Monday, July 8, 2013

The Enemy Within - Campaign Log - Part 6 - Session 5 - Day 4

SPOILER ALERT: This is the campaign log for the new The Enemy Within for Warhammer 3rd Ed. Most of this is early stuff (day 4 of the adventure) but 1 paragraph in particular reveals things from much further into the scenario as written. If you haven't played that far yourself, consider this fair warning. Here be SPOILERS.

I wrote this nearly a month ago, and never got around to formatting and publishing it. Even then it was late and untimely. These notes are 6 sessions (and more than 2 full months) behind. Man, have I been lazy and unfocused lately.

PC List/Reminder:
    •    Burgolt the Nobleman Pistolier
    •    Hrulgar the Dwarven Runesmith
    •    Ninewise the Initiate of Ranald
    •    Lina the Bright Wizard



This session alternated between solid plot advancement and bitter frustration. There were some reasonably good character moments, and one heck of a fight. However, every single scene was either slow to start, or got kicked in the teeth by one eccentricity or another of the Warhammer system.
Love the setting, but Love/Hate the mechanics.

Day 4 begins with a business meeting between the PCs and Sir Curd Weiss, personal agent of Graf Friedrich von Kaufman.

Sir Curd Weiss Sidebar: Per the scenario notes, Weiss is a veteran of the Pistolkorps, but there's no mention of him every becoming a Knight. Just before the session in question, one of my players mentioned that she was probably going to aim for Knighthood as her 2nd or 3rd Career. Her character, Burgolt, is already a nobleman and a Pistolier, and the career cards mention that most Knightly Orders recruit heavily from the Pistolkorps.  She had a lot of questions about how one qualifies for knighthood, and whether or not there were any opportunities in the scenario to impress (or even interact with) any existing knights.

This lead to a conversation about the Knightly Orders, and I broke out the Omens of War book to reference the details. We got as far as the Knights of the Blazing Sun, whose background seemed like a good fit for Burgolt. As it turns out, their colors are black and either gold or yellow, and their symbol is a stylized sun. Just like the coat of arms of the von Kaufman family, and the device emblazoned on Curd Weiss's outfit in his picture. Admittedly, that also describes the sign of The Grand County of Averland in general… but it was certainly a noteworthy coincidence. Especially since I knew that the very next scene I was planning to run was Curd Weiss offering the PCs a job. It's a pretty small tweak to the character's background, and easy to implement. The PC will still have to impress the NPC to qualify, but it at least gives the player a lead on doing so.
Getting that scene started was a little rough. Technically the meeting was between Curd and Lina, and only Burgolt chose to accompany her. The offer to the PCs is supposed to start at 5 silver shillings each, but half the party wasn't there. I needed to prompt the PCs to mention they had cohorts to add to the job. My in-character attempts to have Curd ask about Lina and Burgolt's working relationship were, sadly, too similar to something I had another NPC say to them in the previous session. Since flighty Luminary Mauer implied last week that Lina and Burgolt were romantic, that's how the players took Curd's innocent questions. First they assume he's making the same mistake Mauer did, and then they thought he was hitting on Lina himself. Not at all what I intended. I regret trying to handle that conversation in-character, I should have just summarized. Anyhow, after some amount of stumbling, I eventually go to the job proposal. 

Don't Split The Sidebar: My players (and to be honest nearly every group I've ever played with or GM'd for) really love to split up the party. I don't know why that is. Personally, I think splitting the party should only be done as a last-resort. A thing you do only if there's a clock ticking, or if there's a _really good_ in-character reason why it would be detrimental to include the other PCs in the scene.  Any time you split the party, it's pretty much guaranteeing that someone is going to be bored for some amount of time. It slows down the pacing, often resulting in the PCs only getting to half as much plot as they'd get to without it. It denies the party resources the GM or author expected them to have access to when encounters were designed.  It's always a handicap, but everybody does it. I'll never be able to wrap my head around that, even though I'm often guilty of this exact thing myself when I'm a player.

