The Alexandrian

Posts tagged ‘in the shadow of the spire’

IN THE SHADOW OF THE SPIRE

Session 5: The Trouble With Goblins

In which a tragedy unfolds amidst the squalor of goblins too clever for their own good, but a gateway is opened which beckons the curious while promising potential terrors in the days to come…

Anyone who’s read The Railroading Manifesto knows that I’m no fan of GM’s predetermining outcomes and negating the impact of player’s choices. But sometimes outcomes can be controlled through design. (Or, in other cases, the evolving circumstances of the game world will naturally create these circumstances.)

In the case of this session, for example, Jasin was dead before the PCs were ever aware that he existed. Their effort to save him was guaranteed to fail. I didn’t know exactly how it would play out, but the sad scene in which Tee carried Jasin’s shrouded body out of Greyson House was essentially inevitable.

As a GM, you can use similar techniques to guarantee a variety of outcomes: For example, later in the campaign the bad guys will breach the Banewarrens (a crypt filled with ancient evils). In a similar fashion, the PCs never learn of their attempt until after they’ve already succeeded. Firewalling scenario hooks like this is a useful practicality (since it prevents scenarios from being unexpectedly smothered in their cribs), but also a rather natural consequence of how the world works. (The PCs have no reason to go looking for the Banewarrens until they start encountering the eldritch evils which have been released from it.)

The more general version of this boils down to a relatively simple maxim: If you don’t want the PCs to affect the outcome of something, don’t let them know it’s happening until it’s already done.

The world is a big place, after all, so there’s constantly things happening that the PCs don’t know about.

With all that being said, however, be mentally prepared for the PCs to nevertheless surprise you: That almost happened in this session. As low-level characters they had neither the power nor the resources to access resurrection magic, so it never really occurred to me as a potential option for resolving Jasin’s death. As you can see in the log, however, Agnarr struck on the idea of unexpectedly leveraging Tee’s house to pay for it. Even though that ultimately didn’t happen, the result was a beautiful crucible which had a long-term effect on Tee’s character and her relationship with Agnarr. (It also revealed her deep emotional attachment to her house; which was the one lifeline she had back to her old life and, beyond that, her parents.)

Ptolus - In the Shadow of the Spire

IN THE SHADOW OF THE SPIRE

SESSION 5: THE TROUBLE WITH GOBLINS

April 15th, 2007
The 19th Day of Amseyl in the 790th Year of the Seyrunian Dynasty

Tellith pointed to a man wearing a green shirt who was sitting dejectedly at one of the tables. In truth, there weren’t many others in the common room – although the bard for the night was strumming idly in one corner.

Ranthir was tired, however, and headed upstairs for some food and a good book. Agnarr spotted Cardalian (the woman he had spoken with at breakfast a few days earlier sitting in the corner) – he headed over to her and offered to buy them both dinner.

Tee, Dominic, and Elestra, however, went to go talk to the man, who identified himself as Eral Yinnick. It quickly became apparent that Eral was emotionally distraught: His son had disappeared earlier that day. He and his wife were convinced that the boy had been kidnapped by the “ghost of Greyson House”. They had told him and told him not to play near that house, but the boy seemed fascinated by it despite their sternest warnings.

“Why come to us?” Tee asked.

“Phon told me about you.” (“She did?” Tee said. “Maybe she’s warming back up to us,” Dominic suggested.) “She told me how you saved her. I went to the watch, but they wouldn’t help. I thought maybe… maybe you could do for Jasin what you had done for her. So I asked her where I could find her, and she said the Ghostly Minstrel. So I came here and I waited and…” He was babbling.

Tee, Dominic, and Elestra agreed that they should try to help if they could. Tee looked around and saw Agnarr heading back across the common room with two plates piled high with food. She suggested that Elestra should go see if Angarr wanted to help them, and she sent Dominic upstairs to check with Ranthir.

Elestra caught up with Agnarr just as he sat down to eat. She quickly outlined the situation to him. “Okay,” said Agnarr. “Just let me finish eating.”

“Finish eating? There’s a boy in trouble!”

“Fine, fine. Just give me five minutes! Just five minutes!”

Elestra turned to Cardalian. “You look pretty tough. You want to tag along?”

Cardalian shook her head and demurred. “No, I’ve been fighting rats all day. I’m exhausted.”

