Thursday, December 1, 2016

Wizard's Academy releases for the Pathfinder RPG

Available on Drive-Thru RPG, RPGNow, and Paizo.

Long-time followers of my blog know that I have a bit of a preference for schools of magic as a fantasy trope. Well yesterday I was delighted to discover a rather large Pathfinder sourcebook just got released. The fact it is written by the folks behind the much-beloved Spheres of Power sealed the deal for me.

I have not read the whole thing, but already it's hitting a lot of buttons. A central story revolving around investigating the headmaster's disappearance, a five-tier encounter framework using different sets of monsters in dungeon rooms depending on average party level, and expanded rules for school life which give consequences if the PCs sneak off too much at the expense of their studies (and vice versa if the mystery isn't solved in time).

Adding to this is the fact that the module is made with the Spheres in Power system in mind. It is a worthy alternative to the standard Vancian system of magic, where spellcasting is both more balanced and allows for a wide variety of character concepts. The contents are available as a free online wiki, and I've been running two campaigns with it. So far sphere-using PCs held up quite nicely in adventures. While this may be a turn-off to those who prefer standard Vancian magic, the self-contained nature of Wizard's Academy can make for a nice one-off to test out an unfamiliar system.

Overall, I like what I see so far, and this book has yet to disappoint me. I recommend checking it out if you're a fan of the magic school campaign style.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Slice of Life Elements in RPGs

Cover of Golden Sky Stories

A lot of times, RPGs have a strong focus on exploration and combat. Relationships and conflict which develop out of these tend to be a secondary element derived from the events which occur naturally from player character choices. Golden Sky Stories is one such RPG predicated on this, and Beyond the Wall's character generation and Hearth Fantasy-focused structure lend itself better towards strong bonds and characters your players will care about than yet another strange place with monsters and loot.

As time went on, I found myself to be more of a thespian Game Master. I still love dungeon-crawling and action-adventure and prefer combat-free sessions to be rare at best, but I found that some of the best campaigns I ran and participated in were the ones which were character-centric. Where I played with the PCs' backstories and peppered in moments of drama between the action scenes; ones with a large cast of recurring characters the PCs could develop a rapport with and play off of; ones set in a centralized location such as a city where locations became familiar features to visit and thus more incentive to fight for the home they grew to know and love.

The City-based Campaign

The Settlement of Cauldron from the Shackled City Adventure Path

I talked about this a bit in my previous blog post, but in addition to being an iconic element, cities are happening places full of thousands of individual stories and the people who live them. Entire neighborhoods with their own feel allow for a diversity of adventures, from crime-ridden slums to crowded bazaars. Another major feature of cities is that in addition for a place where adventurers retire and sell their hard-won treasure, it can plausibly hold all manner of entertainment. And most importantly, it allows the PCs to better connect with a realm and its people; having a favorite tavern or wizard's academy as a regular feature that carries from session to session instills a sense of familiarity with players.

When a dragon or invading army attacks, they will not be fighting on the mountaintops of some distant peak they never knew about until recently in the adventure. Nor will they be fighting in a featureless stretch of woodland whose flora and fauna is like to many others. It will be at the common crossing to that magic item shop whose owner's name and face is well-worn into the gaming table's minds. It will be in the residential wards of Old Kervara, where that sweet old lady lives who once helped out the PCs during that haunted house quest several sessions ago.

Lessens to be Learned: What this adds to slice of life moments in gaming is immense: the players are much more likely to care about the place, for it is in many ways their homes even if their PCs originated from far-flung lands. Everything, from local festivals to recurring faces, will take on a more personal touch when the streets, the faces in the crowd, and the local shops are familiar things with strong mental images in the player's minds and not just yet another new foreign location.

Festivals and Games

Millennial Fair from Chrono Trigger

From holidays to arena tournaments, fun and games are culturally universal. They have an in-built competitive spirit with a goal contestants strive for, and the promise of prizes and recognition can be an attractive quality.

Many video game RPGs have mini-games as a fun aside for variety beyond dungeon-crawling and monster-slaying. Some of the most well-known ones are collectible card games, such as Final Fantasy 8's Triple Triad or Witcher 3's Gwent. The joy of winning and collecting rare and powerful cards provides a sense of progression and accomplishment, keeping the game fresh as you visit new areas with new players. The Millennial Fair at the beginning of Chrono Trigger let you collect Silver Points for every game you won, trading them in for useful items.

