Rags to Ruins – The Ruined Tower Session Recap

Last week, we commenced the campaign after the christmas break, with our plucky players (Sian and Ouro) leading yet another bunch of newbies into adventure. Darkblade the Fighter and Niles the Rogue were both played by Ouro, whilst Elanna the Fighter and Thaddeus the Mage were played by Sian.

Amidst groans because this was yet another starting party from a starter set – this time, from the Fast Play series (and also, the Dungeons and Dragons Adventure Game released for it’s 25th Anniversary in 1999), we had a flash back to this new party meeting with the Patriarch, the political and spiritual leader of The Vale, and the town of Haven.

The mission was simple – the Patriarch had recieved reports of a Ruined Tower nearby, that possibly belonged to a powerful wizard that lived in the Vale some time ago. Whilst this peaked the interest of the Patrician, who was keen to find out more about the legacy of the Vale, startling rumours from farmers surrounding the ruins about half-eaten cattle required action, as the threat that some monster, if not the wizard himself, was in the ruins.

Thus, the party was to explore the Ruined Tower. The village could provide no reward, but the party could keep any treasure that they found. However, the Patriarch would pay handsomely for any books or other historical materials found and returned to him, out of his own pocket.

With that, we returned to the “action” as the party was about to explore the Ruined Tower. It was a broken shell, filled with rubble and debris, although it seemed that several rats had decided that the ruins made a good home for them, and leaped out at the adventurers.

Combat was joined, with Darkblade, Elanna, and Niles entering into the frey. Elanna boldy strided into melee, after throwing one of her many daggers at a rat, where she managed to prove that she was no peewee after all. Niles used his daggers and Darkblade fired his longbow, providing backup as Elanna dispatched these enemies.

Meanwhile, Thaddeus had decided that now was not the time to use his magic, and his limited combat abilities meant that he was better off remaining out of the chaos for the time being, as the others clearly had things in hand. After all, his magic may be needed for greater foes to come.

After the fight, the party regrouped and noticed that beyond the debris, there was a door heading into the cliff. There was more to these ruins than just one shattered tower after all. Niles opened the door and the party stared into darkness, as the only light into the way forward came from the sunlight behind them. Darkblade lit a torch, before passing it off to Thaddeus.

The corridor ahead was riddled with damp, as did the rotten door a short way ahead of them. Elanna rushed forward, but managed to step back just in time as part of the passage floor crumbled, and collapsed into the earth before her. A natural pit blocked the way, as water damage as managed to work underneath the flagstones and wear away the soft earth underneath. Luckily, the pit wasn’t that deep, and was easy to cross thanks to it’s rough walls.

On the other side, the party  was able to examine the rotten door further. There was a sign that said it was a Scriptorium, but further details couldn’t be gleaned, as the door crumbled away as soon as Niles got too close. Beyond, a dark room with timeworn desks could be seen, occupied by four figures in robes that revealed themselves to be skeletons armed with rusty triangular daggers.

Elanna and Darkblade rushed in, but this turned out to be a much tougher foe than they expected, as they were ill-prepared to fight the fleshless undead. Daggers and swords struggled to do damage enough to stop the skeletons, although both Elanna and Darkblade managed to make use of some of their impressive strength.

The boney creatures didn’t have the same issues, and whilst their weapons were rusty, they still managed to land some serious blows upon Darkblade, taking him out of the fight after three harrowing attacks. Hope seemed bleak, as Elanna was the only one with any healing, a potion of healing that held two doses, but she was too far away from Darkblade, who was struggling to stay alive as Niles covered him from the advancing undead.

Yet Elanna proved her worth as she fought her way closer to Darkblade, and then heroically leaped over Darkblade, pouring some of the potion of healing down his throat. It was a desperate action that would have left her open if Niles couldn’t hold off the remaining skeleton.

Once again, Thaddeus looked on, and decided that his help wasn’t needed. His magic was strong, but limited, and whilst the room was interesting, there was clearly more beyond that could prove a bigger threat.

Once again, the party regrouped, gathering both their own daggers, and the rusted weapons from the skeletons. The weapons were useless, but perhaps the design might hold some clues for the Patrician later. Meanwhile, the door leading beyond was much more solid and bound in iron, with a metal plate attached. One the plate was the symbol of a bull’s head. What could this mean?

Niles carefully examined the door, and then picked the lock. With a quiet click, the door was unlocked, and the party pushed it open. Beyond was a room with wall shelves full of books. This looked like what the Patrician was after – but the room too was occupied.

Before the party, two rotting corpses stood motionless, staring blankly ahead. Unfortunately, a third figure, a humanoid with decayed pointy teeth and purple flesh turned to greet them with an angry glare. “Kill them all!” the figure snarled, and the two corpses turned towards the party, undead vitality animating their torn flesh.