Agnarr paused from shoveling food into his mouth and looked over at Cardalian. “Rats? Really? You’ll have to tell me about that.”

Cardalian raised her eyebrow, “Aren’t you supposed to be eating?”

Meanwhile, Ranthir – with his food freshly laid out and his book freshly cracked – heard Dominic’s knock at his door. “Come in.”

Dominic quickly outlined the situation. “Come on, you can bring your food with you.”

“But… it’s soup!”

Ranthir forlornly put it aside, gathered his things and headed for the door.

Five minutes later, everyone was gathered with Eral in the lobby of the Ghostly Minstrel.

THE HAUNTING OF GREYSON HOUSE

The group headed up the hill towards the North Market. (“Wait, are we going up the hill to the haunted house? Or are we headed to the house on haunted hill?”) They discovered that Eral’s home – and Greyson House just across the street – were both located on Catbird Street, literally just around the corner from Phon’s house.

Agnarr realized that he now knew where Phon lived. Tee groaned at the thought of it, but she would have been even more worried if she had overheard Agnarr trying to “subtly” pump Eral for information regarding the father of Phon’s child on the way over. (Eral didn’t know anything.)

When they arrived, Eral quickly introduced them to his wife Ortesia – a woman completely overcome by her panic. They kept it short and immediately headed across the street.

(As they went, Agnarr remarked, “Hey, what are we getting paid for this?” He was met with blank states all around, and after a moment he said: “Oh. Got it.”)

Agnarr strode up onto the porch and tried the door handle. It was locked. But as Agnarr stepped back, the door began to rattle and shake and a low, mournful howl could be heard through the door.

Agnarr cocked his head to the side for a moment in contemplation, grunted, and then kicked the door open. A fetid mass of excrement, turpentine, and other foulness fell from above the door. The stench was nearly overpowering to Agnarr and Dominic (who stood just behind him), but they both steeled their stomachs against the nauseating stench.

Even as they paused to consider this sickening mess, a ghostly specter slipped out of the shadows and a hideous whisper seemed to echo through the house: “None shall live who enter this place…”

The spirit, however, had not considered the lust for battle which had been growing in Agnarr’s heart as a result of two days spent pent-up in a library and asking fruitless question. The barbarian rushed into the room, and although the ghost rushed forward to meet him, hot thews forged in the cold climes of the northern wastes proved the faster: The barbarian’s sword, flaming at his command – “For the glory!” – swept through the specter with a single sweep…

… revealing it to be nothing more than a sheet.

The sheet, reduced to a smoldering rag, fell to the floor. But what it revealed was perhaps even worse: A blood-sucking stirge, just like the ones that had nearly brought Tee and Agnarr to their ruin in the dark caves of the black reptilians. Agnarr cried out: “There’s a stirge in here, Tee!” And Tee, in panic, shouted back, “Kill it! Kill it! Kill it!”

Agnarr ducked as the stirge swooped down at him… which proved fortuitous, for at almost the same moment a small, runty goblin stepped out of the shadows in the same corner of the room from which the “ghost” had emerged and hurled a javelin at him! Both the stirge and the javelin passed harmlessly over Agnarr’s head.

Meanwhile Tee drew her longsword and rushed forward past her other companions, who were still somewhat uncertain what was actually happening. (“What the hell is a stirge?” Elestra asked, prompting Ranthir to happily elucidate her: “It’s a small, bat-like predator. Almost an overgrown mosquito, really. It feeds on its victims by plunging its proboscis into the soft flesh…”)

Tee, arriving inside the house, ducked past Agnarr and took a swing at the nasty little creature as it swooped over Agnarr’s head. She connected solidly, ripping one of its four wings completely off its body. Spurting blood, the creature attempted to attack Agnarr again, but the barbarian easily smote it to the ground in smoking ruin.

Elestra meanwhile, ignoring Ranthir’s recitation, moved into the house herself. The goblin, screaming unintelligibly in its native tongue, took a swipe at Agnarr and tried to run for the stairs. This proved to be its undoing: Elestra took it high and Agnarr took it low. The goblin’s head, torso, and legs fell in four distinct piles on the floor.

After the flurry of action, Elestra was shocked. All she could do was stare at her sword, which had seemed to dance of its own accord. The lethal, almost bloodthirsty instincts which were driving her were so strange… and yet they seemed so natural.

