Monday, May 9, 2011

How Dangerous the Sea?

Had a session on Friday and the party barely survived the Expert book's ocean encounter table. That thing is populated with multi-HD, giant monsters! I thought the ocean would facilitate sandbox-type play by making travel to various destinations easy, but not if it's deadlier to travel on than dry ground. Hear the tale of this journey and let me know what you think:

Athydas MU
Mollie DP
Toral DP
"G" F
       Le Bouche hireling
       Janis hireling
"Z" F
      Pita hireling
     Mika hireling
     Fabrino hireling

The party is sailing North to the city of Mont St Brise to deliver a heretic to be burned at the stake (well, to help her escape). They know the prevailing winds are against them. The laodah told them that tacking into the wind like this, it will take 6 days to reach the city.

The first day out the wind died in the morning. Becalmed, they saw a giant crocodile slithering off the shore and heading toward them. It appeared as if they would have no chance against it. Having a vase full of potions that allow the control of water, several members of the party drank these draughts simultaneously, creating a wave surge to push them away from the beast. When things still looked dicey, Athydas cast a spell called The Story of the Wind which is meant to answer yes/no questions, but does so through wind. The breeze from the spell was enough to put the creature behind them.

The afternoon of the first day the wind freshened again. G and Z stripped of their armor and began learning to help the sailors with the sails. They are also trying to learn some of their language. In the dusk an odd wave was seen by its bioluminescent outline. It turned out to be the end of the tentacle of a Giant Squid.

A tentacle shot from the water and plucked Toral off the boat so expertly he dropped his mace and shield. G climbed the mast with Janis. Z helped Roger up from the hold (his feet were damaged by torture). Together they formed a circular shield wall with the rest of the party. The potions of water control were brought out again. Several people drank simultaneously and forced the water to push the tentacle clutching Toral out of the water. While hanging in air, Janis and G peppered it with arrows and it released Toral to the deck. Toral proceeded beneath decks, kneeled, and began Chanting.

Athydas tied himself to the mast with a rope and dipped his darts in giant scorpion venom. A tentacle swept him over the side. He managed to jab his dart into it several times. The great tentacle let go and slid down into the darkness. Toral came out of the hold with a glowing, golden halo that seems permanent. Perhaps his god wishes him to live.

Some Thoughts

First of all, they have way too many of about five types of potion. I randomly determined these when they were in the Black Pyramid (where they messed with Time). The room they got the potions from pipes they dis-respectfully called the Soda-Shoppe, haha. Anyway, I thought the uses for the potions were creative and awesome, so I allowed it. Also it was burning like five of the potions at a time, so seems as good a way as any to use them up.

Also, another DM might have ruled differently on the poison killing such a large creature, but I thought it was smart, exciting, and the only way they would keep from getting TPKed, so I allowed it. How are you supposed to fight a giant squid from a ship?

One thing I had players do at the beginning of this session was take stock of all their items. I know Ben from Ars Ludi has said that the time players pay attention the most is when they get treasure, and I took note of this bit of Dming advice and tried to utilize it. But . . . uh, for my players if it isn't coin they throw it in a sack until I remind them of it sessions later (because it's something cool I made and want to see them use it!). They seemed to care not a whit that there were Arabic phrases on a bolt of cloth (Turban of Climbing) or the coracle in the dungeon (C'nor's Collapsible Coracle).

So this stocktaking is how they remembered they had all the potions. Also they had two identical rings. Playing around they finally figure out they are Rings of the Joined and seemed pretty excited about them.  It was fun to describe to them what it felt like as they pushed weight and intelligence back and forth at each other, Mollie even feeling the muskiness of G's gender that she could pull toward herself and vice versa.

Remember all that blah blah blah about how I run my clerics, well, Toral just turned 4th level so I allowed him to take a permanent miraculous effect. He now has that halo. May be too low of a level to give it to him, but it seems pretty cool. Can't wait until they walk into the city with that glowing on his head.

But what the heck, a giant crocodile and a giant squid on the same day! There is no way they will survive 5 more days of this.   Umm, now looking back at The Expert book, I see it only calls for one encounter check a day.  So maybe the party can handle 5 more mega-monsters :)

I'm going to have to make my own sea encounter chart I guess, but how dangerous should it be to keep it challenging and yet not keep players from wanting to travel on it at all?


  1. Sounds like even though they burned through a goodly number of potions, they mostly survived and had a couple of memorable encounters. It sounds like fun, high-stakes game play to me!

    I have yet do do any sea adventures with my current group, though they keep talking about seafaring as a possible future. . .

  2. Doesn't the monster appearing as an encounter simply mean that it appears at a randomly detemined encounter distance and then the party gets to do whatever they want about it or not? I.e., just because it showed up as a random encounter doesn't mean the battle music starts playing and it's fighting time, Final Fantasy style. They might simply see the thing at a distance and pass by, or turn to steer clear of it and avoid it - or it might react the same way to them. I would hazard that in the open ocean the odds of an encountered monster actually deciding to engage the party (or vice versa) are probably a bit lower than on land.

  3. @Carter: Absolutely, it was everything I want my D&D to be. It's just that I realized with the ocean that 1) there are no signs you are near something more dangerous than you can handle, because everything looks the same, and 2) if something shows up you have no place to go, 3) especially if you have no wind.

    @Gregory: That's absolutely true. They might get some lucky reaction rolls. Although most of these beasties are animals, so you can't parley with them.

