a company of the Pale Hands. Unlike the Red Swords the PCs had fought at the ferry, the Pale Hands were well supplied, well led, well trained, and reinforced by a squad of ogres and some extra wizards. They actually had more troop strength than the PCs' forces, though the PCs had the advantage in special classes, especially armor and engineering, courtesy of a giant stone golem. Nesta managed to learn they were in for a hard fight before the battle, but she didn't immediately learn that the orc commander, Major Kong, was a master of siege warfare.

Skyler, being Skyler, launched an all-out assault on the walls as soon as the PCs arrived. And being Skyler, he managed to win that round, delivering 30% casualties to the orcs and only taking 10% in return while managing to breach at least some of the walls. Doing so took until dark, and the orcs' infravision gave them an advantage at night - or at least reduced their relative disadvantage.

Eilmyn decided to be sensible for a change, and initiated a deliberate assault over the next two rounds. This reduced the value of the fortress and reduced the risk that Skyler's troops would take substantial casualties, and Eilmyn continued to roll well and grind the orcs down. By the next evening, the orcs were down to 10% effectives in one last tower, but Resistance scouts reported three more companies of orcs approaching Duzen Iken. Skyler launched one all-out assault, slaughtered the last of the Pale Hands, and started organizing his troops to defend the castle they had just taken.

We didn't actually play out the orc assault. The orcs in question, another three companies of Red Hands, were in low supply and had lazy leadership that didn't try to arrive at the castle quickly. The three of them combined actually had less effective troop strength than the single company of Pale Hands. Since Skyler had already beaten a more powerful with a better general and superior defensive position, I handwaved the fight against the Red Hands. The most likely result was Skyler all-out defending the castle against some slow orc assaults, and then charging out to finish off the wounded. I didn't want to play through all that because I had other things I wanted to accomplish in this session.

The Mesa and the Black Library

One thing that was very weird about Duzen Iken was the small mesa in the center of it. There was a roughly 80' tall, 300' wide mesa within the castle walls, and there was a small forest on the top of the mesa. There was a narrow path spiraling up the side of the mesa.

I emphasized to the PCs that southwest Hanist was a land of rolling hills, forests, and coastal plains, and giant mesas were not part of the normal environment. They all agreed that it was weird and needed investigation.

Brute Force and Ignorant Trapfinding

At the base of the path was a minimal gate and a warning not to pass. After some jockeying for position, Arianna and Skyler decided to walk up the path. I immediately had them roll Hearing at a penalty, and when they both succeeded, I told them they heard twangs and saw a pair of crossbow bolts fly out of the side of the mesa, aimed for them. Both of them failed their defenses and while Arianna's amazing plate harness bounced the bolt, the damage roll (3d+5) was pretty decent for Skyler.

We immediately had a discussion about what kind of armor Skyler was wearing. When Skyler was first created, he was wearing DR 1 leather armor ("a bomber jacket and leather dance pants" as I described it). Despite several opportunities since then, he hadn't upgraded his armor since despite the availability of high quality, orc plate scavenged from the battlefield. After some discussion, he ended up in some of that armor and only took a grave wound. He and Arianna retreated, Arianna used her new Lay on Hands prayer to heal him, and then used Flesh Wounds to heal herself up from the transferred damage. The PCs heard some clicking and muffled thuds from the area near the crossbows, but ignored them.

Arianna and Skyler proceeded up the path again, and what do you know, but they got shot by crossbows again. Arianna managed to block with her new metal shield, but the arrow went right through it - but without enough force to also penetrate her armor. Skyler got lucky this time and his armor bounced the bolt. Skyler fell back, and Arianna moved forward, and Nesta ran up to get next to Arianna while the crosbows reloaded.

Finally Arianna just walked up to the crossbows and covered them with her shield while everyone else walked forward. So that's how the PCs got past the crossbow trap. After that, Nesta started checking the path for traps, though she didn't find any.

