Friday, 6 January 2012

DRAGON WARRIORS – Gameplay report

As I’m running a short Dragon Warriors campaign while my mate Jason takes a break from his ongoing Pathfinder game I thought I’d keep something of a record of what’s going on in the game and how it’s progressing. In this short possibly short-lived series of blogs I'll do a (much shorter than this one) update after the game every Thursday. I’ll cover the story, how the game is going and how the rules dealt with certain situations.

I’ve started the game with all six players creating Knights, Barbarians or Assassins. I’ve excluded magic users for now and will allow access to the magical careers once the game is in progress. The group consists of two of each career. I’m not that fussed about game balance as long as the players are happy with their choices. Character creation was easy and quick – three players had already created their PCs and the other three took about half an hour to create theirs, and even give them basic character backgrounds. The Dragon Warriors character creation system is quick, easy and starts the player of with the very basics, including equipment and money. Unless the group agrees there’s no drawn out shopping for starting equipment. Some groups may find that a little annoying and restrictive but for a quick, simple game like Dragon Warriors it’s perfect. I did toy with the idea of allowing the players to exchange the starting items with a cash equivalent and then let them shop, but decided in the end to give them the basics and then let them shop in-game.

As the game was about to begin I used the optional rules for ‘Fate Points’, which will allow the PCs to change a single roll or cheat death, and the use of the below zero health points critical chart. I’m also trialling a variant of the damage system; in the core rulebook, damage is set at a static score depending on weapon used and there is an optional system that allows for a random damage roll to be made. I’m giving the players the choice; they can either take the set damage score or they can roll per hit. This means if they do choose to roll then they might do more damage, but then they also might do a lot less!

I’m setting my campaign in the Lands of Legend, just a little south of the Pagan Mountains in Ellesland, and I’ve decided to drop the entire ‘party origin’ story. There was no ‘you meet in a tavern’ or ‘you’re all brought before the Lord’ etc. They were simple travellers who had all met up on the road and decided to stick together for mutual protection. The rumours are that there are plenty of barrows, run-down castles, Selentine Empire ruins and caves to be explored and plundered. Sadly, they’ve been beaten to it and they’ve all been emptied. Cold, wet and miserable, they trudge north looking for a town called Dungully. The landscape is blasted and bleak, but as they approach the mountains the land becomes rich and bountiful, like they’ve suddenly stepped into spring.

Along the road they see a cart with a broken wheel, half in the trees, and an injured horse – obviously something is afoot. It’s at this point, after introducing the world, the landscape and the rainy weather, that I ask the players what they want to do.

This first encounter starts some confusion. As I’ve set the scene some of the group have been talking amongst themselves, sometimes loudly. This can be annoying but I’ve learned that waiting for players to be quiet or asking them to listen doesn’t really solve anything. I continue talking to the players that are listening with the intention of letting them benefit from what they learn. Once the players not listening realise they’re missing out they’re a bit more attentive.

A trail leads to a bandit camp, who have obviously just raided the cart and taken two men on it captive, and a fight ensues. I’m not using minis so I quickly sketch out a combat map – in a small clearing with a fire at the centre – so the players have to use their imaginations. The bandits are somewhat weak, being a first encounter for a system shakedown, and easily dispatched. There’s little to no confusion regarding the combat rules, even for those new to the system, and the encounter runs smooth and fast. By the end of it a couple of the PCs are injured but eleven bandits lie dead and the rest flee into the woods. The cash-starved PCs promptly loot the bodies and then free the captives.

As quick and as easy as the fight was, I had three main problems with the combat:

One, the players who were used to minis and a battle mat were a bit lost at the beginning as the entire encounter was played out quickly and easily with nothing but small sketches. They got into the swing of it but their initial instinct was to plan their tactics and move their pieces.

Two, Lots of people shouting over each other to get attention. This is a problem in any game but with the additional job of handling the players new to this game system it got a little loud and frustrating. The trick is not to take that frustration out on anybody, in or out of the game, and handle each situation calmly and quickly. Most of the time the players will accept a quick judgement call from the GM, especially if you keep the action flowing and move away from the problem as fast as you can.

Three, there was immediate party conflict. One of the players spent time picking up dropped coins, as he was low on funds, and when the combat started another player knocked all the money out of his hands and into the river. This resulted in the offended player sauntering to the fight and getting involved in the dying moments, then realising that he had not earned any experience as the others had done the work. It was obviously frustrating for him so I moved the action on quickly and made a mental note to give the player something to do to earn extra points later on.

The freed captives are traveling to Dungully to take part in a huge festival and are so grateful for their lives, and agree to travel with the PCs. Upon arriving at the town after dark they find the place packed, the streets full with drinking and eating, dancing, games and general merrymaking.

