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September 17, 2018 0 comments

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The Beast of the Willow Lake Playtest

The other day we played The Beast of the Willow Lake using the last Quickstart (1.1 from DTRPG) and pregens (3.5). We had a blast and everybody (including the GM, me) enjoyed it a lot. I changed a couple of things while playing that I felt could suit my GMing style and the feel of the adventure better, but I've decided to post how it went nonetheless. Hope you can learn something from our experience. Suffice to say, this post will contain spoilers!

We were 4 players + the DM. Of the 4 players, 3 haved played MERP and Rolemaster before, so the first thing I did was explain the core mechanic of vsDarkmaster and the major differences with the older games. The players unanimously loved the new partial success, drive, passions, encumbrance, experience and wealth rules and were happy to see the combat rules streamlined without losing the attack tables and criticals. They felt that the game wasn't just a clone, but a completely different beat inspired by the best parts of the old games. The player not familiar with MERP understood the core mechanic (roll more than a 100 for success o more than 75 for success+problem) without problems and felt it was a very simple to run system, although she thought that making a character with all those numbers was intimidating (but I believe this is just an impression that won't translate to her first character).

They played with Maedoc, Deirdre, Mornien and Gandrell. I chose those four with the aim of getting a balanced group that was already linked with the adventure.

The PCs started at the inn, where they got to know each other and the situation around town (including Eamon's disappearance and the most important NPCs). After that, the halfling woman came into the room crying and the players get out to investigate the matter. That's when they met the thane, who everybody was suspicious of. At this point, Deirdre proceed to "question" the sheeps and they found some tracks of big humanoid foots. By know I've already given the players several drive points. Maybe I'm too liberal with them, but I love when players get into their characters, even if they're not putting them into direct danger by doing so.

This was the first opportunity to use the partial success mechanic (as a GM, I love it!). I decided that they found the tracks but, after following them, they got lost in a sudden mist and didn't know how to go back to town. They decided to follow the tracks instead of braving the forest and, since it was already night, they encountered Morcant and Lefty, which were leaving in search of food! Luckily for them, they passed a Stealth roll and the creatures didn't find them. Finally the arrived at the troll's lair and went inside, setting the bear trap under the waterfall and placing a simple alarm bell trap so they will know when the troll came back. They explored the cavern, finding no human remains. At this point they weren't able to move the rock at the end of the lair, since their combined brawn was less than 40 (in retrospective, having them roll instead of adding brawn together would have felt less restrictive for them).

Then the troll came back to his cave and activated both traps. Combat ensued and the heroes prevailed. Morcant tried to surrender but the elf wanted nothing to do with that and proceed to kill the creature. Unluckily for him, Lefty took vengeance and ate the PC's ear (and this after his player used a drive point to reroll the critical)!

The players left the cave with two important ideas in mind:

  • Combats can be very dangerous.
  • The troll was not responsible for the missing human and halfling.

After coming back to town, they had several important interactions:

  • They talked to Eileen about the thane and Eamon's disappearance.
  • They entered the tower and checked the books there. Here I allowed the rogue to reroll the pick locks test, since they already convinced the inhabitants that they were relatives of the owner and nobody suspected anything of them. I also let Mornien open the magic door without problems, since I assumed that the wizard would allow her to enter.
  • They brought the troll's head to the thane and asked for the promised reward.

By this point they were convinced that the thane was behind Eamon's and the halfling's disappearance and openly confronted them. After this encounter, they were about to leave for Padraig's sawmill when they saw a pidgeon on Eamon's house. This was another instance of a partial success, now on a perception roll. I allowed them to detect the bird, but when they entered the house to grab it (it was in the second floor) they found the complication: two mercenaries loyal to the thane that tried to kill them. Since they know how letal combat could be, they didn't want to fight if not necessary (this is why I LOVE this game, this never happens in D&D) and some party members forced the mercenaries to hide while Maedoc got the pidgeon by climbing from the outside.

