Saturday, 22 March 2014

Silver Marches: Queen of Air & Darkness 0 - A Slightly Different Take on The Winter Horde

More than two weeks ago I posted a rough campaign synopsis for a Heroic Tier campaign I called Silver Marches: The Winter Horde which grew out of an earlier attempt to try and create a sandbox campaign set in the Silver Marches. Unfortunately, it seems I am utterly incapable of creating a sandbox campaign: I need a plot or, at the very least, a metaplot but I digress....

On top of that, I also posted some ideas about my plans to create a capstone campaign, Menzoberranzan: The Demon Weave, that would provide a metaplot and a capstone for several of the campaigns I am currently preparing or playing.

As I have mashed these two campaign ideas together, I find that The Winter Horde is probably not the best name for what I have in mind; Queen of Air & Darkness is. I believe it was in the DDi Dragon 367 article Halls of the Frostmaiden (this is a legally-free download) that it was first revealed that Auril was the FR holder of the archfey title Queen of Air & Darkness. And I further believe that this title was first revealed in the 2E book Monster Mythology.

The Queen of Air and Darkness is the fey deity of magic (especially illusions), darkness, and murder. Her long-lost true name is never spoken among the fey. Her unholy symbol is a black diamond. The Queen of Air and Darkness is a bodiless, invisible being, but she can be perceived magically as a faerie with pale, angular features, blood-black eyes, and a mane of black hair. She is beautiful, but hers is a terrible, eldritch beauty that chills the bone. The Queen is cold and utterly emotionless.
Of course, the 4E version of Lolth also has fey origins as she was once an elf or, at the very least, an elven deity or perhaps an archfey. That means that Lolth would be very aware of the Queen of Air & Darkness and, in the course of seeking additional arcane might to fuel her creation of the Demon Weave, I could easily imagine Lolth's grand scheme also including a plot to steal this title from Auril.

So, what does this mean for my plans for a campaign set in the Silver Marches?

It means at least two things. Firstly, Auril and her drive to accumulate more power - much like what is implied in the published Legacy of the Crystal Shard adventure - is going to appear to be the primary plot point of the campaign.... until, secondly, it is revealed that Lolth is actually manipulating Auril, causing her to overreach in her campaign to steal all of the storm portfolio and more from Gruumsh-who-was-Talos so that, after she is weakened by Gruumsh, Lolth can step in and steal the mantle of Queen of Air & Darkness from the Frostmaiden. With this mantle in place, Lolth will be even better placed to create the Demon Weave fuelled, in part, by the natural arcane power of the Feywild.

My original plan for Silver Marches: The Winter Horde was for an adventure path of five adventures but now I think I can cover the same levels with three adventures with Menzoberranzan: The Demon Weave to serve as the Paragon Tier capstone of the campaign.

Here's my rough synopsis for Silver Marches: Queen of Air & Darkness:

Adventure One: The Darkening of the Glimmerwood
Levels 1-4
I suppose this adventure is about the darkness part of the Queen of Air & Darkness title. The other inspiration for this adventure - other than this terrific piece of art by Ralph Horsley - is The One Ring adventure The Darkening of the Mirkwood which I finally read last week.

Of course, Lord of the Rings is very different from D&D, something that the outstanding The One Ring game system models very well. But I want this first adventure - which is also meant to serve as an introductory adventure for new players! - to have something of the same feeling as The Darkening of the Mirkwood in at least two ways:

1. The PCs need to feel like they really are responsible for holding back darkness. Of course, in the case of this Rise of the Underdark-inspired metaplot, this will involve literal darkness because the goal of this first adventure is to end the pall of magical darkness that has fallen over the Glimmerwood.
2. I want to keep the monster roster fairly simple. The Darkening of the Mirkwood has goblins, orcs, spiders, trolls, werewolves (more accurately, a werewolf), worgs, and wraiths (the Nazg├╗l) and, with a few exceptions, I don't want to add too much to that (the exceptions, of course, being the drow that are a key part of the plot, appropriate drow minions, and creatures of magical cold that I will need to tie it into the wider Queen of Air & Darkness plot).

