A couple points to set the scene. In prior years, our intrepid players had actually sacked the castles marked at #3 and #5 (see the annotated map below). Castle #3 was taken three years ago, and I don't think the players recalled that; they actually started by making a beeline directly towards that stronghold as an attractive target. Castle #5 was taken one year ago, and they did recall that. My revised game notes stipulated that these two castles had subsequently been taken over by two randomly-rolled Superhero fighters, brothers, rivals of each other (one being Neutral, and the other Chaotic). Since they had recently taken over sacked castles, they were noted as having only minimal treasure (1/3 of treasure type A).
Another change is that as of this year we're using my revised Book of Spells, 2nd Edition for the magic being used in the game. One of my sharp-eyed players spotted a very nice spell combination now available (pretty sure it was Dave G., who to his credit prompted the overhaul to the spellbook last year after he nearly broke my D2 game via pushing the text of polymorph self to the limit). One change I made is to have the 4th-level extend spell (a.k.a extension) stretch any lower-level spell with a duration in turns to 1 day (I did this partly because the classical +50% duration is so lame that no one had ever used the spell in 30 years of my games). Among the most desirable spells of that criterion would be the 3rd-level haste, which doubles the speed of up to 20 creatures. So whereas the party had in prior years loaded up on heavy warhorses and draft animals carrying lots of supplies (and some hireling guards, etc.), this time they went for a light-and-fast approach. They took 16 riding horses and cast both haste and extend spell on all of them -- allowing them to run 20 hexes on the board, that is, 100 miles each day! A very smart move that reduces the checks for wandering monsters, which are always a key playing consideration; and it seems very in-flavor, a use of magical power which to me feels very true to both myth and pulp fantasy.
To date, the players have never achieved the victory condition in the game -- but they've come close. Once again I had a packed table of 9 players with their pregenerated characters (many familiar from prior years) ready to go. Which, as a DM, is both exciting and a bit anxiety-provoking. Will the players finally win this time? Will I screw the pooch juggling everything happening in the game?
The Third Travels
- The players start on the western edge of the map at castle #7 (a Neutral Necromancer who helps them get started), and gallop in a great rooster-tail of dust halfway across the entire board, to the outskirts of castle #3, in a single day.
- The party assaults the castle openly with magic and feats of epic strength. The wizards start with a pyrotechnics spell overhead, blinding most of the men on the walls, and then follow with fireballs, lightning bolts, and sleep spells; meanwhile, the giant-strengthened frontline warriors ride up to the main gate and portcullis and literally kick them down from their horses. The Superhero warlord and his 4 plate-armored Ogre henchmen charge into melee with them! The battle swings forward and backward in the gateway, with mighty blows struck on both sides. The superhero scores a critical hit on Grimbold the Champion, a mortal wound that will kill him in a few turns without recourse. Then Grimbold's friends cut down the warlord, and his ogre henchmen try to drag him out of the fray; but they too are felled. The party wizards have charmed a number of the guards, and the rest surrender.
- The PCs are somewhat aggrieved that the castle has so little treasure; some magic but no actual valuable coinage (as I roll it on the fly). They make an interesting choice here; while Halig Redsaber has a wish in his magic sword that might bring back a PC, the group decides to save it, let Grimbold actually die, and instead use charm monster on the captured superhero as a replacement instead. This succeeds, so I rapidly start rolling up stats for this NPC and scanning a list of random names for him.
- The new PC is named Shark Grinandson -- and his rival brother is given the name Demon Grinandson. Why are they rivals? Well, funny story: when I roll up the treasure randomly for Shark at this moment, the dice coincidentally generate two of the same item, a pair of swords +1, +2 vs. magic-users and enchanted monsters. So as the players interrogate their now comically-helpful new ally about local inhabitants and treasure, Shark points to Castle #5 and says that his brother likewise has little treasure, and has a grudge because while both were bequeathed identical magic swords from their father, Shark stole them both and ran off. The PCs decide to explore in other directions.
