Wednesday, February 2, 2011

RECESS Report: Corsairs of Medero

Here's a scenario that I've run a couple of times that I call "Corsairs of Medero". (Previously seen here.) In it, the players take the parts of adventurers seeking to capture three merchant vessels for the King of Medero over the course of a 16-week sailing season (and so be declared Barons of the Realm). The players control and outfit a single ship of corsairs; weekly turns are played out for encounters; and most of the mechanics come straight from OD&D Vol-3 (including the basis for ocean encounters, ship profiles, wind force, naval maneuvering and combat, etc.). There are potentially three levels of action: (1) strategic (weekly sailing orders and encounter checks), (2) tactical (ship-to-ship or monstrous creature combat at 1:10 scale), and (3) man-to-man (boarding actions, with a hit=kill rule for normal men). At the tactical level, I use my Book of War rules for mass combat (replacing Chainmail, so as to interface with high-level PCs and their spells and special abilities).

This run of the game was played out at the RECESS convention in New York City on Saturday, January-15. (That being a quarterly event sponsored by With an very well-organized convention and really great players in attendance, this was really a whole lot of fun for me to referee that Saturday.

The thing about classic D&D that's a true joy is that in relying on a lot of randomized tables for wilderness (and dungeon) encounters, it inevitably generates some real surprises, and really stretches my improvisational abilities as a DM. For example here, a story definitely develops by the time we're done; but it's nothing I would have conceivably imagined in advance, and it's probably a whole lot more creative than anything I could have plotted out in advance on my own. The interaction of certain naturalized-fantasy statistics, creative player problem-solving and strategizing, and my own ad-libbing, truly generates something greater than the sum of its parts.

Weeks 1-2: In this game, for the first time ever, the players chose at the start to outfit a cog as their vessel (slower, but carries 20 archers and 30 infantry) instead of a longship (faster and more maneuverable, but with more men dedicated to rowing). They were careful to load up at the start with plenty of burning oil, dummy flags of the enemy nations, and even a series of cover stories three-"reveals" deep. The spellcasters used a number of long-lasting charm person spells on their own mercenary crew in order to increase loyalty. In the first two weeks, the slow-sailing cog made its way across the Gulf of Krol to the enemy coast of Richland.

Week 3: The first roll for a weekly encounter is made. The 2d6 roll comes up "12", indicating some fantastic flyer-types. Turning to the "Flyers" table (OD&D Vol-3, p. 18), the d12 comes up a "1" -- which indicates a flight of Pegasi (1-12, which for our purpose we just call "10"), royally wheeling quickly past the player's ship just after dawn. (I probably couldn't have told you in advance that Pegasi were even anywhere in those wilderness encounter tables.)

I place the ship & flyer counters on the table at the indicated range, and ask the players what they do -- The answer being, a barrage of web spells from the party wizards to snag the Pegasi on the one turn that they're in range. Rolled result: The whole batch of them are ensnared and dunked into the ocean. The party thief with a ring of water walking runs to the site, ties a rope, and has them hauled back onto the ship (where they are securely restrained). The players start asking about the possibility of selling them, or training them to be ridden.

So with the very first encounter roll, this scenario has inescapably spun in a direction that I never expected to deal with. One of the players points out that there is a listing for Specialist: Animal Trainer (OD&D Vol-3, p. 22) for which "The length of time necessary to completely train the animals is up to the referee."

Week 4: Having not actually commenced any hostilities with Nevins yet, the party decides to pull into port there (under disguised colors) and proceeds to do two things: (1) find an animal trainer for hire, and (2) scout for intelligence on rich merchant targets, including use of charms and clairvoyance spells (neither of which has ever occurred in the scenario before). For the latter, I allow a few rolls that result in "+/-2 to your next encounter roll in a direction of your choice". For the former, I allow them to find and employ a rather scurrilous, on-the-run animal trainer who's willing to hire up with a sketchy group of mercenaries sailing for parts unknown. This made-on-the-fly character winds up being called "Glarkon the Unsavory; or, Daddy Midnight", and at some point he gets run by a new player who just happens to wander by and asks if he can sit at the table and observe. (Also at one point, the suggestion is made to just sack the whole town, but thankfully cooler heads prevail.)

