Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Favorites of Selune campaign - Level 0

My D&D group last night finished their first adventure, the level 0 introduction to the game I prepared. The idea was to play some D&D 4th edition with characters that were not fully formed, so as to give the players a better idea about game mechanics, helping them choose their level 1 powers and skills. The adventure took one-and-a-half game sessions, with the other half of last night being spent “leveling up” to level 1. This post is a journal of this first adventure. If the adventure appears very much directed and on rails to you that is because it was designed to be so on purpose. Future adventures will have somewhat more freedom.

The adventure started with the kind of story hook I would only ever use at the start of a campaign, with the players being helpless and pushed into a situation. In this case the players started at orphans in Waterdeep, leading a hard life in which the guardian of the orphanage is exploiting them by having them work for various merchants. It is an orphanage for children of adventurers, and having received donations from adventurers is supposed to give the children basic adventuring training. As this is somewhat neglected, the players are “level 0”, with just one at-will power each. All their stats are 10, plus racial bonuses, and they had the choice of race and what power source (martial, divine, arcane) their first power would be based on.

When the players come of age, the guardian of the orphanage realizes that he won’t be able to exploit their workforce much longer, and decides to drug them and sell them into slavery. The action starts with the players chained to the wall in the hold of a pirate / slaver ship in the middle of a storm. (See? I told you this was heavy-handed.) While the players realize that there is not much they can do, the storm gets heavier, many of the pirates are washed overboard, and the ship runs aground on a beach.

The shipwreck causes heavy damage to the ship, including weakening the fastening of the chain the players are attached to. This leads to the first “encounter” in D&D rules-speak, a skill challenge in which the players work to free themselves. They arm themselves with chair legs as clubs and fight the remaining two pirates on board of the ship, their first combat encounter. Now normally in D&D a pirate would work on somewhat simplified “monster” combat rules, as you usually don’t want to go through all the work of making a full character sheet for them. But in this case I decided that the pirates would be using some of the combat moves a player might use, for example the second wind self-healing, or a bluff to give a combat advantage. That not only ended in making the combat a bit more balanced, but also taught the players some possible moves for their later career.

After having killed the pirates, the players realize that they aren’t safe yet. They are still stranded on an unknown beach, more or less exposed to the elements, and the ship is too damaged to float. Thus they decide to explore and seek shelter. On this exploration they stumble upon 2 orcs having made camp behind some boulders near the beach, holding a human prisoner. When the players arrive, the orcs are being ambushed by a dozen goblins. By the time the players are in combat range, the orcs are dead, and there are half a dozen goblins left, a leader and 5 minions. This turned out to be somewhat too easy a fight, most of the minions were dead before they could do anything, and a single level 1 goblin was no match for 6 level 0 characters. The only unexpected thing that happened in this fight was one of the dwarves charging straight through the campfire, so I had to come up on the spot with rules on how to handle this. I let him make an acrobatics check to jump over the fire (athletics might have been a better choice), and failing that he burned his trousers and got some very minor fire damage, and scattered and extinguished the fire.

The players freed the prisoner, and old man named Keestake. He explains to the players that they are on Goddess Island, a tiny isle which served as the base of Viledel, the Sea King. Viledel was a mighty pirate captain, but died 30 years ago, and was buried on this island in a tomb under his manor. Keestake was Viledel’s servant, and the only one to remain behind on the island to guard the manor and the tomb. Keestake speaks some orcish and learned from his captors that some weeks ago a bard sung a ballad in a tavern in a pirate hideout, singing of the treasure of Viledel that was never found. This prompted two rivaling bands of pirates, one orc and one goblin, to seek out the island and search for the treasure. The orcs, being stronger, took control of the Sea King’s manor, while the goblins can’t do much more than hiding and ambushing the orcs. The only other building on the island is an old temple of Selune, which Keestake suggests would make the best shelter for the night.