Tee, meanwhile, quickly took charge. “I think it was calling for help.” She set Agnarr to watch the stairs leading up to the second floor and she set Elestra to watch the only other door leading out of the room. Then she set about doing a quick search of the room, focusing particularly on the corner where the “ghost” and goblin had emerged from.

Ranthir and Dominic, meanwhile, wandered into the house as well. Ranthir, for his part, prodded the smoldering remains of the stirge: “Yes, indeed, this is a stirge. Well spotted, Master Agnarr…” Dominic, for his part, noticed that the commotion was already beginning to attract the attention of people up and down this quiet side-street. He turned and shouted, “Emergency exorcism! Nothing to be worried about!” He made sure to close the door behind him.

Tee found that the various debris and broken furniture in this room had been cunningly piled to conceal a hidey-hole of sorts in the corner of the room. It seemed likely that the goblin and the ghost-turned-stirge had hidden in this nook before emerging.

Tee then turned her attention to the door. She found it unlocked and untrapped (unlike the front door) and opened it, revealing the ruined remnants of a kitchen. In addition to a variety of trash, the rusted remains of an iron stove squatted in the corner. A trapdoor was clearly evident in one corner of the room.

Tee crossed the room and flipped open the trapdoor. She saw a ladder leading down into darkness – probably a cellar of some sort. Looking around she spotted bones scattered here and there throughout the rubbish – bones which Ranthir thought mainly belonged to small animals, although a few very old human bones were also to be found.

The group decided that it would be better to check the upstairs first before venturing down the ladder: The goblin had been trying to escape in that direction, after all. Leaving Ranthir and Dominic to guard the trapdoor, Tee, Elestra, and Agnarr headed up the stairs (with the barbarian in the lead). Ranthir nervously closed the trapdoor with his toe.

They didn’t find much of anything up there. At the top of the stairs there was an essentially barren room. Through a door they found a bedroom with a four-poster bed fallen into rotten ruin. Off the bedroom they found a closet which, judging by the smell and the piles of waste and excrement, had apparently been seeing use most recently as a toilet.

As Tee began thoroughly going over the upstairs rooms to make sure nothing had been missed, however, the trapdoor downstairs suddenly burst open and a goblin scurried out. Ranthir and Dominic were caught by surprise, allowing a second goblin to scurry out of the hole before they could react.

Dominic called out for help from upstairs, stepped forward, and began beating the first goblin with his mace – slamming it up against the wall with the satisfying crunch of broken ribs.

Tee, Elestra, and Agnarr raced downstairs. On her way, though, Tee noticed someone peering through the grime-covered front window. She hurriedly opened the front door and stepped out to discover that a relatively large crowd of people had gathered in front of the porch, and one of these on-lookers had become overly eager and was up on the porch trying to get inside. He jumped as Tee came out. “Oh! Hey there! What’s going on in there?”

“Emergency exorcism,” Tee said. “You should step back. You don’t want to be hurt.”

“But it sure sounds like something interesting is going in there! I just want to—“

Tee bared a quarter inch of steel. The man blanched. “Ah, right. Of course. I’ll just be backing away to a safe distance then. Good point.”

Tee ran back in, making sure to close the door behind her. “Sorry I’m late. Had a bad case of nosy neighbors.”

With everyone crowded into the kitchen and weapons swinging wildly, it was a cramped fit… which only seemed to help the party rapidly overwhelm both goblins.

But Dominic said that he had seen a third goblin crawling up out of the basement – a goblin who had disappeared back into the darkness when he’d seen how badly things were going for the other two. So Agnarr quickly jumped onto the ladder and started climbing down…

…but the ladder broke under his weight! (“You just had to finish eating dinner, didn’t you!” Tee called after him.) Agnarr tumbled in a painful heap on the hard stone floor of the cellar ten feet below. And, as he picked himself up, three goblins popped up from behind some crates and hurled javelins at him!

Agnarr growled deep in his throat, plucked one of the javelins from where it had lodged in his shoulder, drew his greatsword, and charged. Unfortunately it proved hard to bring his weapon to bear on the goblins, which were darting here and there behind the haphazard crates.

Ranthir scrabbled at his pack… only to find that he’d left his rope stored back at the inn! Tee pushed him out of the way, pulled out her own rope and grappling hook, and quickly secured them to the iron stove.

