Monday, August 26, 2019

Critical Role Apologetics—What Can We Learn?



Every few months in social media, I see a post that is some variation of “I don’t like Critical Role because it’s scripted,” or “Critical Role is an unrealistic example of how a roleplaying game session looks.” By no means do I think that everyone needs to be a fan of Critical Role. There are so many variables about presentation, game style, and available free time, it would be impossible for this show to appeal to all gamers.

But I think that sometimes these broad criticisms can be unfair, and even for those that aren’t fans of Critical Role may get something useful from examining why Critical Role is what it is. That’s what I’m going to attempt to do here—look at the group’s best practices and how those practices, individually, if not as a whole, may provide tools for other games whose audience is only the people at the table.

The Unexamined Strength

Before I dig into anything else about Critical Role, one of the first things I feel I should mention is that it isn’t Matt Mercer that makes the game what it is, and this is perhaps one of the most important things to take away from Critical Role. Everyone in the group is engaged and proactive. It is very rare to get the feeling that anyone on the set is along for the ride. They all have character traits, ambitions, goals, and connections that they bring to the game, and this gives Matt more to work with as the campaign progresses.

One of the greatest things that Critical Role can teach any group is that a good game moderator isn’t going to make a game good if they don’t have players that are interested and active in participating in the content of the game.

The Obvious Strength

Yes, the entire crew are voice actors. This means that they are all very good at using their voices as instruments to add personality to their characters. Not everyone is going to be able to do this, and you should not expect your table to learn these skills to make your game better. Additionally, if you aren’t a trained profession (and even if you are), there are a lot of potential pitfalls to doing accents and hardcoded vocal performances.

However, there are aspects of the voice actor’s trade that people at the table can learn. When your character is emphatic about something, let that show in your voice. Change the register of your voice if it helps to reinforce the personality of your character. Vary the speed of your character’s speech to either show excitement or calm.

Not everyone even enjoys playing their character in first person, and I’m not implying that you are doing it wrong if you aren’t comfortable doing so. That said, even knowing that you, the player, is narrating the actions of your character in a manner consistent with calm or excitement can add additional excitement to the session.
In addition to all of this, voice actors are performers that are trained to work with one another. This means that they learn when to hand off the spotlight, and when to use their own voice to emphasize something that another character has established. Make sure you aren’t talking too much during the game session, and when it’s obvious that another character is having their moment, if you do want to participate, do so in a way that emphasizes that character’s moment, rather than digressing back to your own character’s perspective.

When someone finds out that their long lost relative is still alive, and they are showing joy, have your character express how happy they are for them. When another person’s character expresses their rage that an old foe is still alive, voice your support for them.

Structure

We’ll look at breaks in the next section, as that is a part of this as well, but in general, the game session has an established structure to it. The group makes introductions, reads through ad copy, has a few laughs, and then the formal theme music plays. After the theme music, Matt summarizes what happened last.

This is a call to attention that is ritualized. It is a reinforced structure. Depending on where you are playing, this may be harder to pull off. For example, if you play in an FLGS, you may not be able to play introductory music. However, of the GM regularly launches into a recap of the previous session at the beginning of a game, this can be a signal that we are at the formal start of the session.

Formal Breaks

This is another potentially unexamined aspect of what helps make Critical Role what it is—they always take a break halfway through the session. This may not seem like much, but taking that break allows them to recharge their batteries, and it means that they have time to check their phones, take care of children, grab a snack and a bathroom break, and come back to the table refreshed and undistracted by elements outside of the game.

This is one that I will freely admit I have a problem remember. I often get going into a game, and while I tend to be very cognizant of when the session is ending, I don’t pay as much attention to the halfway point, or those times when people seem to be flagging in their attention and may need to get away from the table. I tend to let them go on breaks on their own separate schedules, and while that’s fine, and no one wants to be the GM saying “nope, can’t go to the bathroom yet,” knowing that you will have a formal break coming up helps solidify in the player’s mind that they can hold off for another 15 minutes if they need to get a drink or stretch their legs.

The Set

This one is going to be trickier to recreate in home games, but having a formal set whose sole purpose is to play a roleplaying game really helps to get everyone on the same page. Having played in homes, conventions, and at the FLGS, it really does make a difference how familiar you are with a space, and how many other activities you associate with that space, when it comes to how easily you can slip out of the headspace of the game.

