Friday, July 24, 2009

Dwimmermount, Session 15

The most recent session of Dwimmermount saw further exploration of the current sub-level, with several combats against hobgoblins and ogres, who seem to be the primary inhabitants of the place. Like the orcs of the earlier levels, the hobgoblins employed Thulian weapons and armor, including a strange device that appeared to be an "azoth projector" -- basically, an arcane flamethrower that used ignited azoth for fuel. Unsurprisingly, Dordagdonar, who's revealed himself to have quite a fascination with human technology despite his avowed disdain for "ephemerals," decided to dismantle the device -- it was mounted onto the floor -- and take it with him when he returned to civilization, in the hopes of re-mounting it on a wheeled cart and finding a way to make it function with another fuel source.

The session itself was noteworthy not so much for its actual events but for the way those events helped to give me some further insights into old school play. First, the characters lost another hireling, Drogo, and, rather than planning to replace him at the first opportunity, they didn't really see the need to do so. Indeed, Brother Candor is contemplating releasing Sam the Archer from his service, since Sam is just a 1st-level Fighting Man and is increasingly outclassed by the monsters they're encountering in Dwimmermount. The party, which once consisted of a very large number of hirelings, is slowly shrinking in size, with most of the remaining NPCs being either henchmen (like Henga the Shield-Maiden) or specialists (like Gaztea).

What this suggests to me is that hirelings are most useful in the earliest levels of a character's life -- level 1-3. As they reach 4th level or thereabouts, hirelings prove less useful, as the PCs can now handle much greater dangers without having to ring themselves with cannon fodder. Hirelings are thus the old school way of augmenting low-level effectiveness, which only makes sense, since low-level characters are quite fragile. However, managing hirelings is a strategic obstacle, requiring the players not only to locate their employees but also negotiate a salary that they can then provide. Likewise, as NPCs, hirelings cannot be totally relied upon: they're subject to morale and have goals of their own beyond being used as canaries in the coal mine.

I rather suspect that much of the early roleplaying in a campaign comes from interactions between the PCs and their hirelings; that was certainly the case in Dwimmermount. Over time, the players develop affection for some hirelings over others and it's these that wind up becoming henchmen. That was the case with Henga and would have been the case with Brakk, had the goblin survived the bucket of acid that fell on his head in Adamas. It's thus my experience that, far from being an impediment to roleplaying, hirelings (and henchmen) actually encourage it.

The other thing I noticed was that, when Dordagdonar suggested re-tooling the azoth projector for his own use, I didn't bat an eye at the suggestion. Certainly I suggested it'd take time and money to complete -- if it were even possible -- but I didn't even consider dissuading his player from this plan. One of the things I like about this campaign is that, because there's no grand plan, rolling with the punches is a matter of course. While I'm sure my players could come up with an idea that might derail my very limited plans for the campaign, the odds of its happening are pretty small. That's frankly very liberating for me, much in the way that not having a large and detailed map of the world is liberating: I can easily add new things as I need them.

At present, the only civilized places the characters have been are Muntburg and Adamas. They know about Yethlyreom, the city of the necromancers, but they've never shown any inclination to go there, which is why it hasn't yet been placed on the map. That gives me the freedom to make it near or far as required. The same goes for any other future settlements or locales I might decide to include in the campaign. This approach has really cut down on my prep time for the game sessions -- to nearly none at all -- but it does demand a fair bit of mental agility on my part, but then that's part of the fun of it for me. Having to make things up on the fly is one of the joys of being the referee; it's also why having lots of random tables was a hallmark of old school play.

Oh yes -- the PCs also found an old Thulian battle standard in Dwimmermount. They've decide they're going to offer it to Saidon, the priest of Typhon, since he's known to be a collector of antiquities. And of course their visit to him gives me the opportunity to further flesh out his faith and what it's up to while the characters are off exploring the megadungeon ...


  1. A direct parallel to Dordagdonar's Azoth Projector project just occurred in my current Mutant Future campaign - the last two sessions have seen a lot of player time devoted to removing a wall-mounted laser cannon that I threw in as a trap, figuring out how it works and re-wiring it to fire when triggered, and mounting it on their canoe to provide firepower when out in the swamp. You have to love player ingenuity, and reward clever ideas.

    I have been playing my campaign fast and loose with no pre-formed story, throwing plot elements into the mix as the sessions progress, and it has been very liberating. As you say, it is hard for the player's to derail the plot if there isn't one. Which of course, as your campaign demonstrates, does not mean that a story does not organically develop - it just wasn't preplanned by the referee.

  2. even though I know Azoth is a perfectly good word in its own right, it always makes me think of Azathoth... I wonder if there's any long-term cost to using the stuff.

  3. far from being an impediment to roleplaying, hirelings (and henchmen) actually encourage it<

    Hopefully most of that is found amongst the PC's themselves.

    1st - 3rd level can be a tough ride for characters, but I've managed to keep most of them alive since I was in jr. high (around the time I fully abandoned the "classic" idea of encouraging the taking on henchmen and hirelings)by providing light adventure and tons of role-play, then at 4th level they can start considering themselves capable of dealing with highter threats. I just injected ways and ideas of surviving low levels other than having human shields.

    I would not poo poo my players using hires n' hench (I still do 1st ed AD&D, so they are in there), but they never bring it up. I think the closest thing to a henchmen a player has had in one of my games in 20 years was my Call of Cthulhu campaign in the mid-90's. A player rolled up both a speakeasy singer, and also an italian mobster bodyguard - saying she wanted this to be an employee who guarded her from danger. She wanted to run both of them (clever girl, trying to have two characters so her favorite would have better chances to live), but I agreed only if I ran him as an NPC. Cha-ching, there's a hireling.

    Both of them survived that campaign by the way, and another in the late 90's (minus some sanity, of course).

  4. "First, the characters lost another hireling, Drogo"

    Jack Palance will be very angry about that. Very angry.