- Shake out the bugs in CF2.0. I wasn't terribly concerned with this aspect. Everyone knew it was a new system and that there would likely be changes to the rules.
- Get everyone up to speed with the new system. A bit of work, as the majority of my players were diehard AD&D 1st/2nd edition players. But they're game, I'm game, so... forward.
- See how corrupting magic affected play balance. This was the biggest potential fly in the ointment. I was (and still am to be honest) particularly concerned about healing, since ablative hit points assume a robust healing mechanism.
To accomplish these goals I set up two main adventures. The first was a combat tournament held during a holiday festival each year in city of Shalish, the group's base of operations. The second was a there and back type adventure with two main parts, an outdoor exploration segment and an indoor dungeon segment. Of course we also set aside time for pre-game character work, food, beer and general socializing.
Characters started play at 2nd level with the understanding that they would gain a level after the tournament portion of the session. All the players created characters with a strong focus on martial abilities. One player picked up a couple of sorcery spells. Another picked up some skill at alchemy and what would traditionally be thief skills. All the characters shared a common soldier's background, and a shared history of growing up in the same city neighborhood. They also shared a common nemesis: Vikus and his gang of friends, a group of older kids from an adjacent part of the city. Vikus's father was a magistrate in the local legal system, a position that afforded his son and his friends some protection and status, leaving the player characters on the losing end of most confrontations.
The big hole in the group? Priest spells and healing. A last minute player cancellation due to work issues left us short a player and a potential healer. Despite the setback we pressed on.
I set up the tournament as a safe environment for the characters so the players could get used to the system in play. It was structured as a three-stage competition beginning with individual and pairs combats and ending with a team melee. Competitors used practice weapons and most damage was non-lethal, so there was no real risk of death. Tournament competition is fierce. Those that do well gain the attention of the rich and powerful families of the Moshan caste and the victors earn rank within the city militia. The player characters had additional motivation; Vikus and his friends were competing.
The party members worked their way through the first round of the tournament in a series of fairly easy bouts. Between fights they spent some time in the festival market and ran into Sadine Salar (the extraordinary!) a traveling merchant who offered a variety of goods to the group (few of which they could afford). The group made a favorable impression upon Salar (a noteworthy accomplishment given the group's less than stellar social skills), and he expressed interest in any unusual items they might find in their adventures.
The second round of the tournament included a few tougher bouts but the party managed to qualify for the final third round melee. Along the way they tried to find a fourth member for their final round team, eventually settling on Pushta, someone they'd faced off against in earlier rounds. Unfortunately they decided to take on one more fight in the second round to get used to fighting with Pushta. They drew a very tough foe and Pushta ended up seriously injured and unable to compete.
With no other opportunity to find a fourth the party was stuck with the luck of the draw to fill out their team. When the final brackets were announced, they discovered they would be facing off against three other teams, including their hated rivals Vikus and his gang. Realizing they were likely out-matched, the group arranged a temporary truce with one of the other teams, an agreement to both go after Vikus's team before engaging each other. Later that night the party was also approached by a stranger who offered to pay them a nice chunk of cash if they would allow the fourth team in the match to win. After a bit of debate as to the terms of the agreement the party agreed, figuring they would focus on insuring Vikus and his gang lost; action that would probably mean a win for one of the two other teams.
The final battle unfolded quickly. The randomized starting positions put the party in position to head straight for Vikus's group with the other two teams set up to face off against each other. The group's truce was quickly shattered as their "allies" took a few cheap shots at the party with ranged weapons as they engaged Vikus. In a break with tradition the group stuck to their plan and went head to head with their nemesis while the other two teams engaged.
Let me sum up: they got their butts kicked. Vikus and his friends, particularly Lat, a heavy-hitting bruiser armed with a massive falchion, cut the party to pieces then took down the remnants of the other two teams piecemeal. After rubbing salt in the party's wounds with a few parting comments Vikus and his buddies received their new badges of rank from the King's own hand, leaving the party bruised and beaten but wealthier, having satisfied the terms of their agreement to throw the final fight by not engaging the fourth team.
