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Sunday, December 11, 2016

Dungeons & Dragons - Salvage Operation by Mike Mearls

Last night, I ran another online game. This time I ran a 5e conversion of Salvage Operation from Dungeon Magazine #123. It is written by D&D honcho Mike Mearls himself.

Average DM: One thing I feel like noting is that this project is a little weird. I don't want to sit here and say that I am a good DM. I have a million flaws. I guess the whole point of this blog is just me giving the perspective of someone who has run a massive pile of campaigns. I'm not saying I'm good. I'm saying I've done it a lot.

I believe that all of us DMs are on about the same level of skill. You start off with a bunch of things you need to fix. As you play more, you fine tune those things and then there you are, right alongside the rest of us. Everybody is better at some things than others, but I've never seen anyone who is good at everything you need to do to be a good DM. I don't think it is possible.

New DMs: That is why I get really interested in watching these online shows. People like Nadja Otikor are very important to me because they are the new breed. They are growing before our eyes. They have the advantage of watching other people run games.

I would guess in the next five years, people are going to develop a lot of new ways to look at and handle being a DM. We can watch each other and figure out how to get a handle on the things that are too complicated to multitask.

For example, I'm a big fan of the Gary Gygax rule. When someone asks you a yes or no question that you don't really have an answer to, roll a d6. 1-3 means no. 4-6 means yes.

I think people are going to develop a lot of little tricks like that to streamline and improve the process.

Nautical Adventure: My goal here was to really try to fit this adventure into two hours. I was completely successful! We got the whole thing done with no rushing.

This adventure involves the heroes getting a crate out of a derelict ship inhabited by agents of a demon lord named Tharzax. I have never heard of Tharzax before, so I found this extremely interesting.

The group has to go to the cargo hold of the ship. Then, as they find the crate, a giant squid attacks the ship. The heroes must then get all the way out of the ship before it is completely destroyed. Many of the rooms are full of webs, making escape extra-difficult.

Timing It: When I read this, I immediately knew that the 'escape' part of this adventure would be difficult to run. Mike Mearls set it up so that the whole thing is timed. On round two, the squid grabs the ship. On round 11, the cargo hold is flooded. That kind of thing.

The tricky thing with that is there is a chance the group will get out quick without trouble and the ending will feel a bit flat. If the group takes the time to destroy the webs on the way down, then escape will be very easy. It should be, if the heroes had the foresight to remove the webs as they went. But that still means I have a flat ending.

The other option is to just have "timed" events. As in, once the group gets to room 5, a tentacle breaks through and the cargo hold is flooded, etc. That feels kind of cheap because then the group's actions don't really matter.

I pretty much went with the timed events.

Modifying it for 5th Edition
: What's so nice about this adventure is that it fits in with some 5e rules very nicely. Webs are very clearly laid out in the DMG. Webs in a 10 foot cube: AC 10 HP 15 DC 12 to avoid/escape, vulnerable to fire, etc.

I was concerned about the group just bashing through the walls or the side of the ship and circumventing the whole "dungeon." If you look at the ship stats in the DMG, a sailing ship has AC 15 and 300 HP. It has a damage resistance of 15, meaning you need to do 15 points or more to do any damage at all to the ship.

The heroes are 1st level, so it would be hard for them to do 15 points in a single shot.

I also dug up the underwater combat rules which ended up coming in handy.

Every player was really good.  

(Ryan) Beller aka "Mistletoe" - Human Druid
(Daren) Del - High Elf Wizard
(Ashley) Lemuel - Human Rogue
(Garret) Ramrod - Goliath Barbarian
(Haydon) Salazar - Human Fighter

Go Get a Crate: We started off on a ship called the Soul of Winter, which was heading to the site of the derelict ship. The guy who hired them, Aubreck, was on board.

I had prepared a bunch of goofy pirate stuff so that my players could introduce themselves through interacting with the pirates. Arm wrestling, drinking competitions, etc.

I immediately bailed on it because I thought I should just get to the adventure. If it ended short, we could do that stuff after.

The Soul of Winter came upon the Emporer of the Waves, the ship with the cargo on it.

The heroes eventually learned that the Emporer of the Waves got lost in a storm 20 years ago. It went to an island inhabited by orcs who worshiped Tharzax. They were killed and the ship was turned into a web-choked shrine of Tharzax the demon lord of poison.

