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Q’Rith Season Two

23:05 Sun 23 Sep 2012. Updated: 20:37 07 Apr 2013
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I recently finished the second season of my D&D campaign, and want to review the season just as I did with the first one.

Plot

The players started the season working for the main espionage arm of the Q’Resti Empire’s armed forces. Q’Rest is at war with the island nation of Shegu, and the group’s handlers Thell and Kendry were focused on disrupting Shegan arms-smuggling and intelligence operations. The PCs began the season by tracking and intercepting an arms shipment near a southern fishing town, in the process capturing and releasing a mercenary working to smuggle arms to the Shegans, generating internal group conflict and angering their employers. They then went north to Tarika, stopping a Shegan attempt to ally in some way with a northern orcish tribe. They followed this by stopping another arms shipment, before successfully disrupting a Shegan plan to attack an Imperial diplomatic mission.

Throughout these missions, the PCs were picking up hints that a large halfling bank, the Bank of Greenfields, was heavily involved in funding Shegan smuggling and espionage operations. It was still open to question, however, whether the Bank of Greenfields actually supported Shegu against Q’Rest, or merely continued to provide services to Shegan clients as a neutral party.

After their last mission, the PCs went to meet their handlers in the free port of Zistown, only to discover that their handlers’ ship had been burnt to the waterline, apparently by Shegans, and that Zistown was at boiling point due to this incident. There were Bank of Greenfields operatives present afterwards, apparently looking for the PCs, who escaped and laid low, to be found shortly thereafter by Kendry, who told them that Thell and the rest of the crew were dead and that he feared that Q’Resti intelligence had been infiltrated by the Bank of Greenfields, who were working against the Empire.

Escaping the city, the PCs made their way—surviving one last Shegan-led ambush—to the headquarters of the intelligence service, where Kendry presented his theories to a trusted mentor—who dismissed them, pointing out that the Bank of Greenfields had loaned vast sums to Q’Rest and would lose tremendous amounts of money were Q’Rest to lose the war against Shegu; he felt the more likely explanation was that the Bank were unwilling to give up the Shegan contacts and helped them in minor but potentially embarrassing ways. This mentor deemed Kendry too overwrought over the loss of his partner, and ruled out any possible move against the Bank of Greenfields. He then offered the players work as his agents on Zusash—the eastern continent that Shegu had kept quarantined for untold centuries and that Q’Rest had gone to war to open up. The players accepted, setting up the next story arc.

Weaknesses

Logistics
Not precisely an issue with the game itself, but we had a lot of trouble scheduling and sticking to a schedule, and this affected my preparation and focus more than I would have liked. It also meant that in real time the season took way longer than I wanted it to.

The Setting
Because this season took place over a much larger geographical area, I felt that no one location really had a chance to shine. This was a change for the worse from the previous season, when Anaq’rest really felt like a deep, complex, and distinctive city. In particular I thought that Zistown suffered. The PCs didn’t spent very much time there, but the time they did spend there felt too much like “generic fantasy city” and not the fairly interesting dwarf/human city and trade melting pot that I had had in mind.

The best-rendered location was probably Tarika—but the players seem to remember it primarily for being overpriced.

Ambition
This season was less ambitious than the first one. I made a deliberate attempt to go for more typical roleplaying missions, partly to give the players a break from struggling to figure out what they should be doing. I unfortunately let this diminish some of my other ambitions, for example I stopped starting my sessions in a different way and also stopped giving players homework, both habits I need to resume next season. The line between an open-ended approach forcing the PCs to make realistic decisions and a comfortable but predictable approach allowing them to follow traditional fantasy RPG tropes is difficult to find, and I think I erred too much on the latter side this season.

Strengths

Characters
The groundwork for this was laid in the first season—the characters remained well-realized and deep, and the players remained interested and invested in them. One of the advantages of this was that it resulted in some legitimate intra-group strife over key decisions. Not stereotypical arguments about who gets what treasure, but conflict over important choices, stemming from disagreements about their place and role in the world, as well as idealism versus pragmatism, and their serving the Q’Resti Empire.

Plot
Despite my making the plot more straightforward, it was still an interesting one, and still had the strength of being tied to a larger narrative. I managed to have the players feeling that they were entwined in a larger story that was part of important conflicts, while at the same time leaving enough mysterious that they were still unsure about just what precisely was going on and what motivated their antagonists.

The Setting
Though the larger geographical sweep made the individual areas less distinctive, the setting as a whole is still well-realized, and I think this came across to the players; the world is a complex one, and the interplay between their actions and the larger trends in the setting is still meaningful. In a way the backdrop of the war was the “setting” in a similar way that Anaq’rest was in the first season, and while that didn’t quite work as well in terms of atmosphere, I think it still helped the players get a sense of the larger world.

Differences in the Next Story Arc

The third story arc will bring the PCs to what I had originally conceived of as the starting point when I first came up with the idea for the setting: their arrival on the newly-opened continent as colonial agents. This continent is apparently devoid of settlements, having been kept that way by the Shegans following some unspecified catastrophe in the distant past. Because magic exists in the world, some of the ruins of past civilizations may still be active in some senses, and there may be pockets of groups who slipped past the Shegans who may now come into conflict with the Q’Resti colonizing forces.