This town, and the introduction of the obligatory inn, gives the players a focus, a central area they can use as a marker and a possible place for rest and recuperation. The town is bright and packed with happy, friendly NPCs and the players get into the swing of things by taking part in archery contests, a melee, and a race to climb to the top of a flower-covered wooden pedestal in the town square. Dealing with these different minigames was difficult but fun. All I needed to do was concentrate on one thing at a time and make sure that those not directly involved were also excited about the outcome of the dice rolls, in which I asked for basic attribute rolls, and in extreme circumstances it was a simple case of who rolled closest to ‘1’. I even allowed florins to change hands as bets were made on the outcome, and a couple of the players came away with healthy wins. It all made for a few exciting moments.

All of this was a misdirection of sorts; as they played the minigames, laughed and joked, a young lady, the Queen of the Festival was paraded through the cheering crowds throwing flowers. The players made remarks and joined in. As a result of me trying to give him something to do, the player who had had his money knocked out of his hands became involved with a minigame but was having a bad night with some bad dice rolls. When he yet again lost a competition he elected to punch the NPC who had just beaten him, obviously frustrated by the evening’s play he was having. When he even failed to thump the NPC who staggered back shocked and was about to call the guards, he finally passed a roll and convinced the man he was only joking and then staggered into the crowd. There’s not a lot you can do with frustrated players, especially if they’ve lost out to the other gamers at the table as he had done with experience points, and the best way to deal with them is to let them vent. If he had gotten into a fistfight I may have inserted the idea that the men he was fighting thoroughly deserved a good beating.

During all this one of the Assassin players decided to pick a pocket while the attention of the crowd was on one of the barbarians (with a score of 17 in Looks!) as he regaled them with tales of his deeds. Sadly he failed his roll and the portly merchant caught him and cried out for guards. Flustered, and a bit frustrated that he had been caught, the player opted to stab the innocent NPC he had tried to rob. The other players bawled him out, shocked at the decision, and so the player elected to punch him instead. I’m not entirely sure why he decided to suddenly turn nasty, it was as if he suddenly realised that he was in the middle of a huge pressing crowd and dozens of eyes were watching him – he acted impulsively, maybe even panicked a little, and there were going to be consequences to his actions.

This was the perfect opportunity to introduce an NPC blacksmith who I had intended to bring in later. Seeing that there was going to be trouble and not wanting the game to go too far off track, I threw in the blacksmith – who was desperate for the help of strangers but wouldn’t speak to them in the crowd – and he staggered in and proclaimed the failed pickpocket a drunken bet that the PC had lost, paid the merchant some money and staggered away pretending to be drunk with the PC. ‘If you want to live until morning, do what I do. Do not drink or eat their food. Meet me at my smithy in the morning.’ Adventure hook in place, the blacksmith staggers away. Even though the player’s decision to pickpocket and then assault the NPC was highly questionable it was a good way to bring the NPC in and set the scene that not all was at it seemed. It also enforces the idea that there was something to trust about him, or at least listen to what he has to say. He had not only imparted this information but had also risked exposure to what he knew by helping the PC, stopping a nasty fate befalling the pilferer. That was plenty of situations solved right there – important NPC introduction, the idea that the festival was dangerous, the PC saved from a nasty (and potentially game-stalling) fate, and an adventure hook was delivered. That was something of a lucky break for me.

As the minigames progress a great shout has gone up and people are rhythmically beating drums, blowing whistles and cheering the Festival Queen who has climbed to the top of the pedestal and is raining flowers and money down onto the crowd. The PCs even join in; shouting, banging, calling out lewd remarks that other townsfolk join in with, shouting jokes. The noise reaches a crescendo. It’s now midnight.

Then a huge, bellowing scream is heard from the darkness. A winged shape blots out the stars and talons grab the ecstatic Festival Queen by the shoulders and carry the white-clad maiden into the darkness. There’s a huge rush of air and the crowd fall silent. A moment later a huge cheer goes up and the party continues.

That’s where I ended the session.

I’m not sure if the players saw this coming, getting involved with festivities as they were, and there were a few moments of surprise and then a short discussion about what had happened. Being a large gaming group it’s pointless trying to get a single group reaction to a sudden event and a good thing, too - there were different opinions as to how people felt about it all. A couple were shocked, one was actively indifferent because as far as he was concerned it was their town and they could do what they liked, one now felt obligated to obliterate the entire town. It was a good mix, and with that the game ended.

All in all it was a successful night. In the two hours we fully played we got a lot done and the easy rules helped tremendously with that. The combat with six players and almost twenty mook bandits took probably about fifteen to twenty minutes and everyone seemed to have a good time. I know a couple of the players got frustrated for different reasons, but for the most part they had good reason to be with some of the bad rolls being made.

The Dragon Warriors rules system handled the game really well. I like a good skills system and this game is lacking one, but the general rule of thumb is choose one of the five main attributes and roll against it. It worked for the most part, although I did have to make a couple of spot rulings to keep the game moving, but the simple rules really helped as I didn’t get bogged down in detail and was able to concentrate on the adventure. The players coming from more complicated, tactical-based systems may have missed the lack of detail on the character sheet and may have been a tad confused by the initial mini-and-battle-mat-less combat, but once they got into the flow of the game it worked out fine. For the most part I’m sure they had a good time and, hopefully, they’re looking forward to the next game.