- On the way to Castle #1, the PCs explore a cave along a path in the woods. They find a small number of men (bandits?), and the party Thief/Wizard sneaks up invisibly and strikes them with a fireball. This toasts most of them, but the rest turn into weretigers and attack viciously! Fortunately, the rest of the party can hold off the small number of survivors, but only a measly 300 sp treasure is found.
- The party reaches Castle #1, and parley with the men on the walls. They declare that the castle is owned by "Iruinea of the Sacred Wood" (as usual, named on the fly *), so the PCs ask if they would be allowed to rest the night and confer. The castle agrees, and they are treated to a banquet that night, hosted by Iruinea and her somewhat distracting pair of pet man-eating manticores (charmed, of course). Cutting to the chase, the charismatic Ruric the Fox asks, "Is there any place nearby with a great treasure?". To which Iruinea replies: "Why yes! Berserkers to the far southeast have immense wealth -- in fact, I hereby geas you to travel to that place immediately and bring me back half of their treasure." At which point the PCs were compelled to march out of the castle in the middle of the night, led by the incredibly enthusiastic Ruric (and the completely un-dispellable max-level magic curse). After some miles, the party decides to rest instead of traveling in the dangerous darkness; Ruric refuses, saying that he will proceed on alone -- at which point the rest of party jumps him en masse, leaving him tied up and gagged until dawn breaks.
- The group crosses the southern mountain spur. Halfway across it in a valley between two ridges they meet their only wandering encounter: a group of several hundred bandits, under arms, marching northwards! The bandits see the group of ten riders and perceive them as easy pickings, launching a flight of arrows and charging their horsed troops to the attack. But of course the PCs respond with eldritch, destructive magic, and the fighters launch whirlwind attacks, roll giant boulders down from the cliffs, and so forth. The bandit leader, Lord Gorba the Nighthand, runs from the field and escapes, at which point the rest of his men break and scatter in all directions.
- The party reaches the cavern lair of the Berserkers to the far southeast of the of the mountain chain. This is one of the sites that I've recently expanded in my adventure notes, with a sizable complex of about 60 rooms and a double-gate barring the entrance to the cavern complex. I had no particular plan for how the PCs could win here; my assumption was that they'd battle their way in, get ambushed on all sides in a long cave by the 170 crazed Berserkers, and then I would watch with great curiosity at how they'd conceivably get out of that. But in this case, the PCs did not start with an open assault (although Ruric is again jumped and tied up temporarily to prevent him from doing just that). The dwarven fighter Onund Pigchaser sneaks up invisibly and uses his ring of human control to charm most of the guards on the outer towers (one makes his save, but is abruptly pushed off the tower by his former barracks-mate). Without sounding an alarm, they clamber out of the towers and join the PC party -- telling them of the location of a secret rear escape tunnel that lets onto the throne room and the chief's quarters.
- The PCs use this rear tunnel to enter onto the throne room, guarded by 10 berserkers who mostly fall prey to a sleep spell. Then the charmed guards point the way to the chief's quarters. The PCs break down the door to find the chief in conference with his two strongest lieutenants. The chief at this point is determined to be Antinko the Grizzly, a 9th-level berserker Lord, with -- oh, let's say -- Strength 18, Dexterity 18, Constitution 18, with the feats of Rapid Strike (double attacks) and Great Strength (total Str 20), and a magic +2 Two-Handed Sword! I basically decided that ad-hoc so as to not give the PCs too easy a time (since they'd avoided the larger horde of Berserkers). In response, the PCs beat down the lieutenants and capture the mighty Antinko with another charm monster spell, adding his strength to the party once more (note to self: the stronger the boss monster, the more the PCs can gain with a successful charm).
- Antinko helpfully reveals a back-room with the Berserkers' communal treasure, and it is indeed a great cache: 400 gp and 30 jewels each worth 2,000 sp -- total value: 64,000 sp, about two-thirds what the party needs for a victory in the game, prompting the players to celebrate! Also: three scrolls cases, which the party eagerly open. Scroll #1: a map to a magical treasure in the center of the distant southwest swamp. Scroll #2: a map to a great monetary treasure in the cave in the woods to the far northeast of the map. Scroll #3: a curse which zaps the entire group to the far northwest of the map, with no horses and no food or water with them. The DM laughs maniacally!!