The Black Library

At the top of the mesa, hidden behind the trees, was a nice villa with boarded windows and padlocked doors. This was probably Arcane's house. There was some discussion about breaking in through the windows, but they followed a trail to a pair of double doors. After Nesta checked for traps, Arianna smashed the lock with her magic hammer that does extra damage to inanimate objects and opened the doors.

The doors opened onto a large room with bookshelves, magical circles, alchemical knicknacks, and an ugly altar to dark gods. Most important, though, was a 7' tall crystal statue of a man that charged forward to attack.

The resulting fight was pretty ugly. The golem was fast, nigh invulnerable, strong, skilled, and backed up by three more that trickled in over the next couple of rounds. Attivi managed to daze one with a lucky magic spell, and Arianna crippled another with a solid hit to the knee, but most of the PC's attacks were parried or bounced against strong armor. Nayla's bow, for instance, wasn't doing much. One of the golems managed to do a maximum critical hit punch to Attivi, sending the sorceror flying and leaving him 1 HP away from a death check.

Things Get Worse

Arcane arrives. Attivi lies on the ground after being
smashed by a crystal golem.
When Arianna had destroyed the padlock, Attivi alone had heard a weird magical peal. It was both nearby, and strangely far away. No one was really sure what it meant.

They found out when they heard a clap of thunder, and saw Arcane teleport in. She said something chiding like, "What, when the cat is away the mice will play?" and initially assumed that the PCs were orcs since Skyler and Nesta were in full orc plate. But Arianna looked different, so Arcane said "Who are you? Don't bother answering, that's just a rhetorical question. I'll find out myself." She then cast her Mass Mind Read/Mind Probe spell (with stun as a linked effect, because Arcane hates it when people she's trying to interrogate interfere). Since just about every PC had a Will of 11, they were not particularly successful in resisting a high IQ/high Sorcery talent super sorcerer and had their brains peeled.

At this point, I ended the session. It was late, Emily was tired, and I am a firm believer in ending sessions on cliffhangers whenever possible.

Review of Play

Like I said, this session was a lot of set-up. Mostly, it set up the arrival of Arcane, which is a pay-off all of its own. If the PCs can defeat Arcane, there are going to be other pay-offs as they learn more about the nature of the sorcerer-generals of the Empire of Night.

This session featured several wake-up call bosses. The improved quality of the Pale Hands compared to most of the orc riff-raff the PCs have dealt with up to this point was certainly noticeable, and the PCs handled it well. The crystal golems, in contrast, were a horror show from the PC perspective. Kevin thought they were doing okay, but from my side of the GM's screen, they were losing badly and having Attivi nearly get killed just reinforced that fact. And obviously, Arcane is an entire different level of threat than anything the PCs have fought to this point. I have a good idea of her abilities, and she is meant to be a challenge to a group of delvers and will deliver.

A large part of the problem is that the PCs, although they've earned a fair number of CP, mundane equipment upgrades, and magical equipment, have mostly not optimized themselves at all. As far as I know, Arianna is the only PC who has spent all her earned CP, upgraded all her equipment, and maximized her magical gear. Attivi and Skyler have spent parts of their CP but don't have impressive magical gear yet (and Eilmyn needed to be reminded to upgrade Skyler's armor during the sesssion!), and Nesta and Nayla are pretty close to being the same characters they started as.

I have sent out some emails, encouraging the PCs to upgrade their characters and reminding them of the available resources. Even though I generally don't let people upgrade in mid-combat, I'm going to make an exception in this case. I don't know if they will actually do so, but I'm okay with Arcane killing some Resistance leaders to emphasize the idea that scary people are scary.

What Next?

Next session is obviously going to deal with Arcane. It should be a good fight, assumign the PCs gear up appropriately.

Friday, March 3, 2017

New Dawn Session 7: (Some) Orcs Are Stupid

Precis: The PCs, having infiltrated a castle, take it over and use it as base to liberate the countryside from the orcs.

I ran the seventh session of New Dawn last week. It was a good session and a lot of fun at the time, but for some reason I didn't do all my follow-up immediately and that included not writing up a blog post. So now I am going back and fixing that.