Even as she was finishing the knots, Elestra grabbed the rope and hurriedly dropped into the basement. She, too, charged the goblins and felt her rapier dancing in her hand…

But at just that moment, Agnarr – finally fed up with the scurrying little runts – grabbed one of the crates and hurled it to one side. This left his own swing open to gut one of the goblins, but the crate hurtled straight into Elestra’s sword and knocked her blow aside.

Tee quickly rappelled down the rope herself, landing lithely at the bottom and taking stock of what was happening. She drew her sword…

…just in time for Dominic, who had failed to get a firm grip on the rope, to fall right on top of her. Both of them fell prone just as the door on the south side of the cellar flew open and three more goblins came rushing out!

Elestra, finding herself suddenly surrounded, quickly circled around behind the goblin she was fighting, although she took a nasty blow in the process. Tee tried to scramble to her feet, but received a nasty mace blow across the top of her head which left her dazed and reeling. Dominic scrambled to his feet, as well, but found himself directly in Agnarr’s way – stopping the raging barbarian from reaching the goblins who had just arrived.

Chaos reigned for a moment, but it didn’t take long for the group to turn things around. Goblins fell left and right until, finally, the last goblin – hissing a snarl that revealed its fang-like teeth – slammed the door.

The party took a moment to assess its wounds. Some of them were bloodied. Some of them were bruised. (Dominic took a moment to heal the particularly nasty wound on Agnarr’s shoulder.) But they felt they could continue. Agnarr kicked open the door through which the goblin had fled and found…

…nothing. A small room stacked high with rubbish. There were more bones here, as well, these considerably… juicier… than the ones in the kitchen above. But no doors. And no sign of the goblin.

Tee carefully moved into the room, looking for any sign of the missing goblin. Unfortunately what she found was Jasin’s body. The body had clearly been gnawed upon and several large cuts of meat had also been removed. Dominic quickly inspected the body, but it was so badly mutilated… Jasin had probably been dead before they ever spoke with Eral.

Tee gathered the body up in a spare cloak. As she was carrying it back out to be lifted through the trap door, she noticed a hole in the cellar wall which had been somewhat clumsily concealed by a stack of crates. A hurried discussion ensued, but the group agreed that they had accomplished what they’d come for: Recovering Jasin.

Tee emerged from the front door, carrying Jasin’s shrouded body in her arms. The crowd of onlookers began to murmur, and over their heads Tee could see Jasin’s mother, Ortesia, collapse on the porch of her own home. With bowed head she crossed the street and lay Jasin’s body down. “I am so sorry for your loss.”

“But there’s still a chance we could save him, isn’t there?” Elestra said, with a note of desperate hope in her voice. “He can’t have been dead for more than a few hours. He could be healed with magic.”

Eral shook his head and stammered. “We can’t afford anything like that.”

“And we don’t have the money either,” Agnarr said.

“So that’s it?” Elestra said. “We’ve got at least nineteen or twenty hours. Don’t we want to at least try something?”

“Like what?” Agnarr said. Then his eyes lit up and he turned to Tee, “We could sell your house!”

Tee stared at him blank-faced. She blinked once. “What?”

“We could sell your house! It’s the only thing of value that we have!”

“What ‘we’ are you talking about? It’s my house!” Tee shouted. She pulled herself under control long enough to offer condolences to the Yinnicks yet again and then strode off. After a moment the others followed. Dominic paused for a moment, “Someone should call the Watch. There may be more goblins in the basement.”

HEAVY HEARTS

With heavy hearts the group returned to the Ghostly Minstrel. Dirtied and bloodied, the group headed for the stairs, hoping to get cleaned up and find some much-needed rest.

As they reached the second floor, however, the group heard a strange and mournful song echoing through the halls. Rounding the corner they saw a spectral figure playing on a lute turning around the corner. Following it they came around the corner themselves just in time to see it walk through a wall.

Ranthir knocked on the door near where the ghostly figure had disappeared, but there was no answer. He frowned in thought, “Well, my curiousity has been piqued.”

Someone suggested that they might go downstairs and mention this to the owner. At the bottom of the stairs they saw that Tellith was still on duty at the front desk, approached here, and explained what had happened.

Tellith smiled. “Ah, you’ve seen the Minstrel have you? You’re fortunate ones. Most hear nothing more than his song, and they are lucky at that.”