There are so many different kind of competitive games that translating their rules into D&D format would be a blog post all its own. But I can recommend a certain sourcebook invaluable for this. ENWorld's Book of Tournaments, Fairs, and Taverns is filled to the brim with rules for everything from martial arts and magical competitions to the classics such as races (the competitive kind), card, dice, and drinking games. All of which are Open Game Content, for any of you self-publishers out there!

Example: Final Fantasy IX

It's not a table-top RPG, but there's a certain video near and dear to my heart which really shown me the benefits of slice of life elements. Although not as popular as 7 and 10, the ninth installment in the series is known for having some of the best writing and character development. At the beginning of Disc 3, the party headed back to the kingdom of Alexandria after a major battle at the Iifa Tree. Princess Garnet, one of the party members, is now queen after the passing of her mother in the conflict, and the main character Zidane feels depressed as he worries that this marks the end of their time together since she'll be too busy attending to matters of state.

The game's perspective changes to Vivi, a child mage, on the streets of Alexandria. While controlling him you can restock on new equipment and meet up with old friends to find out what's been happening since your departure for the Iifa Tree. The small events and scenarios around Alexandria also play important roles by having new party members such as Eiko and Amarant meet the ones who were left behind, such as Steiner and Freya, before the next big adventure. Even so, it's not all just dialogue and exposition; there are sidequests and minigames for one to do, such as a major card tournament in Treno which Zidane wishes to visit.

After the climax of the last Disc, Final Fantasy takes time to build back up, and after the Treno card tournament things go right back into the action when the dragon Bahamut attacks Alexandria. It does not linger too long on the slice of life aspects, and there's still a sense of player participation than just watching the plot flow.

As you can see, it packaged the above elements quite nicely: visiting familiar city locations along with a host of diversions and competitive games and tying character development into things. And when it comes time to pick things up, the good old-fashioned "dragon attacking the city" instills a sense of immediate danger to get back to the heroic action.

In Conclusion

I hope this blog post served a useful purpose to you, dear reader. Whether they be recurring elements or a fun one-off element, I hope that I gave folks both the interest in trying out slice of life tropes, as well as a useful springboard to how to best accomplish this.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A List of City-Based Sourcebooks for D&D and Pathfinder

Ptolus: City by the Spire

My first Dungeons & Dragons campaign was a series of adventures contained in Dungeon Magazine which collectively came to be known as the Shackled City. It was a page-opener for me in many ways; in addition to being the first campaign dubbed an "adventure path" (Dragonlance preceded it by 18 years in concept), it was also the first one I ran to completion and the first stable group of gamers who stuck with me through high school and well into college. Over a decade's worth of fun memories.

As for the Shackled City itself, it centered around the aptly-named settlement of Cauldron, built within the inner ring of a dormant volcano home to a large central lake in the middle of a jungle. A foul cult dwelling within the halls of power and darkest depths alike sought to bring the city to ruin, and many of the adventures were connected in the growing awareness and eventual stopping of their plot.

Using a central area for a whole campaign was a clever one, as it allowed the GM to reuse familiar locations and NPCs to give a better connection to the area. While most adventure paths sought to replicate this feel, the often nomadic nature of most campaigns meant that players would venture from location to location to complete a task, only to pack up and head off to the next place. Dragonlance tried to tie in themes with recurring NPCs and a sense of history, but overall I found in my years of play that setting a campaign around a city leant itself to some of my best gaming sessions.

For that reason, I decided to compile a list of city-centric sourcebooks for the Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder role-playing games. I'm only including sourcebooks which focus largely on livable locations; megadungeons of ruined cities do not count, nor do adventures which take place in said cities but are more or less restricted to the confines of a single plot. If any of my fine readers have suggestions, or if I happened to miss a particular interesting metropolis, please let me know!

City-Based Sourcebooks

Lesserton & Mor (no longer on OneBookShelf)

Ptolus, Monte Cook's City by the Spire

Shackled City Adventure Path

Sharn, City of Towers

Shelzar, City of Sins

Sheoloth, City of the Drow

City of Stormreach

Vornheim, the Complete City Kit

City of Splendors, Waterdeep

World's Largest City

Zobeck Gazetteer

Friday, November 4, 2016

Dragons of Renewal DL3: Dragons of Hope

Skullcap from the 3rd Edition Dragonlance Campaign Setting

This portion of the Autumn Twilight segment of the Dragonlance Chronicles is an overland wilderness trek with a dungeon crawl at the end. The PCs having freed the prisoners of Pax Tharkas must trek south to safer lands, for the realms north are occupied by the Red Dragonarmy and the Qualinesti elves are evacuating their nation. There are several routes and locations for the PCs to visit, not all of which are linear or required. However, the dungeon of Skullcap is a necessity, for it contains a dwarven artifact which will earn the PCs safe passage into the kingdom of Thorbadin.

