Our chat yesterday prodded me to finish my ending feedback post. It is a bit meandering. It starts as feedback, dives into non-feedback, and gets back to feedback by the end.
I have mixed feelings about the campaign. I enjoyed playing Puella, I enjoyed roleplaying with all of the other PCs and generally with any NPCs that were up for it. I loved brainstorming for this game – my head was often bursting with ideas for it, and I must say that and it was sometimes pretty frustrating to get something out and then see it wither unattended to. From a RP perspective, to me the campaign began to dry up faster in the second half of the second book (notably after Kain left). Declining GM engagement in roleplaying led to more player-choreographed scenes or even stepping in to roleplay for NPCs, which filled in the gap a bit but was ultimately not as satisfying. Nevertheless, it still had its moments and some of my favorite moments/scenes did come later on.
In rough chronological order, a large (but not exhaustive) list of favorite moments/scenes
-Puella’s first solo scene with Irena
-That time when Lucavi and Irena were DTF but didn’t
-Tea and sweets with Teeg
-The party’s tense battle and ultimate victory against Sir Havelyn
-The villain point natural 20 with Mott (albeit followed by a letdown)
-Having Gaer play the Lord and Lucavi as Cavuil, slowly revealing ourselves to Barnabas and then killing him
-Hitting 100% completion in style with Balentyne
-Teeg catching up with Paula and then choosing to send her away
- Lucavi’s reaction to fear during the fight with Calliaste
-Gaer trolling Tiadora by showing up as her.
-Teeg experimenting on himself with alcohol
-Lucavi singing to Calliaste as Puella sawed off Ellenothae’s wings
-The recruitment PBP of Posca.
-Gaer asking for Puella's help after falling for Arissa
-The forest elves taking the initiative to make peace and alliance with us
-When Gaer took most of his hp in damage against the Sons in a single round, and just sneered it off.
-Flying off into the night on the back of our very own zombie dragon as the Horn collapsed behind us.
-Izevel’s recruitment scene. Not just that I got to tear the roof off with a dragon, though that was pretty awesome, but the roleplaying that ensued. Not feedback – just miscellaneous rambling on mechanics, inspiration, etc.
We joked about crushing this or that during chat, but honestly, this game was showing off caster power to what was becoming an uncomfortable degree to me by the end of the Horn chapter. Obviously some potential constraints weren’t operating, such as the moral constraint many parties might face against making people your mind slaves. We also fought a ton of classed humanoid opponents in Chapter 2, whereas a party facing a more traditional spread of monsters would have ended up with less dominate bait. Still, Puella ended up with a huge and diverse pool of magically controlled minions – bound fiends, dominated former enemies, monsters we’d killed that she raised as undead. It felt less than ideal that we had, say, Gaer running around pulling out every stop just to stand in front without getting savaged while Puella is chilling out pulling the strings on a giant magic army.
I’m pretty sure at some point long ago, during a conversation about whether corrupting NPCs through roleplay should be like pulling teeth, I mentioned that magic offered a breezily simple and more mechanically potent alternative. Case in point…
The other spell where aggressive use made a drastic difference was divination. The divination spell is the prince of its school and an evil campaign with a lot of scope for proactive player action is tailor made for it. Knowing what general types of challenges and topics to ask about is the biggest piece needed in order to make effective use of the spell, and the nature of the campaign made knowing what to ask pretty easy.
On the flip side, I felt that some options that are traditionally branded as overpowered really didn’t shake out that way. Blood money chiefly powered glyphs of warding and divinations, but the glyphs were ancillary at best and the divinations were cheap enough that I would have spammed them every week anyway and spent only a few hundred gold overall – and I ended the campaign with tens of thousands of unspent gp. I’m not suggesting it’s not a good spell, but it didn’t seem game breaking unless you game your Str to cast the really high-cost stuff, Wish and the like.
Similarly casting off Con rather than Int wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be; being capable of casting and hexing from a distance, not taking damage was kind of the default. Basically had to deliberately reject normal tactics and enter into harm’s way in order to take advantage of the extra hp, and even then I only took big damage in combat a couple times over the course of the whole campaign. If I had been playing an Int witch I could have just… not rammed my face into the enemy swords, and it would have been fine. The Con might have made the difference on a Fort save or two, but there weren’t many of those either. I expect this might have changed some in the higher levels, but for the levels we played at, the Con wasn’t a big deal because it was just so easy to stay out of harm’s way by casting from a distance and, from time to time, flying. On the other hand the relatively fewer skills made itself felt often.