The party knew the score, and Elanna stood up to both zombies without hesitation, striving to protect the others. Thaddeus stepped forward into the doorway, knowing this was the time to unleash his power. A missile of pure energy streaked past the party, and hit the ghoul directly in the chest. The forceful blow wasn’t enough to kill the creature, but it did force the beast to drop the box it was holding.

The ghoul knew that this wasn’t a fight it could win, facing an armed adventuring party, and therefore decided to flee, opening a large stone slab at the back of the library revealing a passage beyond. Darkblade moved to try and kill the ghoul before he could escape, firing an arrow at the creature, whilst Elanna and Niles dealt with the corpses.

Although the arrow struck true, hitting the ghoul just above his thigh, it was not enough to kill the creature, which fled down the passage. Darkblade noted a glimmer of daylight at the end of the passage, and realised that having driven off the ghoul, he should help his comrades dispatch the remaining zombies rather than pursue the creature. Besides, the foul undead had dropped whatever treasure it was holding.

The zombies were easily dispatched after a few blows, and the party regrouped once again. Surely, this was the Library that the Patriarch was willing to pay so handsomely for, and with that, Thaddeus picked out a few choice books to return to the Patriarch, whilst Niles grabbed the small chest that the ghoul had been holding. It was time to return to town and get their reward.

The Patriarch greeted them warmly, eagerly wanting to hear their news, and his eyes lit up when the party told him of the library in the Ruined Tower. Thaddeus pulled out the books he had brought back, and the party showed them the strange daggers. With a wide smile, the Patriarch offered to pay everyone 400 gold pieces each as a reward for the books and the information for the Library. He also offered the party 20 gold for all four daggers. The party agreed, for this was a pretty good reward for a relatively simple mission.

It was then that Niles pulled out the small chest and placed it on the table. It hadn’t been opened yet, and Niles carefully picked the lock. Upon lifting a lid, they had discovered the Ghoul’s hoard: a handful of gleaming black pearls, a finely crafted dagger, a scroll of some kind, a vial of peppermint smelling green liquid, and a cloth bag.

The Patriarch’s eyes opened wide as he explained that black pearls were a vital ingredient for a spell to identify magical items, and that they were worth 100 gold each, that he would gladly pay for if they wanted. He also said that he knew such a spell, and would readily cast it for them to identify their treasure, if they were willing to provide either a black pearl or 100 gold to pay for a replacement.

Eager to divvy up their loot, as they reminded the Patriarch that he had said they could keep any treasure they found in the Ruined Tower, they decided to part with four black pearls, but to divide the rest between themselves, rather than sell them to the Patriarch.

With an understanding nod, the Patriarch examined their items. It seemed the the scroll contained three spells – magic missile, knock, and a powerful lightning bolt. Thaddeus claimed this as he was the only one who could use it. Next, the cloth bag turned out to be a bag of holding, a magical bag able to carry more treasure than a normal bag, without adding any extra weight. This went to Niles.

The dagger was discovered to be enchanted, making it much more deadly. Meanwhile, the liquid in the vial turned out to be a potion of extra healing, which could be used just like the one Elanna had used to save Darkblade. However, this one could be used to heal even more damage, or split into three doses, each the same strength as the one Elanna had. With this in mind, it was decided that Darkblade should have the potion, and Elanna would take the dagger.

All happy, the party left the Patrician’s office. It was time to rest and recover after a successful adventure, whilst reflect on what they had learnt…

Yet Another Starter Set?

When I started this campaign, I did a series of articles explaining my planning and development of the homebrew system I was going to use, as we worked our way through the Dungeons and Dragons Easy to Master Boxed Set, it’s tutorial, and it’s adventure Escape From Zanzer’s Dungeon. I posted these shortly after the sessions were played, because that way I could use them both as a campaign record, and share my thinking with any other aspiring GMs out there.

The so-called “Black Box” set of Revised Dungeons and Dragons was unusual in a way, because it showed the GM how to play, and then allowed the GM to explain how to play to their players. In a way, this boxed set was more of a course, featuring a long tutorial adventure as well as the basic rules of the game to get players up to 5th level.

Players were then encouraged to pick up the Rules Cyclopedia if they wanted to continue to advance, or to pick up a number of products in the Revised Basic D&D range to keep playing in the low level range of 1st to 5th level. When players were ready, they could always head on into Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition, with it’s three core rulebooks and mountains of content from TSR.

Looking at what was provided, it’s clear that the “Black Box” was packaged and marketed more as a complete game and learning system, feeding off the fan-base that enjoyed other fantasy board games, such as HeroQuest from Games Workshop. In fact, I believe I received my copy for my birthday shortly after getting the Advanced HeroQuest board game.

Moving on, it’s clear that how teaching players D&D had changed over time. No longer were there long adventures in boxed sets, but smaller, taster adventures that could be printed as an article in the likes of Dragon magazine or run as a quick demo in the store. Here, pre-gens and speed were focused, in a neat package that was relatively cheap to distribute, aimed at encouraging players who enjoyed the adventures to go further, by purchasing either a dedicated introductory box set, or the core rulebooks.

