Gears of Revolution: Notes on my campaign

Colmarr

First Post
Paragon tier (and Watchmen) spoiler.

As good a reason as I can think of.

Young'uns these days, always expecting to win!

@Colmarr I'm loving your set up for the campaign. I'm a big fan of letting players do a lot of the leg work telling the story, and I'd love to hear more details about what questions you posed to your players for first session.

A lot of credit for the idea has to go to my old DM (now my player Mwuhaha :devil:), who came across DM Samuel's podcast and thought it was a cool way of starting a campaign.

I don't necessarily have a problem with the "in a tavern" tradition, but knowing what I know about how the AP formally starts (hint: the PCs are on duty at a very big event), I wanted to give the group a sense of history. After all, you don't get called for duty at big events if you're the rookies.

As for the questions I asked, I started by asking each player to describe their character and outline the character's public background in under a minute. Each PC also has secrets that the players themselves have made up* and I've told them that I reserve the right to make up secrets that their PCs don't know**, but we only dealt with the public stuff here.

After that, each player had the opportunity to ask the others questions about their character. For example, Tok's player asked Cassi's player whether she was involved in the Fourth Yerasol War, which led to the improv answer that she had served only as a runner, and thus admired Erik for having fought in the Fourth Company's Advance.

Then I went loosely from the list that DM Samuel posted in the thread I linked to earlier. I think I started with question 3, then segued into questions 2 and 5 as a natural flow from the answers given to question 3. As mentioned in his podcast but not the post, there are 2 rules during this Q&A:
  1. Only one person speaks at a time. There's to be no cutting others off; and
  2. You can answer a question any way you like, and can involve any other PC, but you can't give an answer that makes another PC look like a buffoon or a d.ck
The key to the whole process though is to not really care what the list says. Where relevant, or where we seemed to have hit on an interesting thread, such as why Willheim resented Erik being promoted to leader of the group, I picked at that thread until it unravelled in a satisfying way. The list was only there to prompt a new discussion where we'd reached the end of the previous one.

You'll have some players who don't want to play the game. For example, when I asked Willheim's player DM Samuel's question: "You feel that you owe one member of the party your life. Who is it, and why?" his response was to say that he didn't want to owe someone his life. But even that reluctance was productive, because it lead to the improv answer that Cassi and Erik had been present at Willheim's last death.

I was pleasantly surprised at how well the approach worked. I had one player who was very keen to participate, two who were less keen but more than happy to co-operate, and two who seemed a little uncomfortable. But everyone contributed, and the end result is a party that has convincing relationships and a well-understood history before the campaign has ever really started.

Well worth the effort.

* eg. nationalistic Erik is in fact born of Danoran parents, his surname Pride being a simplified version of Prideaux. Thornt was created by a were-tiger that is currently hiding somewhere in Flint. And Cassi was transferred out of the army because she rejected the advances of a superior.

** eg. Erik's wife is expecting a child, and I am seriously contemplating having the fey take the baby in satisfaction of a promise she made to ensure Erik's safe return from the Fourth Yerasol War. I just need to figure out the timing (I may need to compress the time period between adventure 1 and 2) and think about how it will affect the campaign overall.
 
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benfromidaho

First Post
[MENTION=59182]Colmarr[/MENTION] That's a great rundown of the setup, thanks! I checked out DM Samuel's stuff and I'm cooking up some props and lists of my own to use during our character creation session. My only quandry, now, is what the R.H.C. insignia looks like. [MENTION=63]RangerWickett[/MENTION] Any suggestions?
 

Colmarr

First Post
New session report posted.

Unfortunately, due to some bone-headed hardware mistakes on my part, we didn't get to start the session until about an hour later than we planned.

I had hoped to get up to and conclude The Sabotage encounter in the first session, but instead we called it a night after the PCs had had a chance to hob-nob with the dignitaries after the King's arrival in Fleet Square but before they had a chance to board the Coaltongue.

This post and the associated story hour post deals with events up to and including the Docker Brawl encounter.

The good

The docker brawl turned out to be a much more exciting combat than I expected. My group were distinctly unimpressive in the Crowd Security skill challenge (see "The Ugly" below) and failed to identify even one of the dockers before the crowd began to pass through the checkpoint.

Because I was playing through Maptool, I didn't want to use the rather plain King's Arrival map for the encounter, and instead used this map to represent Royal Square. The PC's checkpoint was at the northern edge of the map. Rather than have the dockers pass through and the PCs fight them on the bridge, I had Grimsley point out the troublemakers just before they could get through.

That led to a confrontation, with Erik failing a diplomacy check and then Cassi trying intimidation. If she had beaten a hard DC, I planned to stand down the dockers, but she didn't quite get there. Plus, I'd coded all the MapTool tokens and I knew my players liked a fair whack of biff in their D&D, so why not get things rolling?

I had originally thought this encounter would be too easy; four dockers versus 5 completely fresh PCs, but as it turned out the party monk Willheim was down before we were even halfway through the first round. Be aware that 2 brutes on a striker can get very messy very fast.

