Monday, July 2, 2012

Mid-Season Musings on Web of the Spider Queen

As promised in the last entry, this post is just for my commentary and thoughts about the current season of Encounters thus far. Quite a lot has happened already this season and, as mentioned, I have been having a great time. To ramp things up to match my promise, I have chucked a lot of the conventional rules that go along with the Encounters program out the window. Players could use any resource as long as it made sense; a popular rule change based on what I have seen checking around online. While I lifted the tight restriction on a handful of books only, I did keep in certain provisions. Encounters characters cannot be made with Alignments lower than Unaligned so things like the themes from Book of Vile Darkness were out. Likewise, this season was set in Forgotten Realms so the Dark Sun themes were also out. I feel like this gave everyone freedom in designing their characters while also keeping the rule around in some spirit.

My next big change was demanding a back story from every player, even if minor, and working out a way to incorporate what they gave me into the storyline as presented in the module. This has ended up with a core party of six characters each with strong motivations to follow the story of this season besides "Elminster told us to and there's probably treasure." Damaia, Meecht and Daveak all have personal grudges against Valan Jaelre giving them ample reason to drive the pursuit of this season's main antagonist. Harbek was easy enough to work in with the pilgrimage concept and aside from being "that guy" I can turn to during inter-party conflicts to break things up In-Character, I have been trying to play up the angle of Moradin within the plot. The choice of a Cleric's deity is really quite important, but I noticed it was something that was never really handled in Encounters or even suggested for DM's to consider.

This left Drake and Halvar. Drake had the sort of standard back story of simply being out for treasure. Easy enough and luckily his interactions with the party have helped bring him into the story more as well. Halvar is the comic relief in my opinion, but it is much appreciated on my end. The concept of a Slayer who also happens to be an artisan of foot wear seemed like quit the curveball, but I took it in stride. Early in Chapter 1, nothing that the player preferred to make use of the charge buffing stance, I supplanted one of the random rolls on the magic item table to instead grant Halvar some Boots of Adept Charging; noting that their make was of unknown origin. While perhaps a side story to the ordeal with House Jaelre, the player seemed excited enough I actually included a little mystery for his character; and it is one I hope to make good on as the season rolls on.

As far as the non-player characters, I have done quite a bit of changing with the module as written. Old Dogsbreath went from a minor character in the first session to a gag character of sorts with an extreme hatred of drow and tiefling. I padded out a lot of extra dialogue with the climactic encounter against Valan at the end of Chapter 1 trying to let him take jabs at every party member possible for things felt more personal. He probably came off like a cliché anime villain (not surprising giving my love of anime), but everyone really enjoyed the exchange. Seleth found herself re-cast as the oppressive owner of the formerly enslaved kobold and even survived past her point of defeat in the module as written; I have plans for her down the line.

It has been a lot of fun going through each session and plotting out ways to change things to fit the characters or the situations themselves so there's a more personal tie to the party. This is probably not without its own issues. Combat encounters are properly budgeted in 4e and I am sure that tossing Seleth in as an additional combatant on a later encounter will throw off the balance or something. However, it makes for a good tale and that trumps such rules in my opinion. At the end of Chapter 1, I introduced some wandering kobold merchants that were friendly to Meecht and offered to supply the party for their expedition into the Underdark. This was merely my way of legitimizing the rules in Encounters for purchasing items between chapters. The important part, I think, with doing all of this is that I am doing my best to make it all feel very natural. I have chatted a bit with some of our players regarding how the season is going and it appears that they sufficiently cannot tell what comes from the module or what I have changed/tacked on myself.

I am not a huge fan of Elminster's presence within the module. I like Forgotten Realms well enough, but have never been big on some of its super-powered NPC's that throw their weight around across stories and modules. However, I thought it was a bit too much to consider replacing him within the module. It's blatant fanservice and there's nothing wrong with that. I was very pleased to see Lady Ulphor play a part in the story as well. For LFR I had the pleasure of running the Byar's Seven quest line. Set throughout the Dalelands, two of the modules spent time in Shadowdale where Lady Ulphor played a prominent part in what was going on. It was nice to see such a character appearing in Encounters as well.

