Wednesday, October 18, 2017
Tomb of Annihilation 6 - Zombie Island
We just taped this on Saturday. It was a good session. The next one was great, IMO.
The plan for this episode was to have the group meet Aremag, the dragon turtle in an encounter right out of the Tomb book. Then they were going to go to zombie Island and explore a shrine of Kubazan, one of the nine trickster gods.
I took some rooms from Cellar of Death - traps that I really liked. Then the actual shrine was a way for me to start secretly "helping" the group survive the actual Tomb of the Nine Gods.
Secret Rule: I have a rule of thumb that I applied to this session. "Until it is said out loud at the table, it doesn't exist." So, by the time the group got to the shrine, I was well aware that this was taking too long, so I took the trap rooms out.
I do this all the time. I chuck stuff for a variety of reasons, usually because of time issues, or if it feels like it doesn't fit the moment. I'm pretty sure we've all had that feeling sometimes where you observe the mood of the group, and you can tell that if you use a certain encounter/monster/NPC right now, they'll love it. On other occasions, you look at what's ahead and you realize that the game is dragging a bit so you chuck it.
That's a tough tightrope to walk, because sometimes you're wrong! Once in awhile, I defy those instincts and it turns out the group loves the thing I was about to cut.
I remember running a DCC RPG adventure. There was a part in it where everyone was supposed to wear a paper mask in real life and roleplay some weird situation. I thought it was stupid and might make people feel self-conscious - we were playing in a game store, a public space. I didn't use it. When we got to that part, I mentioned it. The group unanimously groaned and wished I had kept it in!
You won't always make the right call, but in situations like that, you can fix the mistake. You can include it in a subsequent session. So in the end, it's not that a big a deal, and I think you should go with your instincts most of the time.
(Ryan) Mistletoe - Human Druid
(Garrett) Ramrod - Goliath Barbarian
(Annalise) Val - Tiefling Sorcerer
(Joe) Zavagor - Half-orc Warlock
The group sailed to Zombie Island. Along the way, Aremag demanded the toll.
Last time we had played, a pirate had bet Ramrod that he couldn't beat Aremag in a fight. Ramrod is very impulsive. He charges into everything. Planning this, I knew there was a chance he'd actually attack Aremag, and I planned accordingly. To my surprise, he didn't attack. You never know what a player will do!
The heroes got to Zombie Island. Their pirate friends went one way, and the group went another. The adventurers had heard of a froghemoth shrine that was on this island, and seeing how they travel with an albino froghemoth, their interest was piqued.
Quick Encounters: I had them spot a lone zombie up ahead. I used this a a tool to familiarize them with a thing I do to speed up encounters that are nonessential. I just ask, "What do you do?" They do it. They roll. The end. It's sort of like a cutscene in a telltale game, where you make a choice and then there's a different result if you pass/fail. So if a hero ran up and hacked it and missed, the zombie would attack them. If the hero hit, the zombie would explode or whatever I had in mind.
During the 6 years that I think of as "the grind", when I ran 2-3 sessions of D&D per week, I started to sharpen my sense of what's really important. What is it that makes a session boring? In my opinion, what makes a session boring is wasted time at the table. One such timewaster is non-essential encounters. A random encounter on a road is a waste of time unless it's a very fun and unique situation, or there are interesting stakes involved.
If you're walking on a road and three zombies lurch out of the forest, that's pretty boring. But, if there's a little kid in a tree and the three zombies are underneath the tree reaching for the kid, that's better. If the tree branch is breaking, that's IMO a worthy encounter. That's adventure, to me.
I know everybody has a different style. I know lots of groups who thoroughly enjoy an evening full of combat encounters. There is a lot of fun to be had in taking on a series of combats and trying to gain XP, get loot, and survive!
It is fun when you know you can't get a rest and you only have so many spells and hit points. It gets very thrilling when you're low on everything and one more tough creature comes at the group. That's fun! That's scary!
Long Sessions: In my experience, that kind of session requires a large chunk of time. I am done with 6 hour sessions of D&D. You don't need it! People have a hard time opening up their schedule to fit 6 hours in, and those 6 hour sessions can be a real drag. Boring! Excruciating, even! You look at the clock and you still have 3 more hours? If you're not into the scenario, then D&D stops being fun and starts to feel like a chore.
As a player, I can handle a handle 6 hour session if it's something that I consider relevant. If a DM wants to run Tomb of Horrors for me and a group, hell yes I'll sit there for 6 hours! I know that it's not going to be boring. It's going to be a harrowing, scary, thrilling, hilarious experience! I'll be excited to see what the next room is, and I'll be frantically trying to scope out tricks and traps in advance.
