Friday, April 23, 2010

Corsairs of Medero

The HelgaCon game "Corsairs of Medero" represents another major itch I've been trying to scratch properly for something on the order of decades -- a high-seas D&D naval combat campaign. Pretty much any way you slice it, you've got to have a system for mass-combat in place before this is possible (granted that the players will have some scores of sailors/rowers/fighters aboard the ship; think of the action in the Odyssey and whatnot) -- so the truth of the matter is, my Book of War mass-combat game is really just a warm-up prerequisite that I needed to develop before I could play this game.

One thing that greatly assisted me was obtaining the Original D&D white box set about 3 years ago now. As I leafed through the little brown books, continually marveling at the breadth and depth and conciseness of the content, near the end I came to the Naval Combat rules in Vol-3, p. 28-35. "Aha!," I said, "Here's what I've been looking for all along!". High-quality D&D naval combat rules that are compatible with miniatures use (in fact, using the same model ship scale as Gygax & Arneson's earlier game, Don't Give Up the Ship!). Historically realistic movement & sailing attitude figures. Even the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide fails to include the same content (no turn-by-turn movement rules, no standard crew sizes, etc.); now I can only read that latter work as an addendum to the OD&D naval rules, not as a full work itself. OD&D's 8 pages are, in fact, far and away the best D&D naval rules ever published in the 35-year history of the game.

So, with HelgaCon approaching, I committed to running a D&D naval game using these rules for naval action, and Book of War for the tactical-level combat (the OD&D naval rules reference Chainmail for combat resolution, but of course the mass-scale Chainmail rules don't incorporate fantasy figures like high-level PCs, magic, or monsters, a problem that my system works to correct). The time was a bit tight, but I felt it better to set myself a deadline and see what I could come up with, using it to tune, playtest, and expand for some other game in the future.

The convention game, in a nutshell, is this: The King of Medero has declared hostilities on the allied free cities of Nevins and Muirhead, signing Lettres of Course authorizing privateers to hunt & capture their shipping. The hostilities only last for a single sailing season; 16 weeks. The players select & outfit a ship with men (either a fast, rowable longship or a slow, large, more defensible cog); each week an encounter happens 4-in-6 (results depending on which coast they decide to hunt; see player's screen at top); and if they capture & return 3 merchant vessels within the short sailing season, then the PCs are declared barons. As a campaign detail, only ships with a wizard navigator aboard (using a magical sunstone) can successfully cross the open sea between kingdoms. There are actually 3 zoom-in levels of game action: (1) the strategic campaign level (which coast to prowl), (2) the tactical ship-to-ship level, and (3) the man-to-man deck-boarding level, with scores of men each represented by individual counters.

Again, this game turned out enormously well. Things I was most concerned about as potential problems turned out to be advantages. Presenting options for outfitting ships, the hunting region charts, and ship movement (sails vs. oar, wind orientation, rower fatigue, etc.; all as in OD&D) allowed players like my friend Adam to engage in some serious system crunching & supported solid team-building. Kevin made for a great, supportive captain. The pacing worked very well (I discovered some narrative flexibility in whether I chose to zoom-in to the closest detail level or not). It was well-balanced in the limit to game-time (weeks) and also the PCs level & power (6th-7th level; allowing some limited tactical spell-use and the PC's narrowly surviving combat with a high-level captain at the end). My players were in fact victorious in capturing 3 merchant ships with cargo, returning as game-time almost expired, and being declared barons with great fanfare. (!)