Refugee Micromanagement

There are about 800 refugees, 10% of which are capable in a fight if the Dragonarmies catch up to the group. Both the AD&D and 3rd Edition versions of the adventure provides rules for attrition rates, to see how well the refugees fare during their travels and how many are alive by the end. There are also Food Units representing supplies, which can be gained via random encounters or via the proper spells and skills depending on Edition.

Additionally, the refugees are divided into 5 broad factions: Abanasinian townsfolk who are not Seekers, the Seeker faithful of Haven and outlying lands, the indigenous Plainsfolk, a small number of converts to the true gods, and a few dozen unaffiliated folk ranging from merchants to sellswords not part of the Dragonarmies. Each faction has their own leader who all get together in a Council to determine major decisions by vote. The PCs are advisors and cannot vote, but can sway leaders in their favor or fail to via faux pas and poor decision-making.

The truth of the matter is that I found both rules to be rather cumbersome, especially the attrition rate rules which would be rolled and determined for every single night. Instead I boiled down major points to PC Background checks (as I ran this campaign in 13th Age) and choice encounters. I suggest doing the same, or picking up the mini-games which will be of most use to your particular play-style. Have PCs who enjoy making it through the skin of their teeth and define themselves with actions and not words? Consider using your favorite mass combat rules. Do the players seem eager to unite the disparate factions together with the inspiring words of Mishakal and the True Gods? Have them participate more in the council voting process.

Major Encounters

Going East: In both versions of the adventure, a fair amount of major encounters are on the western side of the map, if the PCs lead the refugees down the road to the east. For this reason it might be best to shift some of the encounters about so that the players don't miss a huge portion of the adventure's potential. I recommend keeping an even array; you still want the choice to matter. Perhaps the hill dwarf village is only on the western side, but Fizban's snow fort is on the eastern road. Both encounters provide their own advantages distinct enough to provide different benefits.

Finding Thorbadin: There are two areas which can alert the PCs to Thorbadin's existence and location. The first is the Neidar (Hill Dwarf) village (area 7) where their leader Zirkan can tell them of the nearest safe haven. The other is the Eye of Elar (area 25), a set of high-powered lens which point to a dwarven manuscript revealing the way to the dwarven kingdom's secret passage.

If the PCs end up missing both encounter locations or are likely to, it is recommend to provide other ways of slipping in the information. Perhaps an NPC such as Fizban or one of the faction leaders mentions an old dwarven tale of Skullcap and how it contains a relic which can act as a "key to Thorbadin," or perhaps a captured draconian spy mentions of finding worn trails seemingly leading underground.

Finding Food: Again, this is another micromangaged aspect. Each day without adequate food can really ramp things up (20% cumulative chance, 1d10 refugees die every time). It may sound odd, but the book says that it mostly effects the weak and ill among the populace anyways. There's enough food to feed the refugees for 4 days before they need to forage and hunt. Again this is not something I kept track of among all the other stuff to plan for during the game. Generally I'd recommend boiling things down to a couple appropriate rolls and checks, and provide bonuses and decreased losses if the PCs have competent backgrounds (military officer, druid, etc). Additionally, certain safe havens (Neidar village, Fizban's snow fort, the Hopeful Vale, etc) should be used to provide additional survival supplies as a sort of safe buffer.

Skullcap and the Route to Thorbadin

Scene from Percy Jackson Movies

As final Chapter of the Autumn saga revolves around the kingdom of Thorbadin and a race against time to gain the refugees a safe haven, it is imperative that the PCs learn of Thorbadin. Even more so, the nation infamously closed its doors even to their hill dwarf kinsmen, so unless the PCs have a very good offer such an attempt is a fool's errand. Which is how the Helm of Grallen comes into play. This legendary artifact contains the souls of famed dwarven leaders of times long past, stolen by the human wizard Fistandantilus during the Dwarfgate Wars. This, combined with his treachery against his former hill dwarf allies fighting for entry into the kingdom, provides an in-universe example of the traditional dwarven distrust of arcane spellcasters.