- The party now struggles to get back to someplace with food and water before they expire in the barren wilderness with their precious load of jewels. They can still use the extended haste strategy, but on foot even this only earns them 6 hexes of travel per day. They come up with the clever tactic of casting a wall of ice and letting it melt to gather the water. Over several days they round the northwesterly mountains and reach the hunting spot noted in the northern woods there; the fighters hunt various game and manage to feed the party for a few days. They enter the cave there and find a den of spotted lions and take them out with an ice storm. Then the group decides to skirt the area between the forest and the western mountains, southward, hoping to get back to Castle #7 and pick up fresh horses before time runs out in the session.
- The PCs approach the cavern at the edge of the mountains and the eastward-running forest path. As it turns out, this is one of the secret strongholds that I've placed on the map, a powerful body of Bandits, led by another 9th level Lord and various lieutenants and serjeants. Scouts in the woods spot the PCs approaching and raise an alarm; a horn sounds in the distance, and when the PCs break through the trees they find the entire fighting force assembled against them -- 240 Bandits: two units of 60 Light Foot each, 50 Archers, 50 Light Cavalry, and 20 Medium Cavalry, with the various leaders distributed between these units. We roll initiative and they attack!
- The greatest threat in a situation like this is the Archers, who can launch a huge number of attacks at will on the small party: they fire and I go around the table rolling 5d20 for the five attacks on each party member (criticals always being a possibility on 20's, maybe instant death!). The players respond with a pyrotechnics airburst against the bowmen to blind them. The cavalry start to charge, but the PCs throw up a wall of fire to break it up and delay the attack. The hasted fighters spot the enemy leader and sprint across the battlefield to engage him in melee. Fireballs are launched by the party wizards against the stronger horsemen, and then the footmen surround most of the party, squeezing them into a tight ball and attacking with hand weapons. Onund attacks left and right, felling ten men each round with his Great Cleave ability. The archers break morale and flee; and so do the medium horse. Confusion is cast on one group of light foot, causing some 20 of their number to begin mistakenly attacking their own fellows; ten of the light cavalry are charmed, and this further disrupts their attack. Finally the frontline fighters bring down the bandit leader, and everyone else runs from the field. One of the party fighters is found dead on the field of battle, and Halig uses the wish in his sword to bring him back to the living.
- The party is delighted initially to have captured enough mounts to continue their explorations on horseback. Then they explore the bandit lair and find their biggest treasure yet: copper, gold, a cache of gems, and jewelry worth over 70,000 sp. The players have, somewhat accidentally, finally won the game of Outdoor Spoliation and they cheer! But quietly, Ruric makes plans to fly with the gems and jewelry back to Iruinea...
- This game friggin' rocks.
- I expected that after 3 years, this would be the last session that I would run this. However, at the end, several players actually requested more of this scenario. In particular, Paul S., who was playing the Ruric the Fox, expressed great interest in taking half of the treasure back to Iruinea -- completing the magical geas -- and then immediately terminating her and taking the treasure back. Also he had carefully documented the locations of the other treasure maps to secure even more wealth on the next expedition...
- * Inside joke: Iruenia is actually a Neutral Necromancer. When I was scanning my list of names for her when the PCs found her castle, I just thought both for spice and my own amusement how funny it would be if someone like that simply lied and took a Lawful-sounding name like "of the Sacred Wood" just to confuse people. I think this succeeded in setting up the geas quite nicely.