I must admit, this adventure started smaller with a similar goal but instead set in the Silverwood, however it seems that it would make more sense geographically in terms of where I want the campaign to go to actually set it in the Glimmerwood and to combine it with some ideas I had planned for that forest.

Some of the other sources of inspiration for this adventure are:
  • 1E's Forest of Doom from Dragon 73;
  • 1E's The Black Heart of Ulom from Dungeon 11;
  • 2E's The Shattered Circle;
  • 3E's The Crucible of Freya; and
  • 3E's The Twilight Tomb.
The centrepiece is a hollow tree-fortress - taken from the aforementioned Forest of Doom - built over an ancient temple of Moander. 

Adventure Two: The Corruption of Beorunna's Well
Levels 4-7
While the former adventure was more about darkness, this adventure is more about winter. Here the PCs discover that Spring has been banished from the Silver Marches and the unnatural winter is a result of the corruption of Beorunna's Well by the nalfeshnee Zukothoth who was, according to 1E's FR5 The Savage Frontier, once slain in this exact location.

So, while I know I want this adventure to end with a clash between the PCs and Zukothoth beneath Beorunna's Well, for the moment I am a bit unsure as to how to fill in the rest of this adventure. I know I want the corruption of this ancestor mound to result in the freeing of various elemental creatures and I suppose one of those will be an aspect of Cryonax. In fact, as per my original ideas in my first draft of a synopsis for Silver Marches: The Winter Horde, perhaps what gets this adventure started is Cyronax coming to the village of Quaervarr and causing the village to freeze over. However, I'm not sure if I want to see an aspect of Cryonax as only a level 4 or 5 solo monster....

I mentioned in the previous adventure idea that it might draw on ideas from 1E's The Black Heart of Ulom - an adventure in Dungeon 11 where a forest is awakened by evil - but perhaps that better suits this adventure with the titular Black Heart being the corrupted Uthgardt ancestor mound. But what is also really important from the point-of-view of the story/plot is that it becomes apparent that a faction of the orcs of Many-Arrows have broken away from King Obould and that a horde - The Winter Horde in fact - is being whelmed in Auril's name to attack Silverymoon and the cities of the Silver Marches.

Beyond the final clash with Zukothoth, the adventure also needs to end with the revelation that something else has been freed from the corrupted ancestor mound: the ancient frost titan, Gurt...

Adventure Three: Lord of the Pale Giants
Levels 7-10
While I am struggling for ideas for the previous adventure, with this final adventure I know exactly what I want, beyond what is suggested in this marvellous piece of art by Jesper Ejsing.

Just as my plans for Menzoberranzan: The Demon Weave are meant to be my homage to D1 Descent into the Depths of the Earth, D2 Shrine of the Kuo-Toa, and D3 Vault of the Drow, Lord of the Pale Giants is meant to be my homage to two of the original Against the Giants trilogy, G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief and G2 The Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl.

Plotwise, it involved the PCs acting as emissaries to Kong Obould to ask for his aid in stopping The Winter Horde only to discover he's essentially a king without a kingdom. Restoring his rule requires, inter alia, the recovery of his flaming greatsword which is now in the possession of the hill giant chief (G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, here we come). This is followed by an assault on the rift-fortress of Gurt, Lord of the Pale Giants (G2 The Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl) and the discovery, a la the discovery at the end of G3 Halls of the Fire Giant King, that the drow are responsible for the chaos afflicting the Silver Marches.

And, just like in G3 Halls of the Fire Giant King, there is a passage beneath the Glacial Rift leading into the Underdark....

While I want that final adventure to conclude with a super-obvious link to Menzoberranzan: The Demon Weave, I also want the campaign to feel like it has been successfully concluded and for the players to feel like their characters have won a really significant victory.

After all, it may be that we stop the campaign at that point and end our experiment with D&D/RPGs or start a fresh campaign or simply take a long break because, as rewarding as D&D/RPGs can be, they also require a fair bit of effort unlike most forms of entertainment which are far more passive in nature.

Hopefully, though, we will push on so that I can finally cross D1 Descent into the Depths of the Earth, D2 Shrine of the Kuo-Toa, and D3 Vault of the Drow off my gaming bucket list....

