Sunday, January 15, 2006

My little Old World

The GM's reflections
Neither a lament nor confessions: that's already an improvement!

I was really nervous about last Sunday's game. There were 2 reasons for this. Regular readers will already be familiar with one. I really felt like calling the day off as the appointed time loomed, but I'd told everyone it was on, and Brian in particular had been expecting us to restart a week later. So I felt I couldn't let everyone down. Well, not until I started GM'ing the session at least.

The other reason for my nerves was the scenario. In case you don't know, I'm running The Ashes of Middenheim, part 1 of the 3-part WFRP2 campaign Paths of the Damned. After the 'it was all just a terrible dream' detour of late last year, I'd been pretty pleased to get the party back to Middenheim so that we could get stuck into the 2nd part of the campaign. Then came the holiday break, and I spent a couple of weeks reading through the material.

I've read quite a lot of complaints about AoM on the BI forums. These could be summed up as the campaign being a boringly linear MacGuffin-hunt overly dependent on combat and railroading. At the time I felt that people were missing the point: AoM is designed for novice GM's new to WFRP, not for the diehard fans with years of roleplaying- in the Old World and elsewhere- under their belts. I stand by this, but all the same, I experienced a sinking feeling as I read and reread the material I was going to be GM'ing next.

The first thing that bugged me was the set-up: the PC's are called to visit a priest of Ulric; introduced to a blind old geezer who's having dreams about daemons and lots of blood; and told that these are portents of the presence of a powerful chaos artefact that the PC's must retrieve to prevent it falling into the wrong hands. Oh yes, and thanks to the dreams, the aging blind priest is a psychic tracker who can home in on the location of this daemonic icon.

The thing is, the Old World being what it is, it struck me that the sensible thing to do in that situation would be to call in the witch hunters and have the old guy carted off to the thumbscrews and the stake. Not to go marching off into the depths of a forest known for being infested with beastmen hordes, not to mention the remnants of Archaon's chaos horde only recently defeated in the siege of Middenheim, and with only a blind man as your guide.

The prospect of another journey through the Drakwald forest didn't appeal to me too much either: I'd come to grief too many times for comfort mismanaging long journeys last year. The thing is you see, the Old World is supposed to be a dangerous place. The Empire that is the centre of human civilisation is rife with outlaws and similar lowlives. And the Drakwald is infamous as a centre of beastmen and similar horrors. So the idea of parties of PC's making uneventful journeys lasting weeks or more sits rather uncomfortably with me. I'm getting over it now I guess, but painful memories were still too fresh as I read this part of AoM over the holidays.

And even if I didn't screw up the journey through the Drakwald with another random ambush, what were the party facing when they arrived at the scene? A goddam dungeon bash. OK, OK, it was just a small dungeon- a tomb in a burial mound in fact, but it was still an underground complex with monsters magically appearing from nowhere, secret doors, traps, and so on. My players would never buy this I thought, even if they did manage to get in at all.

Manage to get in at all? Was I planning another perfectly executed off-the-cuff ambush after all? Not at all. Its just that the burial mound was guarded by a Minotaur. This thing was a complete bastard I can tell you. I fully expected it to kill 2 PC's easy. Not only that, if the party didn't get the drop on it, the damn thing was going to blow a big horn, and then there'd be a 1/10 chance of reinforcements arriving each 10 rounds (including while the party searched for an entrance into the burial mound; struggled to open it; and then delved into it- that's a lot of rolls). These could be anything from a few puny beastmen, through a few more not so puny, right up to another fricken Minotaur.

Maybe I was getting soft, I don't know, but there was no way I was going to have a bunch of over-powered bouncers waste half the party before they even got in for the main event. I mean, I had a downward spiral some 2 months long to turn around. Jeopardy was fine, but death at the hands of these monsters wasn't. As I racked my brains for some way to make the damn scene work, I imagined the fate of some poor players, playing their 3rd or 4th session perhaps, encountering this scene played straight. It must've happened, and I'll bet the carnage was dreadful to behold.

In the end, I just decided to make life simple for us all, and I dropped the Minotaur altogether. So what if I was making life easy on the PC's? I certainly was in no position to get up on any kind of high horse.

The funny thing is, it all worked rather well I reckon. There were some problems to be sure, not the least of which being that I wasn't very expressive. I had 1 NPC I could use to generate dialogue, and I'd had the idea to have him babble with increasing intensity as he got closer to the tomb. I was only able to put this across in 3rd person unfortunately. And the players were a bit restless themselves and I feared that we'd end up with more banter than anything else in the end.

Still, as the party made its final approach to the burial mound, different PC's stepped forward to fulfil the roles that their dangerous situation required. Between my descriptions and the players' questions we managed to make the surroundings fairly vivid, despite my attention to the full range of the senses being a bit weak. And as each obstacle and puzzle presented itself, it was noteworthy how everyone fell into place as a team, while at the same time beginning to express their character. Nothing fancy, just good old fashioned task and trial driven roleplaying, with some smart tactics bringing the players the sweet taste of victory.

There's still plenty of basic spadework to be done no doubt. I haven't done enough work to get the players to flesh out their PC's characters and backgrounds in a way that I can use as reference for adding details that will draw each character more fully into the world. Our pre and post-session chats haven't been thorough-going enough for us to have established a sufficient consensus about what each of us is looking for; although long since no longer strangers we're still largely unknown to each other as roleplayers in other words.

All the same: after all my worries beforehand, there was something really striking about last Sunday. We played through the simplest example of indisputably the most classic adventure- the dungeon bash. In the course of this all the PC's had to step forward to play their parts, and in so doing, they each became more individual precisely because they were becoming more of a team. Perhaps Ashes of Middenheim isn't so bad after all, eh?

The Shrine in the Forest
- #1 Dangerous dreams and buckets of blood
- #2 Undead, dead and living dread
- Index:- My little Old World: Ashes of Middenheim

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