While you may not be able to build a set for your games, or even have a dedicated room in your house for it, you can do things that dress up the physical space just for the game. Even before you get out a battle map or miniatures, you can have “set dressing” that indicates the current function of the space you are in. For example, in my Star Wars games, I would often bring my two-foot tall Darth Vader action figure, or have a centerpiece that was a starship of some kind. For my 7th Sea game, I had a wooden pirate ship that I would set in the center of the table. It’s a signal that this space is currently “consecrated” to this particular game.

Digressions
Game moderators are players too, but in traditional games, they do have a different set of responsibilities than the players. In this instance, we’re talking about setting the tone of the game. Specifically, Matt is very good at not falling into digressions when they come up.

I will say, one of the reasons I often don’t fully understand the argument that Critical Role is “scripted” or “fake” is that many of the things that happen in everyday games happen in their game as well. One example of this is that the players fall into digressions. Modern-day songs break out, jokes about video games will happen. Comparisons between a current situation and a similar situation in a pop culture work will be made.

What is interesting is that Matt very rarely participates in these digressions. He doesn’t cut them off immediately, but he has asked his players to get back to the game a few times, and he very rarely adds his own perspective to a given digression.

I will admit, this is a difficult one for me as well. Some pop culture references are just too hard for me to resist, and if the GM starts to digress with the rest of the group, it does tend to make it more difficult to pull the rest of the game back on track.

Rules Adjudication

There are definitely times when the players end up looking up their spells or special abilities in the middle of a game. There are even times when Matt has changed a custom class feature and he has to reference that change.

On the other hand, when it comes to the “infrastructure rules” of the game (“does this provoke an opportunity attack?,” “what kind of check do I make to do this?,” “How long would it take me to make this thing?”), Matt answers quickly and gives a ruling.

There are two important corollaries to this. The player’s don’t often dispute how to resolve something once Matt has stated it. This isn’t because Matt, as the GM, is god, but because the Game Moderator’s job is to facilitate the game moving forward, and discussions about why the GM has chosen to adjudicate a rule a particular way slows the process down. However, Matt often mentions through various venues when he has looked into how he adjudicated a process, and the input that others have given him, and what will happen going forward.

Ending on a Cliff-Hanger

Some groups will prefer more episodic play, where everything is introduced in the session, and gets resolved in that session. There is no right or wrong when it comes to episodic versus serialized structure in campaigns, in general. That said, having the ability to end a game on cliff-hangers does give the GM some tools to jump into the next game session.

Critical Role doesn’t always end on a cliff-hanger, but it happens enough times that it is worth mentioning that it is a tool that Matt uses when running his games. Cliff-hangers give the GM a situation that is immediate to introduce at the beginning of a session. The decisions that the group will make will have more immediate importance at the start of the session, and will start the game with momentum.
You don’t always need a cliff-hanger, but having them on a regular basis can make the campaign feel like it’s always moving forward, and not waiting for more ponderous decisions and interactions to happen.

Best Practices Where You Find Them

I think a lot of emphasis is put on Matt Mercer’s storytelling ability and the voice acting of the group, but not as much emphasis is placed on how many overall “best practices” they have in place at this point in their gaming careers. Some of these practices are obvious when pointed out, but can be invisible if you aren’t watching the game intentionally looking for them.

Additionally, I’d be remiss in not pointing out that you can learn a lot of this by reverse engineering some of your favorite streaming RPG shows, but you can also learn this from any number of valuable resources written on the subject. For example, much of what I’ve been pointing out from Critical Role is also called out in Engine Publishing’s Focal Point.

Disclaimer—Engine Publishing is Gnome Adjacent through the Gnome Stew/Encoded Designs/Misdirected Mark enclave of content producers, and I’m a writer for Gnome Stew, but I wasn’t at the time Focal Point was written, and am totally endorsing it as a fan that read it long before my dreams of gnomedom were realized.

Divergent Priorities

I’m mainly looking at criticisms of Critical Role and analyzing what they do right in this article. This doesn’t mean that I would run my game the way Matt Mercer does, or that I think everything that the group does is the way it should be done. I will say that I don’t think nearly as much is done “entertainment first, game second” as some people may assume.

Personally, I wish the cast were more diverse, I think there are times when they get a bit ponderous with their character development segments when they could wrap things up more concisely, I got REALLY nervous about how hand’s off Matt was at the beginning of the second campaign regarding player on player conflict, and I wish the show did more to showcase active safety tools at the table. Even with all of that said, I’m a fan, I enjoy watching, and I think that there is a lot to learn from the experience.