Curd hires the PCs (all four of them) to travel a particular road, along which some carriages and wagons have gone missing. Look for signs of banditry or accident, and return with a report. If they find this latest wagon, or the valuables it carried, return them. The most important cargo is a series of expensive Cathayan silks, but there's also some crates of wine, and several barrels of chemicals for industrial processes. If they kill some bandits in the process, there will be a bonus. At the least, they'll get 5 silver each (plus a hot meal, and a roof over their heads at the Inn at the end of the road) for a day's work.
Suspiciously Silky Sidebar:  Several things strike me as odd about this little bit of the adventure. #1: The diversion to the countryside drags the PCs away from the investigation down on the docks. #2: The silks are specifically mentioned as being shipped by carriage from Nuln, which is located due West of Averhiem on the Aver river. #3: The intended recipient of this cargo (the merchant Adolphus Starke) owns a boat and doesn't live in Averhiem. #4: Cathay is East of the Empire.   As it turns out, everything is on the up-and-up, and none of this distracted or worried my players in the least.  The coincidental intersection of those four facts could easily have turned into a huge red herring. If any of my players had chosen to look at a map of the Warhammer world at the start of this session, they may have become mired in unwarranted suspicion of Weiss, Starke or von Kaufmann. I consider that a bullet dodged, and with that as context I guess I'm thankful they just thought Sir Curd Weiss had the hots for Lina instead.
The other two players engage in some shopping at the open-air market just across the street from where the meeting is taking place. Ninewise wants to buy a couple sets of clothes. She wants to be able to pose as silver or brass tier as the mood suits her. At first this stymies me, as there's no clothing entries on the general equipment matrix… but after a moment I realize there's a price stated clearly in the armor section, and I'm eventually able to reverse-engineer brass and silver tier versions of it.
Shopping System Sadness Sidebar: Shopping is never an exciting part of any adventure. It's positively boring for any player who's not currently involved in the process of adding beneficial new equipment to their character sheet. For the GM it's usually boring, but sometimes that's spiked with frustration or concern stemming from odd pricing decisions in the rulebooks or the game-changing nature of some high-end equipment.  It's the sort of thing that should be, whenever possible, handled off-camera. Compile a list (complete with prices from the books) between sessions or scenes, and hand it to the GM for a quick approval.
Unfortunately, Warhammer 3rd makes that off-camera expediency all but impossible. There's no simple equipment list. Buying anything other than a weapon involves looking up the category on a chart, comparing that chart to more detailed text descriptions on the next page, followed frequently by asking the GM to make a judgement call when that info turns out to be incomplete, after which the player makes two die rolls (one for availability and one for haggling) and depending on the second die roll you do some percentage multiplication. WTF!? It's very tempting to skip all that availability and haggling nonsense, but doing so would deprive the adventure of some of it's flavor. There's specific rules in the scenario notes for what sort of items are cheaper or more costly in this town, further modified by day of the week and what part of town you're shopping in. It's mildly cool and very flavorful, but also a big pain in the haversack.
The PCs meet up, and there's an info dump about the job, which they all agree to embark on today.

Rather than set out at once, there's a short delay so Hrulgar can deliver bad news to his friend Captain Marcus Baerfaust. Burgolt goes with him. A second awkward introduction happens. I keep trying to cue the players to introduce and vouch for the other PCs, but they never take the hint (this same thing happened in the next two sessions at least). I clearly need to be more bluntly out-of-character about it. Since Hrulgar doesn't vouch for Burgolt, the Captain is uneasy talking in front of a von Engler, and through that I inadvertently reinforce the PCs desire to always split the party. Oops!

Despite botching the introductions, this is still rather a bit easier access to Baerfaust than the adventure technically allows for, but it matches Hrulgar's bio nicely (because of the way he answered questions on the "Battle-Scarred" background card). So I don't really want to discourage it, but I'm really not prepared for another visit, and more importantly don't want to slow down our progress at all. I know there's a big fight happening in a later scene, and I need to make sure I have enough time for it. So I decide Baerfaust is about to head out of the palace on some duty, and can only speak to Hrulgar in passing, whilst in the stable.