    Encounter distance might help, with something appearing from 40-240 yards away, or about 700 feet. But keep in mind you may not be able to control your own movement if you're becalmed.

    With wind they probably could have outrun the croc, but not the giant squid.

    Maybe I should have different encounters for shallow ocean/deep ocean, or telltale signs that trouble is about (flock of expectant seabirds or something).

    And in looking back over the Expert book (which I didn't have with me that night, just some copied charts) I realize I wasn't following rules as written. If I revise my charts it should be much less likely to encounter one of these giants.

  4. Uneventful sea travel IRL is boring (and for an old salt junkie like me that's definitely part of the flavour) but at a table that time is hand-waved in a sentence (well, the players will insist they're catching up on prep work and supplies will be dwindling). I would incline toward encounters spread a few days/weeks apart much of the time. Log entry: becalmed 10 days, fearsome sun has us all under tarpaulins, which is why we didn't see the ship til she was but half a mile away.

    There's nowhere to run but when visibility is good you can see for miles. I'd use this to build tension. Ship sighted near horizon: sometimes you see her, sometimes she's lost in the haze, but she seems to be sailing parallel with you. What is she? Will she sneak up during the night? Also giant monsters: that squid might be bearing a grudge, thinking about a rematch. It might shadow the ship for some time. Creepy if they can see it's right under them but not attacking... yet. Give 'em a chance to plan.

    Also I'd make most sea hazards environmental and keep the monsters rare but that's me. You've seen Mule Abides' and Zak's sea encounter tables, right? Did you see aeons & augauries'? (link when I'm not on the phone).

  5. Also, another DM might have ruled differently on the poison killing such a large creature, but I thought it was smart, exciting, and the only way they would keep from getting TPKed, so I allowed it.

    maybe with killing such a monster you went overboard a bit (yeah, i know. sorry.), but i might have ruled being severely poisoned frightened the beast away.

    rewarding creative ideas is always a good idea.

    I'm going to have to make my own sea encounter chart I guess, but how dangerous should it be to keep it challenging and yet not keep players from wanting to travel on it at all?

    not putting too many monsters with tpk-ability on it might help. ;)

    i find putting plothooks onto the chart can help. if there's stuff you can only find on the sea the players might be more inclined to go there. intelligent monsters (with an agenda), a message in a bottle, maybe a shipwreck. i am sure you can find a lot of ideas on the net.

    Maybe I should have different encounters for shallow ocean/deep ocean, or telltale signs that trouble is about (flock of expectant seabirds or something).

    yes and yes. ;)

    ps: also all of what richard said. :)

  6. Aeons and augauries' shallow and deep tables. The main thing I remember about the distinction from my AMNH days is that the deep ocean is like a desert - most of the life and diversity hangs around the continental shelves, Finding Nemo style. In a naturalistic Med that wouldn't be an issue, the whole thing is "shallow," but it's something to bear in mind - a change in emphasis to rare megafauna and nothing else might be a sign you're away from safe harbors. In the age of sail and slavery sharks tend to trail ships hoping for cast offs, leading to mistaken ideas about how common and dangerous they are. Big Squid could discourage them.

    I don't know how rare Big Squid is supposed to be, but bringing home a trophy (or even sucker-scars) could be a quick way to fame. Superstitious sailors might want such a marked character - or your halo-wearer - aboard for good luck.

    Birds mean land or trouble. Or wrecks: picking off survivors, who might have tales of other seaborne hazards. Islands also tend to have clouds over them, and can therefore be detected past the horizon.

    Coastguards on the historical 12th c southern Med kept a 3 mile watch from shore and would send out galleys to do customs, passport and spy checks. Many harbor towns had the rule that foreign ships over a certain length (100-120') were engaging in war, since warships were galleys and galleys were long. Something to bear in mind if the PCs want to sign aboard a big ship to discourage the monsters.

  7. Thanks, folks. I had seen A&A's lists but didn't incorporate them into my charts. I'll look again. Lot of stuff to digest richard, mostly I'm interested how to get some of that archetypal flavor while keeping an engaging experience at the table. I guess the most straightforward approach would be to speed up or slow down the "narrative time." In other words 10 days becalmed means you start speeding up until the wind rises or an encounter happens. But that undercuts the sense of tedium you mention. Of course I'm not sure I want to perfectly simulate tedium :)

    Some more thoughts:

    One thing realize is that I really don't like nested tables. So, for example, you roll for encounter-- get yes, then roll on ship, monster, or weather chart, then roll on the appropriate subchart. This makes it very hard for me to have an intuitive feel for how likely one of the nested results is. I suppose I could sit down and calculate all the probabilities.

    If I want to avoid this I need to either include all encounter types on one big chart (my categorizing nature doesn't really like this) or have multiple rolls, one each for each kind of encounter possible. Of course the probabilities would have to be lessened for each or you would triple your chance of something happening. But this would allow more granularity for things like: weather changes often but creature encounters are rare in this bit of ocean.

    Things I need to decide on: how often to check for wind change/weather,
    how often to check for encounter.

    One thing that seems pretty apparent is that I should pump the encounter distance way up, maybe miles instead of yards.

    I was hoping someone who had had some experience with ocean gaming using the Expert book might share their experience with how deadly it was or wasn't and how it shaped travel in their world. No one with that experience?

  8. Re the distance/approaching/escaping stuff, I wonder if 9and30's reaction roll system could work here too: a growing mood of tension can potentially turn into an encounter.