Sunday, September 10, 2017

Vaults of Vyzor special report

So a couple months back I was working my gig at the unit on campus tasked with professional development for faculty, i.e. we try to help our instructors be better teachers.  I mostly work with fellow grad students, mentoring them through their first few semesters as a college teacher.  It's work I find super rewarding.  Anyway, I was sitting at my desk when I get a message that I was wanted in the conference room right now.

I can't immediately think of a reason I'm in trouble, but that's where my head goes as I hustle down the hall.  When I get there, my boss is in the room.  Everyone in the building who has her rank is also in the room.  The head of the unit is also sitting there, as is a woman I don't know.  Oh, crap, please don't be from HR, I think to myself.  Big sigh of relief as she's introduced as the Director of the School of Theatre and Dance.  I realize I'm not in trouble as such, but now I don't know what the heck is going on.

Turns out the Director of Theatre and Dance stopped by looking for help developing learning activities and instructor workshops around a play called She Kills Monsters.  It's about a woman who tries to get to know her deceased sister by playing through her D&D campaign.  Apparently my coworkers had a little laugh and someone said, "We have just the guy for you."

All this is a preamble to explain how I ended up running the Vaults of Vyzor on Friday night for 11 theatre majors and their director/instructor.  Prior to rehearsals beginning, the director wanted the cast to actually play some D&D.

We started with chargen.  I could've made a buncha pregens, but I felt that some sort of Genuine D&D Experience™ requires rolling 3d6 in a row and figuring out what kind of weirdo you are.  The end results was a party with thieves, magic-users, elves, a couple of halflings, and a single fighter.  No one selected a cleric or a dwarf.

I told people that if they were Strong they should consider playing a Fighter, if they had a high Intelligence then Magic-User was a good option, etc.  Two people had trouble selecting a character.  One had a character with a near-Hopeless set of stats and couldn't figure out what to play.  I threw her charsheet onto the doc camera and projected it onto the big screen.  (Playing in a classroom with an AV set-up can be a lot of fun.)

"I know this is the opposite of what I told you to do, but when you get a set of terrible rolls like this, you need a different approach to selecting your class.  Try picking the thing you are worst at and play someone who is comically inept at their job.  It can be a lot of fun.  This will work especially well in this case, as the 13 Charisma will help in smooth-talking your way out of trouble."

The other person just had a case of Decision Paralysis.  I said "when in doubt, play a fighter."  She chose to play a thief.  That's teaching college in a nutshell.

At this point one bright young lad tried to throw me a curveball: "Can my elf be blind and have a really good sense of smell?"  Everyone laughed.  I said "sure!"  I basically treated it as mechanically similar to infravision combined with elvish listen at doors and find secret doors abilities, but with some advantages and disadvantages that developed in play.

We talked a bit about How to Name Your First Character.  I suggested this method: think of a character from a movie, play, TV show, novel, etc. that you could totally rip off.  Name them in a way that suggests what you are doing so without outright stating it.  My example was a James Kirk-esque Fighter could be Tiberius the Bold.  [Protip: this idea works even better if you choose a class that doesn't seem to match up with the original character, like making an MU, thief, or cleric Tiberius.]
FYI one time in The Animated Series Captain Kirk
fought a wizardry duel against Satan himself.
No foolin'.
Next I explained alignment as follows:  Lawfuls are the good guys.  Neutrals need the money.  Chaotics are troublemakers.

Equipment:  We started by having the thieves, clerics, and elves/MU's write down Thieves Tools, Holy Symbol, and Spellbook.  Then we talk about picking a weapon or two.  Then we discussed armor.  I gave all the armored types their choice of Leather/Chain/Plate, describing them as a trade-off between mobility and protection.  Most people chose chainmail as the comprise option.  Then I gave everyone a card from the Deck O' Stuff.  Most people got stupid stuff like a jar of pickles or a half dozen cigars.  One young lady was visibly disappointed were draw of leather armor +1.  And you know what?  I think she is right.  Is it just me, or is plain vanilla plus equipment boring as heck to everyone except grognerds who like talking about force multipliers?  I should ditch such stuff entirely from my games.

That was all we did about equipment before the adventure began.  We were 25 minutes in and the adventure hadn't actually begun yet, so I punted on miscellaneous gear by assuming that everyone had a
Illo by Tony Foti
backpack and inside that backpack was an indeterminate selection of dungeoneering equipment set by the Wisdom score of the newbie PC:

Wis 3-5  You brought 1 useful thing.
Wis 6-8  You brought 2 useful things.
Wis 9-12 You brought 3 useful things.
Wis 13-15 You brought 4 useful things.
Wis 16-18 You brought 5 useful things.

Each time a situation presented itself where some miscellaneous equipment might be useful I would pitch it as something like this:  "The humans and halflings can't see down here without a light source.  You can spend one of your useful things to have a bundle of six torches and another to own a tinder box, a.k.a. a medieval cigarette lighter."  Hammer and iron spikes also appeared this way.  As did 50' of rope.  Someone asked if they had any spare money (they were thinking about bribing some orcs) and I ruled that 2d6 gp could be a useful thing as well.

But past 3d6 in a row, pick a class, pick an alignment, roll for a spell, pick weapons & armor, I didn't explain any other mechanics until they came up in play.  For example, we didn't roll hit points until an orc put the hurting on the lone fighter in the party.  Only then did they discover how fragile they are.

The first big decision the party had to make was how to start the adventure.  I pitched them the four entrances to the Vaults, including how the Azure Towers was the cool kids table and that they'd have to clear rubble and search for the entrance under the ruins of the Rosy Chambers.  Then I went to get some of the pizza that the stage manager had ordered.

I knew it would take this many newbies a while to come to a consensus.  They discussed an array of options, including skipping the proposed adventure and staging a jailbreak for the imprisoned monks of the Verdant Scriptorium.  Then someone else said they should bust out the monks and make then take point in the dungeon.  Beautiful.  After I finished my slice of pepperoni I pointed out that we've been hanging out for 50 minutes and no actual adventure has happened yet.

A Murder Memory
will stab your soul.
What followed was two and a quarter hours of high octane dungeon nonsense.  The Bargain Wolves were petted and befriended!  The killer bees were avoided.  That one crossbow trap nearly killed the fighter.  Wandering green slime was avoided.  And the Murder Memories, these shadowy figures that routed at least one previous party, were destroyed!  Lots and lots of orcs were fought, with multiple groups routed due to pisspoor morale rolls on my end.  And somehow, they made it all the way down the third level of the Verdant Vault, previously unexplored by any other group.

Attrition chewed through a lot of party members.  Poison gas killed one PC.  Orcs killed several others.  Two party members were driven insane.  But the greatest PC-killer was inter-party squabbling.  The chaotic PCs were taking the "troublemaker" explanation seriously and the group came to blows twice.  Once it was over a bejeweled dagger, the first treasure found by the group.  The second time the cause was whether to abandon the first insane PC.

I had a rockin' good time and the players all left laughing and thanking me, so it seemed to go well.  The stage manager took some production notes for the play (like giving Chuck the DM a screen).  One other thing: I had forgotten how useful and fun it was to play D&D in a room with a whiteboard.  I could put summaries of tricky rules on the board (like the useful things chart) and map as well.