Recently, those orcs were almost completely wiped out. One of the last followers of Tharzax, Krell, decided to take this shrine/ship out to sea and put his fate in the hands of Tharzax.

Boarding the Ship: The heroes boarded the Emporer of the Waves. It was tilting to port (the left side... I had to look that up). Ramrod immediately established himself as a go-getter who busted open doors without considering the consequences.

Beller pretty much immediately slid into the role of party leader. Beller wore a kilt and a crown of mistletoe, which I found very amusing. Ramrod kept calling him "Mistletoe" and within about 10 minutes of game time, so was everyone else.

Tharzax: They started to explore. They found an altar to Tharzax. Originally this room had a giant centipede in it, but I junked it because I felt that a lot of combat would eat up too much time. Plus, I wanted to have a variety of encounter types.

I changed the altar so that it could give people demonic madness, like the demon lords in Out of the Abyss. Ramrod was affected but he made his save.

Webs: The heroes came upon another room where a giant spider jumped on Ramrod. Mistletoe used a spell to make friends with it. This spider became known as "Webster." Webster was a nice guy, but he was very confused by what the group was doing.

The group headed below decks, and found that every hallway and room was choked with webs that made the going very slow. There were little spiders everywhere. Ramrod squashed them whenever he saw them, which obviously would not please Tharzax whatsoever.

Sacks of Zombie: They ended up in a room that had two big hanging sacks that were wriggling. Inside each was a zombie that had spiders inside of it. Mistletoe did a sort of horror movie thing where he slowly opened a sack and a zombie popped up, opened its mouth and spiders came pouring out.

Then the group came upon a room with a woman trapped in a cocoon. I added this because I wanted to do the classic "rescue a woman from a prison only to find out she's a monster" trope.

I named her Selicia and she was a WERESPIDER. She was actually the girlfriend of Krell. Instead of turning into one giant spider, I decided she could turn into a spider swarm.

She was able to win over the group and they freed her. She told them about Krell and that he was nearby. Ramrod immediately went out into the hallway and yelled for Krell to show himself.

Krell Grohlg

A door down the hall swung open and there was Krell in his crustacean armor.

A big battle was had. Krell had a spider swarm that aided him. I re-skinned one of the Yurtus orc stat block from Volo's Guide to Monsters. It worked really well.

I should note that Del was a force of nature throughout this adventure. He kept rolling natural 20's and he also was able to drop Krell with a sleep spell.

I had Selicia act like she hated Krell and couldn't stop herself from hitting him, which woke him up! Then it was revealed that she was on his side. The group was outraged.

The battle resumed and the group took down Krell. Lemuel did an epic flip over the spider swarm (I think she rolled a 20) to try and get at Selicia. Selicia turned into a spider swarm and crawled through the boards of the ship and wasn't seen again.

Prisoners: I had the group find more people in cocoons. I liked the idea of having one prisoner who was a monster, and then others that were not. That way the group would be really off balance.

They were Rochelle and Zember Alatess. They were married. Zember didn't talk at all, he communicated non-verbally.

Somehow it ended up where Mistletoe gave Zember a massage and there was die roll to see how much Zember liked it, and it was a cool natural 20. Zember really, really liked it. Rochelle put a stop to that.

From that point on these NPCs suffered the fate of many an NPC and animal companion in a D&D adventure - I kept forgetting they were there.

Del had the good idea to clear the webs out of this one room, which helped a lot later on.

The Cargo Hold: The heroes dropped into the cargo hold. They scanned the massive pile of crates for the crate with an "A" on it. Their perception rolls were so ridiculously high (2 or 3 natural 20's) that they not only spotted the crate, they saw two ghouls underneath the waist-high water.

A fight broke out. Del cleared out some crates and put the box on a Tenser's floating disc. I can't think of a scenario where this spell was more handy and effective.

The Squid Attacks

Suddenly, the old sick squid attacked the ship. The ship shook and a tentacle burst through the side. Ramrod immediately charged it.

The rest of the group killed the ghouls and headed up above.

