School of Adventure—School Rivalry (Year Four part 2)

I did a brief outline of the first leg of the Year 4 adventure in my last post, along with the outbreak of Player vs Player hostility that featured then. The PvP has stopped once dealt with, so I will let that episode recede into the past. The mission is to escort a wagonload of supplies through dangerous Underdark tunnels to a subterranean mining outpost and back.

Fantasy Fight Club

I’m still finding that the most reliable way to entertain this group is with combats. They are mostly content with routine combats, but they particularly like spicier ones. They are also very new to the repertoire of tricks and powers in the game, so pretty much anything other than a basic attack for damage counts as spicy.

For example, when they beat off their first Deep Elf attack and the bandits used a Darkness spell to cover their retreat, the team was completely flummoxed. They variously froze, edged along or blundered into each other swords-first. And I think they were quite engaged by the surprise tactics and the grab-and-bite routine of the Roper and its Piercer babies I placed in their path. I toned down the Roper stats a bit because I thought it might be too tough for the group, which was probably a good thing considering how close the group later came to total defeat.

The other thing that they enjoyed in this phase was animosity with the rival team from Farseer house. I had the Farseer party get ahead of them and set up a rockfall that made the going difficult. Our heroes also caught Farseer cutting through a rope bridge. The Lunar team (our lot) were hot to attack, but the Farseers shrugged off some ranged damage, completed their sabotage and left. I think thwarting the desire for a fight sharpened the hostility, so I’m glad to have set this up and strung it out.

When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Go Shopping

After all this fun, the team arrived at their destination. This was just the half-way mark of the mission since they also had to get back with a new cargo. A couple of them had expressed interest in new gear, and I was feeling that their lack of healing magic put me off using high-damage monsters, so I offered lists of things they could buy.

They were taken by the fancy attack kit like alchemist’s fire and acid, caltrops and a hunting trap. They also loaded up on some spelunking gear like ropes and grappling hooks. Collectively, they were very averse to spending much money on healing—one potion and a couple of first aid kits between the six of them. But one player decided to get a dog. I suppressed my instinct to prevent this sort of tomfoolery and decided it could be plausible that a dog would be available for sale in a commercial settlement. So of course most of the others got dogs too. They gave them names, and a couple of them wanted to specify a breed. So we have Starkiller the sausage dog, Tub the pug, and Pirby, Gucci and Harold of unspecified pedigree. I admit I’m not really sure what to do with these. They mostly just run off if there’s trouble and come back sheepishly later.

Meet the Farseers

They met the Farseer team in peaceful territory (the inn dining room) at the turn-around, so there was a chance to establish a bit of personality (the first chance, since I had only come up with these characters during the adventure and the sightings had been brief and at distance). Only one of the Farseers is actually unfriendly; the others are happy to socialise but apparently were part of the dirty tricks out on the mission. So there was a mix of friendly chat and barbs but only for a minute or so; the roleplaying didn’t spontaneously blossom into a big scene. Baby steps.

I had the Farseers probe Lunar a bit about their plans. Some of the party were instinctively cagey and prevented the others revealing their intended route, but nobody quite seemed to realize that the Farseers would seek to get out ahead of them and make obstructions again. So they didn’t give any plausible misinformation and didn’t make any effort to get on the road first. I had already decided which route Farseer would take and it was the same one the players chose, so I would get to repeat my Dick Dastardly tactics.  

Fighting Acid with Acid??

First, it was time for a combat encounter. Another from the list of cave-dwelling ambush predators I had sketched up in preparation for this mission: a Black Pudding lurking on the ceiling to drop on passing prey. This fell a little short for me of the full fun it could have been, because none of the team used an attack that triggers its most entertaining feature (I won’t specify, in case any of them read this and I want to use it again). But they tried their alchemist’s fire on it, to reasonable effect, and their acid vial.

I did point out that they might have guessed that the latter wouldn’t work, since I had described the Black Pudding doing acid damage to them already just from the contact of its body. I felt a little mean to say this, but I hope I didn’t say it too unkindly and I do want to try to train them to think through the resistances and vulnerabilities of different monsters and the best attacks to use against them. I think that as a combat-oriented group of players it is an area of game that they will enjoy getting into.

Anyway, it worked reasonably well as a fight. The unexpected damage type resistance and the hefty damage per hit of the Pudding provided threat and drama, encouraging the party to back out of melee, and they beat it with a barrage of arrows and spells. Also the different physical nature of this alien blob monster let me use a new descriptive palette to narrate the action. If I’d had more time left in the term for more fights I think the resource drain of non-retrievable arrows and armour damage from the pudding’s acidic physiology might have made life interesting, but that’s another thing I can still bring into play later.

Obstacles and puzzles

I keep trying these, and they keep being less engaging than I hope. This one was to do with getting up a cliff. There was normally a lift to get the wagons up it, but the combination of a landslip and the Farseer team having been through already and left parts of the apparatus missing had rendered it a challenge to negotiate. Several of the players didn’t really get into it, leaving only one of them really figuring out how to fix the lift and get past the obstacle. I think it didn’t help that this scene got split between play sessions so I had to explain it twice (with crude diagrams using Roll20’s freehand drawing function). It definitely didn’t help that the group were text chatting and exchanging memes on Skype rather than listening much to my description. But also I think I have to admit that most of the group aren’t into this sort of thing, and decide whether to keep including it for the benefit of the one who is. (And to satisfy my own feeling that the adventure should have variety in pacing and tone, but I think I’m making it obvious that I need to achieve that in some other way.)

