I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Actual play report: Krevborna retrospective 2016

Happy new year!

Let us start it with a retrospective, before I get to the goals and whatnot...

Well, I've decided to write a bit about some of the games I've played, so that they don't disappear into oblivion (BTW I just remembered I did this at least once before, although that was more advice than recollection). But, as things often go, I want to start this backwards, which means I'll start with the last campaign I played, Jack Shear's Krevborna (check here for campaign logs, etc). So I'll have to choose another day to tell you about the campaign we had to stop because the player characters killed a baby, or the time when my character had his head cut off with a katana and then rolled perception to notice; today I'm writing about my latest, best campaign of 2016.

First of all, it might sound premature to write about Krevborna, since I sincerely hope to continue playing it in 2017. The campaign isn't dead, although it has plenty of dead in it (undead, undead, undead!). But the end of the year seemed like a good time to write this.

Now, I'm not going into the whole Krevborna setting here, since you can just read Jack's posts for that (in short: it is a Gothic, Ravenloft-y D&D 5e campaign play over hangouts, with a rotating cast of characters / players, a sandbox feel, and a great balance between 5e's "three pillars"). Instead, I will write about my impressions about using Google Hangouts for the first time, meeting new people and playing my character.

Jack's recruiting poster.
The first session

I had never even used Google Hangouts before, and I was a bit doubtful about playing over the computer, as most of my games were played with old friends or in gaming conventions. I'm also a bit shy when talking to people over the phone or computer (face to face is easier for some reason). AND I was going to play with some people I had never met, but had been playing with each other for a while already; I was the only new character in my first session - even if it was a rotating cast. So you can see why I felt slightly anxious.

Things went better than expected. Hangouts works well for RPGs, but what really made the game work was the people I played with. Jack and the other players (Jez Gordon and Andrew Shields) were amazingly welcoming;  they went out of their way to get me into the game and give me way more than a fair share of the spotlight (you can see it in the adventure description). At the risk of sounding awkward, I must say that the first session was a lesson on how introducing new players to an ongoing campaign - and probably contained some good ideas on how to introduce new people to the hobby.

(BTW, you may know the people I mention here from their amazing work - Jack, Trey, and Andrew from their blogs and writings, and Jez for his art and design in multiple RPGs).

Sandbox play

One of the things I enjoy the most in Krevborna is the sandbox aspect; characters choose what plots to pursue, there is no predefined story line (as far as I can tell!), parties are formed according to availability, and the rotating cast can completely change the way a session goes.

Let me give you one example: in one adventure, we decided to investigate some information about a creature trapped in some kind of dungeon. Our NPC contact suggested using enslaving the fiend to fight our enemies, which might have seemed like a good idea... but... The PCs were my paladin of vengeance, Andrew's fighter (an acolyte of St. Othric), and Jez's Luka (described as a "trigger-happy urban ranger" that was going through serious soul-searching and in a quest for redemption).

As a result, we spend a big part of the session discussing if it was morally right to use the forces of evil against itself. In the end, Luka shot the trapped demon in the head. Is is likely that tone of those things would have happened with different characters.

In one of the most intense sessions, only two players showed up. We ended up biting more than we could chew, and one of Andrew's (awesome) characters died. This left me alone against an enemy that I wasn't sure I could deal with, but I decided my character was more likely to die than to run. In the end, Tristan survived, thanks to a dagger he got from... a random encounter in that same session! It seems like chaos and randomness create better stories than the ones we plan in advance.

In any case, I have bad memories of GMs protecting my character from bad decisions. It has been a while since I lost a character, and the risk made everything more fun. Also, losing Andrew's character was bad, but doing the eulogy and seeing the town he saved named after him was awesome. I felt a bit bad for not using all my powers correctly, though - I was still learning some nuances of the 5e paladin and I thought he could have survived if I had been smarter, but I guess it is all in the game.

This aspect of the campaign made itself more apparent as we played on (here is one extreme example of Luka's behavior completely changing a session). But even from the first session, it was easier for me to get in this kind of campaign, because not for one moment I felt like my character was intruding on an ongoing "story" that I could derail.

Art by Jez Gordon.
The players and their characters

Now let me tell you about my character...

I am playing Tristan, a paladin of vengeance. which I found to be a fun class to play in 5e. Tristan is a good guy, but the whole "vengeance" angle is fun to toy with. He is in many ways the typical "do good" paladin, eager to die fighting evil if necessary, but he also occasionally lies, cheats, backstabs and uses evil weapons and allies to punish the wicked. Also, I'm playing him straight; when we first found signs that the church could be hiding some nasty secrets, my first comment was "well, we all have our secrets" (to Trey Causey's character, who, I figure, has lots of secrets of his own). Tristan is not above hypocrisy.

Now, one of the cool aspects with playing with Andrew, Jez and Trey (the ones I played most sessions with, although I did have a couple of sessions with other awesome players) is that they play characters full of flavor - interesting backstories, shades of gray, etc. - and in a similar uncompromising fashion. Nobody fears derailing the plot while being true to their characters - and they often do (see above).

This is only possible, I think, because Jack doesn't try to control the PCs actions and choices. He provides an awesome setting, plenty of interesting plot hooks, and he is cool with letting us talk among ourselves (often for long times....) to figure out things and decide what to do - even when we reach a stalemate. Adventures are fair and balanced, but two characters died already. The stakes seem more real this way - in a different adventure where only two players showed up, we avoided combat altogether because we weren't sure that we could get out of there alive.

Also, even though nobody has time for anything these days, its cool to see people that are dedicated and excited about their characters. Jez, in addition to providing great drawing of the characters, wrote a long, in-character letter to my character revealing his past (I wrote back, of course!), and Andrew often writes posts with thoughts from his most recent character, the fabulous Kylic.

Every one of these characters feel alive, with story and personality - not a bunch of numbers on a sheet.

The bloody Verdict on Krevborna

This is a meaningful campaign, so I've decided to keep records. I hope they're useful to you - it might be interesting to see a campaign through a player's perspective. Mostly, I wanted to record the best campaign I played in 2016, and one that I'm really looking forward to playing in 2017.

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