Agnarr growled. “Of course. The whole place is called the Ghostly Minstrel!” He threw his hands up and headed up the stairs to bed.

Ranthir asked if they might be given access to the room the ghost had disappeared into. “Of course,” Tellith said. “As long as its not occupied. Which room was it?” When he described the location of the room, however, she shook her head. “Oh, I’m sorry. That’s Cardalian’s room. I can’t let you in there.”

“Do you know if Cardalian is in the inn tonight?”

Tellith shook her head. “I don’t think so. She left earlier this evening and I haven’t seen her come back.”

The group concluded that there wasn’t really anything else they could do about their sighting of the eponymous Ghostly Minstrel, so they broke up for the evening: Dominic and Ranthir followed Agnarr upstairs, but Tee and Elestra decided it was still too early in the evening for them. Tee decided to hit some of the legitimate gambling houses she had found out about and spent her time idly wagering various sums.

Elestra, on the other hand, stayed at the Ghostly Minstrel and hung out in the common room. Spotting Steron Vsool – the paladin she had spoken with a few nights earlier – sitting by himself, she wandered over and asked if she might join him. They chatted amiably for a few moments before Elestra steered the conversation towards recent events… particularly the riot.

Elestra dropped the suggestion that there might have been a bit more to the riot than just random circumstance and bad luck, and Steron picked it up and ran with it. “That’s exactly why they arrested Helmut Itlstein, or so I’ve heard,” he said. “And I’ve heard that there have been more arrests since last night.”

“Really?” Elestra said. “Who have they been arresting?”

“I don’t know. But if I had to place a wager, I’d say the Commissar is rounding up other Republican leaders. Probably because Helmut named names.”

“But why would the Republicans start a riot at their own event?” Elestra wondered out loud.

“Maybe they didn’t,” Steron said. “The Commissar may just be using that as an excuse to round them up. They’ve been a thorn in his political side for awhile now.”

At that moment, a large ogre with bluish skin and ioun stones swirling about his head, tapped Steron on the shoulder. “Steron, may I speak with you?”

“Of course, Urlenius,” Steron said. “If you’ll excuse me, Elestra?”

Steron left. Elestra got up as a well and was about to head up to bed when she spotted Iltumar Shon coming into the common room. She waved to him and he hurried over.

Iltumar had finally figured out the riddle she had apparently given him, “Is it a sawhorse, mistress Elestra?” She agreed that it must be and complimented him on his cleverness.

Iltumar gushed and was clearly trying to impress Elestra. Elestra, for her part, was patient and friendly. Eventually, though, she made her excuses and headed up to bed.

DORAEDIAN’S SUMMONS

Tee was awakened before the crack of dawn by a knocking on her door. Cracking it slightly she found a messenger waiting for her: “Mistress Tee? A letter for you.”

Looking at the letter she saw her name written in Doraedian’s familiar handwriting. Quickly ripping it open she found a very terse note:

Tee—

I have read your most recent letter. It is of the utmost importance that you come to see me with all due haste! It is urgent!

Doraedian

Tee immediately grabbed her things and headed up the hill to Iridithil’s Home. A false sunrise was cresting the ocean horizon and casting purple shadows across the face of the Spire. Iridithil’s Home itself was still in the cool, pre-dawn air – it seemed that almost no one was stirring, yet. Tee found Doraedian waiting for her in his office with the door open.

It turned out that, as Tee had suspected, Doraedian considered the reference Ranthir had found to a “city of dreams” to be incredibly important. He explained to Tee that the City of Dreams was spoken of in the Book of Secrets: It was an ancient elven city – a center of learning in which the legendary Elders of Dreaming would gather. But it was also said to have been lost in a great cataclysm. Indeed, the true lore of the City had been lost to them and only a handful of fragmentary references were left.

“I owe you an apology, Tee. You were right and I was wrong. The path that you are on seems inextricably bound to knowledge you do not have. It is time for you to learn the secret lore of the Dreaming. First I must consult with the other elders, but within a few days I will send you word of when your training is to begin.”

Tee was overjoyed, though she kept it as contained as she might. “Will I still be able to journey with my companions?”

“Yes,” Doraedian said. “Indeed, it is imperative that you do so. Your training will be carried out when it is possible for you to find time for it. But you must discover the purpose of the path that you walk.”

QUESTIONS AND A FRESH RESOLVE

(08/20/790)

The next morning the group met for breakfast, with Tee arriving first in the common room. It was a quiet and reserved meal, with very little being discussed.

