Continuing on from last week, the intrepid adventurers have earned the Beer Baron’s trust and respect for saving his caravan from the marauding bandits. Now they continue on with the adventure, by assisting the Beer Baron in getting where he needs to go. Firstly before I do anything else, let’s just list out the characters and their players before we continue:
Game Master: Wil Wheaton
Aankia: Hank Green
Lemley: Laura Bailey
S’lethkk: Yuri Lowenthal
Kiliel: Alison Haislip
In this chapter we encounter their first obstacle: A toll booth.
This chapter continued with a little more engagement with mechanics straight out, with the dwarf commanding the toll booth being rather aggressive towards the party. Here I thought Wil did something really clever and is a good way to bring players into the game more: Instead of deciding on a generic reason for the dwarf being an obstacle, he tied in the NPC with one of the other players characters, notably Lemley. Stopping the game briefly, he asked Laura (who plays Lemley) “What is the reason for this dwarves antagonism towards you?” and allowed her to come up with an interesting answer.
Personally I think this is by far one of the best ways to do world building and additionally, to make players feel like their characters are genuinely important parts of the game. In this case Laura decided that Lemley was responsible for exploding his previous shop and destroying some valuable relics. This is great because it ties a seemingly random NPC into the party, the overall story and provides some interesting later story hooks to explore down the line.
Another thing I liked about the way Wil ran this first encounter was how he used the “Yes, but” style of GMing. S’lethkk decided to try and persuade the dwarf to let them pass in exchange for some beer, succeeding (?) on the roll to do so. Instead of trivializing the encounter though or just ending it, Wil smartly dialed up the tension a bit by having him return to his toll booth. This would be the same toll booth that Kiliel was currently hiding inside, in an attempt to steal the money for the toll or anything else in there she could grab.
The smart thing about doing this is that while the player succeeded, it just took the encounter in a different direction and gave them something new to react to. In this case, the other players clearly panicked a bit and had to come up with a new plan. In this case convincing the dwarf they had a better cup on hand than the one he happened to have in his booth. Doing this kind of action is harder than a binary “You succeeded or you failed” style of ruling, but can really add to the game in a lot of ways. It makes the players feel like the world is more alive and can show them that even successful actions may have unintended consequences.
Continuing this thought, also consider how you can do the same thing with failed actions. A player might attempt to do something like climb a fence to get into the mansion where the cult is performing their vile ritual. If the player fails instead of blocking the game by making them try again or finding an alternative route, have the action go through (they climb over) but there is a consequence. For example, the character scrambles over but fails to see a thicket of razor sharp thorns from a bramble crawling over the top of it. In the process of climbing over they badly cut themselves on it leaving behind bits of shredded clothing, blood, skin or whatever else that the cult might later find to figure out who disrupted their ritual.
Moving along to after the toll booth, we again have another situation where Wil allows the players to tell him about something in the game world. In this case the “Six demon jar”, which is the artifact floating above a pillar in the mansion they subsequently visit was created by the players. Personally if I was Wil, I would be exceptionally pleased at having an artifact with six times the expected number of demons within it to use at a later point in the story. In a similar manner with the tapestry afterwards, the players again were asked to come up with what it was and naturally followed along with Wil’s previous description of the manor. Here the tapestry depicts the overthrow of the Saurian tyrant who ruled here by a uprising of other races.
I’m not really trying to belabor the point here, but much of this episode is a great example of communal world building. It can often be tempting, even desirable, as the GM/DM to simply present the world the way you want it to be only. This has some advantages in that you always know where your story is going and generally speaking, it ensures that you end up with a consistent tone to your world or presentation. On the other hand, letting your players decide important things like the artifact, or how the history of a place turned out brings them into the game more and makes them feel like they are integral parts of the world.
For example, continuing with my example of the cultist mansion above, you could ask the player who spends from the architecture or history skills (for example) to elaborate on the building. The aim here is that instead of you coming up with the idea the place was built on an ancient smuggling line, so has secret passages bypassing the tall walls covered in thorns, the players build something interesting for themselves. Perhaps there is an old hedge maze with a trap door in the middle, which allows them to sneak inside very easily without being seen. Essentially anything that is dramatically appropriate and interesting you should allow them to come up with for themselves.
This process can be rather challenging for players at first, but as you can see from Titansgrave if you give your players enough opportunities to do this it can become rather second nature. If you are going to do this however, the most important thing for you to bear in mind is to give as much encouragement to your players ideas as possible. When you ask them what’s in the library and they describe some moldy, foul smelling ancient tome in there be prepared to think of something interesting it might be. Don’t shoot their ideas down as much as you possibly can: Otherwise they’ll quickly lose their enthusiasm for this kind of cooperative world building.
After getting their reward of five gold and a party, it was soon time for some combat for the session and the characters were tasked with dealing with a disturbance in the brewery. Bloody trails soon led them to small, strange humanoids with gaping mouths and lots of claws. Combat in Titansgrave seems to me to be rather straightforward, fast and fairly bloody. The most interesting feature of the beasts they fought, the Hellions, was the way they tied into another larger creature that spawns them called an “Alpha Hellion”. As each Hellion is killed it turns into a spark of energy, which then returns back to the lurking alpha.
I liked this mechanic for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it gives the players an interesting choice on if they kill its minions or not – because it could potentially just make more. By giving the players the location of the alpha as well, there can be some interesting uses for building tension in a fight with this. Imagine a combat where the players are fighting a group of Hellions, where the spark from each one starts to go to a position that is closer and closer to the fight. This gives the players a tangible way of realizing that the alpha – assuming it’s a larger threat – is not approaching the fight. Killing the minions quickly before the alpha arrives to reinforce the fight, possibly making it overwhelming, can really add some dramatic tension.
Incidentally, because I haven’t complimented it yet this episode is full of more wonderful art of the game and world. Especially of the later encounter with the Alpha Hellion, who is busily getting delightfully drunk on beer from a bucket. The players attempt to sneak up on him didn’t go too well, but the first attack from Lemley rolled a triple, which is Titansgraves sort of equivalent of a critical hit. As well as dealing a large amount of damage, this attack also managed to stun the Hellion and so made this fight rather trivial in the end.
In the end the fights went well and the characters emerged victorious once again, with the beer saved for the third time in only two sessions! At this point I don’t think there is any beer related problem that these characters couldn’t solve. Hopefully we will start to see more indications of what the overall storyline in the series might be, but for now I think there are some really great lessons and takeaways for anyone interested in GMing from this series.
Can’t wait for next week!