However, as I mentioned, opening up that freedom of letting the story trump the rules has not come without issues. If you bothered to read through the session summaries thus far you might notice a little problem with the party: they are torture happy. I wrote it off as a one time incident the first time, but after testing the waters it has become a tradition for the majority of the group. Every combat I can expect they will deal sub-dual damage to at least one combatant so they can grill them for information post-battle and ultimately torture them via intimidate checks to death. Not everyone in the party enjoys this, both as their characters and some as a player as well. Dungeons Master recently had an excellent post on this matter.

The problem has become what I should do about it. By Encounters rules as written, this would mean their alignments shift towards Evil and they become no longer legal to be ran in Encounters and the players must draft up new characters. That or my only alternative is to break the flow of the story and outright tell my players no. Thus far I have been relying heavily on Harbek, the Lawful Good Cleric of Moradin, to try and steer the party away from such territory. In line with the article, I have tried to punish the use of torture through the flow of information. To me, Valan's troops are proud warriors or wholly committed to their master's cause. Being drow, having to face torture means little to them as far as swaying the likelihood of favoring the party with vital information. In turn, I have also tried to reward taking a more noble path. In the most recent session we played through, Harbek gleaned far more information from Dorvon by sparing his life than the party would have gained if they had allowed Daveak and Halvar to continue with their torture plan.

I would say there's definitely a line with issues like this. If somebody became uncomfortable then that is a giant red flag that should not be ignored; luckily that has not been the case so far. However, for the time being it's a major sticking point in the plot for our table. The party is a rag-tag group assembled seemingly on the spot by Elminster who have drastically opposed views and a hard time getting along. I will definitely be following the ideas held by the Dungeons Master post and look to "punish" torture through in-game means first and foremost. Ultimately, I think that will be more fun and also leave a larger impact on the players as well. Just in case I don't want to broadcast future plans, but the gears in my head have been turning and I have some big things in store for the party if the torture spree continues.

All that is really left, at this point, is the combat itself. I have had a much easier time this season making fights challenging, but not overly difficult. As I mentioned in my previous post, this is to some degree in thanks to the party's composition. They are far from a balanced party. Six members broken down as five Strikers and one Leader. Breaking that down further, of the Strikers three are essentially the same class (Rogue) and two are the exact same (Thief).

This is my first time seeing an ongoing party with no Defender and it really shows. The party is paying for having so many skirmishers in their healing surges. Some went into the latter sessions of Chapter 1 with only a single surge to rely on making things feel quite dramatic. It has been fortunate for me since the players are giving me plenty to make things dramatic and exciting both in and out of combat. The balance shows elsewhere as well, however. There is a large amount of overlap in the party's skills meaning that Skill Challenges are quite a bit more difficult than they should be. Which, again, typical equate into lost surges. Keeping track of resources has become very important and to his credit the party's Cleric has done an excellent job making use of all his available options to keep the party up in combat.

I look forward to how the rest of the season plays out and I will definitely be having a lot of fun in some of the future sessions as more of my deviations from the module as written continue to pan out. The newer players are a bit reluctant about the fact they will have to make new people after this season because everyone really enjoys the party composition; forget balance! Wizards of the Coast billed Web of the Spider Queen as the first part in a trilogy of inter-connected Encounters seasons dealing with the drow and Lolth. Having access to the full module, I believe I can tell some of the key pieces that will tie everything together. There is no info out about the next season as of writing this, but it is my sincere hope that with NEXT on the way they might decide to go out with a bang and incorporate info for running higher level tables through the second and third parts.

Regardless of how it plays out, it is my hope that, having slipped into the DM seat by chance for the "prologue" season, I will run the entire trilogy. If so, then I will tackle the second and third parts with as much effort as the current. It has been more work behind the scenes and perhaps a lot of what I am doing should have been obvious Pro-DM things that I overlooked being so rusty with running games, but this season of D&D Encounters has been great fun and very rewarding for the time put into it. I'll keep posting the continued adventures of our band of misfits as the season continues.

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