Elestra eventually broke the ice by discussing what Steron had told her the night before. Agnarr thought, if all that was true, Phon might have been arrested: If Helmut wanted her out of the way and was naming names, he could have easily named her as well.

But after that momentary burst of information, the conversation remained sullen and uncertain. The death of Jasin was still heavily felt. Eventually someone broached the issue directly, and suggested that they should go back to that house, see what the Watch had done, and take whatever steps were necessary to permanently end the goblin threat there.

As if summoned by the mere mention of their name, two members of the Watch came through the front door of the Ghostly Minstrel. They looked around, spotted the group, and headed over.

“Are you Mistress Tee, Mistress Elestra, Master Agnarr, Master Ranthir, and Master Dominic? Please come with us. We have a few questions for you at the watchhouse.”

After confirming that they were not, in fact, under arrest, the group crossed Delver’s Square with them. It turned out that the Watch had a few questions regarding the “incident” at Greyson House the night before, but it seemed to be little more than a cursory follow-up. It quickly became apparent that, while they may have checked the house, they hadn’t found the secret passage in the cellar. They had posted a guard of some sort… but how long would they stay on duty there?

The group asked if they might be given permission to go back into the house and explore the secret passage they had discovered. The watchman shrugged. But when he learned they were members of the Delver’s Guild he agreed to ask his captain. He left, and when he returned he confirmed that they would be given unfettered access to the house.

They left the watchhouse and headed toward the North Market, their hearts perhaps a little lighter with their fresh-found purpose…

NEXT JOURNAL ENTRY

IN THE SHADOW OF THE SPIRE

Session 4B: Research and Developments

In which an innocent elf finds herself in the company of ruffians, a multitude of musty tomes are methodically mused upon, and our hearty heroes ennumerate the enigmas which confront them…

As I write this, In the Shadow of the Spire has been running for more than one hundred sessions. The complete campaign journal for this enormous saga, although not currently complete, has just crossed the 500,000 word mark.

Half a million words obviously represents a tremendous amount of labor on my part. So why do it? What’s the function of the campaign journal? Why take the extra effort to create it?

Primarily, it’s because I’ve found that a well-executed campaign journal improves the quality of the game. It can also help sustain the campaign: Having a detailed journal makes it substantially easier for a campaign that’s been placed on sabbatical to come “back from the dead” because players can rapidly get back up to speed on what’s happening by reviewing the journal. For similar reasons, the campaign journal can also make it easier to integrate new players into a long-running campaign.

So, what are the necessary functions of the campaign journal?

First, it’s a record of events. It’s the official canon of the campaign which can be consulted when memories become dim. It, therefore, needs to accurately record a totality of significant events that occur at the gaming table.

This poses a couple of interesting challenges: First, it can often be unclear whether or not something will become important to the campaign until several sessions later. (For example, I don’t find it unusual for a random NPC created off-the-cuff in one session to suddenly be one of the most important characters in the entire campaign ten sessions later.) So you need to adopt a fairly permissive attitude about what does and doesn’t merit inclusion.

As the GM, you also need to watch out for favoring the “true account” when mysteries are present in the campaign. For example, if the PCs are trying to figure out which noble scion is secretly a werewolf it can be a little too easy to only include that clues that point at the true culprit (because you know that those are the only things that are actually “important”) while leaving out all the red herrings the PCs are pursuing.

I find I’m particularly liable to do this when including various theories posited by the players: If the players posit a theory that’s true, I’m partial to including that in the journal because they’ve “figured it out” (even if they haven’t actually confirmed that theory yet). So I make a conscious effort to include a wide sampling of the various theories they posit during a session. (The material in the “Research and Development” section of the journal this week is an example of this. In this case, recording all of their unanswered questions also served as a helpful reference for the players.)

Second, it’s a piece of fiction. I believe that reading a campaign journal is a form of entertainment, albeit one which can often only be enjoyed idiosyncratically.

On a few occasions I’ve had players suggest that I should take a campaign journal and publish it as a short story or novel. I take that as a compliment, but it wouldn’t actually work: The journal’s role in faithfully capturing the events that happened at the table preclude its functioning as a proper piece of narrative fiction. But I do attempt to relate those events with effective prose, vivid descriptions, and dramatic moments.