Tuesday, August 13, 2019

What Do I Know About My Campaign? Tales of the Old Margreve Campaign Journal #4


Time to pick up the campaign journal, with the game already in the middle of The Fingers of Derende. If you want to catch up on the other installments of this campaign journal, you can find them here:

Returning to The Fingers of Derende

When last we left our heroes, Isobel (our bearfolk barbarian), Hrothgardt (our bearfolk cleric), Gurralt (our bearfolk warden), and Scarlett (our halfling warlock) were up in the early morning hours, in the town of Pilzfanger, facing down the Trollkin berserker Drom and his friend, the Fang of the Great Wolf, Ilgarm.

Quick refresher—Drom was an orc in the original adventure, but I wanted it to be a bit more Midgard specific, so I changed him to a Trollkin. The camp had multiple worgs, but I consolidated them into one monster, and used the Fang of the Great wolf for Ilgarm.

For those of you doing math at home, you may say, but Jared, this is a Deadly encounter. To you I say . . . no, not really. I can’t back it up with mathemagical equations, but it didn’t feel like it was going to be deadly.

But, before we get to the fight, what about poor Gahl, our gearforged warlord? Since his player was back, I didn’t just want to drop him straight into the fight, so we bounced back and forth a few times. We started the night with Ghal being urged to heroically help his friends by the villagers of Levoca, who were totally worried about the rest of our heroes and were not tired of Gahl’s superiority complex.

After being encouraged to be heroic elsewhere, Gahl made an endurance check for his travel to find his friends, to see if he gained a level of exhaustion, and to simulate the week he spent on the road, about a day behind his allies.

Play the Encounter Music

Much like she had done with the troll in the previous encounter, Scarlett locked down Drom’s ability to heal with a chill touch early in the fight. Drom and Isobel raced to see who could be reckless first, and Ilgarm had to spend his action getting large. After Hrothgardt and Gurralt tore into Drom, he was in pretty bad shape early in the fight.

Then we cut back to Gahl, who has come to the same crossroads as the PCs did the previous day. I explained that the fight at Pilzfanger wasn’t going on at the same time as Gahl’s travels, with it still being very early morning for Gahl (although I think I initially explained this backward during the session—the players got it, we were playing with the timescale to condense Gahl’s journey).

Gahl ran into a wounded owlbear that seemed to want him to go down one path, so Gahl went down the other, discovering the clearing with The Fingers of Derende. He saw the  goat guards, the rope bridges, and the altar way at the top of the tallest tree, and decided to backtrack to find his friends.

Scarlett locked down Drom’s healing again, and the party made short work of the berserker. I appreciated that Hrothgardt was suitably impressed with Ilgarm taunted them, not expecting even a really big wolf to talk. Unfortunately (for Ilgarm), with decent armor and the warden’s natural ability to make themselves harder to hit, Ilgarm wasn’t getting a bite on Gurralt.

Gahl wandered for an hour, rolled to see if he got lost or had another encounter, and managed to find the village of Pilzfanger, in time to join in the fight at the end of the next round.

Ilgarm was rolling average, which wasn’t good enough to hit the warden, and everyone else was playing it safe. Eventually Ilgarm grappled the warden, but before any swallowing shenanigans could happen, everyone, including Gahl, got in on the fight and brought the wolf down.

No one was badly hurt, but they did use up some resources, so they decided to spend the morning in Pilzfanger before heading to the Fingers to finish off the threat to the town. While Drom looking for a new “mother” for the Family Starless partially conveyed that the remaining family members may not be all in agreement with one another, I wanted to reinforce the theme a little bit more.

Talk Time

The party decided that Pilzfanger needed to be more careful about their logging, and more respectful of the forest. If Levoca was too cautious in their observances, Pilzfanger was too reckless. Since Arnuff, the woodcutter that recruited them, was de facto leader, they decided to address two issues at once.

They called all of the townsfolk to the square, including Svetla (the mutated woman who had spent time in the Fingers before the Family Starless arrived). They convinced the town to listen to Svetla as their leader. Arnuff wasn’t power hungry or upset, he just couldn’t see why you can’t just seize things you find by force in life. The party made a group check to sway the town. Everyone rolled persuasion except for Scarlett, who decided to scare the shit out of everyone by invoking Baba Yaga’s name, and the group check succeeded. Svetla was now the town representative.