MAJOR SPOILER ALERT: If you're playing this campaign at someone else's table, or think you might do so one day, skip the next paragraph entirely. At best it's full of spoilers, and at worst it may be a terrible red herring depending on what "behind the scenes" decisions your GM has made.

Hrulgar conveys the news about the bodies the found the day before. He mentions their state, disfigured as part of some sort of ritual sacrifice by mythical Skaven and/or your more run-of-the-mill evil witches, then dumped in acid. He also drops the bombshell that Baerfaust's nephew Ingo may be among the as-yet-unidentified dead. The captain has no time for sentimentality, he's been summoned to the von Tuchtenagen estate concerning a legal matter with the city guard, so will have to mourn later.  (This is largely name-dropping for later use. I do a lot of that. In this case, it won't come up again for several sessions.) It's also thematic reinforcement, further solidifying the notion that though technically in charge of the Averheim Garrison and City Watch, Baerfaust serves at the whims of various noble houses and is beholden to the whole lot of them at least until a new Elector-Count is chosen. I add one more detail before he mounts his horse. Baerfaust spoke further with Lt Arta Schaeffer about Ingo's last report before his disappearance. Schaeffer remembers that he asked her how to spell two words: "jade" and "scepter" and from the way he asked she inferred they were being used in the same sentence.

Meanwhile, Ninewise and Lina hang back at the market. Having done some clothes shopping, Ninewise now wants to buy a set of pauper's clothing for her sister the wizard. There may be times where Lina doesn't want to advertise her spellcasting credentials via her official robes. I remind them that the robes of her order, while marking her abilities for all to see, do at least provide some amount of legal protection from witch-hunters and others who might be superstitious or suspicious. They still pick up a change of outfit for Lina, just in case.

The group meets back up, and heads out on the road per their agreement with Curd Weiss. Along the way, they cross the path of an old Strigany (essentially Gypsy) pedlar. I flavor the heck out of his cart: goat-drawn modified wheel-barrow with a variety of cabinets more or less nailed on top of one another and covered with trinkets and junk, think I had a cat in a bird cage on top too. It was intentionally ridiculous. As they approach, he stops, opens up the cabinets, and starts shouting "rag-a-bo!" This is a traditional call of a "rag & bone man", a fellow who gathers up the cast-offs from noble houses (or where-ever junk is being discarded) to resell second-hand. He's in the adventure notes, but not in much detail.

There's three points to this encounter:

#1: When the PCs mention to him that wagons on this route have been hit by bandits, he has a minor clue to pass on. He can draw the PCs attention to the fact that further up the road there's a spot where wagon ruts and animal tracks leave the road. This is so that we don't have to rely on a lucky Observation check to advance the plot, and have an alternate method to convey the information. This isn't Gumshoe, after all, so I applaud the scenario designers for this touch.

#2: If the PCs capture and question the bandits, their initial ruse is to get off the hook is to claim they were hired by a Strigany crime boss. This is a pretty ridiculous red herring and easy enough for the PCs to settle, so i think it's just in the scenario notes to give a touch of verisimilitude and room to improvise. They don't waste any word count on what happens if the PCs buy this story and go murder the pedlar, for example. I'm kinda glad my players didn't take the bait.

#3: Aside from his (non-)participation in the plot, this minor encounter gave me an opportunity to redress a minor unfairness to Hrulgar, the Apprentice Runesmith character in my party. Runesmithing is a weird career. It lets you imbue magic items, which is potentially really powerful. However, it's also really expensive to do so, as you have to start with a superior-quality item. There's a lot of hurdles to jump through, and my player had made no secret of how annoying he found the process. I figured this traveling pedlar would allow me an opportunity to give him a leg up on the smithing of a single runic item, without any fear of it setting a precedent.  It's a one-of-a-kind item from a traveling merchant with an unreliable supply line.

