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Author Topic: Black Altar of Tramath  (Read 5761 times)
Alan
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« on: August 01, 2004, 04:27:58 AM »

Hello,

I'm preparing a con demo of the game Conan d20.  The demo is intended for 4 players and a GM over a 4 hour period.  I play tested it here in Seattle with three players (all males in their thirties).  Two are moderately familiar with DnD3 and the third, some distant experience with 2nd ed.

The game begins with all of the PCs washed up on the shore of an island off the west coast, stripped of all equipment.  The previous night, they had been on one of two ships, which were chasing each other through a horrendous storm.  Both ships went down and broke up.  

I prepared 6 pre-generated characters for the four players to select from.  Each pre-gen had both a male and female name, so players could select gender)

In order to feature the Fate point system and emphasize the narrativist features of the game in a single session, I prepared a modified reward system.   After players selected characters, I gave them a relationship sheet.  On this sheet, they chose which ship they had been one, whether they were crew, passenger, or prisoner on that ship, and three prior relationships.  Relationships with the other 5 pre-gen characters.  Two of the three relationships had to be with PCs.  The 3rd could bring in an unused pre-gen as an NPC.  I gave limited options for relationships: lover, retainer, rival, enemy, or friend.

Aside from the player's choices on the relationship sheets, I left their backgrounds and the reasons why their two ships were chasing each other,  completely blank, to be developed in play.  (And they were.)

All these choices were made with the full knowledge of the other players.

Then I showed them my "treasure bag," a paper bag full of slips, each with a piece of equipment (such as their favored weapons) or an item (such as food, a treasure map, or a granite skull) to be discovered on the beach and the island.  Each time a player played to one of his chosen relationships, I would let them roll d10: 1-5: draw once, 6-9: draw two and keep one; 10: draw one and get a Fate point.

Players selected the Zamorian Thief, the Khitan Scholar (similar to DnD3e sorcerer), and the Zingarian Pirate.

I started the game with a scene for each PC awakening alone on the beach or rocks.  To whet the reward system, I had each find some flotsome and get a free draw from the bag.

I was leary of bringing all the players together at once - because I feared the "enemy" relationship might burgeon into immediate bloody combat.  So I start new scenes bring PCs together in pairs which I hoped had some inherent (but not lethal) conflict due to their chosen relationships.  (This was a little difficult with only 3 PCs, I had to use Maev, the NPC Cimmerian Barbarian a bit to fill in.  I always find NPCs produce less energetic foils than other PCs though.)  The players explored a little, collected a few items, including the granite skull and the treasure map.  They encountered a native (who ran and alerted the island), then grew concerned at the jungle drums.

After three hours of play, I brought the characters together, let them interact, then launched the attack of the cannibals.  At that point we froze the game for the evening, intending to play the battle next week.  (Obviously, this won't work at a con demo.)

COMMENTS

Players caught on to playing their relationships pretty quickly:about an hour I think.  We collectively invented a background story to fit the player's relationship sheet choices.  This happened gradually and smoothly, which I liked.

Treasure draws strained verisimilitude once they were inland with no flotsome to find a broadsword in, for example.  However, we filled in explanations after the fact: they found a crucified castaway with one piece of equipment for example.  I think I (GM) was more concerned with this back-filling than the players were.

Notable, we played d20 for three hours with no combat.  I think my fear of PC combat too soon was unwarranted with these players.  Also, keeping the PCs separate, in this case, limited the use of relationships, which were the most interesting part of the session.  I think the players all found them interesting as well.

PLANS FOR the CON DEMO

The players made some good suggestions after discussion.  1) every d20 demo needs a combat scene early on.  I'm thinking that forcing players to engage in unarmed combat with spear-armed cannibals will force them to use their 1 starting Fate point and be hungry for more later, and so drive the relationship-reward system.

2) my relationship sheet was good, but I could drop the "enemy" option, as "rival" was a better (and safer) conflict generator.  I may also look for a better word than "friend."  It's a bit broad.  I want the word to suggest a comrade the PC would risk their life for.