In some senses this allows for even more traditional D&D scenarios (in two seasons my players have seen nary a dungeon nor a dragon), and my aim is to mix some of those in with more cognitively challenging[1] aspects—while providing a framework that looks very much like “stereotypical D&D”, I hope to use the setting’s realism[2] to undermine and expose a number of the assumptions underlying the standard tropes[3], and to push the players harder on where they think they should fit in the world and what “side(s)”, if any, they should be taking.

[1] Not in the sense of involving explicit puzzles to solve (a common dungeon-crawling conceit) but rather by tweaking the scenarios to the point where the players find them unsettling or disturbing instead of simply comfortable.

[2] Yes, despite the magic, and the combat, and the other obviously unrealistic elements of the game—I try to make it both politically and psychologically realistic despite those factors, and to use this focus on realism to make the players look at things differently.

[3] This isn’t a new or original idea, and certainly the literary side of the fantasy family tree has done plenty of it. I’m sure it’s been done before in fantasy roleplaying games, too, but I’m not too familiar with examples of this. I’m also, of course, trying to do this in an interactive environment where fun/entertainment is supposed to be the point of the exercise, making it significantly more difficult to work all of this in.

2 Responses to “Q’Rith Season Two”

  1. Jeff Fry Says:

    Tadhg, this was a very satisfying progression from an already strong first chapter. I think you missed a major strength:

    Combat
    Each combat felt quite different, due to terrain, ability of us (or lack thereof) to prepare, the varied strengths of the foes, and in the last one fighting within and around a burning building. I don’t think I’ve been in a game before with such varied combat…and have been in several which aimed for it. I think this is partly something the Iron Heroes system lends itself toward…but more so it’s something you clearly — and successfully — designed for.

    I’d also thow out (re “Ambitious” being listed as a weakness) that the balance of action (and things the party managed to succeed in) versus complex choices in a confusing, political world really worked for me. I didn’t at all lose that sense of this as a big, complex, realistic world but enjoyed having them mixed in with more successful progress toward a goal…and some interesting, strategic combats, as mentioned above.

    Now, off to Zusash!

  2. Tommy2Hats Says:

    I am reviewing components of Q’Rith Season Two, the Iron Heroes D&D System, the narrative of the Q’Rith adventure, and my own experience of playing the campaign.

    I was given a 90% complete pre-made character with stats, skills, and back-story already in place. I was given the task of developing character traits and to select a few feats… Tadhg provided the rest. I really like having a pre-made character that “fits” into the story. It improves the narrative, allowing for a more cohesive story and playing experience, however it doesn’t give me 1st hand experience of the Iron Heroes character creation process, Tadhg did all that. What this speaks to is Tadhg’s incredible preparation. This is a well fleshed out world and my character, Verin, belonged in. That was awesome.

    My character was essentially a ranger with stronger spell-casting/healing spells than I’ve normally thought of as rangerly, and this was balanced out by having relatively weak archery and melee skills compared to my fellow combat specialists, and far weaker offensive spells than the Wizard player. My strategic role was as the healer and support spell-casting, our Wizard was the primary offensive caster. This class was Tadhg’s modified version of the Iron Hero’s squad-leader type ranger class. Maybe I could have done a better job of developing a character with better play mechanics using the Iron Heroes rule-set myself, but I doubt it. My examination of the rules leads me to believe that Tadhg improved on the Iron Heroes Ranger. Good job Tadhg. I was mostly happy with my character’s play mechanics —I felt important to the group and I had multiple roles to fulfill: healer, buffer, scout, off-nuker, off-melee. While I also received a few tactical combat skills, I didn’t find much opportunity to use them — more on this later.

    Tadhg’s world is a fleshed out noir-ish military thriller set in a classic fantasy setting, that’s my impression anyway. Imagine a Chinatown/Three Kings mashup…with fireballs. There was an intricate weapons black-market smuggling ring perhaps being engineered by banks, and dwarven run city-states clandestinely supporting half-elven rebel forces against a Roman style, human dominated, continental empire that is probably driven to a constant state of conquest by a military industrial complex…maybe. Certainly the war we were at the center of seemed unnecessary for survival of the Empire, but rather foisted upon the populace for unclear purposes. The parallels to real life were never overtly laid out, but there was a subdued acknowledgement from my fellow players, we were clearly pawns in a grim military juggernaut. The Half-elven enemy forces were from somewhere far across the sea, they seemed like nice enough people who were fending off invasion. Mostly we, as players and as characters, didn’t really know. We were just a squad of recalcitrant irregulars executing special forces missions that threw my character’s personal goals and his personal values into conflict. It’s a great story.

