So I got to play D&D again! I had mentioned the Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine inspiration I was feeling earlier. I was also strongly inspired by this great book by badass Oxford professor emeritus Chris Wickham- The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000
The people (names have been changed to protect the innocent):
Mehitabel- 40s, cartographer, never played D&D before- played Evdokia (Fighter 2)
Antonin- 40s, lab scientist, openly displayed '70s AD&D Monster Manual in living room, hadn't played since 1980s - played Mithridates, the tomb-raider (Thief 2)
Zahra- 40s, teacher, had never played D&D before, married to Antonin - played Kreka the Calamitous (Fighter 2)
Isobel - 40s, artist, had played for the first time in 2010 at our house - played Veleda the Seeress (MU 1)
Material components (besides what would be expected):
Fancy cheeses, fruit, beer, wine, pop, LaCroix "Green Water"
Big cubes of naturally-occurring metal I had painted dice pips on - The "Iron Dice"
Large-format printed map
Plastic Times Roman Font bronze-tone wall letters from a craft store
Excerpts from "The Book": Brief Antiquarian Notes
DM screen from a Tangerine Dream Alpha Centauri orig. 1971/Atem orig. 1973 double album cover
Guiding principles and best practices:
Everybody at the table should have fun
Motivations should reach through to the players, not just their characters
Pictures will be shown when possible
Traps, secret doors will be found in the pictures by players, not die rolls
Player choice is a positive goal
When players want to do something weird, but cool, I should try to incorporate their ideas into the imagined world
The "Iron Dice" are to be used for dramatically heavy damage, weighty consequences, etc.
We played the Statues adventure that I wrote:
I tried to apply lessons I learned from last time and also ideas I liked from reading blogs like tenfootpole.org, falsemachine.blogspot.com, and Against The Wicked City(The Against the Wicked City link is to a newer post than one which would have inspired this adventure, but I'm linking to it because it is my new favorite on that blog)
So I didn't make the players read tedious expositional background flavor sheets.
I didn't make them spend time rolling up characters either.
I gave them a sheet from which to choose pre-rolled characters with names and histories and equipment. I told people they could change the names, the genders, the histories, but not the stats or the equipment. It turned out nobody wanted to change the names, histories, etc.
The PCs started in a tavern courtyard (yeah, cliched - I know!) where they rolled as many times as they liked to eavesdrop or have someone bump into them, or witness an event. If they wanted to engage further with the people involved with these things, they could do so, and then more information would be revealed. Almost everyone in this Constantinople stand-in city was abuzz, differently-motivated individuals and factions looking for copies of an old book, Brief Antiquarian Notes, which supposedly contained coded clues about where to find a great treasure and often contained a map. Meanwhile, organized crime and corruption were being found insinuating themselves into the government and Night Watch and people who opposed this were made to disappear.
Here come the (sort of) spoilers...
Some of the players were interested in planning a heist of the book from the house of an elderly bibliophile. Other players ended up beating them to the punch by putting charm person on a lonely drunkard who helped them obtain a copy elsewhere first.
Zahra, the real-life Reading Teacher, had the great idea to read aloud the book excerpts the party had won, section by section, with each player reading a section and passing it to the next player. Zahra was amused by the clue-filled story in the fictional book. I was gratified that all the players pitted their minds toward figuring out the symbolism in the stories- and succeeded, for the most part.
Their characters marched (or sneaked) around the fictional version of Constantinople, Krysokeras, avoiding or playing off others who were either seeking The Book or who were reading it for references to statues around the city which were supposed to provide clues to finding the treasure.
The player who in real life is a professional cartographer really enjoyed the large-format map I had made. The characters pulled off bronze letters from the statues. I gave the appropriate player a bronze-toned wall letter (or clusters of letters) if their character found a letter in the game.
Above: The Second Statue, the Oracle
Instead of having to find ALL the statues and take off ALL the letters from the statues, the cartographer player kept looking at the map and scrambling and unscrambling the letters obtained so far. She spelled out most of a word in Latin (a word which is pretty close to an English word) in the craft store letters. She had seen a similar word on the map and had her PC try to convince the party to go to that place on the map.
So far, so awesome! The successfully-convinced party made its way to a sprawling asphodel-, ruin-, and stray-cat-filled lot. Kreka the Calamitous made an incautious advance near precariously-balanced pillars and was tragically smushed. I encouraged her to make cool or banal last words, and she choose the latter: "Ugh! Why me?" then she gurgled and went silent. Isobel, the performance artist with story-gaming tendencies, informed the table that Veleda the Seeress was still receiving psychic messages from Kreka. This turned out just fine. It was fun and funny for everyone at the table. I'm glad that I was able to roll with this unexpected (but fitting with in-game logic) development and not squelch Isobel's creativity.