Sunday, 16 March 2014

(My FR Metaplots 1) Menzoberranzan: The Demon Weave 0 - A Brief Introduction

The week that 3.5E was released I began two different FR campaigns set in two different parts of FR - the Silver Marches and the Dalelands - for two groups of players with the members of each group never having met any members of the other group.

In both cases, the machinations of Shar involving her Shadow Weave formed the metaplot of both campaigns although, in both cases, that became known much later.

Sadly, due to my need to move countries for business reasons, I was not able to bring either campaign to a completely satisfactory conclusion and so I was never able to run my idea for a capstone game: I was going to bring the two groups together, have them meet in the Demonweb Pits, and have to co-operate to find and defeat the campaign's BBEG: a drider daughter of Lolth who was going to slay Lolth during her Silence and bring the drow under Shar's dark dominion.

I still rather like this basic idea and it's probably behind a lot of my metaplot thinking for the campaign I am currently running and the ones that I am in the process of planning.

If you have been reading this blog you will probably have noticed that I target everything toward the Heroic Tier. All versions of D&D - including 4E - seem to work best mechanically at these levels plus living in a different country to my players (although that will soon change as it seems I have made some converts here) means I want the campaign they are in to come to a logical and satisfactory conclusion after a reasonable length of time in the hope that it might tempt them to commit to either a new campaign or an extension of the existing campaign.

Like a lot of DMs, I have a soft spot for the drow that is completely unrelated to Drizzt and R A Salvatore's neverending series of Drizzt schlock. I can remember reading the 1E Monster Manual for the first time and being entranced by the hint of an underground race of mysterious and evil dark elves and then discovering a year or so later that they had actually been detailed in three adventures - D1 Descent into the Depths of the Earth, D2 Shrine of the Kuo-Toa, and D3 Vault of the Drow - as well as 1E's Fiend Folio.

Sadly, I never had a chance to run the original trilogy of drow adventures and it remains on my gaming bucket list. However, the ideas from WotC's Rise of the Underdark storyline - as half-hearted and poorly-executed as it was - particularly in relation to the Demon Weave seem to provide a FR-specific way for me to finally run D1 Descent into the Depths of the Earth, D2 Shrine of the Kuo-Toa, and D3 Vault of the Drow albeit with Menzoberranzan replacing Greyhawk's Erelhei-Cinlu.

Essentially, I see Menzoberranzan: The Demon Weave serving as a low- to mid-Paragon Tier capstone mini-campaign that can be played as the conclusion to pretty much any of the Heroic Tier campaigns I have been posting about and/or preparing. And all I would need to do is convert sections of D1 Descent into the Depths of the Earth and D2 Shrine of the Kuo-Toa to serve as the journey through the Underdark to Menzoberranzan and then draw on 2E's Menzoberranzan boxed set, 4E's Menzoberranzan: City of Intrigue and D3 Vault of the Drow and I will have a suitable framework on which to build the final part of the adventure. The only question remaining: how do I depict the Demon Weave and make it into an obstacle which the PCs can overcome?

More on that in another post.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Silver Marches: The Winter Horde 0 - Introduction

So far, I have made 22 or so posts to this blog outlining some ideas about a sandbox campaign set in the Silver Marches but, as I think I have already noted elsewhere, I don't do sandboxes.

I try but they don't "take" with me and I end up working on plot/metaplot ideas particularly once I start working out what NPCs to include. And the simply process of looking at the goals and motivations of an NPC then suggests further plot points... et voila, it's no longer a sandbox.

And that's what has happened with my plans for a Silver Marches sandbox campaign: it now has a plot and metaplot but it still has (hopefully) plenty of room for player agency.

My Gaming Bucket List

D&D has been a big part of my life for 33 years, a creative outlet that I have turned to when the left side of my brain has threatened to completely overwhelm the right side of my brain and turn me into a high-functioning automaton. And I need that creative outlet even if I certainly haven't mastered any of the elements that make a good DM (but I'm good enough :) ).

