GAME PLAY Episode 1: Chaos at Griffon Hill

Yesterday was Gameday. It was the first game of a brand new project; and, for me, Episode 1 is always what my friend BROOSER BEAR from the TALESOF THE MIDLANDS blog calls, a BS session. I always disagree with him about having them, as I find them incredibly helpful to my game but to him, it is a form of cheating. I write very little down, but I do brainstorm pretty hard, figuring out what I want to do. I am introducing primarily setting, a small cast of important NPCs, and the villains. If I were to write this stuff down I’d have a book, so I keep it in my head. I’m very good at visualization, and I had thought about this stuff for several months, but now it is time to make it real and set up my first scenario, and I wanted it to hit hard and capture the tone of what we are going to be doing.

I had everybody roll up 12th level characters; it has been a long time since we’ve played at this high of level. I had thought of taking everyone from 1st but that would take a really long time, and in that time my story would deteriorate, so we did it this way, which in itself is really hard, as one never really knows their character until they run them a couple of times, but we got that done. 

Because of the time that it takes to roll them up, I had everyone roll up two characters, just in case one of them dies. They are allowed to play one of them, I don’t care which one, per session. For spells, I had the casters write down what spells they have in their memory, once they cast one they can write a new one down, this keeps their nose out of the book, and simulates their huge pull list of spells available to them without actually having to write all of them down. In effect, the players must pick the spells they want prior to play and live with their choices.

Just prior to game play, I spend a few hours writing information that I think that I’ll want to have access to quickly. I commit to my NPCs, writing down quick stat blocks; for my orc armies, I just wrote down quick info, which I’m glad that I did because the players never really engaged the enemy directly. I made no maps, and kept everything as abstract as possible so I had the freedom to make everything up as we went, and take notes to track continuity for later games.

The game turned out to be a short one, only 3 hours, but this allowed us to shake off the rust, and 12th level is hard for everybody involved. One of the original players came back into the fold for this game after an absence of over a decade, our game has evolved a lot in that time, so I had to allow him to catch up to the new style of play, which is a lot more cerebral then it used to be, and so that I can get a feel for how to write for him. Hilariously, he was chosen as the groups leader, which kudos to him for actually excepting it. Newer players got a quick glimpse of his style of play, and so did he! He is loud, and obnoxious, he even inspired our youngest player, who is normally quite the wallflower, to yell at him; which was awesome! I actually liked the seating arrangement this time. Quiet people were next to me and the loud ones were further away, I could hear everybody much better and only had to yell once for people to shut up so I could hear the quiet ones.

Okay, the story!

I took the liberty of writing a quick backstory for the players: These who aren’t from Cormyr were almost killed during the Horde War, which had taken place 5 years before, then, they were saved by the Cormyrian forces and they joined their ranks to win the war with honors and ended up joining the Purple Dragons. They were assigned to a horrible outpost in the Stonelands called Grimstand Keep. The first few years were constant fighting against the monsters who live there, protecting the civilized areas further south from their influence, and seemingly very effectively as the last two years have been absolutely boring, with less and less monsters every year, until the current year, in which there has been absolutely nothing.

At this point we start the game. The Steel Princess arrives to see how the Keep is holding up, she too is bored as there is nothing to do out in the Stonelands, she’s been trying to find out how the Zhentilar is moving trade through Cormyr, but unsuccessfully. During the night a page from Tilverton has orders from that cities nobility to report to a nearby mining town called Griffon Hill, their mission was to reestablish order until the Baron of the Western Marches arrived, typical of a lawful army, they just sent news of the order itself and expected it to be followed with no further information.

At Griffon Hill, Cormyr’s main source for coal, the Baron has disappeared with the money to pay the men. Tilverton had also sent word to Arabel to bring the funds to pay the miners for their work and investigate the whereabouts of the missing Baron once the mine is once again productive.

In true PC fashion, the Players arrive in town to find chaos, the accountant is trying to establish order, and doing a terrible job of it. Today is supposed to be payday, and the miners were demanding payment, and were not allowing the shipment to be taken to Arabel until they had been paid. They made up personal sob stories about how they needed the money for their families, but in reality they wanted the money to get drunk and gamble at the many many taverns and brothels in town. The players, instead of trying to maintain order, instead took it upon themselves to investigate what was already known. The Baron was gone with all the money.