So the merchant shows them his wares, and makes some small talk.  One out-of-place amulet amongst all the junk jewelry strikes Hrulgar's eye. It's a dwarven ancestor badge, the sort of thing that should never be allowed in hands of non-dwarves, and perfect rune-fodder. The merchant can't recall where he got it, and figures he's not going to a proper dwarf fortress for months, so this is his best opportunity to unload it. He states the price as 20 silver schillings. That's a heck of a steal by itself, but I was forgetting the detailed Haggling rules when I made up that number. One good die roll later, and the price is cut in half.  I've now met my quota of kindness for one session, time to plan the TPK.

How Much Is That Runic Amulet In The Sidebar?  The price I'd previously announced for a rune-ready superior quality amulet was 1 Gold at the market in town. That's a fairly large amount in Warhammer 3rd. It's 1/5th the maximum a PC can start with, and amounts to 10 day's pay for a typical mercenary or bodyguard. However, I have no idea if it was way too high or way too low. A hand weapon that's high-enough quality to accept a rune would cost 2.5 Gold, but it's also a usable weapon that has a bonus-die on attacks. On the other hand, a "superior quality" sword doesn't imply that it's all fancied up with gold filigree and inset gems, unlike a "superior" piece of jewelry. There is a necklace available as treasure later in the adventure - but it's listed value is not particularly useful in this regards because the price given is for if you fence or pawn it, and we aren't clearly told whether or not it's "superior". From a gamist perspective, 1 Gold seems overpriced for a career features that also takes XP, time, and a workshop. But from a simulationist perspective, a Gold feels way too cheap. Months later, I'm still wrestling with this.

The PCs find the spot where multiple carriages and animals left the road and headed into the woods. They head down the trail, mostly unconcerned about stealth because they assume that the carts are just plain gone. Along the way, they find a broken end of a small barrel, sitting in a pile of dark grey sludge. The barrel probably fell off a wagon or carriage as it passed through the forest trail. The sludge turns out to be gunpowder, ruined from exposure the driving Averland rain.

I mention there's some smoke over the trees, like a campfire in some distant clearing. The PCs make note of it, and continue ahead. The assumption, I would later learn, is that since it's been several days since the carriage failed to arrive in Averheim, there's no chance of the bandits (if any) being still on-site. If there's anyone camping in the area, they are at most witnesses, not suspects.  This is actually a pretty clever deduction, but not what the scenario author had in mind at all. As it turns out, the campers are not only brigands, but also mutants.

Depending on how much investigation your group decides to do, this fight could be happening a couple sessions earlier than it did for us, so the PCs might have had 2 or 3 fewer advances under their belts. I'd read on the forums that this fight is mostly a cakewalk.  It's balanced for a party of 3 PCs (as that's how many the main box set supports) with randomly-drawn careers. My 4 PCs include a pistolier, a fire mage, and a dwarf who is technically a merchant but built to maximize melee effectiveness.  The one "non-combatant" in our group has several buff spells and a smidge of healing. Without some tinkering, this fight would probably last just 1 round and fail to do any damage to the players. Where's the fun in that?

The encounter as described in the scenario is 5 mutants, 1 of which is already badly wounded and 3 of which are drunk.  Multiple GMs before me had complained about it being underwhelming. The PCs are just about guaranteed to catch them unawares. In addition, these so-called mutants don't actually have mutant stats as-written. They don't even have actual mutation cards, just descriptions.  They use "townsfolk" stats, so their attacks are little weaker than "real" mutants, and they don't cause Fear. This is justified because their mutations are "mostly cosmetic". That strikes me as ridiculous. It would be dubious even if I hadn't been warned that the fight had been a push-over at other tables. Citizens of the Empire have a great fear and hatred for anyone different than themselves. If I say these mutants aren't very scary because they only have feathers and donkey ears, that would set a precedent. Most of the mutations in the mutation deck are "cosmetic", but the PCs will still be hunted outcasts if they accumulate a large number corruption points. Corruption and mutation are supposed to be serious dangers, and treating them so lightly really undermines this aspect of the setting. An upgrade was clearly in order.