This session finished up the infiltration of Otern county. It was another cascade of errors by the orcs, and the PCs quickly triumphed.

Cast of Characters

New Dawn is a troupe style game, with each player having two characters. One team primarily does military stuff; the other team has been doing delving and diplomacy. This session focused on the diplomacy team.

The Conquest of Hortskink 

Play picked up where session 6 ended: the PCs were widely separated as they ran around Hortskink castle. I pretty much went in initiative order and gave each PC a little bit of action, and then went onto the next person.

Nayla moved through the inner courtyard toward the only barracks that was lit. She peeked through the arrowslits and saw a bunch of orcs putting on armor. She fired a scattershot arrow through the arrow slits and did a little damage, but not much. Since she was running out of fatigue, she climbed up the barracks wall to hide on the roof and rest a bit.

Attivi, Aisling, and Michael moved to the southeast tower with plans to get to the wall and make sure there weren't any orcs left. Aisling got into the tower first and encountered an orc: he fell for her nymph charm and let himself get fast-talked into believing that she was a collaborator taking shelter from the rebels. The orc turned to the stairwell and readied his crossbow to shoot Attivi, but Aisling brained him from behind, The orc had forgotten to put on his helmet and went down immediately. Attivi and Michael caught up with Aisling and they all went onto the walls and starting moving clockwise, looking for orcs.

Nesta was in the gatehouse when she heard another orc enter. They fumbled around in the dark and I think Nesta ended up behind the orc at close range. She backstabbed the orc and then moved north to clear the walls. I think this was another orc too stupid to put on his helmet.

After a couple more minutes, most of the PCs were in the northeastern tower and the orcs in the barracks were armed, armored, formed up, and ready to squelch the rebellion. Sadly for them, Lieutenant Hok blew an easy Tactics roll and took them out through the main courtyard instead of going up onto the walls. Most of the PCs hid in the tower and worried about what to do: two lightly armored fighters, an archer, and a semi-competent sorcerer versus eight heavily armored and armored orc infantrymen backed by five orcs with crossbows and a pair of goblin archers was not exactly a recipe for success.

The orcs advance to the south in formation, but Nayla perches on the corner
of the barracks with intent to do harm.
Fortunately, Nayla was behind and above the orcs, and she landed an overstrength Scattershot arrow in the middle of their formation. Orc infantry plate armor doesn't cover the back of the legs, and the crossbow orc's armor doesn't cover their arms, and most of the orcs ended with crippled legs or arms. We could have played it out from there, but had gone from massed orcs to crippled orcs caught in a crossfire and didn't bother.

The Liberation of Otern 

The PCs decided that they would just hold onto Hortskink, and maybe even liberate all of Otern while they waited for Trahaern. They went out recruiting the next day, and kept on recruiting for days after that. Otern wasn't exactly prime militia recruiting country, and so they were going for large number of poorly equipped and badly trained troops. I think they ended with 800 or so.

As part of my prep for this game, I'd randomly rolled for Captain Grunak's abilities: Strategy-9, Intelligence Analysis-9, Leadership-13, Overconfidence, and Megalomania. I also rolled for the captains of the other nearby orc companies, and while some were more competent, Overconfidence and Megalomania were a common theme. I'd also tracked out Grunak's movement: he'd spent three days heading down to the Engenstut border and waiting for reinforcements from some other orcs, then had advanced on Swartun, besieged the PC's training forces, and gotten his tail thoroughly kicked over the course of two days before finally realizing he was losing and retreating back to Hortskink. The point was, when the orcs returned to challenge the PCs, the orc army was at 40% of its nominal strength and being led by an idiot with delusions of grandeur.
From Hortskink, they went to Mayla and south to deal with the orcs at Crickfeeg.

Nesta's scouts gave the PC's plenty of warning of the orc advance, and Aisling prepared a raid. Meanwhile, Captain Grunak tried to launch a probe against the castle gates and then have his cavalry race around to the "undefended" back wall of the castle. This worked very poorly for him and his force was wiped out, leaving him to flee south to the orc stronghold of Crickfeeg. The next day, the PCs took half their army and pursued.