Squid Stats: Here is what the adventure says about the squid:
  • " old and dying giant squid, too frail to return to the deep, drifted near the ship..."
  • "'s spent the last several hours lurking in the water nearly 100 feet below..."
  • "...the squid's hunger and illness drove it back to the surface for a final attack.."
  • "...the squid may be sick and old, but still represents a very real threat..."
When preparing this, I had to think about the stats of the squid. In this 3e adventure, it has 30 hit points and 2 attacks. To me, that means it's definitely killable but a massive risk.

In the 5e MM, the kraken stats are way up there. AC 18 HP 472 and 3 attacks.

I wish I had written down the swallowed part of the kraken entry. I didn't. When you're swallowed, you are blinded and restrained and you take acid damage at the start of your turn. To get out, you need to do a pile of damage to gt it to regurgitate you.

As soon as I looked at the giant octopus stats (MM page 326), it seemed perfect for a sick squid. AC 11 HP 52 +5 to hit, 10 damage and you are grappled.

Drowning: I looked up some stuff on drowning, figuring it would come up:

Suffocating (PH 183) You can hold your breath for 1 + Con mod in minutes. When you run out, you can survive for your Con mod in rounds, and then you drop to 0 and start making death saves.

I found this very handy site which has 5e rules assistance.

Fighting the Squid: OK, we got all that out of the way. Ramrod hacked into the tentacle, doing a hefty pile of damage. The squid has disadvantage to hit because it can't see into the ship and it was hurt bad enough that it pulled the tentacle out of the hole. Ramrod stayed right on it and went out into the water with it. He made a check and popped out with the tentacle as water was about to begin gushing through the hole.

The squid released its ink cloud before attacking the ship, so Ramrod was suddenly in swirly darkness. He made a perception and a swim check. He rolled high. He went at the squid, raging, and hit it again! He used a javelin for this, one of the few items you can use in underwater combat without a penalty.

The squid then grabbed him and swallowed him.

Escaping the Ship: Meanwhile, the party was trying to make their way through the webbed rooms. They had a choice - go real slow and make no checks to get stuck, or run at normal speed and make checks.

Mistletoe took the strategy of going slow and it paid off. He turtled his way through the ship.

Lemue the a rogue was quite adept at maneuvering through these webbed chambers. The other heroes kept getting stuck, and Lemuel would pull them free.

There was a rusty grate (open it = Strength check DC 15) that led to the deck in a hallway. Salazar stood on the floating disc and forced it open. By this time, water had filled the cargo deck and was now starting fill the level the group was on.

Lemuel hopped up onto the deck and helped the group get out along with the married couple NPCs who blinked in and out of existence a few times.

The adventurers piled in to the little rowboat that two pirates were waiting in.

Swallowed: Ramrod was swallowed. I was a little baffled as to how to handle him being swallowed. I should have done some acid damage but I didn't want to stop the session to look it up. I'm actually glad I didn't, because it would have taken me too much time and we were rolling along really nicely.

So Ramrod began stabbing the squid from the inside and it regurgitated him. I made a roll to see if it launched him into the side of the submerged ship and did damage, but I rolled low.

Ramrod swam back through the hole into the flooded cargo hold. Crates were floating, there was inky blackness, he as getting lost in there. He was able to get back out of the ship through the hole.

Escaping: The adventurers piled into the little rowboat. Del saw bubbles coming up from the water. The group groaned.

Ramrod swam to the surface and climbed in. The squid followed right behind!

Tentacles shot out of the foamy sea. It destroyed the rowboat and sent everyone into the water.

It grabbed a random PC - Lemuel - and crushed him. He was at 0 hit points and dying. Del got on his floating disc and cast firebolt. The squid was badly from Ramrod's assault. One fire bolt was enough to kill it!

Mistletoe grabbed Lemuel and gave him a potion to revive him.

The heroes had succeeded. The pirates sent another little boat to pick them up and we had ourselves one complete scenario in about 2 hours and 10 minutes.


The group was great and I was pretty happy with how I handled the adventure. I wish I had put more thought into the squid because I just knew something like this was going to happen. In the end, I was lenient, but when you look at those octopus stats, I ran it OK.

Distinct: There were a lot of well-developed characters. Salazar was at a disadvantage because his mic wasn't working very well. Even then, he contributed just fine.

Ashley in particular put a lot of work into her background, tying her character into some of my campaign stuff that was created by another player years ago. That player would love Lemuel and the whole thing fits together perfectly. 