Then they left for the sawmill, where they talked to Padraig and decided (based on the information from the books) to visit the first Warden's resting place. They found the rock from the entrance removed and went inside. I asked them for their intentions: two of them answered to save the town, another that he wanted riches, and the last one that she wanted knowledge. First they found the pit and correctly guessed that they needed to move the rock with the hound. Unluckily for them, the character that decided to do that was not "worthy" and I decided that the rock didn't move. Then they went to check the fake burial. When they looked inside I made some wights rise. I used wights instead of ghouls so the creatures will stop attacking or following the characters if they left the treasure alone, which was exactly what they did. Finally, a "worthy" character tried to move the hound stone again, and they found their prize! They only took the medallion so I allowed them to leave without the wights attacking them.

However, just before leaving the tomb they found the three northerners waiting for them outside. Again, they didn't want to fight, so a brilliant Charisma roll (boosted by a drive point) convinced the mercenaries that there were more treasures inside (they were not lying). Therefore, the northerners took the PCs' weapons and went inside to grab the coveted treasures. It's needless to say that the wights killed them and the PCs could easily recover their weapons.

Finally, the PCs travel as fast as possible to the lake's shore, so they can get into a boat and reach the central island... And this is where the adventure finished.

By the way, the player that controls the elf is convinced that her mother is the maiden in the island that the legends talk about. ?

My advice following this adventure:

  • Drive points are genius, specially for mitigating criticals. They compensate for extreme series of bad luck. I suggest to allow the GM to give drive points for good roleplaying, not just for putting the character in danger.
  • Some difficulties were too high. I suggest to state more specifically in the rules that when there's no pressure or time limit and the character has the appropriate skill, the players shouldn't need to roll.
  • I'd change the mechanic to move the troll's cave stone to a roll.
  • I'd make the wizard's magic door to open automatically to the PCs, at least to Mordrien. This simple fact made them feel like important pieces of a world-saving mission.
  • I'd change the creatures in the tomb to beings that stop attacking the characters if they behave "properly" or have "good intentions". Of course, removing the silver bracelets should provoke their rage.

Thank you Rodrigo, splendid write-up with lots of really helpful insights!

It's perfectly fine to change stuff in the adventure. I mean, I think I've never run a published module without changing at least some details, that's what GMs do!

Glad to see that the rules were well-liked by veterans and easily understood by newer players.

About Drive Points: it's basically a matter of playstyles. We have more guidelines on this in the full rules but, to keep it short, handling Drive frequently and on the spot tends to generate fast-paced adventures with a very "heroic" feel. Players tend to spend them freely (because of the 5 points hard cap), meaning they often get small bonuses or rerolls in situations they deem important.
Handling fewer Drive Points and/or giving them at the end of the session is more suited to slower, grittier adventures. Players tend to hoard them more, and use them mainly as a way to avoid death or in very dramatic circumstances.
Both styles are fine, it's just a matter of what you prefer. I'm quite liberal with Drive Points myself, while for example Tom, in his current gothic-fantasy campaign, handles Drive at the end of the session, which works really well with the "dark fantasy" vibe of the setting.

I'm with you on skill rolls, we'll make it clearer on the full rules: you basically roll only when failure is interesting. No pressure, no time limit, no stakes = no need to roll.

I think we've already changed the stone door mechanic (the adventure is currently being revised and updated), if we didn't, we'll certainly do.

That's a good call on the magic door, great idea!

The nature of the creatures in the barrow will become more clear in the next part of the adventure (probably, we don't want to dump too much lore on the GM/players, so maybe we'll have to cut some things). For the moment, let's say that they're not precisely good-aligned creatures. Anyway, that's just a very minor detail, and I must say I liked how you handled them.

Do not meddle in the affairs of Wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger.

Thank you for providing what's truly a great adventure with the Quickstart. 🙂