GM confidence: 3.5/5. A chain of stupid mistakes caused this session to unravel over its course, from my perspective, at least.
Chain of mistakes
The cliffhanger kickoff started well enough, but there were a few issues. First, there was the “death by cutscene” paralysis effect. I know how annoying those are, but I didn’t have any better ideas up to the last minute, and I wanted/needed everyone to be immobilized. (Pay attention—this “wanted/needed” issue will come up again.) This was minor; I knew everyone would “get it” and play along, and they did. No harm, no foul. Second, though, was the recovery time: This was a “custom” spell-effect and for the whole week of prep, I intended the PCs to all recover at the same randomly-determined time, but in the moment it occurred, I thought, “That’s dumb. They should recover separately.” The expansion of the cloud of Black Amber assumed they would all be ambulatory at the time, and I very nearly had a real problem, given that not all of the PCs were so. Third, it had not even occurred to me that someone might need to know how one relieves such a condition, which I’m certain could easily have been pulled from an existing spell-effect if I had.
This part went through a lot of rewrites over the week, and to be fair, I do think the end result was the best narrative. However, once again, I knew I had a big problem: all but one of the PCs would be twiddling their thumbs while Ser Kenrick fought. I had one player run the bad guy, which is always a good trick; that takes care of one—three more to go. I really tried, but by the end of the week, I had not come up with a better plan, other than to push the fight through as quickly as possible, and throw a few rumours in for the non-participants. In retrospect, I should have had the false-princess do something for them to investigate.
Mechanically, I’ve used the “Feint=Circle-and-Find-an-Opening” concept before, and it makes perfect sense. But PCs have the D&D muscle-memory causing them to continually press the attack until the enemy is down, trying to do as much DPS as possible. The resulting fight ended up being brutally short. There are optional/unofficial mechanics to help with this sort of thing: “Action Points” (Pyramid 3/44, “The Last Gasp”) is one of the better ones, if a bit too much additional bookkeeping for regular use—I have a slightly easier version of my own that I have yet to implement or test. However, given that the other players were thumb-twiddling, the fight’s brevity was, ultimately, helpful. In retrospect, though, the opponent should have, at least, fought until he was knocked down.
Side note: I also had a backup plan for the false-princess to fight her way out, which would have gotten everyone properly involved, but I wanted/needed her to escape without serious injury.
The cascade-failure in the pass to Hidden Lake began in Highroad: the PCs decided to send the ranger to find the nearest druid and have him deliver a message ahead—a perfectly sensible thing to do (that I had not considered at all). I had planned for the ranger to lead the PCs to the pass, and deliver some exposition about Hidden Lake along the way—which, if I had my wits at the time, he would have delivered before he left. I had not considered at all the idea that the PCs might ride through the forest-pass, which greatly changed the tactical environment. My intention was to drop the entire sniper ambush if the session had gone too late by then; I looked at the time just after I fired the first shot, and realized it was too late, which meant I had to scramble to figure out how to abbreviate the whole thing. I intended for the mega-murder of crows to creepily stop and fly away before the sniper attacked, and I completely forgot (that, and the “distraction” penalty). I had also planned for the now-not-present ranger to be the first one the sniper shot, rather than a PC. Once it had begun, what I desperately did not want to happen—the players basically frozen-in-place for 30 minutes dickering about how to proceed, misunderstanding the conditions, etc.—did exactly happen. When the PCs began to react to the ambush, I could immediately hear in their conversation that frustrating realization that I had just given the PCs a foe they were unable to effectively address. He would likely kill them all one-by-one, if I played him intelligently. Fortunately, the players saved me from that last part by giving me a tactical “out.”
Side note: Although I did manage to draw PC blood, I don’t really count this one. 😛
The kelpie was Shelley’s (from the Friday face-to-face group) suggestion as a guardian, and I liked the “uniqueness” of it, plus the “Fey” tie-in worked well with the campaign narrative. I had some difficulties with determining her abilities, though: the (3e) GURPS version of a kelpie differs from the D&D version, and also the real myth/legend version—I decided I wanted/needed the PCs to not be able to beat her down in a couple of rounds, so I stuck with the myth/legend version that only mentioned vulnerability to silver and cold iron (which has its own problems). Having said that, I didn’t take the time to consider things like what exactly happens when you take hold of the bridle. I really needed to scour the stories for some more combat-oriented narratives, if such things exist.
