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Another week and another episode of Titansgrave to begin my weekend in the best way possible. When we last left them, S’lethkk had discovered a terrible truth and they had evaded, then subsequently defeated a terrible monster within the bowels of the city. Now our intrepid adventurers journey onwards into the unknown….

This episode begins with the party journeying from the lowest depths up to the 15th floor of an executive building, where they can see quite a lot of the city. Apparently this Mr. Vaas fellow is rather important and there is somewhat of an ominous atmosphere building – especially when Aankia has some reservations about leaving the elevator. Here as a GM is some good advice: When players start doing this kind of unprompted roleplaying, even if it is slowing the game down, let them. Don’t try to enforce pace while they are making interesting character decisions or similar – however tempted you might be to keep things moving along. Unless it’s a convention game or something, but in a regular game this is the kind of interaction and roleplaying you really want to encourage.

WARNING: I’m going to go on a thing about physical props and notes… again.

Once they enter the room to meet Vaas, after using the carpet to their advantage against the guards of course, I liked how Wil asked if a player had a certain skill. Then after finding out who did, handing them a note with something mysterious written on it. I’ve always been a fan of physical props and I believe I’ve mentioned this before, possibly in a previous episode of Titansgrave, but obviously handing notes to players is a fantastic idea. It always helps to build tension, can reward an individual players choices by giving them an interesting roleplaying angle and possibly it might even be a large advantage for them specifically.

Even if you aren’t using physical notes or don’t want to, electronic ways work as well: In my Trail of Cthulhu game, my players use laptops/phones to message me. When they do so I also have it so my facebook or phone makes a noise, so that the others are the table are always wondering if it’s a message from my wife asking me what is for dinner or is it a sinister conspiracy against them from another player? As long as it is obvious to the other players around the table what is going on, it accomplishes the same effect. Even if I do use the electronic way of doing things, physical notes have a tangibility to them that really can’t be beaten and there is always potential shenanigans with physical notes. Especially if your physical note matches an actual in game document, piece of paper, letter or whatever else.

Back to our regularly scheduled Titansgrave summary

It turns out that Vaas is a rather powerful elf and of course, he needs the adventuring party to do a particular task for him. Of course a joking suggestion if this was worth “100 gold and a party” actually got an affirmative response and then an even bigger reward: Clearing the parties name of terrorism. Here we see how you build a campaign and an adventure, laying down the foundation of a plot earlier with the guilder caravan exploding initially. This leads to the scene at the markets with the players declared terrorists and having to flee with Vaas’ contact into the sewers. After this point, the hook of being able to remove the condition on the party as terrorists and a further gold reward draws the players into wanting to help this NPC.

When written down like this it seems pretty straightforward of course, but it should be noted that none of it at the time during these episodes feels forced or railroaded. The players have gone along with the plot in general and allowed this structure to work. One of the advantage of “collaborative” roleplaying like this is that if your players have faith in your ability, fairness and general adjudication you can get them to go along with whatever you want. Of course, I’m interested in this series to see where something goes wrong – or at least that I can detect goes wrong – and then see how Wil reacted to it. Maybe it already has, which is testament to his both his GMing and ability to improvise to make it seem like everything is going carefully to plan.

Which frankly, is half the trick to being a successful gamemaster of any roleplaying game.

There is a really cool twist with Vaas here that I thought was great, but most importantly there is the introduction of something important to any roleplaying game: A MacGuffin in the form of a Staff, apparently a relic of the Chaos Wars. Although the term “MacGuffin” for “Item of plot device related importance” is a bit crude, they are exceptionally important to giving further direction to a game. The most easy reason is because they typically give a party an overall goal and once they know where it is, a known direction, route and typically location to adventure in. If you’ve ever wondered “Why are 90% of DnD campaigns about collecting artifacts” this is usually why: It’s the least work for the GM in trying to predict player behavior.

Naturally just as I’m writing this down and start playing it again, Wil does exactly this: He gives them a means of transport by airship (directing the journey part of the adventure into his favor) and then their overall location Skyside Stronghold (which even necessitates the means of transport he’s thought about – clever!). I did like that Wil allowed the players to do some further roleplaying and character building interactions with Vaas – notably Aankia and Lemley. Plus giving the players some extra equipment and other things at this point was also a good idea. Journeys are useful for allowing players to have downtime to do other things relevant to their character or just to roleplay.

Naturally the group takes exactly this opportunity and we find some interesting revelations that Vaas might be a potential bad person courtesy of Aankia. Once again this deserves some extra recognition on Wil and Hank’s parts, because this information could have come from some random NPC. By giving it to a player and making it a part of their character, backstory and then allowing that player to deliver it vastly increases the impact of this information. Players are generally predisposed to believe information from other players more readily – after all the others at the table are your closest allies. Well, unless this is my Trail of Cthulhu game where paranoia and secret agenda’s are rife, but that’s an exception. Whenever possible, I always think it’s a very good idea to allow players to participate in the forward momentum of the plot.

I will say that the art for Skyside Stronghold is really great and very evocative. Actually, I just want to praise the art used in this series again because it really is very good. It’s definitely selling me on the setting!

Naturally a strange computer like voice greeting the players and tons of dark stains absolutely everywhere makes me wonder about “Crazy fantasy magical AI”? The initial Skyside Sovereign encounter, naturally involving deadly nerve gas (?) was quite a greeting for the assembled party. It was good to see the combat initiative rules being used for a new challenge, much like a skill challenge from Dungeons and Dragons. The players panic and mad attempts to solve the problem were pretty fun to watch I have to say! With the door opened, it seemed ample time for mechanical chaingun toting spiders to engage the party.

I was feeling the lack of spider time so far to be frank. Without describing this combat in any particular detail, I will note that it seemed like a definite increase in threat and danger compared to things they have fought previously. It’s good to have an encounter like this up front in a new area – or “zone” for you MMO types out there – because it establishes to the players immediately that “Shit just got real” in a tangible way. Especially if most of the combats they had fought before that point were fairly straightforward. The trick of course is to announce that the danger has increased, but to do so in a way that isn’t a total blindside in difficulty and allows the players to still survive it.

Ideally, but there are some notable exceptions to this kind of structure like a Westmarches campaign. Here players might wander into anywhere, including dangerous places like this and will always risk immediate death if they weren’t sufficiently aware or prepared. Generally speaking if you’re running a more traditional kind of “story” based game, where your players are important and central characters to that story you generally don’t want immediate gruesome death being immediately imminent every time they go somewhere. Unless your game is basically Game of Thrones and in that case, just let the beheading and disemboweling freely flow!

Interestingly, it looks like Wil is going back to a bit of a semi-survival horror theme as he describes the Skyside Strongholds floating above stormclouds, mass wailing coming from somewhere within and of course their insane magical AI companion. It isn’t long before there is another fight, this time against a pair of really nifty and strange looking Cyborgs (No I’m not going to stop talking about how much I like the art). Oddly and rather contradicting what I was suggesting earlier, this fight seemed to be pretty straightforward as well. It’s possible Wil just wanted to give them a big fright and make them feel under considerable threat straight up – as opposed to most encounters in here.

The consequence at the end of the fight, with Lemley having her cybernetic parts and implants was a really good moment here. Of course the dramatic cliff hanger ending was truly terrific and I can’t wait to see how this resolves in the next episode of Titansgrave!