At this point, I had the woodcutter that had left town to join the Family Starless return. Instead of using the stats mentioned for Yidji, I used the Void Cultist from the Creature Codex, and gave Yidji a tentacle hand (as well as an extra vertical opening in their throat, which is why he can’t speak). If the party was hostile, I was just going to have Yidji fail to death on them, but if they tried to talk, I was going to give them a chance to calm him down. They opted for calm, and they brought Yidji a quill, ink, and paper.

Yidji told them that he was loyal to the “old mother,” the aridi Binia. Yidji said that Vil’opon wasn’t worthy of “ascension,” but that Sivix was ready to start a new family with her, and they would fuel their ritual with one of their bugbear servants if they couldn’t get the townsfolk.

After seeing some . . . things . . . moving under Yidji’s skin, and having Gahl mention that Yidji could just be a bunch of rats in a human sack, Gurralt ungraciously asked if Yidji wanted to keep living. Not as a threat, as a genuine question. Scarlett calmed Yidji down, and talked to Svetla, learning that Yidji might feel the effects of the void lessen if the Fingers were gone.

Hrothgardt made Svetla promise to keep Yidji safe, and the village safe from Yidji, and they would assess the situation when they got back. Gahl attempted to cover up Yidji’s extra throat hole with a scarf, which the throat hole began to devour. The group left for the Fingers.

Assault on the Fingers

To frame this properly, at this point, there isn’t any plot in the written adventure to keep driving things. It was written as an encounter zone, but the players didn’t think it made sense to leave the Family Starless in place so close to Pilzfanger, and I agreed, so from here on, I was adding elements. Vil’Opon and Sivix, the dryad and satyr members of the family, are the only ones left, and they are going to burn their bugbear guard to sacrifice him to the void to reach some kind of ascension.

I replaced the dryad stats for Vil’Opon with the Tree Skinner from the Tales of the Old Margreve monster section. As a dryad that becomes corrupted after losing its tree, it seemed like a good fit, and I also wanted a means of “ending” the threat of the Fingers themselves. I switched Sivix’s stats for a Selang, a void tainted satyr from the Tome of Beasts.

The three goats were still guarding the tallest tree, where the ritual was taking place. At first, the group was going to charge them and get it over with. Then, for old time’s sake, they decided to sneak past them again, and the goats, once again, failed to notice them. The PCs climbed a different tree, then traversed the rope bridge to get to the taller one.

Upon reaching the top of the tree and the altar, I described that Vil’Opon and Sivix were burning the bugbear, and that the bugbear appeared to be dead, but that they were waiting for it to be fully consumed. Isobel, assuming that the ritual needed to be completed a certain way, charged the basin with the burning bugbear and dumped it off the tree.

Vil’Opon merged with the tree. This was important, because once she merged with the tree, not only did she get the benefits in her stat block (better AC, new attacks), but if she drops below 15 hit points, the tree she merged with dies. So this is how I’m getting rid of the Fingers (assuming they are all linked).

Sivix confuses Hrothgardt and Gahl with his strange pipes, Isobel tries to grapple Vil’Opon to pull her away from the tree, and Vil’Opon grapples Gurralt with her vine whip. Scarlett is staying WAY back away from the fight, lobbing in eldritch blasts. Hrothgardt shakes off the confusion, then gets stabbed with Sivix’s sleep daggers and goes down. Instead of breaking away from Vil’Opon, Gurralt nudges Hrothgardt awake. At this part, the party mentioned a potential TPK and jokingly started talking about making new characters, possibly some nice erinas, so they could sneak attack from under their opponents.

Changing Fortunes

Once they took out Vil’Opon, the tide turned. Isobel took Vil’Opon’s body and tossed it to the goats. Who started on lunch. The tree also stopped swaying, which Hrothgardt realized was a bad sign. Gahl shook off his confusion, and Gurralt could engage Sivix, and Sivix had a harder time hitting the warden than the other PCs. Eventually, Sivix fell . . . and the tree wasn’t far behind.

At the first sign of it coming down, Isobel dove off the 70-foot tree to the ground, survived, and ran the goats off. Hrothgardt was halfway down, on the inside of the tree, when it fell, and got bounced around. Gurralt and Scarlett rode it to the ground, and Gahl fell off halfway, getting heavily dented in the process. At this point, we had to double-check the “immediate death” rules, but Gahl was just down for the count, not an “ex-gearforged.”

Scarlett found the book that Svetla had read from years ago, and didn’t show it to the rest of the party. The rest of the fingers withered, looking almost like bones instead of trees, then crumbled into the ground in the clearing.