The introduction of the kelpie went fairly well, actually, but there were some issues stemming from prior failures. Again, I had not considered that the PCs might be mounted when they arrived. I had assumed that the PCs would notice the woman from afar and take a minute to recon and consider. I had assumed that someone would think about using the mirror on her before they approached. I had assumed someone would make a better “identification” roll (aided by usage of the mirror) and get enough information to suggest that maybe Murdok should get out the magic sling. I had assumed that the PCs who would not be effective against her would be told so before they engaged. I had not considered that the PC with the magic sling might be being bandaged at the time of the attack. I had not actually considered the kelpie’s tactics, only her most basic goals—it would have been better to have her try to keep her distance and pick off the vulnerable.. I had added the sniper, originally, to support the kelpie, not to be a separate encounter: this would have worked better, functionally, but would have been harder to “explain.”
The flow of information, here, is the messiest part. I did finally (re)locate the DF2 section for “Recognition” that explained which skills ID which creatures, and how that all works (in DF, anyway). But I also expected the PCs to roll better. As a result, they didn’t have the information they needed to effectively engage the creature, had to figure it out in the middle of combat, and ultimately, had no idea what the hell they were doing. This may be perfectly realistic, but it is wholly unacceptable to any GM trying to keep combat from turning into a cluster-fuck. Sometimes, the GM really must hand players the info and find a way to live with it.
A related issue: I really struggled with whether or not to remind Dustan’s player to use the mirror here. I almost had him make an IQ roll, but when you think about it, that’s not very useful. What happens if he fails? If he doesn’t, what was the point? I have tried to get into the habit of using a sort of “passive check” for things like this: either assume that, because the PC has a score of n, he knows a thing, or assume a roll of “10” and apply that to the Trait level as if it had been rolled. This would likely have solved the mirror and the identification issues, and/or maybe allowed the actual rolls to be applied to “extra” knowledge. Clearly, I forgot.
Not all bad…
I did manage to give all the PCs their own moment: Ser Kenrick’s duel, Maykew’s oration, Lëodan’s sniper-fight, Murdok uses the sling…, Dustan uses the magic items…wait… Well, it mostly worked. There was some fun roleplay with the kelpie introduction. Some good lessons have been learned, too, especially if taken alongside the previous session’s success. (It is interesting, and probably, coincidental, that the two worst sessions of the campaign have both been “part 2s.”)
- The “For the honor…” bit is from The Fifth Element; “Black Amber” is inspired by the amber-bomb-thing from Fringe
- I expected Ser Kenrick’s player to be a little more enthusiastic about the duel, but I didn’t take into account a reluctance to “kill an otherwise non-hostile person for no good reason”
- I used “Crow” from Hawk the Slayer as the sniper, to the amusement of all (who happened to joke about that exact thing before the reveal). I literally used Lëodan’s character sheet to roll from 😛
- I had a forest-trail map set up for the sniper fight, but I held it back unless/until it might actually be needed for close-quarters combat
- I used the “visual detection” stuff from GURPS Vehicles (3e), as I usually do, for the forest. But those rules only have “light” and “dense” varieties of woods; I extrapolated something in-between. I’ve found the easiest way to manage fog/woods situations like that is to recalculate the Size and Speed/Range Table (relevant parts) ahead of time.
- The Hidden Lake tower is based on the Lake Vyrnwy water straining tower
I should have gotten the Baron involved, wanting to know the truth about the false-princess, and had him send a contingent of troops along with the PCs to Hidden Lake. They could know the area. They could have not had horses. They could have freaked out about the crows. They could have been shot by the sniper. They could have been tricked by the kelpie. Goddammit…I hate when I figure out the perfect solution after it’s too late… 😛