Overall, while it felt to me like Puella was pulling away from other PCs since about 7th level and really fast once we hit 9th, I’d chalk my side of the scales up almost entirely to using basic CRB spells without being limited by self-imposed (moral) constraints. Outside of my side of the scales, there was a certain element of other PCs moving relatively downward – I refer mostly to Gaer what with everybody and their grandmother hitting his AC.
I will add that despite also handing out buffs pretty regularly, I do not recall even once in this campaign being short on spells to the point where it was a combat limitation. Frankly by the end the opposite was true, where I had more spell slots than I could be bothered to fill. I wasn’t making huge use of hexes, either – spells replaced hexes as the go-to for most fights once I got 4th level spells. I can’t remember many times in Ch. 2 that we faced more than one combat a day, and towards the end, we were facing one combat a day personally plus no other demands on our minion resources, which made the combats very harsh for the good guys. The intermittent fights and lack of sustained pressure made challenging the party a real problem in Ch. 2, but the timers in Chapter 1 and in what little we saw of Chapter 3 also seemed pretty generous and didn’t do much to add pressure.
As an aside/playtest report, the limited playtesting I engaged in suggests that the downtime capital system is problematic. I zero in specifically on the ability to generate Magic capital and convert it into half off your magic item crafting costs (on top of the discount for crafting in the first place). It boils down to quarter-price (vanilla rules) or 3/8 price (our rules) magic items, given a crafting feat, a trivial upfront cost, and some time. Either one of those is, practically speaking, dirt cheap. Furthermore, although I didn’t use it, I certainly noted that it also allows for an undesirable loop in that you become able to turn a substantial profit from crafting and selling items at half price (with vanilla rules, you double your money each time). Overall, thumbs down to this.Inspirations
I don’t know that I had any major fantasy stuff strongly in mind for Puella (other than TGOH Belial), though I’m sure bits and pieces of this and that slipped in via cultural osmosis. The biggest other influence was real-world history and mythology (though of course with a fantasy veneer and with the harsher parts muted so as not to offend WD’s sensibilities more than the minimum
). I reread Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and several works on Roman slavery while creating or playing Puella and they formed a major influence on her take on suffering, coercion, etc. and the kind of society she tried to create for those in the Knot’s power. Western hemisphere slavery isn’t my wheelhouse but the old Civil War–era pictures of the backs of ex-slaves who had been whipped heavily influenced my mental image of Puella. Some other one-off historical borrowings are probably fairly obvious, such as the Committee for Public Safety in Farholde (Revolutionary France) or the Sons of Duty and Daughters of Mercy (Irish Magdalene laundries).
(Speaking of historical slavery, I’m sure that everybody understood the reason why Puella would address the enslaved as “boy” or “girl” regardless of age, but did anyone notice that “Puella” was a Meaningful Name along similar lines? I do have a tendency sometimes to sneak in easter eggs that only I would probably ever notice… this might be one of those times…)
The four monastic orders didn’t get tons of screen time, but they were drawn from TGOH with a bit of borrowing from Sartre by way of Existential Comics (the Puella-inspired Pious One), Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri and Classical Stoicism (the Teeg-inspired Heavenly One), and TGOH again (the Leviathan-infiltrated Forgotten One). The Lordly One, whom I intended to be Gaerlan-inspired, never made an appearance and the monastic philosophy wasn’t very fleshed out by the time we finished, but my thoughts were to use the less sticky, more carroty side of TGOH Belial. The plan was to leave us with one order inspired by each PC plus one wild card of mysterious loyalties.Disappointments
The roleplaying side of the game (not just NPCs, but also atmosphere of the cities and towns we moved through, and such) suffered for lack of DM engagement, increasing towards the end (the enormous delays in responding to things, and the times that things were simply outright ignored and never responded to at all, were a feature of Ch. 2 on, I don't remember much of that from Ch. 1). Even on the non-RP side, it seemed like several Teeg alchemical/scientific projects withered on the vine for lack of response and/or followup (a contributing factor might be that Glab didn’t seem interested in prodding the DM about neglected projects).