Under New Management

At this point, I wanted to reinforce the “fey versus cosmic horror” theme I was setting up, so I had a Green Knight of the Woods (from the Creature Codex) show up. The knight asked if anyone would challenge it for the right to erect a chapel in the clearing, and no one did so. Then the knight asked the PCs what fate should befall Pilzfanger. They asked the knight to spare the town, and offered to have the town’s representative talk to the knight.

They also asked to sleep in the grove overnight, as they were all pretty banged up, and were a little concerned at running into anything at night on the way back to Pilzfanger. He granted this boon, and they slept (except for Gahl).

Each one of them was visited by a fey lord of some kind, offering a Blessing (supernatural gift from the DMG). The three bearfolk were visited by the Bear King. Scarlett was visited by a shadowy form that resembled Baba Yaga. While he was awake and under the moon, Gahl saw a spectral fragment of the Moonlit King, complaining that the “others” hadn’t invited him to get involved in the fun going on in the Margreve, and that he needed a suitable champion as well.

We’re going to examine my mistake in a moment, but at this point, the Bear King offered a choice of blessings, and Baba Yaga and the Moonlit King provided specific blessings. This was a mistake on my part, for multiple reasons—it gave one set of PCs more agency, and it added some more randomness to what was going on in the game. Had I given all of the PCs a choice of a stat boost from the blessings, I can absorb that . . . better than average stats are good, but they are a “known quantity.” Giving PCs healing or summoned creatures can be more unpredictable. I didn’t think the gifts through as well as I should, because I felt like they made sense for the fey lord rather than looking at the whole picture of the campaign. We’ll come back to this.

Scarlett waited until Isobel was asleep and read the book. Because we already encountered someone with the cerebral tendril mutation, I let her pick a different Derende Mutation, and she picked the mutation that gave her advantage on fear saves by having flowers grow from her skin and provide a calming scent. This was a fun way to reinforce her character concept, of being a dangerous spellcaster that looks like a cute little kid that no one takes too seriously. The flowers grow around her head like a crown.

Negotiations

The party introduced both Svetla and Arnuff to the Green Knight, who told them that he may, from time to time, speak with the forest and tell them what trees they can have, but they have to stop random woodcutting, and begin the proper observances. The Green Knight then offered to send the PCs anywhere in the Margreve they wished to go via the Shadow Roads, and they opted for Levoca.

Wish List

I told the players we would have downtime at the beginning of next session. They let me know that they were interested in buying some expensive spell components of crafted metal and trying to trade the magic scythe they have for something less . . . agricultural. I decided that this sounded like a good time to come up with a Canton dwarf merchant as well as the Kariv merchants I had made up as recurring NPCs. It also tipped me off to look into how I wanted to handle spending downtime to trade a +1 for another +1 weapon.

Session +2 Days


After having some time to think about it, and because no one had the chance to use their abilities yet, I decided to send out an email asking if the group would mind if I walked back the gifts so that all of the gifts were just a stat boost, instead of the other magical effects, so that everyone was on par with one another, with the same level of choice. I’ve heard back from a few, but I still need to get a final decision. I think it’s the right way to go at this point. I was a little impulsive with “this is how the fey would do it,” without balancing, “this is a good reward that fits the story and works for the long term game.”

Looking ahead at the next adventure, it’s written for 2nd level characters. The Fingers of Derende was for a range of levels, and as tough as some parts ended up being (especially with my changes), I probably should have skipped ahead, run the 2nd level adventure, then slotted this for when the party was 3rd level. As it is, I’ll need to bump a few threats up a notch in the next adventure, until we level out again.

What Did We Learn?
  • A few observations after running this adventure:
  • Be careful with rewards
  • Wardens are really tough to hit as they push out against the bounded accuracy assumption with their abilities
  • It’s a lot of fun to roleplay void mutations
  • I like that the PCs are definitely being heroic in this campaign, especially with the grimmer aspects of the adventures
  • I like that the PCs have a degree of affection for Levoca as a base of operations
  • I’m glad they gave me a little bit of a head’s up on what they want to do with their downtime
  • I see a lot of possibilities now that I have a third fey lord hovering around the edges of the campaign


Time to start taking notes on The Honey Queen, which should be interesting, given my three bearfolk and their favorite reward so far in the campaign. 