Week 5: Hunting off the Nevins coast, the encounter roll comes up empty this week. My ruling on the animal trainer goes like this: Each week he gets to roll for 5 Pegasi (that is, one roll per player at the table). Training a Pegasi quickly seems really difficult, so I say a 19-20 on a d20 roll is necessary any week to make one semi-controllable. I'm thinking that's a glimmer of a chance that won't actually come up within the game. Of course, on the very first week, 2 Pegasi succeed at their checks. This continues in later weeks, so as time goes on, the overall action starts looking something like a medieval-fantasy aircraft carrier, with various riders flying off the deck for combat and scouting purposes.

Week 6: An encounter roll succeeds. The result comes up "4 - Patrol (Longship)", but due to the prior intelligence gathering, it's switched by the players to "2 - Merchant (Wine)" (I breathe a sigh of relief that they don't get to pick the Copper merchant, worth 2 cargoes, for fear of the scenario ending almost immediately in success -- see top above for a version of the top-level encounter tables in use). The ships close (under false colors as usual), but the merchants sense trouble with the large number of soldiers, and the players are forced to initiate hostilities.

Wildcat MacCusson (Human Ftr5/Thf6) takes off on a Pegasus in combat for the first time. Noting that the creature is only semi-trained, and the immense speed of the beast (48"), I call for a control roll of d20+level (trying to score 20+; i.e., chances 6-in-20). This fails, and so Wildcat and his Pegasus rocket off the deck uncontrollably -- traveling nearly a scale 1,000 feet instantly, and thereby leaping the miniature off the table entirely (somewhere around the window in the back of the room).

Meanwhile, the wizards are able to pacify most of the enemy with a series of sleep spells, and thereafter take command of the captured merchantman crew with a series of bribes, threats, ESP, and charm spells. The action with Wildcat, however, will happen a whole bunch more times throughout the game.

Week 7: Here, a result of "Patrol (Longship)" comes up unchanged. The players with their now-two vessels attempt to sail by under their false colors, as the Nevins patrol ship rows close. However, disaffected members of the captured merchant crew raise an alarm and call for help, so that the longship calls for attack speed and lurches forward. Wildcat again erupts off the deck out-of-control to great hilarity (every combat I gave an accumulative +1 or +2 to the check, but generally to no avail). Meanwhile Kjell Greenfish (Elf Ftr4/Wiz5) drops the bomb by pulling out his one-shot scroll of death (6th-level death spell) and devastating most of the enemy oarsmen/fighters. A few sleep spells and mercenary missile-salvos later, and the longship is cleared of hostiles and subsequently scavenged and sunk. (Another ESP spell is then used to identify the shouting merchant mate, who is then dunked overboard by way of Pegasus-flight.)

Week 8: Thinking that the locals may be warned about their activities, the players switch their hunting zone to the somewhat less-rich city of Muirhead, down the coast to the south. Now, a result of "Merchant (Fish)" appears. Again the players try to first hail peacefully for news, with the merchant drawing close before deciding the pair of vessels may be the pirates they've been warned about. Again Wildcat tumbles into the sky uncontrollably, but the merchant is surrounded on both sides, and a combination of magic and missile-shower bring them to bay. A second captured merchantman is added to the fleet -- the players are doing well!

Week 9: A third Pegasus is "successfully" trained. This week the encounter result is a Patrol -- this time not one but two ships, a fully loaded Caravel and companion Longship, on the hunt for pirates, with the powerful Captain Bidari (Female Human Ftr8, Str18) at the helm. The players try to sail away peacefully, but at this point the jig is up. The patrol ships are significantly faster than the player's tubby cogs, quickly tacking from behind them and throwing grapples for double simultaneous boarding actions. A fireball is shot into the midships of the caravel, burning a number of men and setting the mast on fire.