Here's a week-by-week breakdown of the action:
  1. Sail in, Medero-to-Nevins.
  2. Encounter: Merchant (Copper) -- the best possible result, worth 2 ships' cargoes. Amusingly, since this appeared in the form of a heavily-armed caravel, the players took it for a patrol and evacuated. The fact that the enemy ship also turned away, instead of giving chase, made the players nicely suspicious that something different was happening.
  3. Encounter: Merchant (Copper) -- again!! And, with the same result (greatly amusing to the DM -- potentially the game could have been over already at this point; thus spake the dice).
  4. Encounter: Merchant (Salt). The PCs successfully captured this cog, killing most of the crew and capturing 10 men.
  5. Sail out to Medero, securing the captured ship. The players presented the captives to the king, asking for mercy; a bad reaction roll resulted in a terse, "Never! Throw the fools in the dungeon and let them rot!" (DM chuckles; the dice are telling me that the king's administration is crueler than I knew before.)
  6. Sail back in, Medero-to-Nevins.
  7. Encounter: Giant Leeches. A group of 10 hideous, giant, saltwater leeches catch the ship and climb up the side. Fortunately, the rowers draw swords and defeat them (on d6 die rolls of 5 & 6).
  8. No encounter.
  9. Encounter: Nixies. A host of 60 green-skinned nixies pop up in the sea before the players' longship, singing an enchanting song. The players immediately stop and back oars. Firing a barrage of arrows at the nixies causes unseen giant fish to attack; 20 men are yanked overboard and horribly torn to pieces as the ship reverse-rows off the tabletop.
  10. Encounter: Merchant (Iron). This occurred on a day with becalmed winds, so the merchant cog was a sitting duck for the PCs' longship under oars. Crew eliminated by missile fire at the players' leisure.
  11. Sail out, Nevins-to-Medero. This scored the second ship, and allowed the players to replace the crew lost to the nixies' giant fish cohort.
  12. Sail in, Medero-to-Nevins.
  13. Encounter: Merchant (Iron). Time running out (players needed a capture by week 15, so as to sail back in turn 16 for the win), they manage to grapple this ship just a few inches from the edge of the tactical tabletop (rationale: near the port, a patrol within sight, if the enemy gets off the board it has escaped). Here we zoom in to man-to-man combat, with deck plans at 1" = 5 feet, using 80 counters for the players' crew and 20 for the merchant crew, plus a 9th-level captain figure. After a fierce boarding fight ("Foul sorcery!" cries the enemy captain; one PC is brought to 4 hp and opts to run and hide under some canvas), this prize is captured as well.
  14. Sail out, Nevins-to-Medero. Interestingly, there was some discussion among the players as to whether or not the win condition I'd specified was true. Should they risk hunting for a 4th ship; would that be even better? In the end, they returned to Medero with the 3rd capture for the scenario win.
In summary, an enormously successful convention game. There were requests to do something similar again at next year's HelgaCon -- and possibly also a hex-by-hex stocked wilderness adventure in the same vein (and I'd previously already put some thought into an adventure set on the old Wilderness Survival map boards). I think the players legitimately beat the odds here with their win; no patrols or pirates had ever appeared. (Compare this to when I ran a short playtest with Isabelle, in which the first thing that happened was a life-or-death battle with an enemy patrol ship.)