Captain Grunak was theoretically superior to Captain Hulg at Crickfeeg, but since it was Hulg's company that had reinforced Grunak for the disaster at Swartun, Hulg refused to turn commander over to the idiot. Hulg made a good defense at Crickfeeg, but Aisling was a superior leader and ground him down.

We ended the session there.

Off Screen: the Liberation of Stineyer and Cape Har

At this point, there were two orc companies on Cape Har: another at the orc stronghold of Niswunstine to the east and one at the fortress of Travgrave in Stineyer. I had some vague ideas that session 8 would deal with those battles, but since the PCs had already demonstrated that Trahaern's army could defeat an orc company holding a fortress, and the combined forces would smash an orc company holding a stronghold, I didn't think that would be a very good session. Instead, we all agreed to handwave those two fights and move onto something more interesting.

Review of Play 

Part of the backstory of New Dawn is that there was a coup at the Imperial capitol, and most of the orc garrisons went there to fight in the resulting civil war. The remaining forces are generally not very good, and were left behind because the generals needed someone to garrison the lands but didn't want to leave behind their best warfighters. Thus, the initial forces arrayed against the PCs are not very good, and the PCs are easily defeating them.

There's something of a Sorting Algorithm of Evil effect going on here, somewhat intentionally on my part. The first forces the PCs are fighting are scattered companies, led by incompetents, and undersupplied. Over time, those companies are going to get fully supplied, merge into regiments and eventually legions, and start getting some more competent leadership. Ideally, the PCs' forces will have improved by then and will continue to overmatch them. But for now, it explains why the orcs are so bad and make so many suboptimal choices like forgetting to put on their helmets when their castle is under attack: these are the dumbest and laziest of the orcs, left behind because their leadership knew they were dumb and lazy.

Aside from criminal stupidity on the part of the orcs, this was a good session: a little bit of PC scale combat at the start, some role-playing and decision making in the middle, and two small battles at the end to good purpose. I'm getting a little better at pacing the plots for this style of game, which makes me happy. On the downside, preparing for these sessions is a lot of work, and unlike a large dungeon like Castle of Horrors, I can't do prep in advance when I have time and let it carry me for a couple of weeks when I'm busy. Every session ends up getting prepped in the week before it, and if I'm busy or uninspired then the prep is rushed or unsatisfactory. That's frustrating, but I don't see an easy way around that.

What's Next?

Like I said at the start, for some reason, I wasn't up to writing this blog post or figuring out CP awards immediately after the game. I let doing that slide, which cascaded to me not really doing prep work until Tuesday or Wednesday for a game I run on Thursday, and then having to work late on both those days. All of which did not help that I was a little uninspired about the idea of doing two rote battles.

Fortunately, I whined to the players, and they all agreed to handwave the liberation of Stineyer and focus instead on the assault on the Black Library. The Black Library is a semi-legendary magical library owned by Arcane, one of the sorcerer-generals of the Empire of Night, that just happened to be across the river from Otern. As it turned out, the orc garrison at the Black Library was not a bunch of worthless idiots, but instead a hand-picked force, so it served as something of a Wake-Up Call Boss. But that's a tale for another post.

Friday, February 17, 2017

New Dawn Session 6: Orcs are Jerks

Precis: The Resistance infiltrates an orc castle and wackiness ensues.

I ran the sixth session of New Dawn, my GURPS Fantasy Mass Combat game, last night. This session was went back to the game's root in Midnight, since the PCs were operating covertly in orc territory. It was a very fun session, and a little silly, as we got to see the full powers of a nymph diplomat in action. We also got to use my rules for finding people covertly, though that only made up a small part of the session.

Cast of Characters

New Dawn is a troupe style game, with each player having two characters. One team primarily does military stuff; the other team has been doing delving and diplomacy. This session focused on the diplomacy team.