At this point we switch to man-to-man action, with me pulling out 5-foot-per-inch maps of the appropriate ships' decking, and pouring some 150 counters onto the table for all the individuals involved (the tactical-level models are pulled to the side for this). Wildcat shoots off out-of-control as usual. Kjell Greenfish mounts one of the winged steeds for the first time, calls for all the rest of the Pegasi to be cut free, and downs his potion of animal control, taking mental command of a half-dozen of the creatures. The thieves Taber and Gorka run with men below-decks on one of the vessel to set an ambush-and-backstab opportunity. Byrtwold (Human Wiz6, and overall captain) flings spells and charms one of the lieutenants leaping over the railing to attack him. Men from the burning caravel run forward at the urging of the enemy captain, pouring onto the players' decks.

Pretty soon, Kjell is making repeated swooping attacks at the head of his controlled Pegasus-flock, slashing men to pieces and into the ocean (and breaking off his magic spear at one point in the side of an enemy lieutenant). Taber winds up in hand-to-hand combat, nearly overwhelmed by the enemy Captain Bidari. Wildcat decides to land on deck, fails a control roll, and tumbles into the sail (the best of several truly terrible options, given a certain dire roll). Landing on deck, he pulls out his enormous magic two-handed sword and cuts down two of the enemy -- followed by a natural "1", a failed saving throw, and then a fumble result of 87/100 ("critical hit, self"), followed by 78/100 ("leg removed at knee"), effectively taking him out of the combat. This may be the single unluckiest character I've ever seen on a single day!

Unfortunately, as time runs out, the double-patrol forces at last seem to be more than the PC's can fend off. Taber goes down under the furious attack of Captain Bidari. Gorka slashes with his dagger where he can. Byrtwold tells the charmed lieutenant to go below-decks to "burn out the evil hobbits there" -- "there" being the location where they previously stacked up a large load of burning oil. That pair of linked ships effectively blows up (the enemy deck also having been bombed by barrels of oil), and the fireball-ed caravel sinks and pulls down the merchant wine vessel with it, as well. Did the PCs manage to escape and limp to safety with their remaining ship and crew? Or did Captain Bidari win the day after all? Whispered rumors hint at other, darker possibilities...

Enormous thanks to my excellent and good-humored players: James, Adrian, Chris, Eppy, and Tavis, and to everyone at RECESS. It was literally a blast to play with you!


  1. That, my friend, is a big ol'
    bucket of AWESOME!

    Especially the medieval pegasis aircraft carrier thing.

  2. Really amazing game you have put together there. Seems like it is perfect for conventions and one-offs. You also DM it well, integrating the open-ended aspects of D&D with what could otherwise be a close-ended board game.

  3. Do you have any plans for sharing your notes for this scenario? I'd love to run it.

  4. I was a player in this, and I had a blast. Great scenario, great DM, great players. Definitely the surprise hit for Recess for me. The game handles so well at the board and boat levels, I was almost sad to get into combat. The only thing that felt frustrating was not being about to get more men at arms, we basically were controlling 3 ships with our own men split amongst them and us keeping charm spells to keep the rest under control. Needs to find a way to get more men even if it cost us a week or even a ship to get them as those later week scenarios were killer. We did however all escape with most of our limbs some Pegasi a a boat full of salted cod. A super great time I would definitely play it again.

  5. Hey Jason -- Yes, I've got it written up and I'm planning to release it at some point. It's short, granted how much it relies on what's already in OD&D Vol-3. But it does depend on my "Book of War" rules for tactical stuff, so I want to release that first and give people a chance to refer to it.

  6. Chris, great feedback, thanks! :)

    My notes do include the expectation that the party can sail back home and "bank" captured ship(s) and replenish men when they want (and in the prior run the players did do that with each capture; although easier with a fast longship). In fact, the "ship on open sea must have a wizard navigator" rule is largely so there's some committed expense for doing that in weeks of travel (as opposed to being entirely offscreen by NPCs/in parallel while hunting).

    Open to suggestions on making that more explicit?

  7. Also: I'm kind of super pleased with myself in designing a scenario where people are really happy to capture a hold full of salted cod, LOL.