Friday, August 9, 2019

What Do I Know About My Campaign? Tales of the Old Margreve Campaign Journal #3


You can catch up on the rest of the campaign journals here:

In our previous session, we managed to finish the entire adventure of Hollow in our four-hour session. I wanted to make sure to use the “Time Flies” rule from the Midgard World Book, and it had been a month since we last met, so that means it had been 56 days since we last left our heroes.

The next adventure, The Fingers of Derende, is presented more as an encounter zone that the PCs could run into on their way to another adventure. There are three “Derende” adventures in the book, and they are new additions from the original Pathfinder version of the adventures. Depending on how you use them, they can serve as a loose framing device for the whole campaign, which is how I’m using them.

While The Fingers of Derende is set up as more of an encounter zone than an emerging adventure, there are hooks for getting the PCs into the area. In this case, I used the hook which involved a woodsman from a nearby village coming to town looking for help as the Family Starless, who have moved into the Fingers, have kidnapped several locals.

This felt like a good hook to use, building on the fact that the PCs are already local heroes in Lovoca due to the events of Hollow.

Downtime


Using the “Time Flies” rules, the party had some downtime to use up. Initially, since they are only 2nd level, no one really had any pressing ideas for downtime. Because I was requiring the group to spend their downtime or lose it, I didn’t want them to miss anything, so we took a few minutes to look through Xanathar’s Guide to Everything to see if there were any downtime categories that hadn’t occurred to them.


I asked the group if they wanted to spend the whole time in Levoca, and since they didn’t have anything else pressing to do, and no other real locations that they know in the Margreve, they stayed in the town. I let them know there would be caravans of Canton Dwarves and Kariv merchants travelling through, so they wouldn’t be limited to the resources of Levoca.

While our Gearforged Warlord was not attending, he did let me know he would spend his time in Levoca instructing them in how to improve their defenses, which seemed consistent with is personality, especially since he was planning on expounding on how great the defenses are that he is helping them install.

Our Halfling Warlock decided to do general “wise woman” work around town. I ruled that everyone automatically received a moderate lifestyle just from being hailed as heroes, and while she managed to have a few weeks of greater luxury in town, she never got any extra cash.

The Bearfolk Cleric and Bearfolk Barbarian decided to train with their downtime. The cleric learned to speak elvish, and the barbarian learned to use an herbalism kit. They interacted with Arkadi, the local nature priest, who is noted as being senile, so we briefly played out that the Bearfolk had to introduce themselves each day to Arkadi and remind him where he left off on his lessons.


The Bearfolk Warden wanted non-metal medium armor. I ruled that looking for this would be like locating a common magic item for sale. He spent his gold and time, and rolled well, so I ruled that some of the Kariv could find a suit of acorn mail armor (which just cost the usual amount for scale).

Downtime Developments

 

I rolled a complication for the Bearfolk Warden finding the acorn mail armor, and I have an idea what I want it to be, but I didn’t want to spring it as soon as it was rolled. I just need to make a note to drop this into a future session.


I never named the Kariv that the Bearfolk got his armor from, but I’m going to “back date” the Kariv as a trader named Shandor, a personable person that knows all kinds of supernatural beings around the Margreve to trade with, and I’m also adding Tsura as a woman in the same caravan that is able to sell potions and scrolls, so we have some recurring personalities for the group.



I specifically want both of them to be trustworthy merchants that don’t give the PCs any reason to doubt them. They may also end up being a source of information they can tap later on.

Running The Fingers of Derende

 

After selecting the hook and playing out downtime, I had Arnuff, the woodcutter come to town from another nearby village. He explained that the Family Starless, a strange coven of creatures ruled by fey creatures, had moved into the Fingers of Derende, and had kidnapped several people from town. Because we already established this, Arnuff heard that the Bearfolk were friendly forest spirits, and started calling them this.

Almost immediately, the PCs started asking Arnuff how wise it is to cut wood in the Margreve. He protested that it’s just wood from the edge of the forest. This became a running joke, as the PCs all saw it as obvious that the Margreve wouldn’t be well disposed to woodcutters, and Arnuff and the other villagers are sure that cutting trees on the edge of the forest is fine.

Travel Time


Because the original adventure is set up as an encounter site, there really isn’t much discussion of getting from one location to another. I decided that on foot, Levoca was about a week’s travel away. I decided to use the travel system that I outlined here:


This would be a short trip, so there would be one encounter on the way. I had already decided that rations are what you use actively when you want to take a long rest, so we aren’t worried about checking rations specifically. To see how the trip went, I had them roll a group wisdom (survival) check, and if they had failed, they would have picked up a level of exhaustion. 