Otern county, and the major villages, towns, orc strongholds, and the fortress of Hortskink.

"Aisling gets +5 to reactions from trees."

The session started in early April, game time. Finbar Gullvan, the Old Man of the Resistance, got regular intelligence drops from Resistance cells in Otern, an orc controlled county to the north. His contact Kyell had missed the last two meetings. Finbar wanted the PCs to sneak into Otern and find either Kyell or someone who knew him and figure out what was going on.

The PCs hurried up to the first large village. Correctly figuring that Kyell had probably been captured by orcs, they started searching for him as soon as they got into town, even though it was late in the day. They also sacrificed stealth for an easier time of finding Kyell, which somewhat surprised me because they weren't particularly good at stealth. As such, a lot of Luck was used and Destiny points spent to avoid being exposed to the orcs. They managed to determine that though the local villagers knew of Kyell, they didn't know him well and only knew that he came from someplace to the north and maybe had a Resistance contact named Kara. As most of Otern was north of them, and Kara was a common name, this wasn't much to go on.

The next day they moved to up the road to the village of Lelund and did another conspicuous search. Luck was with them, in a way - a critical success on the search roll found Kara, the leader of the Otern Resistance. They also managed to blow the Stealth roll.

Now at this point I misread my notes - as I usually do when I end running stuff on the fly like this. Kara was supposed to be hiding in Lelund, but I placed her in the open as a bartender. No huge harm done, but Kara in hiding made more sense. At any rate, Kara sent the PCs to the nearby farm village of Aliaberg to talk with Kyell's wife.

On the way to Aliaberg, they ran across a detachment of orcs taking a break during a road march. The PCs were traveling cross country in a hurry. In the towns, Attivi had been using a magic spell to disguise Michael, but it was too fatiguing to keep up while hiking so the orcs got a good look at Michael's unusual height, slender build, and strange orange eyes. The PCs managed to break contact before the orcs could get up and chase them, but now the orcs knew of at least one Squallite moving around Otern - in short, the orcs were alerted to the PCs' presence.

When they arrived in Aliaberg, I started making reaction rolls for the peasants. Aisling is a nymph, and has charisma +5, universal transcendent beauty, and a lovely cultured voice, netting her +12 in reaction bonuses from most intelligent things, and as Kevin pointed out, substantial bonuses even against trees. I rolled a natural 18 for a total of 30, giving her a supernaturally excellent reaction, to the point where people were so eager to be helpful that it was something of a problem.

Kyell's wife confirmed that he'd been captured by orcs, and sent the PCs to a witness of the event, Yonus. Yonus proceeded to lie to Aisling, claiming that he was in the Resistance and had tracked the orcs after they took Kyell. Unfortunately for him, Nesta, Attivi, and Aisling are all good at detecting lies, and all of them realized he was lying. They immediately assumed he was a collaborator, grabbed him, and threatened to start hurting him. He confessed to his lies, and the PCs decided he wasn't a collaborator, just a braggart trying to get in good with the supernaturally pretty woman. They got some more information, and decided that the orcs had taken Kyell to their fortress of Hortskink. The PCs headed north, making plans to climb the walls and rescue Kyell.

"Hortskink is a fortress... we need a new plan."

I pulled up the map of Hortskink castle that I'd prepared for this eventuality. With a 15-20' wide moat, 40' tall walls, multiple towers, and a single gate, Hortskink was a serious castle. It was meant to hold over a thousand orcs at a time, though the current garrison was only a hundred or so. The PCs immediately decided that a raid wasn't going to work at all, and they'd have to get sneaky.
Hortskink castle

They knew from Kara that the messengers from the south had arrived at Hortskink, and the orcs knew about the rebellion in Engenstut county and were bringing in supplies and starting to train more extensively to bring their force up to full strength and ability. That also meant that peasants were bringing in supply wagons into at least the lower bailey.

