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!