Saturday, August 30, 2014

Qelong hard road out of Hell


This afternoon, I ran another 5th edition D&D game for a local meetup of the geek persuasion.  You get really big groups when you forget to put a cap on attendance.  At one point there were about 12 RSVPs, then a couple backed out and one no-show.  So, it was myself and 8 players.  For someone who used to struggle getting 3 players at a table, the meetup games are a dream come true.

Anyways, I purchased Qelong weeks ago.  It's a Lamentations of the Flame Princess adventure written by Kenneth Hite.  The hook sounded alluring with Mythos elements galore.  The stars were right.

Reading through Qelong, I was hit over the head by its strangeness and eloquence and depth.  This was no ordinary module / campaign setting.  This was fantasy fucking Vietnam with equal parts LotFP despair and Hite's obsession with Lovecraft.  Really a small, beautiful work of art.  Shades of Carcosa...

Luckily, I budgeted 4 1/2 hours for the session because this week was incredibly busy and there was no time to make the pre-generated 3rd level characters I had promised.  Instead, I had everyone make fresh adventurers - 1st level and without much in the way of equipment, background, skills, feats, or anything besides the essentials.  It wasn't so much an attempt at old school (even let the players roll 4d6 and drop the lowest for ability scores - still made them go in order down the line, though) as it was a desperate race to the finish line so these PCs could get gaming already.

45 minutes later, we had enough.  Oh yeah, this was my very 1st session with the new Player's Handbook.  It got passed around quite a bit.  Didn't have as much time to familiarize myself with it as I would have liked.  I still don't know if racial ability bonuses are added to racial subtype bonuses or if you only get to use one.

I took the spell casters aside, their characters had been approached by an Archmage of Chaos named Ibzuul the mad.  He wanted the cylinder's seal for himself.  I gotta say, it's just so god damn awesome when something that inspires you to the nth degree trips the same trigger as other artists and visionaries and creative types.  If you've never seen the original black and white British tv serial / film Quatermass and the Pit, do yourself a favor and watch it.  Assuming you don't mind vintage Doctor Who, you'll probably love it to bits.

Anyways, the adventurers travel to Sajavedra.  Sig the human sorcerer, Four Acre the straightforward mountain dwarf barbarian, Palleous the drow ranger, Rivken the dwarven cleric, Olo Underbow the halfling rogue, Chai Too the elven monk, Thimblerod the gnome monk, and finally Azidah the gnome wizard.  I have to hand it to this group.  Lots of roleplaying, speaking in character, witty banter, etc.  After a half hour, I just gave everyone a point of inspiration in the form of a little greenish yellow stone because they all deserved it.

Qelong is saturated with a sense of place and mood.  It was easy coming up with encounters since the text provides lots of suggestions for each location.  I did my best to evoke decay and ruin and some kind of Cambodian noir with magic-users.  How often do you get a chance to run something like that?

Skipping to the end, the PCs fought their most recent employer, another dangerous wizard who also wanted the cylinder rune-plate or whatever it was.  Oh, they had a good reason for turning on him.  He was working on a spell to bring the Great Old Ones forth.  I think Mr. Hite would be pleased.

I rolled a "1" for his initiative.  By the end of the first round, the wizard had one hit point remaining.  So, obviously he was going to cast fireball.  What else?  Well, I didn't realize until after I declared his action how much a 5e fireball does.  8d6!  Without keeping in mind the fact that the party is still 1st level, I roll the dice.  The total is 22.  Everyone rolls their saving throw.  A couple used their inspiration for advantage (basically, I just let those who failed re-roll).  The only one who wasn't either dead or unconscious was the barbarian because he started out with 12.  Now, he was down to 1.

This was one of those moments where everything - the entire 4+ hour session would come down to a single roll.  He was out of inspiration and I had already told the players the wizard's armor class: 17.  Well, even with the bless and all the usual bonuses, Four Acre came up a couple points short.

I fudged it.  Yeah, even with the dice out in front of everyone and the numbers clear as day, I told them the wizard's magic force shield wavered because he had just cast fireball and the hit connected.  Wizard hacked to pieces.

Normally, I wouldn't do that.  I'm not in the habit of granting phantom bonuses, fudging dice, or letting the PCs win just because.  It was a combination of DM error (I should have remembered to scale things back because they were only 1st level and I should also have known how much a fireball does or gone with my instinct and rolled 5 or 6d6 instead) and cinematic flair.  This adventure felt like a movie - a movie where the heroes conquer the apocalyptic sorcerer because that's the kind of epic storytelling we really want.

So, I consider that last roll to have included a DM ineptitude bonus or, if I'm being kind to myself, a swagger bonus because that mountain dwarf kept it real the whole time.  He was after gold and only gold... until the price was simply too much to pay.

I was on such a DM high from that moment that I allowed the dead PCs (those who failed their save against the fireball) to be revived by the monastery's resurrection scrolls.  Even more rejoicing!

By now I was convinced this was Quatermass and the Pit meets Indiana Jones.  The monastery also included a well that led down deep into the earth, possibly to its molten core.  I also started ad-libbing a prophecy about some magical super weapon and how it would one day be destroyed by dropping it down into the well.  The adventurers obliged.

This probably goes against everything that James Raggi believes in, but I even mentioned the land being healed by the disposal of this Cthuloid licence plate of doom.  Some day, it might even become the idyllic paradise it had once been.  Nihilistic blasphemy!  Might as well bring in Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan for the Qelong sequel, right?

What can I say?  It felt... right.

Wondering what the Call of Cthulhu RPG was doing there?  I flipped through the book for the perfect guardian entity that might be protecting the cylinder.  They ran and ran screaming!

Oh, and the unbridled to-his-face racism endured by the dark elf was something else.  That poor ranger.  Everyone was taking shots at him (even me).  I don't know if this comes up in other groups but during the adventure I seriously felt bad for drow culture and those dark elves who are more misunderstood than evil.  Still, a lot of the ridicule made us laugh in an out-of-character way.

Good times.


VS