The PCs crafted a plan: Aisling would convince some peasants to loan her their wagon, and then Attivi and Nesta would hide everyone's weapons in it. Attivi would use magic to disguise Michael as donkey, and Nesta would drive the wagon into the castle while Nayla led Michael. Once inside, Nayla, Nesta, Michael, and Attivi would hide, while Aisling pretended to be a collaborator. She'd gain access to the orc leadership and then magic would happen. I was dubious about some of the details, but it was a plan, and they'd come up with it on their own with minimal prompting from me, so I didn't try to damp down their enthusiasms.

Aisling easily charmed the peasants, everyone else hid their gear, and they moved into the castle. Inside the gate, Aisling flashed some coin to establish her status as a collaborator and said she had some information. The orc knight supervising the unloading of supplies was impressed by her story and took her to Captain Grunak, flirting with her on the way. Meanwhile, everyone else noticed that the doors to the south barracks were padlocked and a baby was crying intermittently from inside.

I split up the action at this point. Everyone but Nesta went into the storehouse, waited until the kobold workers weren't around, and then hid. Except for Michael, who was disguised as a donkey and couldn't wander off as easily. This actually caused some confusion, because now the kobolds were looking for the humans who owned the donkey, but those same humans had gone into hiding. Things didn't get any better when Attivi disguised himself as an orc and scared the kobolds.

Meanwhile, Aisling went and talked to Captain Grunak. He was inclined to be suspicious, but a little luck and a large dose of supernatural charm and beauty got past his defenses. He acknowledged that the orcs were looking for a Squallite among a party of a half dozen humans, but Aisling reported that Trahaern and Hloomawl were leading a substantial army up the road from Dons. This didn't work as well as she'd hoped, mainly because the orc military intelligence was terrible and the only resistance leader they'd identified at this point was Skyler. Regardless, Aisling managed to con him into believing that a weak human army was approaching, so he sent out orders to put most of Hortskink's garrison on a march to deal with them.

Aisling used more charm to convince the orcs to let her stay while they prepared, but they firmly put her and her donkey outside the castle when they left. Meanwhile, the other PCs stayed hidden in the storehouse until dark. Attivi desperately held onto Michael's disguise spell for several hours before passing out.

As an aside, the orcs were constantly making Perception and IQ rolls to see through the PCs' thin disguises and improbable plans. Sadly, the orcs aren't very smart, and luck was consistently against them, so they failed every time and never quite realized the PCs had disappeared or found their weapons when they searched the weapons or whatever else might have helped.

"I think it's time for the 'Chewie, put these cuffs on' stage of the plan."

After dusk, Aisling grabbed Michael, now back in his natural Squallite form, and took him back to the castle. After a bit of shouting, she woke up one of the orcs that was supposed to be on watch, charmed him with her supernatural charisma and beauty, and convinced him to open up the gates and take Michael prisoner. The orcs did that, and then Aisling convinced them that since the roads were dangerous - after all, there were Squallites out there - she should be allowed to sleep in the mostly empty stables. Michael was thrown into the barracks with the other prisoners.

Michael doesn't have Aisling's supernatural charisma, so his fellow prisoners weren't particularly impressed by him. He told them that he was with the Resistance and that his friends would rescue them soon, but they didn't really believe him. On the plus side, Michael finally did make contact with Kyell, but the Resistance messenger had been tortured by the orcs and wasn't really able to contribute.

Nayla and Nesta sneaked out of the storehouse, grabbed their weapons from the cart, and started making plans for violence. Nayla waited for orcs to shoot, while Nesta climbed up the walls and eventually sneaked up onto the southeast tower and rushed the orc on watch there. Violence ensued, drawing the attention of the orcs, and then Nayla began sniping at them. Between Heroic Archer, a balanced composite bow, Night Vision 5, and the Guided Weapon imbuement, she didn't have any particular problem making headshots at 70+ yards against moving orcs partially hidden by the castle ramparts, even in the dark. She dropped two out right, and wounded a third before the remainder managed to flee into the towers.

"Man, orcs are jerks!"

