Grant has written a number of very well-thought-out reports on our D&D game from a GM’s perspective, but so far, aside from mentioning it on the show, I’ve been a little quiet on the game, other than stating repeatedly what a blast I’m having. I’d like to take some time to explain why I’m enjoying the campaign so much, and I’d also like to point out some things that are going particularly well that I think are worth mentioning. As you can see by the “part 1” in the title, I intend to check in here at least occasionally about the game.
Threats without horror
A lot of the time when GMs are running fantasy games, there is an all-too-seductive temptation to lean heavily on supernatural or horrific cruelty to create a sense of stakes in the game, impressing on the players how important their mission is with demons, undead, or mangled remains of innocent victims almost from the jump. While this can be effective in certain games, it is an overused trope, so it’s been refreshing that Grant has used supernatural horror elements very sparingly and has instead focused mostly on natural threats. The first encounter of the game was with sahuagin, who basically act like a nasty school of predatory fish – they attacked and dragged prey into the water, but didn’t curse people with foul magic or ritually sacrifice them on the beach. The biggest, nastiest threat currently on the island (at least, that we know of) is a wyvern, which is a massive, venomous beast, but isn’t demonic or evil – just big and hungry. There have been some supernatural threats sprinkled in – a spectral undead and what we think is probably a hag – but for the most part, the difficulties and adversaries we’ve faced have been very grounded – taking care of the lower tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and trying to establish good relationships with the other people we’ve met on the island – the kenku.
It’s not all about alignment
Speaking of the kenku, one of the things I find cool about the game is that I have no idea what alignment Rishi is. I am similarly ignorant about the colony governor, Hester Warwick, and in fact about every single other character in the entire game except the other two player characters, whose alignments I know through metagame knowlege only. In addition, there is literally no way for Lambert to find out, despite the fact that he’s a cleric, because the “Detect Evil and Good” spell now simply alerts you to the presence of supernatural entities or magically consecrated or desecrated areas rather than letting you see where every sapient creature around you falls on a 3×3 alignment bingo card if you cast it enough times. That means that, in the game as in life, we have to figure out who is trustworthy and who isn’t by observing behavior and interacting with characters rather than simply scanning them. This is a change in the D&D system proper from previous editions rather than something Grant is explicitly doing, but after playing a number of sessions with it in place, I can say without reservation that I think that was an exceptionally good design decision.
Things that are interesting without being epic
The kenku look like walking, wingless crows, but they also have aspects of lyrebirds in that they can mimic all sorts of sounds around them and even pass these sounds down to descendants, which is why the party can communicate with them at all. The old mystery cult monastery we cleared out as our first dungeon was full of implied story and interesting bits of world history, but there was nothing world-shattering in there, just an old building that had some history.
The desire to make things epic or jaw-dropping is another pitfall a lot of campaigns can fall into, and having a world that is interesting and feels grounded and lived-in has helped me to stay interested and engaged in the game. It seems to be pushing our group to actually live in the world a lot as well – there has been a lot more focus and a lot more in-character time in this campaign than anything we’ve done since the Shadowrun game.
There has been combat, certainly, but the entire game is not a string of fights connected with flimsy plot. Some of the best moments in the game have been role playing ones, and that has been consistent. Grant has done an admirable job of keeping the challenges of setting up a society and interacting with a new one front and center, and I will admit that I (and my PC) have much more anxiety about the colonists going all conquistador on the kenku than I do about the monsters on the island.
Grant would probably ask me to balance this out with criticism, but I honestly don’t have any, and in any case he has done so in his own posts already. So there.
One of the things I’ve been trying to work on is my tendency to hog the spotlight. Fortunately, the other players made deeper and more complex characters than I did, so they’ve actually been helping with that quite a bit just by being awesome. Lambert is a very busy PC, but he is certainly not the toughest member of the party (that is unquestionably Garm, especially now that he’s gotten access to some magic) and he’s not the most skillful or intelligent member either (that would be Aster, the unbelievably competent rogue).
I am also trying to use this game to practice what we preach on the show. Lambert is a very deliberate attempt at breaking away from some of the more violent and self-righteous characters I’ve played in the past. What I’ve been trying to do with him is make him into “glue.” While he’s not a pacifist, I want him to be a peacemaker, and I also want his influence to be at least one reason why the members of the colony live in harmony with the natives of the island rather than conquering or disregarding them. Lambert was designed to be the kind of person who doesn’t get a lot of recognition, but helps society be better, more empathetic, and more compassionate, hopefully due to his example. I want to use him to practice humility, charity, and kindness rather than just righteous fury and decisiveness. I want him to help the other PCs become the epic, noble heroes they can clearly become. And most importantly, I am hoping that his story will point toward the life that really is life, that he will be a good example of how to be authentically human and a servant of God (despite the fact that he’s in a polytheistic setting and a cleric of a member of the pantheon therin). Time will tell how successful I am in that.