As a dungeon itself, there is not much to say. It is full of undead creatures such as wights and spectres, as well as a climactic battle against an iron fire-breathing hydra construct. Some minor variations include the altar room, which has a +3 vorpal longsword in AD&D, but a +1 ghost touch longsword in 3rd Edition. I prefer the latter option regardless of edition, for it can be a boon for the party fighter when going up against spectres and ghostly undead who cannot be touched otherwise. For those not in the know, a ghost touch weapon property allows said weapon to damage insubstantial enemies such as spectres as though they had material form.

I'll talk about the more eventful NPCs and encounters below:

Blaize: In keeping with each adventure featuring one of the signature breeds of dragon, Blaize is a brass dragon from the Dwarfgate Wars who's been trapped in a time-frozen bubble. He can be a source of good infromation on ancient history, but knows little if anything of why the metallic dragons did not get involved now that the chromatics are working with an invading army. He is willing to accompany the PCs, but abandons them shortly because a dragon tag-along would be rather powerful. In AD&D he accompanies the PCs until the shadow dragon fights, or Verminaard and Ember attack the refugees, or this Chapter ends. In the first two examples the enemies are occupied and flee, or chase Blaize down, effectively taking him out of the fray. In 3rd Edition he does not follow the PCs down the pit in Skullcap, being scared.

In both the book series and game supplements, Blaize's eventual fate is not expanded upon. It's implied that he lives among the refugees in human form, but being time-frozen he would be out of the loop of the metallic's non-aggression pact with the Dragonarmies. I have a more interesting element: Blaize being unaware of this, is quickly detected by the Dragon Empire's scryers on the lookout for interfering good dragons, and is ambushed sometime after he parts ways with the PCs. He is taken as a prisoner in the city of Sanction, where he can be later encountered during the final adventure of the Winter arc.

Whisper: The other dragon the PCs can meet in Skullcap is a shadow dragon, a unique breed who specializes in illusion and darkness-based magic. In the books he assumed that Raistlin was Fistandantilus returned, and in the 3rd Edition adventure he assumes the same for a PC with the Sage archetype or one who fits a magic-user role and will give some limited advice about the tomb to the PCs but otherwise not aid them directly. In AD&D he ambushes the PCs when/if they try to take the treasure in his lair.

In the AD&D game Whisper is rather powerful, but not harder than the other top-tier enemies in the adventure and weaker than Ember. However, in 3rd Edition he is extremely strong and will most likely result in a Total Party Kill barring some optimized builds or exploits.

Pyrohydra Construct: This was the most memorable part of the adventure. In addition to the unique status of an artificial beast who can breathe fire out of several heads, the encounter acts as a sort of "platformer boss" where a multi-layered section of invisible crystal provides both cover and an obstacle mobility. There are two hydras, one in the western section, one in the eastern section at a sort of fork in the road where whatever path the PCs take will encounter a hydra construct.

For my own game, I figured that an invisible maze would be hard to keep track of on the battlemat, so I had a visible yet still exciting set of catwalks and walkways the hydra was under and its breath and bites can destroy in weak sections. It allowed for a fun bit of tactical movement, as the players not only had to deal with the monster itself and taking cover but also adapting to cut-off routes and sudden drops to lower levels.

I also figure that such an encounter can lose a bit of its magic if players fight an identical hydra should they go back up through the other end of the dungeon. They will also have the advantage of awareness, which will take away some of the initial charm of the first battle. I'd personally have only one fire-breathing hydra construct in Skullcap, but it will show up in the route the PCs take.

In Conclusion

A survival-focused wilderness trek with a dungeon of unliving creatures to top things off, Dragons of Hope has a bit of variety going for it in comparison to the previous entries. The major things to watch out for are how keen your group would be on micromanagement and making sure that the PCs become aware of the Helm's necessity.

I realize it's been a while between posts, but hopefully I'll get up the next post to complete Dragonlance's Autumn saga!

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Larius Firetongue's School of Sorcery is out!

Cover Art by Eric Lofgren

Six months ago this book was an assembly of notes in Microsoft Word. Even two years ago it was an idea I had; aside from Redhurst Academy of Magic for Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, gaming sourcebook dedicated to magic school adventures and settings where rather rare. Sure you had city-based sourcebooks make mention of a mage's college here and there, but they were but one piece of the setting, one page in a much larger tome. Having grown up on Harry Potter and influenced by
school-based Japanese anime and manga, it seemed odd to me that such a popular and ripe subgenre was going more or less unexploited in the D&D and OSR fandoms.