But when it's a session that drags or the DM clearly hasn't prepared enough for... I just want to go home.
To get a lot done in 2 hours, you need to trim all the BS. Everything needs to be streamlined and the group needs to run like a well-oiled machine. The two hours will fly by.
OK. Tangent over!
The Shrine of Kubazan: I stuck 10 zombies in front of the shrine. In my head, I was ready to be open to any clever idea the group had to get the zombies out of the way. I was also aware that Ramrod might charge them.
I had become tuned in to a potential issue in this campaign. Ramrod charges at everything, and it is going to get him killed! This is a conscious choice by the player, so I'm trying to find a balance between not being too harsh while being fair and realistic. If you charge 10 zombies, they're going to swarm you, right?
I honestly feel like if the rest of the group doesn't become prepared for Ramrod's foolhardiness, he's going to die. So I'm starting to place encounters of varying degrees of deadliness and giving them room to adjust.
Ramrod did charge these 10 zombies. The group was able to use gusts of wind to send the zombies tumbling down a hill, basically saving Ramrod from death. That was one test, one "easy mode" test where I gave them a lot of leeway to save him.
Then the group went into the shrine. I deleted the trap rooms and they went right to the shrine of Kubazan.
What I'm going to do is sort of "preview" some of the rooms when I can fit it in a way that makes sense. This shrine of Kubazan is an altered version of the actual shrine of Kubazan in the tomb (on page 97, I believe). It involves making offerings and using a frog mask.
In this case, I took the death-trap Kubazan shrine in the tomb, and created a non-deadly version of it. Now the group is familiar with what they'll have to do when they get to page 97 much later on in the campaign, and if they think back to this, they'll have a lot of clues that will help them survive.
I plan on doing this a lot. I think it's a fair way to help them without flat-out cheating or altering the rooms to make them safer.
So the group makes offerings to Kubazan, and a "spirit shard" of Kubazan posses Hoppy, the group's froghemoth. He tells them about the trickster gods, Acererak, the puzzle cubes and the Tomb of the Nine Gods.
He gave them the boon of Kubazan, which will last for a few days. The heroes each have a 23 strength! I like the boons and I just thought it would be fun to sprinkle them through the city and jungle sections of the adventure.
On the way back to the pirate ship, the group heard screams. 30 zombies had surrounded two pirate NPCs, one of which is the group's friend, Punchin' Pearl Smitty. The idea here was to drive home the idea of the death curse. If Pearl dies here, she's dead, period. If the group can't get rid of the death curse, their friend cannot be brought back!
The group was on a cliff 30 feet above the zombie horde. What did Ramrod do? He jumped down into the horde! Now I was thinking.. he might die here for good. What can you do? Let's just play it out and see what happens. One pirate NPC died. Pearl went down and was dying.
Mistletoe climbed down and used gust of wind to make space, pushing zombies back. Val teleported into the horde to try to save Pearl. She was immediately dropped to 0 hit points!
Now I was looking at a potential TPK! Yikes. Hoppy the froghemoth jumped down and squashed 4 zombies.
The Indiana Jones Rule: Zavagor swung down on a rope, letting out a wave of flame as he swung by the horde. For this one, I used another of my little rules. "If it is awesome, it happens." Rolls are merely to determine how awesome it is.
So, in one round, he tied a rope around his waist, the other end around a tree, swung down on the rope and cast a spell. Deciding how far to bend the rules is very tricky, but players love it so much and it tends to electrify the game when done in moderation.
I want my game to be like Indiana Jones movies. If somebody does something Indiana Jones-y, I'm going to bend over backwards for them. Not all the time, but when it feels right.
A zombie clamped down on Mistletoe's ear. Zavagor's momentum swung him back. Mistletoe grabbed on and swung with Zavagor up to the safety of the cliff. The zombie bit off part of Mistletoe's ear. Later, the pirates made him a wooden peg-ear.
I allowed the group to plow through zombie squares. It happens in zombie movies, and the group has a 23 strength, so what the heck. Ramrod picked up Val and Pearl. He ran through the horde, taking quite a few attacks of opportunity. He was able to outrun the horde. Val rolled a natural 20 on her death save! She reached across and stabilized Pearl.
That's when the group realized that Hoppy was alone in the middle of the horde, getting swarmed! That's where we stopped.
Good session! The next one is another dinosaur race, where I tested my new rules. It went great!