For starters, I restored them all to actual Mutant stats. The actual Characteristic increase was very minor, but it did give them an extra point of Soak and Fear 1. In practice, the Fear turned out to be pretty trivial as well, as most starting PCs have something like a 70% chance to pass a Fear 1 test, and the consequences of failure are pretty minor for a PC. Then I gave each NPC an actual honest-to-tzeentchness mutation card, in some cases 2. As best as possible I tried to match up the cards to the descriptions of the mutants in the scenario. So Fritz' waddle becomes the (useless) Grotesque Features card, but Gerta's warty skin actually boosts her Soak. I also reduced the number of wounds on the already-injured mutant so he couldn't accidentally run himself to death just getting into melee.

To that I added the Chaos monster-group sheet. I knew not to expect the Eye of the Gods or Chaotic Fury tracks to actually trigger in a battle this short, but it came with juicy Tactic Talent slots. I filled them with Exploit Weakness and Push It Till You Drop. This boosted their damage and combat effectiveness, but in a way I could easily fine-tune on the fly. If the PCs were winning, I'd have the mutants gang up, and trigger both tactics. If the PCs were having problems, I could easily make tactical decisions that would render either or both tactics powerless. Rather than rely on the boring old Basic Actions, I gave them Brutal Assault, Rampaging Mutation, and Revel in Corruption. Again, this gave me a lot of control over the pacing and threat level of the battle.

Towards that end it worked really well, but there was still some unexpected general weirdness to the fight.  Once the PCs and Mutants saw each other, we rolled initiative. I based this on Agility, but the first two PCs to act actually took Social actions, trying to Influence the mutants. I wasn't about to let them talk their way out of a fight with mutants entirely, but I did let this convince the two sober mutants to abandon their drunken compatriots and flee. This worked out okay in retrospect, but at the time it meant the fight started slowly and no one quite got what they wanted out of the scene.

Eventually a bonafide melee broke out. 3 out of 4 characters were heavily wounded by the end of the fight. The remaining 3 drunken mutants provided plenty of challenge, and one of them got to unleash the Rampaging Mutation and have his arm melt off while attacking. It was a crazy hard fight. I suspect I may have over-compensated for the reported weakness of the battle, but it's hard to say for certain. Ninewise stayed out of the fight entirely which meant the others had to pick up some slack, and Lina got really screwed by the miscast deck.

Lina had been standing in the woods, flinging attack spells to support Hrulgar and Burgolt who were being pounded on by the mutants. Lina blasted a target (who coincidentally has the Brightly-Colored mutation) with a arching bolt of fire… and scored two chaos stars in the process. So we flip over a miscast card. For 1 chaos star, it says an item in the casters possession gets stained a bright color. So I narrate that her fire strikes the mutant and sets him ablaze, but the flames turn the same green hue as his mutated skin and then arc back into the woods to discolor Ninewise's robe. The red trim turns green on one side of her robe. With his dying words the mutant cries out to his unholy god "Thank you, Lord Tzeentch, Changer of Ways! Thank you for blessing me with your hellfire!"

Then I flipped over the next miscast card to resolve the remaining chaos star. Wow. The new card was "Arcing Magic." It fit the visual theme we'd just described, but it was also the worst possible single-star result in the deck for an attack spell. It makes your same spell hit a second, unwanted, target for full effect. Not too bad if you're doing a buff or a heal, but potentially PC-killing on a major attack like this. So, rather than arc again and possibly drop a PC whose already been getting smashed in melee, I just had the damage pile onto Lina.  It was a huge stack of wounds, including 1 critical… and wouldn't you know it, she gets one of the Serious Wound cards. "Bum Knee," which is not the best thematic fit to being blasted by magic fire, but I let it ride. So it's a lingering injury that will stick around for a very long time. Still technically better than "1 Chaos Star: A PC dies", but not by much. This leaves a sinking feeling in my stomach about the critical wound and miscast systems.

Eventually the drunk mutants go down, but by then the sober ones are long gone. Burgolt might have been able to chase them down on horseback, but he was stabbed multiple times in the fight so they decide not to pursue.