Although the introductory box sets were similar to the “Black Box” set, the majority of them had a few adventures provided, rather than a single tutorial system, and contained very few rules with which you could continue playing from the box sets alone.

What’s interesting is that, around 1999, the silver anniversary of D&D, the tutorial articles were branded as a Fast Play system, and even spawned a small series of products in their own right. There were two of these products, which introduced Haven and the Vale, as well as providing two more, longer, adventures for those players that enjoyed the Fast Play system. The setting of Haven and the Vale would be revisited for the D&D Adventure Game boxed set later on, but would not feature the Fast Play system, and contain three further adventures.

The problem with planning is that because these are all pre-prepared short adventures, none of which have the kind of length that Escape From Zanzer’s Dungeon provided, so there’s not all that much to actually plan for, other than how to best sequence the adventures.

Some players might question why I am using so many pre-planned adventures, rather than creating my own, especially when it involves creating new parties and pre-gens alongside them. Well, the “Black Box” was an ideal tutorial scenario, which made it great for play by an absolute newbie like my partner, Sian. It had a simple progression which meant that decisions regarding character generation and equipment, as well as learning the basics of the game, could be drip-fed in a logical manner that was easy to digest.

However, the “Black Box” had one flaw – whilst the adventure Escape From Zanzer’s Dungeon was great, it provided a much more bare bones dungeon experience in the form of the lost Dwarven Stronghold, Stonefast as a follow up. This dungeon had a map, a main villain, and some notes, but it was left to the GM to flesh out the adventure, moving on from the five rooms they stocked in Zanzer’s Dungeon.

It’s a bit like just being kicked out of the nest, and there was nothing else provided besides the bare bones of Stonefast. There wasn’t any setting given, as the it was either deemed unnecessary, or the players were expected to pick up other products, such as the D&D Rules Cyclopedia, which contained the rules from the Basic, Expert, Companion, and Masters sets of D&D (4/5th of the BECMI D&D system, missing only the Immortals set). The Rules Cyclopedia introduced the Known World, the default setting for D&D at the time.

Later on, Revised D&D would feature a number of other boxed sets and products, the majority of which were set in the new campaign area of Thunder Rift. Thunder Rift was fairly good as an enclosed setting, but there was a problem with this line. The first boxed set, Dragon’s Den, wasn’t actually set in Thunder Rift at all, but a renamed version of the Duchy of Karameikos from the Known World, that was first introduced in the Expert rules set, and provided in the Rules Cyclopedia.

Although the later boxed sets were set in Thunder Rift, none of the products, including the primer for Thunder Rift, mentioned Zanzer’s Dungeon or Stonefast at all. Whilst this made it easy to place Zanzer’s Dungeon in any campaign world, this did beg the question of whether were any other campaign worlds that might be more suitable.

Step forward Haven and the Vale, which was featured both in the Fast Play system for D&D and the Silver Anniversary D&D Adventure Game boxed set. It’s like Thunder Rift, but simpler, with a number of tutorial products to supplement it. Although we wouldn’t be using the 2nd Edition AD&D system fully, the background and adventures didn’t need a lot of conversion to a 3.x system, just as Escape From Zanzer’s Dungeon didn’t.

It’s worth noting at this time that the D&D Adventure Game for 3.x, whilst fun and easy to learn, as well as being the basis of the rules system we were using, didn’t even bother providing a background, so it would be simple to transplant these adventures into any other setting, as desired.

I figured that mashing these three sets of products together, I would have the strong foundation for my homebrew campaign, along with a solid system, and a fairly well filled out stable of characters for my two players. The keys to this was all about how best to arrange the adventures in to a continuing narrative.

Right now, we are on our third starter set/tutorial adventure, with a third new party about to adventure in the Vale. The previous two parties haven’t been retired just yet, just are busy resting or travelling off-camera as we focus on the new party, ready to explore yet another mystery in the region – the Ruined Tower.

What does this mean for my planning articles? Well, it’s unlikely that I will continue them as regularly as I did before, as they only really make sense when I am introducing new features to the game. This will probably be between adventures, so every couple of sessions so.

Right now, I want to secure the narrative of the Vale down as a solid foundation for the campaign. This is a region which is ripe to explore, even if it’s just a few adventures designed to teach the game. By tying everything to this area, I can provide a form of consistency through a shared narrative even when the adventures themselves might seem disparate. Plus, I like having Stonefast is my back pocket for now – as I can use it as a sort of reward for the players, and even tie up any loose ends from the other adventures, before looking at where the campaign will head next.

There’s lots of possibilities in the long term, but for now, I think it’s best that the players stay in Haven and explore the Vale. It’s a big world out there, and who knows what they will find once they leave…