If I had been thinking on my feet, I might have passed folded-up scraps of paper with true or false concepts to Zahra/Kreka for her to rewrite (alter, embellish, obscure - if she wanted) and pass them along to Isobel/Veleda. But the phenomenon was enjoyable and was not excessive without that. Zahra was able to feel included in the game even if her character was physically out of commission.
The party avoided criminals and additional unsafe ruins and found a broken spiral staircase leading down into a huge, echoing, wet, dark basement chamber full of tall, not-always-intact, pillars and varying depths of malodorous water everywhere. They found shallow poling-boats drawn up on a sort of beach. They pulled themselves along in the dripping, echoing, dark with poles and spears, disturbing nests of hissing eels in the water, but managed to avoid being bitten. The party is disturbed to smell, see, and have their boat bump into, countless human remains in the water.
Thousands of echoing whispers hissed through the chamber from every direction, begging for a proper burial on the surface. When Veleda and the party intoned a solemn promise that they would find a way to bury everyone properly in the sunlight, the whispers transformed into a crescendoing hum. Glowing orbs emerged from thousands of bodies in this underground chamber, flew southeast, illuminating a huge brick wall and a gaping crack in it, and disappeared.
They pilot the boat through the gaping hole in the brick wall that seems to be one side of the enormous partly-water-filled subterranean room. After a short while, the party pulls the boat up to a beach.
Antonin saw a secret door in a photoshopped picture I showed the party. The party followed a tunnel past certain ominous clues to a floor inlaid with a minotaur and labyrinth:
One of my house rules: Players are usually supposed to find secret doors, avoid traps, or figure out puzzles for their characters by looking at these pictures, not by rolling dice.
The pictures are printed larger onto paper for gaming table use than I'm showing in this blog, although you can embiggen the picture and try your luck.
The ceiling has deep gouges which disappear into darkness. There are 7 squarish wooden pillars which are embedded in the wall and run from the floor to the ceiling. There are 3 similarly sturdy looking pieces of lumber which look like they just resting against the wall atop the 3 inch wide stone ledge on the left side of the corridor (paralleled by another 3 inch wide stone ledge on the opposite side of the corridor). On the floor is a mosaic of a labyrinth complete with a picture of a minotaur. It looks like a human adult could carefully step along the mosaic maze and get to the far end of the corridor.
Can you guess which actions would trip the trap?
Mithridates the thief tripped the trap, made a saving throw vs. poison so that he didn't die immediately, but failed a second saving throw and ran tripping bawlz back into the room with the corpses and hissing eels, where he went down screaming, bitten by dozens of hissing eels boiling the water he was splashing around in. Prokopios, an amiable NPC, was standing close to Mithridates when the trap was sprung, lost a saving throw, and fell, poisoned. The other characters avoided interacting with the area in the same way as Mithridates and Prokopios; they were cautious in the trap area and avoided problems.
The party then broke down a door into a treasure room which contained not only difficult-to-sell, difficult-to-dispose of treasure items stored by organized crimelords, but also damning proof of some of their crimes.
The surviving characters would have had to figure out how to fence the treasure items successfully or give them as evidence to the non-corrupt parts of the government or get them to mysterious "collectors".
There were assassins being sheltered elsewhere in the cistern complex - would the party run into them?
And, importantly, Veleda and the other party members had promised to properly bury the bodies dumped in the old cistern. They had been rewarded with the vision of the thousands of glowing orbs which led them to the chamber with the treasure and the documentation of the crimes committed. What consequences would result if this massive undertaking was not completed in a timely manner?
How could the party do this? Could some of the treasure pay for laborers to remove and bury the bodies? Could the party enlist the help of the less-corrupt branch of the city's soldiery? Could the party get some of the boisterous novice monks they met in the tavern to haul out the bodies and perform last rites for the sake of piety and unlimited wine? Could the party dig holes in the roof of the old cistern to admit sunlight, perform a mass funeral and THEN collapse massive amounts of earth into the cistern? Would that qualify as proper burial?
We could have continued playing but middle-aged people have to sleep and/or live their middle-aged lives. No 24-hour D&D games like when we were adolescents. That's OK. We had a lot of fun. It was great to hang out with my friends and do something out of the ordinary. They said it was fun to walk around and play with stuff inside of my weird mind.