With the action out of the way, the PCs can search the bandit camp. Scattered amongst the tents are various unappetizing debris that you might expect from a mutant camp, including some "meat" of dubious origin (probably the missing coachmen and roadwardens) and a bunch of poorly-maintained hand weapons.
Since the site has been contaminated for a while, I have the PCs each make a Corruption check. Usually these sorts of tests are made for contact with really dangerous substances or powerful magic, not simply mutant cooties. As a result, the official minimum difficulty is 2 purple dice. That seemed a bit out-of-line with the risk here, so I had them roll vs only 1 purple, and I threw in a bonus white die for the recent cleansing rain. The dice continued to be unkind to the PCs though, just as they had through the fight. Both Lina and Ninewise picked up 1 corruption point each. It's not a huge deal yet, but it could cause trouble down the road.

Checking the camp further, they find there's only one carriage here, but  there are signs that more had been parked here previously. There's a big spot where a number of barrels were stacked for several days. Now they are gone, leaving only an impression in the trampled grass to mark where they'd sat. If you're thinking the barrels were full of gunpowder just like the broken ones the PCs found on the way here, you're correct. "Chemicals for industrial processes," indeed. The bottles of wine are here as well, but more than half of them have been emptied. The silks have been rifled through, but are mostly okay except for one or two used to clean up mutant bodily functions. We retroactively rule that that particular discovery is how Ninewise picked up her corruption point. Eww.

The next Coaching Inn is just a mile or two down the road, so they're able to go fetch some porters, horses, and wagons to gather up anything that belongs to Graf von Kaufman or his Red Arrow Coaching Company. The Inn is just a short distance from a Shallyan hospice and leper colony, so the PCs can get first-aid. It's not quite enough to heal them all completely, but it's better than nothing. They have dinner and a couple Inn rooms courtesy of the letter Curd Weiss gave them.

End of Session 5. End of Day 4.
Party Tension is at 9. I don't remember why it shot up 3 points this session, but between 2 awkward meetings and a mutant battle, that seems reasonable.
Criminal Empire: Agenda remains at 6, and Stability at 7.
Corruption: Lina has 2, Ninewise has 1.
Wounds: Lina and Burgolt each had a couple left over the next morning. Lina has a "Bum Knee" that will be really hard to recover from entirely, but at least it's effects will rarely trigger.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wow. I completely misinterpreted the interaction with Bearfast. I didn't get the I needed to say that the guy I brought along to just tell him stuff was ok. I thought that he had specifically reacted poorly to Burgolt because he knew of him and thought that his father was evil, all the PCs think so. Trying to clear that up could result in talking about how his father is evil, something we don't want to talk about especially to law enforcement.
Erik

Anonymous said...

Shopping in the game is handled poorly. For example "superior" quality is a very vague statement. If a noble has a dress sword inlaid with gold and a pommel with alternating diamond and ruby lines topped with a huge ruby it would presumably be very expensive. But if the blade was made light for ease of carrying, and the balance was off, and that blinged out handle hard to hold it might get a black die for combat. So is it superior or poor quality? I figure that craftsmanship is the important factor for Dwarven runesmiths. So it would be an expensive poor quality weapon and unworthy of a weapon rune. If only they had object d'art runes. The ancestor badge seems to be a very well made silver broach. But no matter how well made it just wouldn't run the same price as one covered in gemstones. After all sticking some gemstones on a sword wouldn't suddenly give it a white die in combat. For runesmithing I figure that the craftsmanship is more important than how much bling is on it.
Erik

Jimmy said...

We're currently playing this campain ourselves. I just wanted to check how much experience Points you are getting per session of game play? And how many hours is a session?

Rolfe Bergstrom said...

@Jimmy:

I just noticed your post today, nearly a year after you posted it. So I doubt you still need the answer and will ever even see it.

But, since you asked...

We've been playing for 4 hours most sessions, but there have been one or two that lasted 5 hours. I have given out 1 XP per session every single time, plus 1 extra XP when we finished book 1 (but I didn't think to give out extra for finishing books 2 or 3). The campaign has been running for a year and a half now (with a few months off here and there for various reasons). The PCs are Rank 5 Epic characters, and have just defeated The Black Cowl this past weekend.