I think too that I'll re-think how the reward items are introduced into play, so odd things don't just show up at the base of a tree.


d20 DEMANDS COMBAT

A final obseration: the majority of rules in most d20 designs, and certainly the majority of effort put into character creation, is focused on combat capabilities.  With so much investment in combat, the players found lack of combat disappointing.  I take this as a confirmation of "system matters" and a lesson for future d20 scenarios.
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- Alan

A Writer's Blog: http://www.alanbarclay.com
Callan S.
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« Reply #1 on: August 01, 2004, 06:58:15 PM »

Quote
The players made some good suggestions after discussion. 1) every d20 demo needs a combat scene early on. I'm thinking that forcing players to engage in unarmed combat with spear-armed cannibals will force them to use their 1 starting Fate point and be hungry for more later, and so drive the relationship-reward system.


A note on this, I'm never hungry to make up for lost resources that were lost when the GM shoved me into situation X. You don't drive a reward system by almost using direct GM fiat to say their previous rewards are gone. Well, a 12 year old might get hungry for more rewards after this (I actually envy that kind of nievity).

What you need to have are style combats and substance combats. GM's tend to fall in love with substance combats (I've done this).

Style combats are those with mooks. The kind you beat up on easily and its not really going to go wrong. You need style so the players feel they aren't on the bottom of the pecking order. I bet you can think of a few ways of how being on the bottom of the pecking order makes a good story. I can only say go and be a player in a few games. Also that although it looks cool in the movies where the heroes start off with nothing and fight desperately, its because it'd be boring for the audience otherwise. You don't need to emulate something designed to please an audience your game doesn't have.

Okay, a bit ranty. I could have just written 'let them club some big spiders and largish snakes to death with tree branches', but it wouldn't have converyed what I wanted to get across.
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Philosopher Gamer
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Alan
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« Reply #2 on: August 01, 2004, 07:53:26 PM »

Hi Callan,

A good point.  I think I overstated my intent for effect however.  I wouldn't actually force players into a situation where the only way out is to spend Fate points.  But I do want to put them under pressure so the value of them is highlighted.
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- Alan

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rafial
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« Reply #3 on: August 01, 2004, 08:49:36 PM »

Wilhelm here, I played the Zingaran thief.  This was my first actual play exposure to d20, up till now I had only read the rule books.  Played alot of 1st ed AD&D back in the day.

Quote
I may also look for a better word than "friend."  It's a bit broad.  I want the word to suggest a comrade the PC would risk their life for.


er, why not "comrade" or to be even more explicit "comrade in arms" ? It's even got the requisite Conanesque tone to it.

Quote
d20 DEMANDS COMBAT


Conan also demands combat.  Dang, nobody got to slake their steel's thirst in the blood of nameless enemies.  So sad ;)

But actually, I'd generalize to say that each character needs an opportunity to display "why I'm cool".  As the thief, I was really eager for a chance to show off my sneaking and tricking people type abilities, but the first NPC I ran into yelled and ran off.

Here's a suggestion.  Since you are going into this with pregenerated PCs, for each one think up a bang with an obvious resolution that feeds into "what's cool about this character".  That is, sneaking and tricking for the thief, bashing heads for the Cimmerian, plumbing an ancient mystery for the scholar, etc.   Then at any point when the action starts to lag, lay on the adversity.   In what we've played of the scenario so far, I felt like we just wandered around the island waiting for something to happen.  A slow build of character relationships is fine for ongoing play, but for a single scenario that's going to wrap up in 4 hours, you need keep things hopping.

That said, I did really like the idea of picking the relationships, and general aspects of the character situation (passenger, crew, prisoner) because it gave me an immediate handle on what my character was about apart from the usual d20 raft of numbers.

And the treasure bag was just plain fun.
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screenmonkey
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« Reply #4 on: August 02, 2004, 02:34:34 PM »

Quote from: rafial
And the treasure bag was just plain fun.


Just a little tag on the end of a much longer discussion, but it highlights what is arguably the most under used aspect of rpgs: Hands on trinkets that are easy to use, don't slow things down and are "just plain fun."

It's a relatively easy thing to exercise some creativity and develop some new gizmo or meta-game that adds to the gaming experience, if only for a single session.

Never underestimate the power of "just plain fun."
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Alan
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« Reply #5 on: August 15, 2004, 04:20:54 AM »

CONAN d20 - Black Altar of Tramath (part II)

Our second session of Conan d20 with the Thursday night group went well.  It started with all the character's on the beach and an attack of cannibals.  One of the important NPCs was dragged away when they retreated, despite heroic efforts to stop the abduction.  Jungle drums ensued, players regrouped and talked about the treasure map they had found.  All were badly hurt, so they were reluctant to charge to the rescue.