What Went Right (Best Practices):
  1. Convention win conditions. One of the main discoveries on my part at this year's HelgaCon is the enormous uptick in excitement from having well-defined win conditions in all my games. I've previously written about my frustration over the "point" of limited convention games. Gratifyingly, I think I just found a really simple, satisfying answer. The player interest at hitting the "win" goal was a lot more intense than I would have predicted in advance. Amusingly, there was some skepticism at the end over whether the conditions were real or not ("Would we get anything better with 4 ships captured? Should we risk it?"). Picking up on this player anxiety, I couldn't resist heightening the tension at the end by rolling some dice, inspecting them & a fictitious chart carefully, and going "Hmmmm....". (Improv-style: saying "yes, and..."). The conclusion, "... You are declared barons!" was met with some serious celebration. This is key, so I'm sure I'll revisit it again in a later post.
  2. Cutting aggressively. There was a lot of logistical juggling necessary on my part, what with the 3 levels of scale happening all at once. I was pretty decisive about cutting out, when asked, any tracking of food, water, ammunition, etc. on the players' ship. Kevin later suggested giving different details of ship management to individual players; I responded that the complexity of that would have "broken my back". In addition, I liked the team-based challenge of having to maneuver the one ship on the tactical side card table (working well with 4 players; maybe more would have been problematic). Much like teaching, the real challenge here is how to cut stuff to the bone, not finding more stuff to add.
  3. Half-time scale for OD&D naval combat. The OD&D ship movement rules are realistic within a Chainmail-like scale of 1 turn = 1 minute and 1" = 10 yards. However, this creates moves-per-turn on the order of 25" or 35" sailed; fine for Gygax's recommended 6x6 foot game table, but frankly too large for anything I or my friends have. The initial gameplay test with Isabelle highlighted this, giving me a chance to decide on cutting the time scale (and hence movement) by half. This, then, is even somewhat like the Chainmail/Swords & Spells sequence of play where moves are actually taken in half-steps. The half-time scale worked great, maneuvering was intuitive, and there weren't any complaints. I also cut the specified turn radius down to a level that would allow a full turn on a smaller 3x3 table, and that also worked very well. (My rule: Sailing allows a 45 degree turn every 10", rowing allows a 45 degree turn every 6". At a standstill, can still make one 45 degree turn.) I would highly recommend these two edits to anyone using the otherwise-exceptional OD&D naval combat section.
  4. Showing players the wilderness encounter charts. (Again, see player's screen at the far top.) This was enormous, to the extent that I'm sure to be proselytizing on this in the future. Much like Aaron Kesher's "Devil in the Details" racial-detail-charts, showing the encounter charts gives a concentrated, intense, highly playable window into the campaign environment. Suddenly, there was a lot of excitement at the die rolls for encounters each week in this game (I didn't actually show the die rolls, but the players knew what results were likely and that they'd be seeing the tactical results in a few seconds.) In my case, the charts used OD&D encounters tuned to the frequencies I'd expect off the wilder Muirhead, and the richer Nevins coastlines. (Results of "Swimmer" and "Flyer" would take you to the standard OD&D subtables of the same names.) You might consider using this technique more widely, for dungeon level encounters and random-effect-thrones and whatnot -- I personally wouldn't, being enough of a naturalist to not want to give players free info that wouldn't be general knowledge for the PCs. But I would highly recommend it for wilderness areas, to make concrete and concise the various rumors and legends on how dangerous a given area is.
  5. Wind rules. The OD&D by-the-book wind rules just felt right in every way. The fact that one merchant ship was discovered while totally becalmed, paying off the players' gamble to venture forth in a rowable longship, was a well-received gift from the dice.
  6. Wizard-only navigators. This was purely a campaign design thing on my part, but it was pointed out by my players that it implied they couldn't crew a captured a vessel and send it home by itself (i.e., it required an accompanying PC wizard). A beautiful little accident on my part, adding to the gameplay tension.
  7. Dicing for fireball placement. Following Chainmail rules, I require players to call out any missile-magic shot distance, and from the rolling deck of a ship, I also use the 2d6 roll to determine any under/over-shot. In the second week, Jon shot his fireball at the high-value copper merchant (thinking it a patrol), missing by a single inch. While Kevin made a comment at the end that this made magic use too difficult, I pointed out that no other PC could make any effective attack whatsoever at the tactical scale, and so it seemed to be a reasonable balancing factor.
What Went Wrong (Things to Fix):
  1. Here's the only thing that seemed honestly glitchy to the players: At the end they asked what would have happened if they'd engaged in an encounter with two ships, including a capture crewed by some of their own men. I said that I'd have just left it off the table out of the fight; they were highly surprised, saying they assumed it would be on the table and at risk of being lost, which is why they'd returned immediately to Medero after every capture. They considered this ruling a great advantage if they'd known about it, while I'd assumed the reduced number of men (e.g., proportionally slower rowing speed; OD&D Vol-3, p. 33) would have been a distinct disadvantage to the players. Partly I just didn't want the door open to the complexity of multiple-ship action in this particular game (see item #2 above), but I'm open to suggestions on this point.

6 comments:

  1. Please, please, please run this at the next Recess! I'm dying, here.
    - Tavis

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  2. I think you've got a great point about showing the players your encounter charts, at least for wilderness areas.

    Looking back on my sandbox campaign of last year, if players knew what they might be in for, there might have been less "Oh, that area's too dangerous for our level." style turtling. Complete unknowns tend to distort peoples' risk assessment toward the neagative.

    It's funny, also, that you bring up the Throne of Changes in that point. In my rush to get that set piece shoehorned in, I skipped over a bit of detail in that originally there was a row of mummified scribes sitting along one wall who's job it was to record the changes the throne wrought, one of whom was still alive (made immortal by the throne) and who could have answered questions and told you what results you might have gotten.

    I think you can serve naturalism by having glimpses of more obscure random charts be a reward for good information gathering.

    Letting them read wilderness encounter charts is a good model for "common knowledge". Hell, or you could make it a special ability for rangers or whatnot.

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  3. Tavis: Ha! :)

    BJ: The mummy-scribes are a really nice touch. Creepy and good gameplay.

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  4. Nixie the fresh water spirit in the sea? This is madness!

    There is not even a single child for them to drown.

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  5. Players were actually more freaked out by the giant leeches in salt water...

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  6. You could even perhaps mix showing and not showing, by leaving 2 and 12(or whatever spots you want) blank.

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