I gave them further information, they could see two dust clouds, both two days out and heading to the mining town. Unknown to them, the Southern army was Cormyrian, led by the Baron of the Western Marches with funds and soldiers to replace the mercenaries who had taken off at the first hint of money being gone (players never even asked about the missing military presence), the other army approaching from the North was a hostile orcish war party. To win the scenario they had to come up with some means to placate the citizens, establish a militia, and defend the mine from invaders. This wasn’t done. The miners, left to their own anger, began rioting and were left to do it while the players tried to figure out what had happened to the Baron of Griffon Hill. They had discovered that the Baron had been the victim of an Enchanter, including everybody in the Barons Keep where they had set up as their base of operations. Unknown to them, the Enchanter was still there, he was a high level agent of the Zhentilar. His mission was to cause chaos, disrupting the mine until a band of orcs could come and sack the town, which would serve to weaken Cormyr as this coal mine was their primary source for fuel. The Enchanter was allowed to succeed; upon entering the Keep, the players were under a powerful spell perpetuated by burning cigars that simulated a Friends spell which led to much confusion in the house. They saw the Enchanter as the head Butler (yes, dear reader, The Butler did it) and, while they were able to deduce what happened, the entire investigation was ultimately pointless. They did find a list of names that told them who the pit bosses were that supervised the miners, which would had been their best men to help establish order, but they ignored it.

So, two days had passed, and the orc war-party rides right into town, but instead of sacking the village, which the Enchanter thought they would do, the first act is setting fire to the mine, destroying it and causing it to burn for the rest of eternity. There was no resistance what so ever, and orcs like sacking stuff so that was their new plan. This was met with resistance by the players, the cleric cast a horrifying spell that used the flames shooting out of the mine to make a massively bright burst of light, and a chocking cloud which killed most of the orcs instantly, as well as townspeople who had survived the orcish assault. The orcs and horses who survived this spell, quickly fled town, their mission completed, and highly successful for them.

The Enchanter, well, he wasn’t thrilled at all. This was not the plan. Chaos and disruption is one thing, but this was a tremendous waste of resources, the entire area was injured by this assault, not just Cormyr. He no longer cared about the plan, and yelled at the PCs when asked what he was doing, looking at a burning coal mine and raving like a lunatic. At this time, the forces of Arabel arrive, along with the Commanding officer of the Purple Dragons, he isn’t under the spell, and he sees the wizard not as a friend or a simple butler, but as a wizard, and a known advisory and agent of the Zhentilar. The PC war wizard tries to Enchant the Enchanter, who laughs at him and then teleports away, leaving a destroyed mining town, and a lot of confusion about motives.

If this was a Zhentilar plan, why destroy the mine? It would make more sense to enslave the miners, and hold the entire area hostage, probably as a distraction for the Purple Dragons as they are kept busy trying to take this resource back. Instead they burn the Realms number one supply of coal? Once Vangerdahaust, the Kings most trusted adviser, arrives to investigate the tragedy, even he is at a loss. It appears that orcs, under the employ of the Zhentilar got over-zealous. They don’t even know where these orcs came from, the Stonelands appeared to be as tamed as they can be, and these orcs, by evidence left on their dead, were armed, not with junk metal made of looted material melted down, but with true steel. The decorations on the armor they wore was new as well, somebody had made this stuff for them, but who? The Zhentilar was known for hiring orcs from time to time, but not for supplying them with arms.

The PC’s have decided to follow the retreating orcs, as it is feared that their next target may be Tilverton, which isn’t just a small mining town but a major city and a political hotbed that is always on the verge of political chaos anyway.

So, that is the story as we now sit. I now know enough about how the players play the game, and can properly prep for them. If I had prepped that game, I would had done it wrong. I expected a large battle between chaotic militia controlled by PCs to fight while the players identified the leader and went after him once help arrived. This would had been a colossal waste of my time. Instead they got easily distracted by a pointless mystery, which I probably would had ran the same way, but with the benefit of plans to the keep itself.  The failure was catastrophic, because they didn’t follow the orders that they had been given, which happens. Typically adventurers do what they want, but we aren’t playing an adventurers role, but that of soldiers against a strong military threat, which I think has been impressed upon them.

In other news, I think that I may have figured out a way of handling mass combat without using chits or miniatures, I was hoping to play test it, but maybe next time. It’s not perfect, and I’d still like to play true mass combat scenarios, but not everybody wants to do that; for a mix of Standard D&D and Mass Combat it may serve as a solution.

We did play test a new toy; one that I didn’t intend to use yet. A player and I assembled a large map of Cormyr so that we can play a game of modified RISK on it, and my wife had found a HUGE magnetic  dry-erase board with a very small budget, it came in the mail the day before game day, and it is so big that it makes our 8 page map look small. I had hung it up so that it would be out of the way and the players saw it and wanted to know where they were at, so we marked it and it really helped; everybody could see the map no matter where they sat, and I’ve got lots of room to write notes and stuff, so it is going to be awesome! In the past I always just used scrap paper to make tiny abstract maps, or we’ve got one of those small dry-erase boards which also served the purpose for laying out a room or something, but with this massive thing it can serve, not just basic maps, but we should be able to have abstract and very large scale battles cheaply, but in a way where we can all be on the same page. Can't wait to test it!


Ripper X said...

Now that it's been a couple of days, it is time to be more critical. Making stuff up does have drawbacks, I had trouble accurately detailing when the Baron of Griffon Hill disappeared, if I was thinking, that could had been a great clue that everyone was enchanted, but I screwed it up by admitting that it was me that was confused. I don't know why it was so hard to keep 3 days ago in my head, but it was. I guess that I also screwed up on where exactly the dust clouds where coming from.