As the largest book I've published yet, it is hard to describe the feelings going through me now that it is fully finished. For the last 3 days I spent 5 to 6 hours on average in Adobe InDesign, motivated by a newfound burst of energy now that I was nearing completion. As soon as I scanned the book for error-checking and made a prototype PDF which by all accounts worked, the tiredness rushed over me suddenly like a tidal wave. But within that exhaustion I felt satisfaction, happiness at a job well done. The happiness one gets at the end of a long and winding road, and as they look back they see that all their hard work led them here.

Thus the creation of this sourcebook. Larius Firetongue's School of Sorcery is a 100-page sourcebook full of new rules and setting material optimized for campaigns where the PCs are apprentices at a magical academy and all the crazy shenanigans which can only occur from spell-slinging adolescents and grimoires full of forbidden knowledge. It was made with Swords & Wizardry in mind, but can be a useful toolbox for other Original and Basic D&D style retroclones. Even if the magic school campaign does not appeal to you, the book is filled with options sure to please any fan of spellcasters from new spells, a cantrip subsystem, turning books into a new form of treasure capable of teaching readers new and interesting abilities, and the like.

It's available for sale on Drive-Thru RPG and RPGNow, and the product contains bookmarks and is watermark-free.

If this sounds interesting to you, or if you know of a gamer friend who would like this, feel free to take a look and share. I hope my work brings as much fun to your gaming table as I did writing it. But this isn't going to be my only magic-school sourcebook! I am hard at work on an adventure path for Pathfinder and 5th Edition, along with some other work projects. As they're still in the idea stage I'm afraid that I can't share much information about them as of now, but hopefully you'll be tided over with this latest offering.

To all my fellow fantasy academia enthusiasts, I wish you good luck and good gaming!

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Dragons of Renewal DL 2: Dragons of Flame

Artwork by Jeff Easley

The following chapter has a lot more revisions of mine than the last one, and for good reason. As one of the early adventures most gamers will be experienced with if they got through Xak Tsaroth, this module is infamous for railroading and contrived encounters. It still has quite a few highlights, and with some work it can be made into a great, epic adventure. However, as Dragonlance is very much in the "save the world from the evil empire" vein, I'm making the assumption that the PCs will have incentive to be altruistic and a reason to save people. If not, perhaps a patron or two (such as the Speaker of the Sun in Qualinesti) can persuade them with rewards.


The Red Dragonarmies made their move and took over much of Abanasinia while the PCs were dungeon-delving for the Disks of Mishakal. Burned and slaughtered nomad villages, besieged cities, and even overt draconian patrols riding on a red dragon! Regardless, the adventure points the PCs back to Solace. After getting captured and imprisoned by Fewmaster Toede's forces, they and several others are put into a prison transport on the way towards Pax Tharkas. A guerrilla force of Qualinesti elves led by Gilthanas assault the caravan, and the freed PCs have the opportunity to fight back their captors and help the others escape.

Following Gilthanas' forces back to the elven capital, the PCs interact with the elves and learn of the ancient Istaran ruins of Pax Tharkas where captured people are being held, and of a secret way inside. Toede's draconians manage to infiltrate Qualinost and kidnap Laurana, the elven princess.

The PCs infiltrate Pax Tharkas, and as they free the prisoners Verminaard, Red Dragon Highlord, and his dragon companion Ember attempt to slaughter the escapees. The pair are stopped by Flamestrike, a half-blind red dragon who held a motherly affection towards the child prisoners. She's able to buy the PCs time, only to die offscreen later.

Things to Change/Look Out For

Oh boy, where to begin? Inevitable PC capture? A climax where a red dragon steals the show only for her sacrifice to go unseen? A superfluous "kidnap the princess" where freeing hundreds of prisoners should be incentive enough? Well, let's start chronologically:

Travel back to Solace: So the PCs have some freedom to go around, although it's inevitable that they may hear of Pax Tharkas. Gilthanas might meet the PCs either at Solace in disguise, or fighting a group of trolls near Pax Tharkas should the party deign to go there before Solace. He wishes to go back to town to reunite with some of his comrades there, although this is not necessary: if it seems like the PCs are more interested in continuing to Pax Tharkas, have Gilthanas tell them of how prisoners are being taken there, and knows of the latest transport.