They passed with flying colors, so I rolled for an encounter from the immediate area, which is a chart included in the adventure. They ran into an owlbear. The encounter specifically called for an owlbear rooting around some remains, which also contained a giant centipede (more on that later).

Our owlbear friend took out their guide and did a respectable amount of damage to the rest of the group. The Warden had to use their ability to burn spell levels to reduce damage to stay in the fight. Because they were concerned about the Margreve getting upset with them, they decided to not kill the owlbear when they dropped it to 0 hit points, and they stabilized the woodcutter.


The halfling decided to check out the remains that the owlbear was rooting through, and ended up getting bitten by the centipede. I had it scurry off, because I didn’t really think it was worth having a whole second combat with a giant centipede at this point, and the party had to carry the now paralyzed halfling.

I was using the default assumption that in a dangerous area, encounters would be checked on the hour, and trigger on a 17-20. The owlbear encounter happened at a crossroads, with an hour to the Fingers of Derende, and an hour to the village. With a now paralyzed halfling, the party opted to go to the village, and they didn’t trigger an encounter on the way there.

Rangers and Rations


I don’t have any rangers in my party currently, but I do have two characters with backgrounds that let them scavenge for several people to keep them fed. If I had a ranger in the group, and forest had been their favored terrain, I would have moved the length of the trip down one, effectively (in this case, no checks or encounter).

If they had failed their survival checks, I would have asked if anyone had anything that mitigated the effects of hard travel. In the forest, I would allow for the foraging ability to mitigate this, but I might not if I were using this system, for example, in a desert. In the forest, they aren’t likely to suffer much from this, but narratively, I want to let the party know when their background feature is helping them, versus when they could have just survived on their own.

The Village


Once the PCs arrived, I wanted to reinforce that the village had heard of the Bearfolk as benevolent nature spirits, and I also wanted to reinforce that this area of the forest is “wrong.” I had just recent read about vulture bees online (bees that make their honey from rotting meat), and I thought this was a good fit for the creepy tone. They offered the Bearfolk “meat honey” from the local vulture bees (side note: in the real world, vulture bees don’t produce enough extra honey for it to be collected like regular bees, and it’s probably not good to eat, but we’re going for creepy fantasy with just a touch of realism, so vulture bees in the Margreve make enough meat honey to be shared).

The town also gave me a chance to “offload” Arnuff. He could be the point of contact character, but the party isn’t carrying around a non-adventurer any longer. The Bearfolk ate their meat honey, and the halfling, once she wasn’t paralyzed, decided to do some investigation about the Fingers of Derende. 

She found a woman that lived on the edge of town, named Svetla. Svetla was happy to have a visitor, but she also had strange eyes and a root growing out of the back of her head, into her spine. I wanted to foreshadow something that could come up later in the adventure site. I had Svetla explain that camping in the Fingers sometimes allows people to learn things, but that she also found a book that taught her secrets about the forest. She stayed there too long, and heard a voice whispering in a strange language.


I had her speak it, and hearing it kind of made the halfling a little sick, and I let her know that it was Void speech, something MORTALS ARE NOT MEANT TO KNOW. I also wanted to foreshadow that Derende is about more than just the creepy magic of the forest.


The village isn’t detailed in the adventure, it’s only briefly mentioned in the adventure hooks, so I wanted to give it some details. I liked having Svetla as a living reminder of the weirdness near the Fingers of Derende, and I had the other villagers kind of oblivious as to the degree to which they were tempting fate (harvesting the vulture bees, not worrying about cutting the trees because it’s on the edge of the forest). This gave the village a different feel from Levoca, which is a lot more focused on following ancient traditions, even if they don’t fully understand them.


To The Fingers


After resting up and enjoying the hospitality of the villagers, the group set out for the Fingers of Derende. Since the trip would take an hour, I rolled an encounter, and it came up as a troll. That’s a rough encounter for 2nd level characters, but overall, they handled it well, but drained some resources, enough that they were worried about continuing to the Fingers. They were concerned that they would keep triggering more wandering monsters if they didn’t press on, so they kept going.


I described the trees as being huge, with the weird fingernail like leaves, slightly moving more than a tree that size should move. I described the crosswalks and entrances to the various trees, and the huge patch of moss in the center of the clearing. And I used the three giant goats as the guards in the center of camp.