In fact, the dockers rolled so well and the PCs so poorly that at approximately round 3 I realised that I could very well have a TPK on my hands. All 4 dockers were still standing. Tok had used both his majestic words, Willheim had gone down but gotten back up again, and Erik was down for the count (but stable).

At that point (which coincided nicely with the first docker becoming bloodied and drawing his blade) I decided to throw Thames into the mix on the side of the PCs.

Erik hadn't been particularly nice to the grizzled sailor, but I didn't want the encounter to prove too taxing on the PCs, and I had already established Grimsley as somewhat of a sympathetic character. Hopefully having him help the PCs twice will add some depth and sympathy to the dockers faction.

The bad

I think the skill challenge went poorly, but I attribute that almost entirely to my failing to properly consider the steps in the canvassing of the crowd. Specifically, I forgot that there was a step between "look for someone" and "hey, there's Coulton!".

Without the intermediary step (identifying groups of likely suspects), I found myself in the difficult narrative position of having PCs succeeding at checks and not knowing what to describe to them. It should have been as simple as saying "you see a group of war veterans clustered around a tree. They seem to be discussing something in whispered tones", but instead I fretted over how to advance the challenge without actually putting Coulton & Co squarely in the frame.

Even so, there were some positives. It reinforced my opinion that Thornt's player is the most lateral thinker the group has. It was him that suggested that Tok scan for magic auras and that Thornt was watching the skies for signs of Gale's weather magic (also proving that he had read the player's guide. Yay!)

It also brought to the fore very early in the campaign exactly where the party's strengths and weaknesses lie. They're quite well-equipped for Perception, Streetwise and Bluff, but less so with Diplomacy.

The ugly

Unfortunately, as feared, the group never really looked like succeeding at the Crowd Security Skill challenge. They ended up with 5 of the needed 8 successes, although there were 4 checks between 15 and 17 that could easily have turned failure into success if the check DCs had been lower.

I think 8 successes at DC18 from 15 rolls is simply too high a bar for a first level party (at least for a level 1 challenge).

Having said that, I decided before the session started that at least until the end of Island at the Axis of the World, I'm going to run the mechanics of the AP as-written. I won't be altering encounters, enemies or skill DCs. I want to give RangerWickett's version a good chance before I turn my novice DMing skills to altering anything. It'll also give luck a chance to even itself out.

The Summary

Despite the failure at the skill challenge and the near-fatal brawl, everyone seemed to be having a good time, which bodes well for things to come.

The tone of the campaign is evident from the very first encounter, which is very impressive feat of adventure design.

I'll post more about session 1 in the next few days.
 

Riastlin

First Post
Excellent rundown. I'm particularly interested in the skill challenge thoughts. My take on skill challenges is that I still love them, but I suck at running them. Part of this has to do with my players (they tend to just grab the dice and roll rather than describe their actions) and part of it is me struggling with describing the unfolding scene and laying it out in a natural way that is both descriptive (i.e. letting them know they are in a challenge and what needs to be done) and immersive (i.e. not saying "Okay this is a SC you can use x, y, and z skills.")

One side thought on the fight, you mentioned you were worried about a tpk. Personally, I think this fight was a perfect example of "failure not having to be a tpk". Although the dockers are obviously criminals to an extent, they are not exactly bad people either. Beating five RHC officers into unconsciousness is one thing, killing them quite another. Beating them gets them tossed in the slammer for a while. Killing them may well mean they never see the light of day again. So, just some food for thought on how we as DMs can potentially avoid the tpk while still having a really bad failure on the PCs part.

Of course, now that I write that I've written that I realize you were probably way ahead of me on this regard, but hopefully it will help others.

One question I have since you are using map tools is how is the roleplay aspect? I've always been hesitant to try to run online for fear that either the actual mechanical gameplay gets bogged down or that the roleplay would get lost in the data streams.

Edit to add: Thornt surely was deserving of at least a +2 bonus to checks for having actually read the player's guide. :)
 

benfromidaho

First Post
This sounds like a great first adventure. I too feel like these DC 18 checks are a bit steep, but I'm intrigued to see what others think about them as well. I too want the investigation to focus more on roleplaying than actual checks. Hopefully, I can use the notes you've left here to flavor my session. Thanks a bunch for the notes.
 

Colmarr

First Post
Of course, now that I write that I've written that I realize you were probably way ahead of me on this regard, but hopefully it will help others.

It hadn't quite gotten to the stage where I needed to give too much thought as to how to deal with it. If it had gotten that far, I would likely have gotten the Flint police involved and broken up the brawl. After all, there were lots of them standing nearby at the checkpoint and they're not about to stand by why some dockers murder members of the RHC.

I didn't go down the "we're not going to murder someone" route for the dockers because - at the end of the day - they specifically pull knives when the combat goes against them. That's a pretty clear indicator of motive in my book.

It also helps to have Coulton & Co ready to be instant villains if I need some later in the campaign. Who's to say that there aren't officers in the RHC who will let a prisoner go in return for cash? Or that there aren't advocates out there that are skilled enough to achieve it? Or - perhaps best of all - that Margaret Saxby won't order them released (to extract vengeance from the PCs that imprisoned them) once she realises that the PCs are closing in on secrets she would prefer remained uninvestigated?