- The accidental creation of the duplicate magic swords, giving a backstory to Shark Grinandson's feud with his more Chaotic brother, was one of those delightful ad-hoc discoveries that you only get from random rolls in the middle of a game. I would never have invented that on my own in any number of nights at home trying to be "creative". I also rolled up a potion of green dragon control in his random stash; the players then started wondering as to which forest cave on the map might be hiding a green dragon. I hadn't previously set one in my notes, but as the players speculated on the matter I changed one of the encounter areas to have such a green dragon. I won't tell you which area it is... for now.
- The players surprised and impressed me with new magic-based tactics in at least three cases. One was the use of speed in their travels, combining all light riding horses with the extended haste spell. That was huge, and the players were rightly congratulating themselves at the end of the game for making the switch. Two would be actually sacrificing a party member and using a long-lasting charm monster on an enemy Superhero to replace the character for a given player. Three would be using a melting wall of ice for a water supply in a cursed-teleport-to-the-wilderness emergency.
- On recent changes to the Book of Spells: I really like my adjustment to extend spell; this was the first time I ever saw it get used in 30 years of playing D&D (one of those wonky Sup-I entries). The new effect was potent, memorable, and very in-flavor, without being really overpowered (the party did have to burn two high-level spells each day to double their overland movement). Paul S. said that initially, when I reverted haste to give no attacks or armor benefit (it doubles movement and that's it, as in OD&D), he predicted that no one would ever use it again; but in fact players are still constantly memorizing and using it to great effect it in all my games -- and I think that further highlights how grossly overpowered it was with all the extra benefits in 3E, et. al. But is my new pyrotechnics possibly too powerful? It basically blinds a whole army unit with one 2nd-level casting.
- I neglected to update the spell names in the PC spellbook listings to match the revision in Book of Spells, 2nd Edition. This caused some confusion at the table when players couldn't find a given spell in the index of the rulebook. I need to fix that before the next game (and some sympathy to published games where those kinds of mistakes pop up).
- I was too generous in letting the PCs ride into battle mounted on light riding horses. Paul S. pointed this out after the game, and I had just flat-out forgotten to even think about it during play (partly because in prior games fighters were always on warhorses). If players get the benefit of extra travel speed, and avoid almost all wandering monsters, then I should definitely balance it by making the horses shy and forcing the fighters to run into combat on foot.
- My critical hit tables (link) have quite a few results like "death in 2-12 turns" or "death in 1-6 days". In prior years, I had always allowed a cure light wounds to alleviate this effect, which I decided was far too soft-cushiony for my tastes. Recently I changed my house rules so that only a regenerate spell would do the job; but granted that spell is not actually available in my game (no clerics, etc.), it then turns those results into inescapable doom, which doesn't feel right either. Perhaps I should allow something like 3 doses of cure light wounds to be effective (equivalent to cure critical wounds/potion of extra-healing from AD&D)?
- When starting these games, there's always a slightly awkward moment when I query the players as to how much food and water they're carrying for a large number of men and horses. The players aren't sure what units in which to respond (usually "two weeks' worth?"), and then I have to pull out a calculator and check encumbrance, load, etc. The water and food are consumed and weighed in different units (water per day, food per week). I really wish I had a very simple system to assess that with all of the units in simple integers.
- Another thing is that with all the random warlords in castles and large groups of bandits, brigands, berserkers, pirates, etc. in the wilderness, I keep running into trouble generating those 8th- and 9th-level fighter leaders on the fly (what with equipment, ability scores, hit points, magic items, etc.). I really need a "rogues' gallery" list of fully equipped, named, and statted-out Superheroes and Lords to grab in those situations. Even if the lower-level Lieutenants and Serjeants are "vanilla" (i.e., skip special ability scores and magic), having the top boss leader fleshed out would give some concrete specificity to the scene. Ages ago I had a Basic D&D program I'd written to spit stuff like that out, but it doesn't work on current systems, and I probably don't have the time anymore to repeat that kind of project.
- Whenever a player-character dies, no matter what the circumstance, remember to ask the player, "Do you have any last words?". This seems to take the edge off the loss, giving the player some final agency in the event, and the response is usually rib-crackingly hilarious. (Hat tip to Chris Hardwick on @midnight for this tactic.)