AAR: Strange Men, Strange Roads

20 Sep, 2020, updated 18 Oct, 2020 aime lotr roll20 cubicle 7

This post contains spoilers for the named adventure in the Bree-land Region Guide for Adventures in Middle Earth, by Cubicle 7 🙈.

Tools

This was run on roll20, with discord for voice. My VTT assets (maps, tokens) were from:

I ran this for 4 PCs in 2—3 hour sessions.

Characters

Plot

This will be reasonably brief.

Session 1

The players wanted to establish Bree as a Sanctuary (there’s no non-clunky way of doing this). They met with the Reeve’s man, Coll, who asked them to do some patrolling of the East Road, my plan to get them to the Forsaken Inn, where the adventure starts.

They’d already met the Ranger (so to be a bit more sad when he turns up dead 💀)

I made Forsaken Jack reasonably annoying and horrible, and the players successfully hated him. He did indeed overchange them, although as I feel LoTR shouldn’t have too much actual money I just left it at “three times what you were paying in the Pony”.

The players did some light snooping around but without much of a goal, went to bed.

Session 2

In the morning, the body of Tarry-Mack is found by the caravan. The players investigated with the hobbit slayer on a rope and spent a while trying to get the body out. And buried. They ended up having to catch up the caravan, but it seemed to work well and they were doing the right thing.

Introducing the caravan was a lot of work. 9 NPCs! NINE! I would not do this many again, as it involves the audible equivalent of a wall of text. Trying to give them all interesting personalities and not reading from the book was hard.

I did tweak Mirabar to Mirabas, as I want more female NPCs in the game. I also didn’t use his (‘her’) character art which I felt could be interpreted as anti-Semitic. (We discussed this on the TOR/AiME Discord server, and the artist joined in. The merchant was supposed to look crow-like, with a feathery effect. But it can’t be unseen now.)

Hirlinon is supposed to again be a bit annoying, so I made him a mansplainer. He was very annoying, but two irritating Men in a row felt a little “too real” to me as a GM.

There was a shuffle in the real-life party and I brought in a new player to replace one that left. They wanted to play an Elf so I brought forward the elven audience.

Session 3

The pack of wolves finally attacks. I had them howl for a while, getting closer. I had Eoin disappear while scouting ahead. The players found him in a defendable location with him saying “this place looks good”. Yes of course they went back to the main party.

This encounter is supposed to be too tough, and the party are normally saved by the Elves but I used the Cold Shade directly. However, not before half the party died 🥺. The tactics of the warrior and treasure hunter were to fire ranged attacks, while the slayer and scholar fought hand-to-hand. I chose poor tactics for the wolves purposefully to start with, but once they knocked someone prone, they crunched.

The warrior got a crit failure for his second failed Death Saving Throw and bled out in three rounds, while the scholar took a hit in the face from the White Wolf of the North and got taken to -ve max HP! Meanwhile the Cold Shade finished off another wolf, triggering the rest to flee, and to leave more suspicious evidence.

We finished in shock.

Session 4

So, after killing half the party, we decided that one player (it being his first encounter) got a do-over, and the other player took one of the NPCs. Some people may call me soft here, but it’s about what’s fun, and I let the players choose. And I can entirely sympathise with wanting to use a character in RP for at least as long as you spend designing them.

One of the players witnesses Berelas' Healing of a (fatally) sick NPC and they had some good conversations, which were then recounted to the group. She confessed the existence of the Shade.

The party were very keen to help Berelas reach her quest goal of Gorthanc, so clearly I’ve not signposted that Gorlanc is bad 😬.

They arrive in Bree, start to recover, and the Dwarves in the party who want the Ring to sell to pay off a debt, sneak into action, triggering an encounter and getting one of them killed.

Hirlinion is dispatched with help from the guard, to everyone’s satisfaction.

Session 5

Now for the Trial of Berelas.

This was an extended Audience, which in AiME terms feels very much like a 4e-style Skill Challenge, with one twist.

Basically players got turns to say something to make their case she was innocent (the story allows them to take the opposite view but they did not), and the Audience Final Check would be use to decide the ruling.

Everyone rolled great for making a bunch of good points; working out what the Reeve would and would not be persuaded by, and stacked up a number of buffs.

And then the final roll was a 2.

GUILTY 🔨 🔨

Now if I was playing I’d have been tempted to moan OOC but the party were very good about moaning about it IC and started to plan various escapades to correct the injustice. This as ever included a quick OOC digression on “so what would we get Shadow Points for?” which is good in that it keeps people from being murderhobos that would have happened in 5e but bad in that it breaks walls a bit.

They resolve to spring Berelas from prison before she’s put to death. Which, given that it’s Bree, is in no rush as they’ve forgotten how to perform executions. They snuck up to the cottage where she’s being held, at midnight, only to find the guards slain…

Session 6

I had Gorlanc’s minions have the same plan, summoning the Cold Shade a few rounds into combat. One of the Shade’s powers is to trigger the Frightened condition, and a Frightened Barbarian is pretty funny for everyone except the barb.

After a (maybe too) long fight, they kill it. The spectacle is enough to prove Berelas' innocence, and she is freed, on the promise that maybe she takes her magic elsewhere from the sleepy town of Bree.

Lessons

I liked this story. I originally thought I wouldn’t, it felt like it was going to be quite hard to manage a lot of NPCs (it was!) and that a lot of sleuthing was required. However, like any good adventure, there are a few ways of leading the players along to the right suspect, and a few more to the wrong one - if you’re malicious.

I was originally concerned about the idea that plot could advance without the players seeing it, but this is actually a lauded feature of Pound Of Flesh for Mothership, so I endeavoured to be a bit braver. And it does make the world feel richer. However technically I should have killed Berelas off-screen while the players were having a kip, and I found it much more interesting and dramatic to time it for when they planned their heist.

I ran this story to be a bit more emergent, than as it’s written. My version has no quest beyond “be here” as opposed to the original writing of “meet Tarry-Mack” which more directly translates into “justice for Tarry-Mack”. The problem for me-as-GM then is the players didn’t seem that interested at first.

This rapidly changed, so that by the end there was “let’s spring Berelas and damn the consequences to our standing”!

In much the same way that I don’t want to protray racism without discussing it, I should remember sexist micro-aggressions should also be consented. I’m pretty sure most people would be fine with it, but that’s not the point.

The Audiences so far don’t feel like they’ve gone well in terms of role-play. And a failed roll feels fatal. I don’t think I’d run an extended Audience again like that, unless the players want to. I’ve certainly gone through “this is a good thing to save Inspiration for” but that feels very mechnical. Instead I’m going to make Audiences less important to the plot - they might still cause an upheaval, but only in the same way as a failed Journey event might do that.

Let players decide if their characters live or die in 5e I think. For quickly-generated characters I’d stick more to the rules, but in a longer-format game, where some thought and especially some RP has gone into it, I think I’m fine with a do-over.

Once.

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