In the adventure, the moss, in a switch from what you might expect, rustles and crunches, making it harder to use stealth. Rather than have the PCs find this out on their own, I decided that having several nature oriented characters and natives of the forest, I would let them roll their wisdom (nature) checks to identify the moss, which the Warden did.


What’s kind of interesting is that once the players hear that something hampers stealth, they want to use it. They decided to sneak around the outer edge of the camp, and then climb up one of the trees to the entrance.


They all managed to make this stealth check. This began to set up the paradigm that the giant goats were bad watch animals (we’ll come back to this). 


I had the party roll to see which tree the supernatural book with information on the forest was in, and then had them roll to see if the Family Starless was conducting the sacrifice of the villagers yet. No ongoing sacrifice, and a set location for the book.




Family Matters



The adventurers found the villagers, guarded by two of the family members. Even though I had read the adventure beforehand, it never struck me how widely the power of the Family members varied. The two Roachling brothers are . . . not powerhouses, and way less powerful than some of the random encounters and guardians of the site. The PCs took them out very quickly, but while the rest of the group was freeing the villagers, the Bearfolk Warden tossed a Roachling’s body off the tree (the goats didn’t notice).


That was when the leader of the family, the fairy Aridni, attacked from invisibility, and put the warden to sleep. This fight was a lot more challenging than the Roachlings, especially since Aridni could use invisibility at will. In many cases, I wasn’t trying to get her to hide so much as to give her advantage on her shots with her bow when she came out of invisibility. I was also varying which effect her bow was using each time.

Eventually the Warden used one of his spells that grabs a target and brings them closer. Aridni had been flying out of reach away from the tree, and this brought her back to melee range. After she got brought closer, the barbarian decided to jump, grapple her with her teeth, and dive down 20 feet to the ground, taking damage, but also doing damage to Aridni as well. Since Aridni had already taken some damage, the spectacular tackle did her in, but left the barbarian away and functioning. The goats did not notice.


The halfling discovered some treasure, as well as the oven filled with live rabbits, which convinced the party that the Family Starless was pretty out there, and that it was more important to get the villagers out than to explore further. 


I had the party make a group stealth check on the way out, and I only rolled once for the villagers (I didn’t want seven extra rolls, and honestly, I didn’t want any more complications while rescuing the villagers). The goats continued not to notice, and everyone made their way back to the village.


Continuing Adventures



The party had largely completed their mission by rescuing the villagers, but the idea that the Family Starless was stealing villagers and was so close meant that it still felt like a looming threat. The PCs wondered about this a little but wanted to get a rest after the fight with the troll and Aridni. I wanted to reinforce that the Family was still a threat, even with their leader and two members dead, so I decided to have the Family Starless berserker show up with a friend to make some demands.


As written, the berserker is a half-orc, but I decided to change that to Trollkin. A lot of Kobold Press adventures are written “half-in, half-out” of Midgard, and orcs aren’t that common in Midgard, so I wanted to keep the flavor of the setting. Originally I was going to have the Trollkin show up with the worgs that hang out with the family, but instead of multiple worgs, I decided to just have the Trollkin accompanied by a Fang of the Great Wolf from the Creature Codex (a worg that is a bit tougher, and can change size).


The Trollkin called out the adventurers, demanding a new “mother” for the Family Starless, now that the party had killed the previous Mother. Our Bearfolk Barbarian tried to strike a deal that she would become the mother if the Trollkin could beat her in one on one combat. Then the Trollkin demanded sacrifices as well, and the deal was off. This is where we put things on hold for the night.


Takeaways from This Session

 



  • I liked having the more open-ended encounter zone to hang my own developing stories on
  • I like having my players roll their own random encounter dice
  • The Warden’s spell list has some fun toys on it if they don’t burn all their spells mitigating damage
  • I enjoy finding places in the story to reinforce the overall theme of the adventure
  • I love it when the end of a “boss fight” is epic, like a flying grapple takedown off a tree
  • Downtime can help generate interesting side details further down the road, but it might be better not to try to push it as soon as complications or details come up



I really like that the downtime gave me the idea to create a few ongoing NPCs, even if I didn’t do anything with them yet in this adventure. I liked being able to use the NPCs and just the hint of Void Speech to lean into the theme running through the adventure. Just playing off the logical progression of what happened in the adventure gave me an idea that will play into the resolution of this adventure, namely that there is division in the Family Starless.


Looking forward to more adventure in the Old Margreve soon.