Aisling had improvised a set of lock picks out of the files and whatnot in the saddlery room at the stables, and confidently set off to free Michael and the other prisoners. She's smart, and has the Cat Burglar talent, so what could go wrong? Apparently Kevin forgot to buy the actual lockpick skill, so she was working off a poor default. Still, a lucky critical success got the doors open, and Aisling slipped inside.

These prisoners were scheduled to be executed in a few days, as a grand show of orc might and determination, but Aisling was going to rally them, lead them to the nearby smithy and arm them, and then have them defeat the orcs. Except these supposed "Resistance leaders" were a collection of elderly men and women, three children, and a baby. The only people of fighting age were Kyell, who'd been worked over extensively, and the baby's mother. The PCs were dismayed and disgusted at the laziness and cruelty of the orcs - there were several shouts of "man, orcs are jerks," which is one of the game's themes. Nayla showed up with Michael's bow and then headed north to hold the gate between the two courtyards.

Michael stepped into the courtyard and spotted the orc lieutenant in charge of the fortress heading for the east tower. He went for a headshot, but the orc had his helmet on and the steel plate protected him.

At this point, it was really late and I ended the game.

Evaluation of Play

This was a fun session. I messed up a couple of things, but I mostly managed to keep things moving. The group voluntarily split up, and that made things a little confusing, but I think I handled it pretty well. One thing I tried to do, and mostly succeeded, was handle the least risky parts of the plan first. So the PCs in the storehouse had to decide what they were going to do without knowing how Aisling's part of the plan was going to work. I don't know if really upped the dramatic tension, but I think it helped a bit.

The players were mostly focused this time. There was some confusion and hesitation at first when they were trying to find Kyell, but they were pretty decisive as soon as they meant Kara and had obvious leads to pursue. The plan for dealing with the fortress kept changing as they got new information, but reasonably so: first they wanted to do a combat raid, then they decided to sneak in, then they wanted to rally the prisoners but that clearly isn't going to work, so now they're talking about killing the remaining dozen or so orcs in the garrison and burning the place. I pointed out that I'd specifically described the fortress of being made of stone, with brick buildings with clay tile roofs to make it hard to burn, but they're sticking with that for now.

Aisling's charisma and beauty really came into play in this session. It's actually been fairly important in other sessions when they've been recruiting their army, but it was much more obvious this time through. I'm pretty happy about that, as Kevin has played a nymph in one of my Dungeon Fantasy games before, and all those points in charisma and beauty didn't do much to affect the game. This time, they really mattered and mostly for the better.

What Next?

At this time, I'm not really sure what the PC's plan is for the next session. I think they're going to have a brief combat with the orcs in Hortskink, which could go either way: a half dozen orcs in full plate backed by a half dozen orcs with crossbows is no joke, especially since the PCs don't have much in the way of similarly high quality armor. Then I think they're going to evacuate the prisoners and disable as much of Hortskink as they can.

One possibility that Kevin mentioned is recruiting an army and trying to defend Hortskink. Otern, unlike the PC's home county of Engenstut, doesn't have much of a Resistance tradition and any hurriedly raised militia troops would be pretty low quality. They would also only have a day or two to recruit before the orcs came back. They know there was a company of orcs stationed at Hortskink, and two or three more companies at other strongholds in the area. A massive fortress gives a big edge in Mass Combat terms, but quality infantry and bowmen backed by magic can counter a lot of that. It's a possibility, especially since Aisling is a pretty good commander, but it's a pretty risky play. Hopefully, the PCs will decide what to do early in the week and I'll be able to make plans.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Covert Social Engineering

Precis: A review of the rules for finding a specific criminal, and coming up some rules for doing that while evading authority.

The next session of New Dawn will involve the PCs going into orc controlled territory and trying to find out what happened to the local Resistance movement. I need to go over the rules for that.

Finding Criminals...

Fortunately, GURPS has at least some mechanics in the core rules for finding people, and Social Engineering provides some more details. Finding a particular criminal is a straightforward roll against Streetwise, modified by the size of the search area (its harder to find a specific person in a big city) and the distinctiveness of the person sought. Each attempt takes a day. On a success, you either find the person, or if the person isn't in your search area, determine that. Failure wastes time but the search can be repeated at no penalty.