Infinite Draconian Respawn: You might be wondering how capture of the PCs is ensured in this part. Well when the party goes back to the Inn of the Last Home, Tika fills them in on how the town was besieged by a flying dragon who burned down most of the trees and how Seeker soldiers were slaughtered by the 'dragonmen.' Then some draconian soldiers burst in and make a scene, where Tika intervenes. If the PCs defeat them, Toede shows up with more soldiers to place them all under arrest. Any draconians killed or knocked out are replaced by more soldiers coming in from outside; it's assumed that the Inn is surrounded by a legion.

This is dumb; when I ran this scenario years ago in Pathfinder, the PCs were more than capable of escape via mount and fly spells, things the draconians didn't have access to. There's also the fact that the PCs might immediately go for killing Toede as the leader, which would make him no longer a recurring villain.

Keep the draconian bullies, keep the surrounded inn. However, allow the PCs to make a daring escape out of the Inn. Let Solace occupants such as Otik Sandath, Theros Ironfield, and Gilthanas' elves come to their aid with misdirections, horses, and the like. Their interference will get the townsfolk imprisoned later on, possibly allowing the PCs to feel indebted to rescue them and anger at the Dragonarmy's tyranny.

Hearing of their exploits if successful, Gilthanas will track down the party and tell them the Dragonarmy's plot, as defined above. He'll ask if they wish to help assault a prison transport.

Prison Transport: If captured, the PCs have opportunities to interact with their fellow prisoners along the way. Typically this is expected to take place over the course of three days along the way, but if it would help speed things up you can have all the important NPC prisoners taken at once or before the caravan begins moving. During this time, one of the prisoners might have a secret message from Gilthanas, warning of an impending raid; said prisoner might have also smuggled a small useful item, such as a set of lockpicks or a few spell components to aid the PCs in the escape attempt.

When the assault happens, allow the PCs to escape or coordinate strategy depending on whether they're imprisoned or fighting alongside the guerrillas. Doubtlessly several NPCs will be gravely injured in the fight; allow this time for the prophet/cleric PC to show off their newly-learned healing spells and show the folk that the Gods of Good have returned to Krynn.

The PCs might not be able to free everyone; Gilthanas might advise retreating. They might get only a few freed prisoners, with the rest bound for Pax Tharkas.

City of the Elves: Not much has to be changed here. The PCs should have some free time to explore the city; a glorious, beautiful city in the forest with near-unrivaled magical lore makes for a good resting point and place to sell off loot and perhaps buy some consumable magical items.

Regarding Laurana's kidnapping, it can be more or less excised. The prospect of an evil empire shipping off hundreds, if not thousands, of people to forced labor in Pax Tharkas should be enough incentive for the PCs to act. Even more so if one or more NPCs from Solace are captured. But if you do keep it in, it might be best to keep Toede out of the encounter (don't overplay him too much) and have the infiltrators just be draconians and let the PCs have a chance at thwarting the escape.

Eben Shatterstone and Allied NPCs: Eben is a Dragonarmy double-agent who attempts to win the party's trust by being seen assaulted by 8 baaz draconians. He'll wait until Chapter 4 before overtly revealing his hand, but before then he'll try walking among the PCs and using the opportunity to subtly sabotage their efforts if possible.

There's already quite a few NPC allies in this adventure, so Eben's role is more or less unimportant if it ever gets too many to keep track of. It can be hard portraying a double agent for a long period of time, given the presence of zone of truth and other such spells. In my own campaign, I had him posing as a Knight of Solamnia who reveals the weakness in the fortress' chain mechanism as a way of ensuring initial trust.

It's likely that Tika and Gilthanas are added as PC options in this chapter as well. If your players are like mine and prefer taking care of things themselves, Tika can either hold back or help Gilthanas lead a distraction to help the PCs better infiltrate the fortress. They might meet up again with the refugees at the end of the Chapter should you wish them to have a continued story presence.

Dungeon-Delving: This dungeon is separated into two parts: Sla-Mori the hidden elven passage, and Pax Tharkas proper. Not much has to be said for the former, other than placing the sword Wymslayer in a later location if the PCs seem about to miss it. It's one of the more iconic weapons in the Dragonlance Chronicles.

The Dragons Duo: As for Pax Tharkas, there's a few things to keep in mind. One, the two dragons Flamestrike and Ember are very, very powerful; they both can easily wipe out a whole party at this level. Although it's unlikely that Ember and Verminaard will directly encounter the PCs, Flamestrike might get in a lucky strike or two if she realizes that the children are "being taken from her." Don't encourage a direct fight; at best let her get in a lucky strike (or breath weapon if using 1e/OSR rules), but get stuck as she can't get into the fortress' halls too small for her size.