I was also a bit sad that talk of more complicated traps in the Horn never amounted to much – just my vanilla glyphs. I had been looking forward to seeing some fiendish stuff from Kain.
Belial dominates through an obscene balance of carrot and stick. Puella was intended from the start to lack proficiency with the carrot and be overbalanced towards the stick. That said, I felt like the game often pushed me even further towards stick than I wanted to go – positive incentives seemed more likely to get ignored by the DM than negative incentives, the more helpless a NPC was the more likely they were to be rude and confrontational, etc.
I wish I’d been able to establish more of a good cop/bad cop thing, with Gaer in particular, so that NPCs recoiling from Puella might have been scooped up by Gaer with his efforts to present a more moderate public face. The implacable hostility of most good-aligned NPCs towards Gaer limited the opportunity for that.
I was trying to figure out a way to get access to nightmare so that I could send thematic taunting nightmares to Myrtle and the Sons of Balentyne. Moreso than any other missing spell we discussed during the campaign (and there were a few), it’s an absolute crime that witches don’t have nightmare on their list.
(It’s not like it’s even a good spell, it’s awful, but it just drips flavor…)
We ended before I got to pull a Xykon and fly across a battlefield on a giant, invisible zombie dragon.
It was too bad that Balin never resurfaced. If I were to edit the published adventure, I'd put his son in the training dungeon and make the man himself the Inquisitor in Book 2. Probably with some buildup in the meantime. The sea journey in Book 1 seems like it might have been a good time to have him on the screen more distantly, in a chase type scene.Constructive (?) Feedback:
-Work on atmosphere. Places where the PCs spent time, like the inn in Aldencross where we stayed or the town of Farholde, didn’t really get a recognizable atmosphere, which left the enemy faith feeling generic and the backdrop/campaign setting lacking in presence. Even the Horn, which had a lot of very rich descriptive text that could offer a base for a very rich atmosphere, didn’t necessarily see its atmosphere reinforced much after the first delivery of said text. As far as our organization (minions, soldiers, slaves, etc.), Gaer had a lot of scenes where he was partially acting for the benefit of a crowd of our assembled NPCs and minions (and Puella several too), but said audiences tended not to react, whether the scene was in PBP or IRC, and for me at least that gave the feeling of playing to an empty auditorium, which lessened the enjoyment of such scenes.
-Work on compartmentalization (partly of information, but also of attitude). Re: compartmentalization of information, I wouldn’t say that this was a major issue in the campaign, but I do think that sometimes new characters would come onto the scene seeming to already be treating us as the worst villains on the face of Talingarde, rather than learning about us through interaction (and thus us having a chance to choose which faces to show). This one is difficult to diagnose since I don’t really know what various NPCs might legitimately have known about us, but when it seems to be a pattern, a player can get to feeling like the barrier between DM and NPC is leaky. On a similar note, there are a few times where it was really difficult to imagine how on earth NPCs had the situational awareness required to act the way they did without using DM knowledge (examples might be Myrtle’s escape or Arissa’s murder). With this also I’m aware that diagnosing individual instances from the player’s side of the screen can be prone to error, but even if I’m missing pertinent information on some instances, I am not wrong on all of them.
On the compartmentalization of attitude part, I’ll remark that particularly often in the scenes of Gaerlan discussing things with various Mitrans (or a few neutrals), it struck me more like a character vs DM social contest than a character vs NPC social contest. If the character’s IC arguments have to convince the OOC DM in order to influence the attitude of the IC NPC, that’s a taller order than just sweet talking the NPC IC is (and of course we wouldn’t WANT to sway you towards evil OOC :p ). I think that the general absence of social rolls unless pushed by the PCs probably reinforced this, and using social rolls more regularly might be a good way of mitigating it. Even if you’re adjusting the target roll for NPC attitude or assessing modifiers for presenting an argument that is well or poorly suited to the NPC in question, the roll can provide a baseline for how to react that is a bit more flexible than the standard, hopefully difficult to achieve, of “does the DM find the character’s argument for evil personally convincing.”