However, the realities of real life make me realise that, at the age of 45, there are only a finite number of times I will play D&D or any other RPG for the rest of my life. As I look at this issue of "gaming mortality" I cannot help but think of applying the concept of the bucket list to this particular hobby, and my plot/metaplot ideas for what I am now calling the Silver Marches: The Winter Horde campaign draws from ideas taken from items on my gaming bucket list.

The cover of Dragon 429 included this marvellous piece of art by one of my favourite D&D artists, Jesper Ejsing, depicting King Obould of Dark Arrow Keep in combat with a frost titan. I love this even if I cannot explain why (beyond simply loving Jesper's work). Looking at it made me think of the classic G1-3 Against the Giants series - G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl, and G3 Hall of the Fire Giant King - which I have never run properly as part of a campaign. (I did run the first two as standalone adventures in 2E but they really showed how crappy AD&D was when you were no longer filled with child-like glee.)

So, reading the accompanying article, History Check: Dark Arrow Keep, and reminding myself how perfect the Silver Marches is as a setting for the classic G1-3 Against the Giants series, I decided to make them a key part of this campaign. However, there are a couple of changes I should note:

1. I have lots of hill giant and frost giant miniatures, but only a single fire titan miniature. I'll ditch the third adventure purely for that reason... plus I think three fairly similar adventures in a row is just a bit too much.
2. Giants in 4E are Paragon Tier monsters. I will run them instead as having the same number of levels as their 1E hit dice. This will reduce the hill giants to level 8 brutes and the frost giants to level 10 brutes. If I include stone giants, they will be level 9 artillery and fire giants will be level 11 soldiers. 

So that's a fairly major item crossed off my gaming bucket list. And when I get around to writing an introduction for the second part of this campaign, Silver Marches: The Demon Weave, I'll be crossing off another major item.

A Rough Campaign Synopsis

Before I get to the synopsis, I should mention that this campaign is going to be run for my wife and family who have no experience with tabletop RPGs or even boardgames. They have played the Warcraft III clone DotA and they have played cards: that's it.

As a result, I feel the inclusion of a plot is fairly necessary and it's pretty simple. It's also more about the illusion of choice rather than a true sandbox: anyone who has played D&D before will spot the railroad before they sit down! And it also involves fairly simple monsters: orcs, ogres, and giants, with a dragon or two simply to invoke the name of the game.

With those comments out of the way, here's my rough synopsis for the campaign:

The Death Knight's Tomb
Levels 1-3
This adventure is not only going to be the first adventure of this campaign, it's going to be the first tabletop RPG adventure - and the first genuine tabletop game- that these players will have ever played.

To make this work, I've decided that I need to really heavily on visual and kinesthetic elements to bring the story side to life. Beyond the heavy use of miniatures, I'll also be using a Paizo flip-mat - the one depicting the dungeon in their introductory adventure Crypt of the Everflame - as part of the effort to try and bring the game to life for these players who only known fantasy games from MMORPGs.

Actually, that's also why I decided to go with 4E. I know a lot of the criticism of 4E is that it is too much like a MMORPG: I don't know if the criticism is true, but I am hoping there are enough parallels that these new players enjoy playing D&D! :)

I've also decided to make this first adventure stand largely separately from the campaign's plot... but to tie into the plot for the Paragon Tier conclusion I have planned if the players end up liking the game. In the first instance I am doing this to provide some variety but, if we do continue the campaign, I am rather hopeful that the players enjoy the "big reveal" when they realise their first adventure directly relates to what happens 10 or so character levels later.

The basic plot of this adventure is that this is a tomb of a Banite paladin slain in the Banedeath by Cyricists after the Time of Troubles. A group of Banite hobgoblins have been led by visions from the Black Lord to find this tomb and raise this paladin to unlife... only to find that he is already a death knight. Now, while that part doesn't tie into the second part of the campaign, there will be slavers present that are allied with the drow - a drow will also be present - and they will be particularly interested in spellcasters for reasons that will not be revealed unless and until the campaign is continued in Silver Marches: The Demon Weave....

Menace of the Icy Spire
Levels 3-5
And now we get to Silver Marches: The Winter Horde proper....

The previous adventure - and, indeed, the campaign itself - begins at the very beginning of spring. However, after some initial signs that spring had arrived, winter has returned with a vengeance.