Now that I've thought of that, I think Coulton & Co might make emotionally potent (but mechanically ineffective) bodyguards for Saxby when the showdown ultimately comes...

One question I have since you are using map tools is how is the roleplay aspect? I've always been hesitant to try to run online for fear that either the actual mechanical gameplay gets bogged down or that the roleplay would get lost in the data streams.

The mechanical gameplay certainly doesn't get lost. In fact, because of the framework I use (Rumble v5.1.3), virtually all of the mechanical stuff is handled for us, including auto-deducting ongoing damage, starting and ending EOYNT effects, prompting for saving throws etc.

As for the roleplay aspect, I haven't noticed that big a change from when I was a face-to-face DM. Players that want to roleplay still will. Players that don't won't.

You do need to be careful that the players aren't missing something because of not having anything other than aural cues. Normally they'd be able to see who you're looking at. They'd see your body language and they'd hear the tone of your voice. Some of that can get lost online even with VOIP software (we use Ventrillo), so you need to be careful of it.

Edit to add: Thornt surely was deserving of at least a +2 bonus to checks for having actually read the player's guide. :)

Funny you mention it.

The day of the session, I sent the whole group an email: "For those of you keen to dwell on something ahead of time, you may wish to ponder who would want to disrupt the launching of the newly-commissioned warship RNS Coaltongue."

I was planning on giving the party a +2 on their history roll for each of RangerWickett's four groups that they came up with on their own. Unfortunately for them, everyone jumped to the conclusion that it was Danor who'd be doing the dirty deed. :)
 

Riastlin

First Post
Good point about the knives and dockers. They will make for good insta-villains. Glad to hear that going online doesn't detract that much from it, may be something I consider one of these days should my groups become hard enough to come by.
 

Colmarr

First Post
Story hour updated. The updates are still for Session 1, and cover the period after the docker brawl, but just before the PCs board the Coaltongue, which is where we ended our session.

A significant number of NPCs are introduced in this part of the adventure, and it gives an opportunity for players to interract with the movers and shakers of Risuri society, even if only in a superficial way.

Even for those players who aren't into this sort of scene, I like the message it sends: this is an adventure path where NPCs will matter. There's no one here who is standing around with a proverbial question mark over their head. I'm trying to reinforce that sense of richness by literally highlighting the NPCs in the story hour thread. Ideally, I'd like my players to begin wondering just how those NPCs are going to become relevant further into the AP, but if nothing else, hopefully it will help them to remember who is who.

The good

I'm not sure whether it was intentional that Sokana Rell is the only attractive female among the cast of NPCs at the launch of the Coaltongue, but if it was then it's a masterstroke. Two of my players immediately took a schoolboy-like shine to her.
It's lucky we play online, because I don't think I could have hidden my devilish glee face-to-face. I can't wait to see how they react when she turns out to be a saboteur

The bad

I think there might be a few too many NPCs in this section. RangerWickett voiced some concerns earlier on that there was too much of an infodump. When reading through the adventure, I disagreed. But having now played through it, I think my opinion has changed.

The NPCs are intriguing characters. Every single one of them has a secret or a personality quirk that makes them fun to read. But introducing them to the PCs all at once can easily become didactic.

If your group is likely to be bored by this sort of thing, I would say that Rutger Smith and Geoff Massarde are the most expendable of the PCs in this section. Smith is of course introduced in Act 2, so you don't really need him here, and according to the NPC roster on page 2, you might not need to physically introduce Massarde at all. If push came to shove, you could possibly even leave out Governor Stanfield.

For my group, I included all of the NPCs. I think they handled it well, and I suspect some of them are keeping notes of who's who. That's pleasing and shows that they're interested in engaging with the AP rather than just trotting from combat to combat.

The ugly

Nothing really to report here, except a query.

I've decided that the halfling chef on the docks is actually Ilton (the halfling assassin) in disguise. It's not clear from the text whether that was RangerWickett's intention, but it struck me just before the session began that it might be more than coincidence that there's a halfling chef wandering around on the docks just before a halfling assassin appears on the Coaltongue. After all, chefs are handy with knives, right?

Hopefully, Ilton's duplicity will couple nicely with Sokana's betrayal to give the PCs a sense that Zeitgeist is going to be more than a vanilla D&D campaign.
 
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If something bad happens on a ship (or train, or plane), always blame the cook first.

I agree Massarde and Rutger could be ditched. I kinda figured a typical game wouldn't need to feature them at that point, but that if the players wanted to chat with random folks, the DM could use them as needed. They don't really do anything in the scene unless the PCs go talk to them.

And I'm amused that the PCs are trying to pick up the sexy saboteur.
 
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Colmarr

First Post
I don't have time for a full recap or to update the story hour tonight, but wanted to pop in and say [MENTION=63]RangerWickett[/MENTION], take a bow.

You know a story's a good one when you get players to swear.

When Thornt looked out the aft window on the Coaltongue and saw the Duchess sinking beneath the waves with Beshela and her kraken mount, a certain four-letter f word was loudly exclaimed by one of the other players.

I don't think they saw that coming at all. :D
 

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