Is a seat of the pants adventure pointless? I want to say no. It does require trust on the part of the Players, and to me, it helps keep a muscle strong. If a DM can't improvise, he's going to run into trouble.

In future games, I think that I'm going to make a hand-out describing the objective, or the official orders so that the players won't be confused about what they were supposed to be doing.

Is Brooser Bear completely wrong in regards to BS games? No. They can be a mess, and they are very hard to manage. Players don't feel properly supported, and sometimes, if they dig too deep, the entire session can fall apart. It definitely has negative side-effects, but I still think that it has benefits too.

Brooser Bear said...

Au contraire, Ripper, the game is only a BS session, if the DM improvises instead of applying game mechanics to resolve the situation. Imagine a dungeon exploration session, where the DM is unprepared and is rolling up a random dungeon as s/he goes along, or the players are traveling from point A to point B, with DM assuming, that the players will not encounter anything along the way.

Not a bad idea to use the dry erase board. Interesting, that your adventure set in Forgotten Realms with the unpaid miners has a decided Western feel to it (as in Cowboys and Indians Western), and at the same time, parts of the Baldur's Gate CRPG had the same Western frontier feel to it as well. Maybe it is the vibe of the Forgotten Realms themselves.

Ripper X said...

Folks hopping on the back of a horse and heading out to find their fortunes else where; willingly exchanging Government Protection for Freedom. Sounds like D&D to me! LOL

Yeah, I have read more westerns than fantasy. I'm closer to the myths that we got here, and have a deeper understanding of how that world worked, seeing all of the potential to translate it into a European setting.

The only law in any mining town is that of whoever is carrying the biggest stick. When one is getting paid in vice (which has always been the best way to control men who do dangerous work) and suddenly they don't get it, there is going to be a small political struggle. People really haven't changed that much in history, we're just better at killing each other now.

Martin Aaby said...

So I never read blogs regularly, but I stumbled upon yours after I started researching general 2nd edition stuff when I decided to start up a homemade campaign again after not playing regularly in 5+ years.

This weekend I too had my first session in the new campaign and after taking many notes (from your blog among others) I tried to have a good mix of prepared/detailed scenarioes and locations as well as improvising. The latter worked not as well as the former, so I need to get back to practising, but I also had the advantage of starting the adventure in a locked off dungeon.

The next chapter will take place in an open world/city, so that part I'm more anxious about. If you have any pointers or want to talk in detail, I'd love to have your experience to spar with.

Anyway, my point was mostly that I really enjoy your blog! Keep it up - you don't find many blogs primarily focused on 2nd edition.

Ripper X said...

Howdy Martin Aaby!

I actually have a post about city building, you can access it at

If it helps, just figure out what you want to do in the city, you can't map everything, Rome wasn't built in one day. If the players are going to need to infiltrate a thieves guild, for example, you can map that and figure out how everything inside works, just like you did your dungeon.

For cities, I like to role play as much as possible; there are lots of people in a city, even finding the nearest shop to buy a new shield can be an opportunity to role play if you want it to be. Good luck and let us know how it goes!

Brooser Bear said...

Martin, design campaign setting, not adventures waiting to be played.

Ripper, good series of posts on city building, I will have to sit down and go over the material in detail. Some good ideas there.

If you ever get the time and inclination, check out any basic text on Topology. You don't need a map of the city to have a living metropolis. A large town or a big city is really a bunch of fields (from field theory), think neighborhoods, that have different components in them - buildings, shops, people, ENCOUNTERS.

Martin Aaby said...

I always start off with a setting and a general idea - I have that with the city as well; 3 warring factions, each with their own motivation and claim to rule and each with connections to an under-city society where sinister things are happening.

What I need to prepare is "lists" Lists of shops, specific buildings for some quest-lines/plot and encounters and NPC's.

I also feel I lack a clear path for them to reach the under-city society, and I feel sligtly unable to just "wing it" in a competent and entertaining way, but I also feel like I would set myself up for too specific a path. My players are great and create problemsolvers. The dungeon had 4 "puzzles/mazes" where I had a clear idea on how they worked, but their way of dealing with them were very entertaining. (Makeshift scuba-gear, when none of the characters were able to swim...)

Ripper X said...

I just keep things as brief as they can be. If the group just wants to stock their gear, you can just alter the prices to reflect what part of town they are shopping in, and decide what is available when they ask using logic.

If the place is an adventure hook, than I write down a name for the business and who owns it, how the place operates, and stuff like that.

If you shop around you can sometimes find great city accessories, you don't have to use them, more often then not I just use the formats that I like and add my own stuff. I steal maps from modules, and draw my own. Try not to overwrite, that is the best advice that I've got, and it took me years of frustration to figure that out.

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