[This told me that I needed to lighten the encounter or better arm the players when I ran the demo again for the upcoming Dragonflight.]

As I wasn't using the Code of Honor or Reputation rules for the demo, there was no penalty to just letting the NPC be eaten by the cannibals, so this left the players free to decide that was too dangerous.

They followed the treasure map.  It lead to the Lost City of Tramath.  The age of the trail and lack of recent tracks led them to believe that the natives were afraid of this place.  And the thief played on this by killing a cannibal he found following the group and leaving the head posted on a pike.  (It was a great idea, which might otherwise have deterred the natives, but for plot reasons, I decided it would instead inflame them.)

In the city, the players found a hidden underground tomb, looted it, but triggered a trap that locked them in.  They also found the Chamber of the Black Altar. Glyphs in Old Stugian revealed that the city had summoned an "Eldritch Beast of Chaos" on the Altar to defend the city against attackers.  A hastily scratched addendum indicated that the priests had lost control of the beast and could not dismiss it.  (I didn't think of it at the time, but the best final line would have been "Beware the darkness that crawls...." )

The glyphs hinted that night was not a good time to be in the ruins, so Players hurried to find a way out, and only emerged just before sundown.

They found scores of cannibals combing the ruins for them.   Unspotted as yet, they retreated into the tomb, assembled a costume of ancient, rusted armor, and emerged again to bluff, declaring they were the angry ancients, emerging from death - just as the sun set.   [A creative solution I thought was a lot of fun.]  This stunned the cannibals long enough for ...

...great creeping tentacles of darkness to emerge from the jungle behind them.

The players, seeing this, dropped their loot and fled while the natives shrieked and died.  It was suggested that the issue of not yet having a way off the island was not important to ending the story - in a conan story, they might just happen upon one of the wrecked shps by luck.  [Which is exactly what I presented when I ran this the second time.]

COMMENTARY

This whole last sequence, from emerging from the temple, to fleeing the unstoppable demon while your opponent's perished, was played largely by exchanges of narration and player agreement, without starting d20 combat rounds.  This was partly because we were running late - but I think there was also an element of appropos - it was the Howardesque way to end a Conan adventure.  

The Thursday night group are experienced with a wide range of games Sorcerer, Universalis, Wu Shu, TROS, etc. - as a result I think they were happy with this method.  I know I was.  

When I ran the scenario a second time, for the con-goes, experience of players and expectations were different and we ground through a long series of combat rounds - while they enjoyed it immensly, I didn't find it as satisfying as the Thursday night resolution.

I'll comment more on this when I post more about what I learned from the con run of this one-shot.

------

Many thanks to my thursday night group, who stuck out a slow start to the adventure and gave me good feedback for presenting the scenario at the con.  The process prompted the creation of ideas that greatly improved the scenario the second time round.
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- Alan

A Writer's Blog: http://www.alanbarclay.com
John Harper
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« Reply #6 on: August 16, 2004, 10:35:12 AM »

I played in the second session with the Thursday night group and it was a blast. I played the female Cimmerian Barbarian, Maeve. I really enjoyed this adventure, which had all the hallmarks of a great Conan story: forgotten gods, ancient ruins, savage natives, and bloody life-and-death struggle.

The session worked for two reasons, I think. First, the d20 Conan mechanics really do capture the flavor of Howard's stories. I got to use my Cimmerian's special ability to stay up and fight when badly injured (even with negative hit points) which went a long way to illustrate my barbarian toughness. And then, when I finally fell beneath the axe of the cannibal chieftain, I used a Fate Point to be "left for dead" and avoid a coup de grace. There were a few other little rules bits that added to the Conan flavor, too, like the Dodge/Parry mod and the magic system.

Second, the session worked because Alan has that very important talent for d20 GM's: he knows when to apply the game system and when not to. I don't know if the d20 Conan game text is more instructive on this point than the default D&D3E books or if Alan just naturally knew what to do. But knowing when to engage with the combat and/or skill system and when to agressively scene frame and move the game along is a very tricky bit of business that can make a d20 game session really sing if done properly. This session was a nice balance between exacting round-by-round resolution and broad, "You make it through the jungle and to the ruins" kind of fast-forwarding. I was *very* relieved when I realized we wouldn't be making Spot rolls every ten-feet through the jungle -- something that is a real possibility with some d20 GMs.

So, kudos to you, Alan. I'm very interested to hear how the convention re-play went.
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