Something the PCs have done in the previous adventure - one of the things I still have to work on but it could be as simple as rescuing someone important from the slavers - has brought them to the attention of Silverymoon's leadership. They are asked to investigate the ruins of Rauvinwatch Keep which have been subsumed by a mysterious spire of ice.

The reason for hiring the PCs is that the unnatural winter has caused Silverymoon to withdraw its standing army, the Knights in Silver aka the Argent Legion, closer to Silverymoon itself because of rumours of orcs, ogres, giants, and also trolls from the Evermoors.

Anyway, this is a fairly simply adventure involving a mad female eladrin cleric or invoker of Auril who is angry with Silverymoon and has decided to bring winter to the city's doorstep. However, when the PCs end the threat posed by the eladrin they soon realise that this is but part of a larger problem leading them to...

Quaervarr Under Ice
Levels 5-7
... the village of Quaervarr where the entire village is trapped under ice and, at the centre of the village, sits a creature of ancient elemental evil, an aspect of Cyronax. A cult of orcs serves his every whim.

In the process of (hopefully) freeing the village from its icy immurement, the PCs will discover that the aspect of Cryonax should rightly be imprisoned by the primal magic of the ancestor mounds of the Uthgardt barbarians.

Whether following that lead or a further quest or mission from Silverymoon, the PCs head deeper into the Glimmerwood to solve the mystery of the...

(Edit: When I was first looking at Quaervarr as a location for the sandbox version of this campaign, it was with a view to setting a revised/adapted version of Crucible of Freya there. I think I would still like to do this and make the Crucible of Freya into a relic of Chauntea or Mielikki that would have protected the village from the unnatural winter but was stolen by drow who plan to use it to fuel the Demon Weave. That basic idea could still work as laid out in that earlier post.)

The Corruption of Beorunna's Well
Levels 7-9
 ... which has been corrupted because of the return of the nalfeshnee Zukothoth who was revealed in FR5 The Savage Frontier to have met his end in this same location centuries ago in battle with an Uthgardt shaman.

The followers of Auril have used lore provided by the drow to summon Zukothoth and Zukothoth has used his connection with this location to perform abyssal rituals to corrupt the ancestor mounds and free the aspect of Cyronax and unleash an unnatural winter across the Silver Marches.

However, in the course of ending the threat posed by Zukothoth, the PCs discover that anothe created has been freed: Gurt...

Lord of the Pale Giants
Levels 9-11
.. who was one of the mightiest foes defeated by Uthgar but also the one that ended Uthgar's mortal life (I think: I better check that).

While the followers of Auril believe that Gurt is the Frostmaiden's champion - and, in many ways, he is - this is all part of Lolth's real plan. She wants to foment war between Auril and Gruumsh-who-was-Talos because it will weaken Auril greatly leaving her vulnerable to the plan of the Queen of Spiders to seize Auril's crown as the Queen of Air and Darkness of the Feywild.

Metaplot aside, Gurt has rallied the hill giants and frost giants of the North and has also appealed to the orcs of Dark Arrows Keep who had grown tired of how the unbroken line of Oboulds had forced civilisation on the orcs. But now the Winter Horde begins to form ready to march south and sweep all before it...

... unless, of course, the PCs can return Obould to his throne. The short version is this: Obould's flaming sword has been taken by the hill giants back to the steading of their most powerful chieftain (and that's my excuse for running my own version of G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief). While Obould and his forces take the fight to the traitor orcs and their giant masters, the PCs travel to my updated version of G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl and there beard Gurt in his new lair and discover that there was something far sinister behind this entire plot than simply Auril seeking to gain power at the expense of Gruumsh...

And Then...
Levels 11+
... and that something is the drow.

But more about that when I post about Menzoberranzan: The Demon Weave.

Suffice to say, it's heavily inspired by the Rise of the Underdark storyline... but I want to draw on D1 Descent into the Depths of the Earth, D2 Shrine of the Kuo-Toa, and D3 Vault of the Drow (albeit set in Menzoberranzan) and another large chunk will be removed from my gaming bucket list.

Anyway, this is just a rough draft of the campaign to give me something to work with. Let's see if I can make it work....