I don’t think that you necessarily need to have played in a campaign in order to enjoy a well-written journal of that campaign. But I think that reading (and enjoying) a campaign journal is a very different experience than reading a novel. In fact, I think it has a lot more in common with reading a piece of non-fiction. I’d suggest that a good campaign journal in many ways blends the skills of a newspaper reporter with those of a fiction writer.

Third, the journal is a memento of the moment. Like yearbooks and diaries and photographs, one can revisit the journals from bygone campaigns and relive the memories of time well spent. When I read through the campaign journal for In the Shadow of the Spire, for example, I have a very different experience from virtually everyone reading this because I am not just recalling the experience of the characters but also the experience of the game table.

Capturing those memories of the table itself in the journal can be somewhat difficult to balance with the desire to create an immersive piece of fiction. In some cases, it’s impossible. (I maintain a small file of memorable, out-of-character quotes, for example, in a separate document.) In other cases, I try to find ways to capture in the fiction a reminder of what was happening beyond it.

For example, in the journal for the first part of Session 4, you may have been wondering why I included things like:

(Ranthir, with his keen vision, quickly found the book he was looking for.)

And:

(Ranthir narrowly avoided dropping a priceless and delicate volume of ancient poetry… thus averting potential disaster.)

These a rather poor reflection of something that was truly hilarious in the actual session: As described in the journal, Ranthir remained behind at a library while the other players went off to watch Helmut Itlestein’s political rally. When the rally devolved into a riot, I began calling for various group skill checks: Spot checks to notice what Helmut was up to. Reflex saves to stay on their feet in the midst of the mob. And so forth.

Since I was calling for “everyone” to make the check, Ranthir’s player started making the same checks… and then he or I would interpret how the check was relevant to his research back at the library. And since, of course, the checks were radically inappropriate for the sort of activities you’d normally engage in while in a library, there were two layers of humorous contrast at play: The sharp cuts from the riot back to a quiet library and the implication that Ranthir was facing jeopardy to life and limb from musty tomes.

OTHER JOURNALS

Of course, some people will only be interested in a subset of these three goals.

There are also journals written by players. These serve similar functions (keeping notes, etc.), but the difference in perspective often results in a completely different sort of document. Such journals can also serve as extended acts of roleplaying, allowing players a unique avenue for exploring the thoughts and opinions of their character in depth.

Ptolus - In the Shadow of the Spire

IN THE SHADOW OF THE SPIRE

SESSION 4B: RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENTS

April 7th, 2007
The 18th Day of Amseyl in the 790th Year of the Seyrunian Dynasty

TEE AT THE COCK PIT

Instead of retiring, however, Tee took advantage of the evening hours in order to track down the Cock Pit. She was successful, discovering that the Cock Pit was, in fact, an illegal gambling house run by someone named Naosh (presumably the same Naosh that Toridan Cran had made the 100 gp payment to). It also turned out that, while Naosh ran the Cock Pit, the place was actually controlled by someone named Aggah-Shan.

Tee decided to try going to the Cock Pit by herself (suspecting, perhaps, that the less than subtle methods of some of her compatriots might be less than effective in an underground gambling den). She easily found the place she’d been told to go – a nondescript and unmarked warehouse – and knocked on the door. After a cursory inspection by three guards (“Whaddya want?” “I’m here to gamble.” “Go right in.”) Tee entered a surprisingly lavish gambling hall. Guards were posted conspicuously at several locations, including the main hallway that led out of the area.

Tee asked some questions, tried to flirt unsuccessfully with one of the guards (“Elves not your thing, huh? Your loss.”) in order to see what was further down the hall, and then cashed in 20 gold pieces to play the copper ante tables. Over the next hour she gambled with a fair amount of success (ending up on the night) and continued asking questions, trying to find out whatever she could about Naosh and Aggah-Shan.

She wasn’t very successful. In fact, her questioning brought unwanted attention: A guard dropped a heavy hand on her shoulder and said, “Naosh wants to see you. Now.” (more…)

IN THE SHADOW OF THE SPIRE

Session 4A: Riot in Oldtown

In which a cry for freedom takes an unexpectedly sinister turn, the scope of events becomes larger than can immediately be managed, and Master Ranthir performs astonishing deeds of derring-do…

As with the rules for handling house fires that we talked about a couple of weeks ago, I created a custom structure for handling the riot in this week’s installment of the campaign journal. And I similarly posted them here on the Alexandrian back in 2007. They’ve actually got much wider applications than just riots, and you can find them here: Crowd Rules.