At the temple the players find that the orcs and goblins searched and ransacked the temple, and even got into a fight in there, leaving some goblin corpses. But the orcs and goblins couldn’t open the door to the inner sanctum, a big stone door with no visible opening mechanism, and circular indentation about 1 inch deep and a foot in diameter. The players find they can’t open that door either, but they can barricade the outer door and find shelter for the night. On the last watch Selune herself appears to the players. She is angry about the desecration of her temple, and reveals that it was her who summoned the storm. The storm will swallow the whole island by nightfall. As Selune recognizes the players as being innocent in the desecration, she not only warns them, but also helps them by granting them an improved toughness feat (+6 hitpoints instead of the normal +5, but this replaces the feat the players would normally be able to choose at level 1). The goddess says that there is a way to escape from the island, and that the players would be able to find this way if they are worthy. This gives the players a quest to escape the island, of which the reward is the experience to reach level 1. And yeah, we are still in heavy-handed territory, as the players don’t really get the option to not do that quest.

Keestake, who heard the goddess too and is eager to escape from the island alive with the players, reveals that Viledel was buried in his small boat, which should be able to carry up to 10 people. Thus the players decide to try to find that boat as a means of escape from the island. Guided by Keestake they sneak their way into the manor and a cellar with a mosaic on the wall hiding a secret door. Keestake claims to know how to open that door, but is killed by a poison dart trap when trying to do so. The players open the door with a skill challenge without making too much noise and alerting the orcs.

Behind the secret door is a cave, upon entering which the players are attacked by 10 rats. (Hey, if D&D 4E adopted game mechanics from MMORPGs, it definitely needs a “kill 10 rats” combat!) That combat turned out to be rather tough, with 1 dire rat and 9 giant rat minions dealing some serious damage to the players. One critical hit by the dire rat brought the fighter to 0 hitpoints. Two other players had a series of very low dice rolls, one of them not landing a single hit in 6+ rounds of combat, although he had a 50% or better chance to hit. The ranger and the mage pelted the dire rat from behind, although attacking the minions first might have been the better tactic. But the priest was able to revive the fighter, and ultimately the party prevailed. Then I messed up and forgot to tell the players that had been damaged by the dire rat to make saving throws against disease. Well, stuff happens, it wasn’t actually important as this was the last fight of the adventure.

Behind the rats the players found a second cave, open to the sea, and with Viledel buried in his boat as promised. Unfortunately the orcs had been uncharacteristically clever, and had found that cave before the players, by rappelling down the cliff with ropes. Thus the treasure was gone, the boat had a big hole in the bottom where the orcs had searched for hidden treasure, and the only thing remaining was the skeleton of Viledel holding a marble disc, an inch thick and a foot in diameter, with the engraving of the head of Selune on it. The players figure out that this must be the key to the inner sanctum, and go back to the temple.

In the inner sanctum there is a magic portal, which can be invoked by a ritual engraved on marble tablets on the wall. The players perform the ritual, open the portal and thus escape safely from the island and the storm, landing in the temple of Selune in Fallcrest, in the Nentir Vale. There they are greeted by the high priest of Selune, who was told by the goddess to assist the players and offer them training. Thus the adventure ends with the players reaching level 1, getting their stats boosted to the standard array, and choosing their powers and skills.

Overall the adventure went very well. Everybody appeared to have fun, which is the main thing. But the players also learned how 4E D&D works, and now have level 1 characters with powers based on informed decisions. As an added advantage the players start their “regular” career at level 1 with a common background and some good opportunities for future story hooks. Of course they also have the possibility to make up their own backgrounds, like who were their parents and how did the characters end up as orphans? But at least the campaign doesn’t have players with backgrounds which would make it unlikely for them to cooperate.

So the party composition at level 1 is one dwarven fighter (more a damage dealer than a tank though), one dwarven warlord, one halfling ranger, one human priest, one elven rogue, and one elven magician (with a mix of control and damage powers). So the group is heavy on dps and support (what 4E calls the “leader” role, from the warlord and the priest), and light on crowd control and tanking. Not a completely classical composition, but I think this will work, especially since 6 players is at the upper range of D&D group sizes. I’ll chronicle their campaign at the end of each adventure, so as to not give away spoilers too early.

Those of you with way too much D&D experience might have recognized this adventure being based on the first official level 0 adventure TSR released back in 1986, Treasure Hunt by Aaron Allston. The rules for level 0 characters I used were modified “A Hero’s First Steps” level 0 rules from Dragon Magazine #403. Most places in the adventure I created maps and battle maps for myself, using Campaign Cartographer 3 / Dungeon Designer 3. Feel free to comment whether you liked this adventure and would be interested in reading more as the campaign progresses.

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