...While Hiding From the Authorities

New Dawn adds the complication that the PCs are effectively wanted criminals by the local law enforcement, and thus need to keep their heads down. The GURPS rules for hiding from the authority while doing stuff aren't as straightforward, but they can be teased out from the basic set and Action: Exploits. The skill to hide in a crowd is Shadowing (or Stealth, in my games, since I feel Shadowing is a skill tax and roll all its functions into Stealth) and the skill to to detect people doing bad stuff and to detect oncoming guards is Observation. The question is how do they all work together?

I'm going to say that that any PC searching for an informant, and any PC aiding with a complementary skill, needs to make a Stealth roll to avoid being found by the orcs. Stealth rolls are modified by any Holdout penalty for the PC's armor and any Distinctive Features quirks or Forgettable Face perks. Also, any PC can act as a look-out, and provide a complementary bonus to Stealth with an Observation roll. They can also pursue their inquiries more aggressively or circumspectly, trading -2 penalties to Stealth for +1 bonuses to Streetwise or -2 penalties to Streetwise for +1 bonuses to Stealth.

In Summary

Each day, the PCs can search some of the villages and towns for a Resistance Contact. They choose how much area to search:
  • A single farm village (100 people; +3)
  • A small market village and surrounding farm villages (800 people; +2)
  • A single small or large market village (less than 500 people; +2)
  • A large market village and surrounding villages (3000 people; +1)
  • The town of Flostrund (2500 people; +1)
  • The town and the surrounding villages (8000 people: 0)
 Once per day spent searching, a single PC may roll Streetwise to attempt to contact the local Resistance in the search area. The following modifiers apply:
  • Complementary bonuses for any other PC using an Influence skill
  • +1 per -2 penalty to the following Stealth roll
  • -2 per +1 bonus on the following Stealth roll
  • The search area modifier
On success, the PCs find a contact in the local Resistance, if there is one in the area, or determine that there isn't one. On failure, they don't find anyone but can try again. Critical failure means contacting a collaborator who betrays them to the orcs.

Each PC involved in the Streetwise roll, either directly, providing a complementary bonus, or acting as a look-out, must also roll Stealth. The following modifiers apply
  • Complementary bonuses from any PC acting as a lookout with an Observation check. Lookouts can aid in the Streetwise test, but are at -2 on both rolls because they have to split their attention
  • The bonus or penalty from the Streetwise roll as above
  • Any Holdout penalty from the PC's armor (a successful Holdout roll halves the penalty, round down) and for any large weapons
  • Any modifiers from the PC's Distinctive Features, Forgettable Face, or Size Modifiers or other physical traits
  • Half of the search area modifier, as a penalty
  • A -3 penalty if the orcs are on alert.
The first failure puts the orcs on alert; the second failure causes an orc patrol to investigate. Multiple failures on the same day only count as one failure.

If the PCs succeed on a Streetwise check on the same day that a Stealth failure causes the orcs to investigate, the PCs make contact first if their Margin of Success is more than the absolute value of their Margin of Failure and otherwise they make contact after dealing with the orc patrol.

What's the Point

Hopefully, this will be at least a mildly interesting mini-game that will keep all the PCs somewhat involved. They need to decide where to search: smaller areas produce more definite results, but can produce a lot of negative results, which uses up time. Smaller areas are also riskier to search, especially since repeated searches increase the iterative chance of Stealth failure. They also need to decide who conducts the searches, who acts as look-outs, and who is left hiding away from the villages because that PC is too distinctive to be useful. They've already sent Hloomawl off with the army rather than try to have a 8' tall, 600 lb minotaur try to infiltrate orc territory, and they may have to make similar decisions with some of the other PCs.

These rules are a fairly tailored to my game, but they're just an expansion of the existing rules from the Basic Set and Social Engineering. They could be repurposed for other games where the PCs need to find some one while evading the authorities.