BUILDING A RIOT

Although the group’s decision of what to do next is presented at the beginning of this entry in the campaign journal, I had actually asked them that question at the end of the previous session. (As a I talk about in the Railroading Manifesto, one of the most potent tools in the GM’s arsenal is simply asking, “What are you planning to do next session?”) So I knew that the PCs would be present for the riot, which by its very nature was going to be a big set piece.

Successfully pulling off big set pieces at the table can be tricky. By definition, they involve a lot of moving parts and managing all of those parts can be a bit of a juggling act. The secret, in my experience, is clearly organizing all of those parts into distinct tools which you can then easily pick up and use on-the-fly. For this particular scene, I prepped several tools.

First, a general timeline of events as they would play out if the PCs didn’t interfere with Helmut’s plans. (See “Goal-Oriented Opponents” in Don’t Prep Plots, and also the detailed example of doing this sort of thing at a larger scale.)

Second, the relevant stat blocks for the Riot Mobs (the large crowd was broken into 8 mobs) and the City Watch.

Third, Helmut’s speech. Using big speeches like this at the gaming table can be tricky. Being able to deliver them effectively and dramatically helps, of course (I’ve literally trained professionally for this, so I have an advantage). But the real trick is making sure that they don’t deprotagonize the PCs.

You know those video game cut scenes where all you want to do as a player is pull the trigger and shoot the idiot who’s yammering on? Right. That’s exactly what you want to avoid here. At the gaming table you’ve got the advantage that your players actually can interrupt what you’re saying and declare that they’re taking an action. But it can also be useful to take a more proactive approach as a GM, which is what I did here: The timeline of events was specifically designed to overlap the speech and, as you can see represented in the journal entry, the speech was broken down into chunks between which actions could be taken. (So, for example, Helmut would speak for a bit and then I’d call for Spot checks to let people notice the guards moving towards the stage.)

THE FEAR OF RAILROADS

Something that isn’t represented in the campaign journal is the point where one of the players declared that everything happening had been foreordained and there was nothing they could do about it — i.e., that they were being railroaded.

Which was a weird moment. First, it had been their choice to attend the riot in the first place. Second, as we’ve seen, the whole encounter had been structured to insure that the PCs could take action and influence the outcome of the event. Third, the PCs had been taking actions in an effort to affect the mob… they were just failing. The specific moment which triggered the comment was, oddly, when Dominic tried to calm the crowd down… and rolled a 2 on his Diplomacy check. His failure could not more clearly have been the result of pure mechanical resolution.

And yet the conclusion was reached that they were stuck in a railroad.

This was one in sequence of events which led me inexorably to an unfortunate truth: Railroading is a form of abuse.

I recognize the hyperbolic nature of the claim. And I’m not saying that people who are railroaded actually suffer emotional damage. But within the specific context of the game table, the behavior modification is remarkably similar: Railroaded players become hyper-aware of the GM’s behavior, constantly looking for the cues that indicate the railroad is coming. Their response will be to take actions to minimize the damage of the railroad — either acceding to it so that they don’t have to be manhandled into it; or becoming disruptive in an effort to resist it.

And this is where the analogy becomes useful, because this behavior modification persists even after the player is no longer threatened by the railroad: They continue looking for the subtle cues that warn them the railroad is coming. But when those cues occur in the absence of railroading, their behavior becomes seemingly erratic and irrational. (Why are they randomly shooting people in the head? Why are they just blindly doing whatever an NPC asks them to do, even when it’s clearly not in their best interest and they’re endlessly complaining about it?) This can be baffling and confusing for the GM who doesn’t understand what’s happening. (And it can be even more difficult for a GM who is trying to improve themselves and stop their previous railroading tendencies.)

Having identified the problem, what’s the solution? Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s an easy one to be had. A frank conversation in the metagame where you make it clear that the outcomes in your game aren’t predetermined and that the players are in control of their own destinies can be useful. Beyond that, the best you can do is to keep running your game: When they see that their actions have a meaningful impact — when they realize that the entire course of a campaign can be radically diverted by the simplest of moments and the smallest of choices — they’ll figure it out.

And although that will take time, it will be worth it in the end.

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