Not just on oppositional interactions either; I think the campaign could have made a lot more use of skills in social situations overall, both in situations where the PCs were stymied and in ones where they succeeded. Myrtle scenes came and went without any checks that I saw, but we also established positive relationships with some characters without rolling any social checks. Examples: Tasker’s (temporary) recruitment could easily have been decided by a Diplomacy check, and if we want to show off how weak he is for wine and women and reward the PCs for having that information, slap a fat +10 on the check or something for offering the right inducements. The Gaer-Myrtle debates, trying to poke logical holes in faith, could easily have been supplemented (and pushed in a more IC direction) with opposed Knowledge (religion) checks.
-Work on handling railroading and special NPCs. This point is related to our chat after the game on Sunday. As a player I have some tolerance for railroading, which does have its time and its place. Sometimes the adventure requires that you hop on the train in order to get to the next part. That said, a railroaded failure is a touchier subject, and – to get into this campaign’s stuff – railroaded failure not for adventure requirements but instead to show off how special and incorruptible the NPCs are is touchier still. That’s the sort of thing that risks instantly sucking the fun out of all sorts of endeavors. My advice is to get further away from this sort of stuff, and try not to determine whether the players’ efforts will succeed or fail before you even know what we are going to try.
To take the example that brought this up, Annabeth, maybe Gaer just roleplays till he’s blue in the face, but what if he bites her? What if Puella gets involved? Wiping memories, like with Dostan, is low to mid-level stuff – by our quitting point, Puella either had or was close to having the ability to selectively edit them (I’ve forgotten whether I needed 5th or 6th). How arbitrary are you willing to seem to stick to your never-gonna-happen guns, when the game gives a suitably villainous PC the ability to forcibly apply evil templates, command fallworthy actions by enchantment, or even reach into a foe’s head and edit the scenes in their history that spurred them to become a good person? Or would you retreat on that front and let the PCs succeed in some ways (magic) but keep up the denial of Charisma, skills, and roleplaying to accomplish similar effects? That’s arbitrary too.
It’s just full of problems. I think that putting players on the social rail to fail more sparingly would serve you well. (To tie it to the feedback above, a bit heavier focus on dice-influenced outcomes instead of typically determining RP reactions by fiat might help here too). I’m not even necessarily going to say never do it ever – but not all the time. I have some respect for that sort of character. But if you must have it, in order to keep it special, keep it rare.
Getting on the same page with this issue was something that was on the radar since the first few sessions, but that never really occurred. Honestly, looking back at the early feedback it seems like we were closer to being on the same page in the first few sessions, with stuff like the below, than we ever actually got since then with the parades of incorruptibles.
While I'm ok with that coming up in game - and with it being the case with Myrtle - I'm confess I'm curious as to the source of her incredibly stubborn and fearless resistance and as to whether or not this is the more normative way you are going to run the populace. Is this your interpretation of how LG characters should act? Is it because she's a priest's daughter? Is it how the adventure path suggests most ordinary people should be run? If temptation, threats of violence or eath, torture, and corruption are going to be less meaningful tools as a whole on NPCs I'd rather know now before we get much further in and I put the time and effort into using them.
No, most people will fall somewhere on the spectrum between Myrtle (steadfast resistance) and Irena (broken almost effortlessly).
-Work on managing comfort level proactively (this bit is more relevant to evil games I'm sure). Not saying the party didn’t push you some here, but the lesson here would be to try to anticipate any comfort level issues when we first run our ideas past you and maybe we talk about it then and end up incorporating themes into our characters that are less on the Game of Thrones* side of the scale and more on the JLU cartoon villain side. When character ideas are first being proposed is a good time to provide guidance on what you see working well and what less well, whether that’s overall themes like a witch themed on discipline and suffering or a knight with a twisted take on love, or whether it’s simple stuff. I know feedback covered some of this stuff already.
*I’m apparently the only player who doesn’t watch the show directly, but my impression from youtube clips and general osmosis is that, whether or not we went quite as far as the show does, the graphicness and such was on the same order of magnitude.
Looking back on the feedback, I want to close by saying that I appreciate you running the game, I did have plenty of fun, and I’m not mad that the game ended when the fun seemed to have decreased. Such is the way of things. I hope the feedback is useful to you.