The tournament was a good shakedown for the players and system. By the end of the night everyone was pretty comfortable with game mechanics and a few corner cases received some attention. We didn't stress the healing rules at all because damage was mostly non-lethal and there were healers and medics on hand to assist. From the character perspective I got to introduce a handful of important NPCs and establish the group's capabilities in a controlled environment. It was also fun to run something without the threat of life-or-death tension in the air, a big change of pace from our usual mode of play, which is more "Death is on the line!"
Into the Wilds
A few weeks after the tournament (game time that is), one of the party is approached by an agent for the Zulat, one of the powerful Moshan families. He expresses admiration for the character's performance in the tournament and offers him a job. The family owns a stone quarry on the eastern edge of Shalish territory, near the Twisted Lands. Workers, mostly hunters and fishermen providing food to the stone cutters, have been vanishing from the surrounding forests and hills. The family wants someone to investigate the disappearances. Sensing opportunity the party meets and agrees to take on the task. In short order they're on the road with one of the quarry foremen, Blutark.
On the journey to the site they get a few more details. Blutark has some skill as a tracker and found indications of a fight where at least two of the hunters had disappeared. He mentions a group of surveyors and cartographers, also hired by the Zulat, is in the area, preparing maps for further exploration. One of the party members notices Blutark is wearing a fragment of ancient bronze as an amulet. He claims he found it on the river bank a few months back. The party manages to identify the script as that of the Lost Kingdom, the common name for the ancient culture that ruled the area prior to the great Cataclysm that corrupted magic close to 900 years ago.
At the quarry the party meets with the other foreman, an obsequious wet noodle, and Dunatra, an overly bold stone mason. The quarry workers, a mix of indentured and free workers and slaves, are near revolt. Blutark stays to deal with the mess and Dunatra, who seems unimpressed with the party, agrees to serve as guide and observe their actions. The party sets out to the site of the most recent attack and finds the scene of a fight, along with tracks of some large predator, on the river's bank. Whatever it was travels by water, so the party starts upstream into the wild Twisted Lands. Along the way they are attacked by a strangely altered human with blue-tinted skin, bulging flesh and tufts of black hair growing all over his body. Examination of the remains and a crude nest nearby uncovers a slave collar marked with the Zulat's seal and a partial map of the area. Part of the surveyor's party perhaps. Dunatra is concerned by this development as his cousin was guiding the other group.
The trails leading away from this nest go nowhere, so the party continues to follow the main river into a marshy area. Here they find signs of another fight and more indications that the surveyor's party met with an untimely end. Shortly thereafter they encounter the source of the problem, a monstrous crocodile thing with far too many legs, blue-tinted hide and a paralyzing gaze. The fight is fierce and hard. One party member gets paralyzed early on and suffers serious damage. The others, including the surprisingly doughty Dunatra, eventually kill the beast before it can drag their companion into the river and escape.
After restoring their unconscious companion with a minor healing potion and harvesting trophies from the beast (including the head, as proof of their success, and several large pieces of very tough hide) the party returns to the quarry to rest and recover. With the beast dead and Blutark cracking the whip the quarry settles down, but the party wonders where such a beast came from. They resolve to continue their explorations, a move that Blutark supports. He stows their valuables in the company strong room and after a day's rest, the party sets out to explore further up river.
Lessons learned from this part of the game:
- No combat healing really sucks. When someone is taken out in a fight they're down for the count unless someone happens to have a potion handy. This is, in part a result of the group composition and in part a result of the general lack of magic. There are mechanics in the system to support combat healing, notably martial powers which allow healing, but my conclusion after this (and subsequent) fights is healing needs a little help.