The Weakest Link: Pax Tharkas' major gate is supported a huge chain network. If broken, it will send an avalanche of rocks to fill the central courtyard, delaying the Dragonarmies' advance in Chapter 3 by about a week. This is a major advantage, and helps send the complex into disarray for the PCs and prisoners to escape. However, it's broken if a small-sized PC climbs up the chain in Sla-Mori and gets spotted by Ember in a peeping hole overlooking the Highlord's chamber. This is rather unintuitive and done by random chance; the PCs might not even know its tactical advantage. I still like the collapsing chain avalanche as a plot point, so there's other ways to incorporate it.

One is to have the PCs overhear soldiers or engineers talking, find some architectural notes, or simply having the right skill set or backstory ("hey Grolk, aren't you a master dwarven artisan?") to spot the weakness. I had Eben Shatterstone reveal this weakness, and had one of Pax Tharkas' towers hold a winch mechanism for the chain which can be sabotaged. Of course it was guarded heavily, adding a challenge of its own.

Prisoner's Dilemma: As Chapter 3 hinges on the prisoners being a huge plot element in ensuring their safe transport south, the adventure has a nice way of reuniting them together. The women and children are kept in the fortress itself, while the men are forced to work in the mines on the other side. The men don't dare rebel while their loved ones are kept hostage; Verminaard and Ember make their debut once the women are confirmed safe (probably by being brought there), but the fact of the matter is that the secret entrance to Sla-Mori is almost right by the women and children's cells. Why not escape that way?

Well first off are practical reasons: the passage is quite narrow, so getting all of them through will take some time. And then the alarm will sound unless the PCs took out every single person in the complex with stealth (highly unlikely). Second is that there's nothing waiting for them in Abanasinia. The only known safe havens are Thorbadin to the south. Suggesting escape south before the PCs assault the fortress (such as by Gilthanas, who says that the southern lands are surprisingly draconian-free) is a good idea. There's also the fact that the Qualinesti elves plan on mass evacuation, so trying to take the prisoners back that way will be a fool's errand and likely arrive too late.

Perhaps Eben, Gilthanas, or an allied NPC looking over the women and children while the PCs contact the men come forth, warning of Dragonarmy reinforcements to the north. Or maybe the chain was broken, damaging Sla-Mori's passages.

Yes I realize that the above is rail-roading a bit, but if it's made to feel rare and not too blatant it can work.

Dragon Battle! Shortly after the male prisoners rebel and reunite with the women and children, Verminaard will come riding in on Ember; after a villainous speech of how he's going to kill everyone (including the children!) only for Flamestrike to arrive.

Now, the idea of two big-ass dragons fighting, and of one normally thought of as Always Chaotic Evil earning redemption through valiant sacrifice is a cool idea.

The problem is that it's resolved as the video game equivalent of a non-interactive cutscene as the PCs lead the refugees away. And her death isn't even onscreen!

Thus, here's my presented solution:

Let the players control Flamestrike as though she were a PC.

Let them all make her choices by committee. Get Pax Tharkas' remaining forces to converge on the escaping prisoners as the two dragons and Dragon Highlord battle in the skies. The PCs can help out on the ground, while Flamestrike distracts Verminaard.

When I did this with 13th Age, I simplified the dragon battle with opposed d20 rolls and a small list of maneuvers that could grant situational bonuses to PC actions. A breath weapon do area of effect damage to ground-bound enemies, knocking Ember into a cliff can trigger an avalanche, etc. This allows for a sense of dramatic climax while letting the players control an honest-to-God dragon!

Flamestrike's death can be onscreen, but should be meaningful in showing off Verminaard's power. Perhaps have him leap onto her with a mace strike, uttering the words "midnight" and fully blinding her as Ember goes in for the kill. This shows off the BBEG's signature attack to the players, who can keep it in mind in the future while giving them one more incentive to take revenge on him.

In Conclusion

Overall, Dragons of Flame requires a lot more work. But it can still be shaped into a badass series of gaming sessions and a good means of allowing real heroism on the PCs' part (whereas in Chapter 1 they mostly dungeon-delved). Next time we'll be covering Chapter 3, Dragons of Hope!

Monday, September 19, 2016

Dragons of Renewal: DL1 Dragons of Despair

Image by Clyde Caldwell

It's been a while since my last update. Nearly a year, in fact. A variety of factors came into play, for a while I was running the original Dragonlance Chronicles adapted for the 13th Age ruleset. As of last Saturday (September 17th), my players ended the campaign and saved Krynn from evil. It last a good 7 to 8 months, all with players I consider good friends, and plenty of DMing notes to spare for adaption into blog posts. Now would be a perfect time to delve back into things, and what better way than looking at the adventure that started it all?