    My complaint, however, was that while my character felt like a pawn in some greater evil’s game, he wasn’t given a compelling reason to play, and neither was he presented with narrative boundaries that trapped him into the role he played, instead I just had to “keep him in the game” because otherwise we weren’t playing D&D. I did like the large, inscrutable, and amoral forces driving our lives. And it was great that it wasn’t some Kafkaeske re-tread story filled with the bureaucratic absurdities that plague Cthulhu investigators. It felt like no other game universe I’ve ever played in, but my character Verin needed to have a compelling reason to stay. I also wanted him to feel like he was making real choices that impacted things. From my vantage, we were called to play it straight. This meant, for Verin, pushing back against military superiors who insisted I go kill rebels I personally had no beef with. Since there seemed to be no real option for our group to quit our assigned tasks, the inevitable result was “Even though I know it’s wrong I’ll just do this one last evil mission to support The Man…again!” But it seemed like my own character was given both motive and ability to just split…but he didn’t because otherwise there’s no story. That didn’t feel solid.

    On the other hand, the degree to which I felt like I had a character in conflict with himself, caught in a political web outside his own control —that was fantastic. A truly great role-playing experience. Verin just needed more truly intractable situations. It needed to be impossible for him to go AWOL. He needed a clear, internally cohesive, while completely paralyzing, reason to keep running missions while remaining morally opposed to them. THAT would have scorched his poor soul and played well, I think.

    The danger was becoming mindless a mercenary running missions, in a world with political machinations I could have remained oblivious to: ride to there, get those smuggled weapons, kill anybody in your way. I wanted Verin to be closer to his part of the story. What I mean by that is I wanted more events that engaged my character’s ethical boundaries, and then compromise them more painfully. We spent too much time on mission debriefs that did not impact events. Debriefs should have been clipped and at the same time morally flaying, or leveraged characters diverse ethical boundaries against each other. I don’t like intra-party combat, but I DO like characters with opposing ethical standards that cause friction.

    Another way to frame my complaint, which is a challenge for many role playing experiences, is that often the GM would leave the party to determine a course of action without giving us enough information to work through between ourselves. We needed more hints, options, and some concept of potential impacts to gnaw between us. We also needed more outcomes that indicated our choices had had an impact.

    And then we needed a severe constraint on our debate and planning time with nasty repercussions for failing to be in action. If we’re just on a roller coaster track (which is appropriate sometimes) then the ride should have an intense driving narrative pace. If we’re actually making real choices, we should clearly know what those choices are and what’s at stake. And it’s fine if you deceive me, giving me the sense I’m driving, when actually all roads lead to Rome…just make me believe.

    About the game system and combat: Iron Heroes offers numerous “Token” actions that can be earned through combos and saved actions. I liked the mechanism, though I often felt like I couldn’t implement the more exoticstrategy actions available to my role as a tactical leader because it so often just made more sense to cast a spell or attack. I wanted the hurdles to implement these skills to be lower, or for the payoff to be higher. To cite an example: I could skip an action to instead have about a 30% chance to gain a token. That token could be used IF two of my team-mates were flanking an enemy, THEN they could get a bonus to their damage IF they hit. That’s a LOT of IFS, especially when my alternative was to fire a “never-miss” magic missile, or to just swing my sword. Mostly I spent my time healing or buffing. That was great, I really enjoyed being a swiss army combat medic. But the strategic options were tantalizing and I wanted to implement them.

    I had a similar experience with the Damage Resistance mechanism used for armor in place of the standard AC rating for armor type. I got 1d2 DR whenever I was hit wearing my leather armor. This is ostensibly for realism, however it seems to me that the movement penalties for armor are far higher as compared to just wearing cloth, which provides no dr at all. It just felt off. I wanted 1d4 at least… But then I never experienced a movement penalty either. I think I had always wanted armor class to have a damage resistance mechanism, I was excited to use it, and I wanted it to be more impactful in play. I’d imaging wearing field plate would do that.

    The place where lots of great pacing and narrative happened was in the combat sequences themselves. Important enemies got away to return later…I love me some mysterious nemesis :) We were in unique, challenging, and well paced combats almost every session.

    What made this work? In part, the Iron Heroes combat system. Additionally, Tadhg seemed to really know our edge, often throwing us against powerful mages, large groups of enemies, or chaotic terrain, and we often felt like, “Wups! We’re going down.” …but we’d pull it together with creative tactics, prudent regrouping, and intestinal fortitude (…and probably some DM dice fudging.) The best parts were fighting unique enemies in odd terrain (up on a city wall, through a burning building, against a flying opponent, etc.) I loved it when stealth was required as well. Occasionally there were too many nameless guards for us to wade through hacking, but that was the exception.

    An unfortunate break in the 4th wall was that if the battle board was rolled up in the corner I knew we were safe, and then I’d “feel it” coming. Tadhg would almost project that the battle-board and felt tips were coming out, and that would impact our characters behavior. I would have liked to be surprised more often about an impending combat. Lots of the narrative theme hinged on, “Forces at work are beyond your ken.” And the battle-board status shouldn’t betray that.

    I’m quite excited for Q’Rith Season Three :)