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.