Dragons of Despair opens up with the PCs venturing to the quiet burg of Solace to reunite at the Inn of the Last Home. While there they get hints of dark tidings, from the Seeker movement on the search for a Blue Crystal Staff to goblins being hired to search for it. The crux of the module is that the cleric/prophet PC begins play with this treasured artifact, which she obtained from the ruins of Xak Tsaroth before Dragonarmy forces moved in and forced her to flee. The PCs can gain information sources from various places on the goings-on in the land of Abanasinia lately, from Inn patrons to visiting the Lordcity of Haven. But all in all, the crux of the adventure is to get to Xak Tsaroth and find the Discs of Mishakal and help bring knowledge of the True Gods to Krynn. While in the dungeon, the PCs descend a multi-level flooded ruins and fight a black dragon guarding the Discs and a bunch of other treasure?

Things to Change/Look Out For

The module suggests the PCs coming back to Solace in separate groups, each with their own encounters along the way to tell the rest of the party that things are not alright. This may or may not be a good idea depending on your party makeup and how your players feel about sitting around doing nothing while their fellows participate in several pieces of combat.

Fewmaster Toede is a Dragonarmy flunky and recurring villain who ends up promoted several times simply due to his superiors kicking the bucket. He's an overweight, cowardly, and arrogant fool with little redeeming qualities who the PCs will meet several times during the Dragonlance Chronicles. One of the possible first encounters with him has him ordering hobgoblin lackeys to attack the party. Depending on how your players feel about recurring villains, it's entirely possible that Toede will get killed in this encounter, even if on a horse (ranged attacks and spells can be a game-changer). If the GM wants to keep Toede around, perhaps have his presence be near the edges: seeing him as a boisterous bully in Solace demanding families tell him of the Blue Crystal Staff, or if escaping from a Seeker patrol amidst the linked trees of Solace seeing Toede off in the distance barking orders.

The Initial Hook: It's assumed that the Cleric/Prophet PC with the Blue Crystal Staff was already at Xak Tsaroth. That PC could be a great way to get the rest of the party into going to the dungeon. However, the main hook provided is having a mysterious old man in the Inn of the Last Home tell them to take the artifact there as part of a great destiny. This may be a bit cliche and overt for many groups. Another way is to have rumors that evil's afoot off to the east, that a strange army of monsters now inhabits a set of old Istaran ruins in the swamps to the east.

Pax Tharkas Rumors: The Dragonarmies do not have an overt presence in Abanasinia yet, instead having draconian minions go about in concealing robes and acting through intermediaries such as Toede. Even so, they're transporting slaves and prisoners of war to a fortress to the south. A refugee first tells the PCs in overland encounter 38 (AD&D version), telling him the specifics. Do not do this; although he tells the PCs to not head south and go to Xak Tsaroth first, it's likely that the PCs are heroic in nature as Dragonlance doesn't work well with evil-aligned protagonists. Hearing of this may cause them to go south as a first priority, bypassing the Discs of Mishakal.

Instead keep the hints of slavery as a background element; a friend of a friend claiming that their cousin went missing one day in Haven, or that a certain nomadic Plains tribe wasn't seen in their usual location route in the autumn months.

Xak Tsaroth Dungeon Crawl: There are many rooms with low numbers of baaz draconians. Fighting them one after another can get tedious after a while due to low enemy variety. This is going to be a common theme in Dragons of Renewal, but cutting out extraneous encounters (especially ones where the enemies are little better than easily-defeated mooks) can help speed things up and allow for focus on the more interesting encounters.

Interesting encounters in Xak Tsaroth include: a Huge Spider in a cellar in the Upper Levels (51a in AD&D, UXT21 in 3.5), swarm of poisonous snakes in Dance on the Wall (59b or UXT39), exposition talks among some draconians in Assembly and Mess Hall (64d and 64h/LXT8 and LXT 12), bozak draconian's high priest office (has spellcasting ability, 70h/LXT41), and of course the black dragon Khisanth/Onyx in the bottom room, the Court of Balance!

Overall, there isn't as much things to change in this adventure plotwise, at least in comparison to the following adventure Dragons of Flame. The PCs have quite a bit of places to explore, both in Xak Tsaroth and overland.