Negotiate or fight?

The next encounter was with a group of NPCs (Non-Player Characters; background civilians) repairing a bridge that the Farseer team had sabotaged after crossing. The NPCs were grumpy with the Lunar team, making it clear that they blamed the School of Adventure collectively for the damage done to the infrastructure and demanding a compensation payment before allowing the team to cross. I was sort of hoping to engage the players with questions of how their characters’ actions affect the game world and the NPCs in it, but this didn’t really take. Some PCs (Player Characters; our team) wanted to attack the bridge repair crew and force a way across, and so the encounter ended up as a discussion between them and more peaceful PCs who wanted to pay up. The peaceful faction won, thanks perhaps to the fact that the bridge repairs weren’t yet completed. One character on the peace faction paid the toll for the unwilling characters, just to make sure that this was the easiest option for everyone. So as not to encourage attacks on peaceful civilians doing their job, I had the NPCs keep quiet and take the money with no further lecturing, and I’m counting this bit of intra-party interaction as a meaningful scene.

Catching Farseer at a disadvantage

So clearly it was time for more action, and the half-term holiday was approaching so I brought on my final encounter. The scene was a place where the road wound around the side a vast underground cavern, clinging to a cliff face partway up, so there was a long drop to one side of the trail, as well as the usual solid wall on the other side. Hearing unusual sounds, the group were on high alert when they heard a combat break out somewhere up the trail ahead of them. They came upon the Farseer team being ambushed by Hook Horrors (large climbing monsters with hooklike single claws instead of hands).

I wanted the spice in this encounter to be the question of whether PCs should help Farseer or let the ambush run its course and then fight the survivors. I was satisfied to find that some of the party wanted to do one and some the other. I had imagined that they would quickly discuss tactics and then as a team take one option, but of course each PC went ahead and did their own thing. And I also hadn’t imagined that some would actually wade into the fight ignoring the monsters and attacking Farseer. So it all went a bit complicated, with two PCs attacking Farseer, one entering the fray against the monsters, and the other three hanging back, shooting arrows at the monsters with varying degrees of enthusiasm. To even up the odds and give the hangers-back some urgency, I had some Horrors that had been stalking the PCs also arrive in the fight, swarming up the cliff and onto the trail. This resulted in a tense, close fight.

The players always surprise me with their inventive tactics, and I’m learning to use these to enhance the fun rather than shoot them down with boring practicalities. One of the Farseer team, kneeling to heal an unconscious comrade while already injured herself, was knocked out by a PC, who then said he would pick her up as a human shield while he attacked her team-mates. I skated over the difficulty of picking up an unconscious body while keeping hold of a sword and shield and ruled that he gained a defensive advantage for a few moments against the Farseer characters who were reluctant to further endanger their critically-injured friend. Of course innovative tactics can go both ways; I had the Farseer wizard Enlarge her unconscious friend so that the PC couldn’t carry her any more.

Another PC decided to hack off a hook from the Hook Horror he was fighting and use that as a weapon to attack the beast. There are obviously a million rule and common-sense reasons why this would be either impossible or less effective than just hitting the monster in vital areas with your own perfectly good axe. But it was an entertaining idea, so I described the action that way but stuck to the normal rules (not changing the PC’s chance to hit with the hook-severing attack or the damage it did, and not changing the PC’s hit chance or damage when they started using the hook to attack with instead of their axe). It made the scene more vivid and fun, for that player and I think the other players too.

Anyway, the end of the last session before the holiday came up on us, so I had the Farseers escape with a clever spell use, and let the PCs finish off or drive away the surviving Hook Horrors, and I wrapped up.

Player dynamics update

Anyone who’s been following the School of Adventure write-ups may remember that I had rather lost the attention of some of the players when they went from the Roll20 chat to private chats in Skype. Well, as well as asking me to enforce no PvP, the parents also told their kids no private chats. But they haven’t come back to the Roll20 feed; they have stayed in Skype but in the main group chat. And they are still making full use of the Skype tools for sending memes etc. So the game is suffering somewhat from the players distracting themselves between turns. But the session is enhanced as a social outlet for the kids, who are still limited in their leisure mixing even if they’re now seeing each other at school, so I guess I’ll live with it. I just mention it as something to think about for anyone else who is running or thinking of running an online game for kids.

So yeah, that was the end of the Year Four adventure. Running for nearly a term and a half, sixteen one-hour sessions, it was the longest chapter in the School of Adventure story so far.  And for the foreseeable, because there are no more than fifteen playable weeks left until the end of the real school year when my current generation of players all disperse to secondary school. I’m going to play the School of Adventure Year Five chapter, Final Examination, in that time and bring it all to a close. It’s going to be a challenge to try to plan everything to finish on time, since I’ve rarely been accurate in my estimates of how long things will take so far.

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