When I think of this group, they immediately feel like a unit. By the end of a single session, we had a very distinct, fun dynamic.

What I Learned: Running these three online games was very enlightening. I am really happy that I was able to figure out how to take a published scenario and fit it into a 2 hour online game. If I am going to do a D&D show, that's exactly what I want to be able to do.

I don't like watching D&D shows that are longer than 2 hours, so I want mine to be 2 hours or less. That's tricky when you're running old, published adventures. They usually have a lot of extraneous encounters. Knowing which ones to junk and which ones to keep can be puzzling.

Players You've Never Met: I was really curious to see what the people would be like. Every single player was good. It was shocking. It wasn't like the game store where you get a bunch of good people, and then quite a few people that are unpleasant to be around. At least, that's been my experience.

In this little experiment, they were all good/great. They all were courteous and pretty much everyone was beyond prepared.

Mearls Scenarios: I really like this adventure. It is simple but I've never heard of anyone doing this before. You go down the inside of a ship, then you have to go back up before it is destroyed. I'm going to look around and see what other old Mike Mearls adventures are out there.

Tonight I'm running Planescape, I'll have that up tomorrow. Then I'll try and figure out what the next phase of this online thing is. I'll probably see if any of the players want to do more.


Ashley said...

Thanks again for running this for us! I don't know if I'd call you just an average DM, though, I thought you were pretty fantastic. In particular, I really appreciate how you kept things rolling so seamlessly— I can't think of a single point where it felt like there was dead space or we were just waiting to resolve something.

Speaking of people being great though, all of the guys last night were awesome. And Garrett and Ryan (Ramrod and Mistletoe) were seriously on top of their game, I was having just as much fun watching them. I have to agree, too– I don't think I've ever come away from a session at a game store with all new people, and just had every single person be a class act, like last night. Everyone was friendly and having fun. Loved it!

GW Chubbs said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Garrett said...

I have to concur with Ashley's comments. Had an absolute blast playing this. Sean, your DMing experience shows in how smoothly you ran a session with all new players that have never met. One of my best player experiences of all time. And a well written adventure that fit our time slot perfectly.

Kudos to everyone involved!

Jason R said...

Congrats for another great online session! I'm pumped you are mining into these old Dungeon adventures. I have gone through so many of these with an eye to use them in a campaign. I looked at this adventure with interest in the past, and always wondered how the timer would work out in actual play. Thanks for including your behind the scenes thoughts as a DM with regards to game decisions you had to make. Very helpful.

Let us know what your analysis of the delivery technology is (Google Hangouts) and if and why you'll be switching to Roll20. Your take on the mechanics of running a game on these platforms would be very interesting :)

Ryan said...

Adding on to what the other players have said, you are well above average for a DM. It's clear that you care about both the story and the player experience, you're up front about expectations and the vision you want to achieve, and you keep trying to develop as a DM. That last one marks you as a great DM because every session of improves the experience for everyone involved.

I had a great day time, really liked all the players too. Ramrod was spectacular under Garret, and the nickname of Mistletoe has grown on me overnight. I'd play with this group again in a heartbeat.

Haydon said...

I had a great time, everyone was nice and obviously knew the game well. Particular props to Mistletoe and Ramrod, they were fun and everyone instantly knew what they were about!

You ran this session very naturally and efficiently, I was surprised how smoothly it went, despite some moments of technical difficulty. Seeing behind the curtain of this adventure was very enlightening and I think you made all the right decisions running it. I think the format of short, interesting, sort of bite-sized adventures works quite well online. I can't speak to the efficacy of Roll20, but google hangouts worked nicely!

Sean said...

Ashley: Thanks! The whole group was very good, it's kind of amazing. I really like Lemuel, great job!

Garrett: Thank you! This make me want to look for more Mearls adventures, I really liked this one.

Jason R: The timer was tricky! I get real nervous about those, especially in this case where there's the webs. Will it be too easy or too hard? It's difficult to tell. I'm going to try Roll20 soon, I will definitely write about it. I saw James Introcaso run a game with it and it was pretty cool.

Ryan: Thanks! Mistletoe was classic, I got a kick out of him. I want to know more about why he wears the kilt!

Haydon: Thank you! Google hangouts did work really smoothly. I had expected people to have tech difficulties and actually they were much more minor than I thought they would be. You guys were really good!