- Multiple melee-focused characters can deal out a lot of damage. The party has four strong melee characters. Against low AC opponents they dish out a ton of damage round by round. This is not really something that needs to be fixed, but something that needs to be addressed in adventure design. In particular single foe encounters, balancing toughness vs. threat, are a challenge.
After resting up a bit the party, accompanied once again by Dunatra, starts up the river's course, this time following the nearer bank. After discovering another combat site and the remains of one of the surveyor's guards the group is ambushed by a swarm of giant mosquitoes, also tainted by the strange bluish coloration. After dispatching these foes the party continues, eventually reaching a fork in the river. Here they notice one branch of the river is also tainted with a faint blue sheen. Taking this as a potential source of whatever troubled the region the party spends two days following the stain upstream into wilder and wilder country.
At a final fork in the river (now stream really), they discover a stone pillar bound in bronze and marked with pictographs similar to those on Blutark's amulet. A short way upstream they realize the stony cliff overhead is not a cliff at all, but the foundation of a ruined tower half-buried in the hill above, a thin trickle of blue-stained water draining out of a small crack in its stones. After retreating to establish a base camp the party circles the hill and approaches from the upper side. They discover a narrow ravine leading into a stinking cave above the stream. Following that leads them into a circular chamber, clearly man-made. And occupied. The source of the stench is a huge hyena beast and her pups. With scant chance to react the creature attacks, her pups circling the group. The creature's howl caused a panic among the party members and two flee in fear, leaving the others to face off against the ferocious beast and her pups.
Things go from bad to worse when one of the fleeing party members fails their 'Will save ends' check at least six times in a row. Luckily the other shakes off the fear effect and returns to the fight just in time to pull a fallen comrade out of the fray and take his place. Eventually the party cuts down the mother-beast, which cowed the pups. Angered by their injuries the party killed them all (too bad, as they could have been some *real* guard dogs).
After regrouping and resting a day to restore themselves, the party continued their explorations. The complex proved to be fairly small, two towers connected by a central hall, an entry chamber, and a large temple chamber filled with... glowing blue water fed by a small stream on the far side. Apparently this was the source of the contamination, perhaps freed by a recent earthquake.
Unwilling to touch the water the party builds a crude raft and crosses the pool to where another door leads deeper into the hillside. This leads to a room guarded by a powerful clay and stone golem-thing and two animated bamboo and leather missile throwers, defeated using careful tactics and speed. Beyond this room is a small treasure vault and the true source of the taint, a small cup cut from a single fire opal laying on its side and overflowing with a brilliant blue fluid.
Using sealing wax the party manages to set the cup upright (it's wooden base or frame was destroyed), and eventually the cup fills to three-quarters full then stopped producing the... whatever it was it contained. After looting the rest of the chamber (some coins and trinkets, a magical hammer and a magical helm), the party noticed the golem and missile throwers were starting to move again. Without a means to transport the cup safely they leave it behind after taking the time to secure it in an old chest, packing it away carefully so it wouldn't spill again.
Beating a swift retreat the party gathered their loot (including an ancient bronze bell found in the other tower and several silver candelabra recovered from the entry chamber) and made their way to camp. There they spun a tale for Dunatra about a magical spring that they blocked up to remove the source of the taint. After a night's rest, three days of hiking found them back at the quarry ready to declare the problem solved.
Lessons learned, round two: This part of the adventure reinforced my previous conclusions. Something needs to be done about healing. Pretty much every fight ended with at least one person in bad shape, requiring a day or two of rest to recover. We also clarified a few more corner cases in the rules, especially during the fight with the hyena pack, where flanking rules came to the fore. The whole endless fear thing was a bit of a mistake on my part too. 'Save ends' is great, but it doesn't negate the need for duration on magical effects.
One More Time
By this time the group has developed a certain fondness for their doughty companion so they offer to hire him as a guard for their camp on return trip. Dunatra is clearly interested, but didn't feel he could accept without discovering the fate of his cousin, possibly lost with the surveyor party. The group agrees to make one more trip into the wilds to find some trace of the man. In particular they plan to explore an area marked on the map they'd discovered earlier. After packing away their loot in the strongroom the party headed off once again...
This trip is quick and painless. After a day or so of hiking they stumble onto the surveyor party's base camp. It is clear that something bad has happened, but also that quite a bit of time has passed. The party decides to build a large fire and spend the night in hopes of drawing out any survivors of the disaster. Amazingly enough, the plan works and Dunatra's cousin stumbles out of the woods in a daze. He is incoherent, but the party manages to learn some scant details, that one of the slaves went mad, attacking the rest of the group then running off into the swamps to the north. One of the guards started behaving oddly, and shortly thereafter the group disintegrated into chaos. Violence broke out and the group scattered. Dunatra's cousin avoided major injury and hid out in the forest, but he ended up getting turned around and lost.
Unfortunately the interview gets cut short when the party notices movement on a far hillside. Torches and fires. LOTS of torches and fires. Including a bunch headed their way. Acting quickly they douse the fire as best they can, and then head out in the dark, eventually evading whoever it is and making their way back to the quarry.
Blutark is disturbed by the news of strangers in the wild and the group agrees make a final scouting trip to see if they can find out who or what they are. Leaving Dunatra to care for his cousin they head out for a fast reconnoiter of the scene. They eventually spot the unknown camp as darkness falls and the stealthiest party member makes use of night vision potion and heads off to scout. He manages to get quite close to the enemy camp and discovers it is a well organized and armed party from the hostile Kingdom of Light. After making note of the various banners and emblems shown he beats a hasty retreat, smack into the path of an enemy patrol (critical success on perception by the patrol, critical failure on stealth by the scout). Queue chase scene. Luckily the advantage of night vision plus lighter armor makes the difference and the patrol gives up pursuit. The scout rejoins his friends after obscuring his trail and they beat a hasty retreat to the quarry.
With a military threat on his doorstep, Blutark decides he must inform the Zulat family of the danger (a prudent move since family members hold high-ranking positions in the Shalish army). The party pays Dunatra a substantial sum for his assistance, and he in turn buys out his cousin Tripur's indenture contract. The pair decide to travel back to Shalish with the party. After the group gets back to town and reports to the Zulat's agent it becomes clear they've made a good first impression. They earn a substantial bonus for their actions and the hint of future work. The session ends with the group dealing with loot, contacting sages who might be able to translate the pictographs they copied from various locations near the ruins, and trying to convince Dunatra and Tripur to hire on as retainers.
Lessons learned part three: No real surprises here, except that lacking detect magic is a bit of a problem. The final part of the session involved a lot of skills work, and the party discovered how poorly they were set up to deal with social interaction. They had no luck negotiating prices for their unusual goods and had a hard time finding sages or lore masters to help them identify the curious chest sealed with a black flame they discovered. It turns out Charisma is not just a dump stat.
Overall the pace of play was a lot more relaxing for me. The Moria game had more players, six vs. four, and more characters, three per player vs. one per player. It's been a long time since I've run for a group this small. With the smaller group it was easier to take a break and walk away from the table for a few minutes as needed. A definite plus.
Corrupting magic didn't really get a workout. Aside from a few defensive spells magic didn't play into the game much. I'll be coming up with some challenges for the next session to push this aspect further.
So far as Class Free 2.0 goes, I was pretty pleased with how things played. I was expecting it to slow combat somewhat, since my experiences with 3.5 D&D always seemed to drag a bit, but that didn't seem to happen. There are a couple of things that still need work, clarification of flanking and a few other combat conditions, better healing rules and the rest of the alchemy system, but overall I'm pretty happy with things as they stand.
Speaking of alchemy, the party's alchemist managed to pick up a few alchemy ingredients via foraging and I've been working on the underlying system for that. I'll probably be posting something about that in the next week. Until then, thanks for reading and good gaming!