Thursday, July 16, 2020

Solo Game Journal: Pacts & Blades

The Vaults of Gloomy Chaos
This is a journal of my second solo game using Pacts & Blades: Moorcockian Fantasy (see my review here). I wanted to showcase it as a  way to discuss some of the cognitive processes that occur as you are engaging with TTRPG material.

For managing movement and initiative, I will be using OSRIC as supplemental rules.

First, the characters. I am running the game with just two characters,  because I want to focus on the two things Pacts & Blades does best: combat and magic. I built them (if they can be said to be built,) to each specialize in one or the other. They are named after characters from the Dungeons and Dragons-themed indie cartoon "Doraleous and Associates."


Blades: Longsword-2
Pacts: Lucis, the lord of Light -1
Hit Difficulty: 6


🔳🔳🔳 ◻◻◻◻◻◻ Light
🔳🔳 ◻◻◻                   Moderate
🔳🔳 ◻◻                        Severe

Gear: Longsword, Shield, Chain Armour, Lantern, 3 Flasks lamp oil, 50' rope, grappling hook, tinderbox, hsmmer, wedge, dagger, crossbow, 10 bolts, backpack

After the humiliation of his great-grandmother at the hands of the Mad Queen Magdha, Doraleous's family were left nobles only in name. Living like peasants in their crumbling castle, bately able to afford fuel to stay warm, and certainly not able to defend their theoretical vassals, Doraleous dreamed of finding a way to restore his family's fortune. When bandits started plaguing his vilkage, Doraleous found the pluck to wear a suit of ancestral chainmail, grab a sword, and lead a posse to protect his village. This was the start of his career as a fortune-hunting knight-errant; he hopes to restore both his family's fortune and their name.

During his wanderings, Doraleous fell in with a hideous jester-turned-wizard, Mirdon. Mirdon is well-versed in secret lore, and hopes to learn the lost spellcraft of the Dwarves of Koganusân. Being feeble, Mirdon needs a guard, a service for which he is willing to split the dwarves' lost treasure.


Blades: Longsword -1
Pacts: Lucis, Lord of  Light -1
      Mephistopheles, demon of ill winds  -1
Hit Difficulty: 6


◻◻◻◻ Light
◻◻         Moderate
◻             Severe

Gear: Black book of Magdha, longsword, sling, pouch of bullets, hooded lantern, 3 flasks lamp oil, tinderbox, 50' rope, sack, chalk, 2 bottles ink

Hideous and malformed, but sharp of mind, Mirdon served for decades as the court jester of the royal family. He served his king not just woth brutal honesty and wit, but by deflating pompous courtiers and being invisible in courtly gatherings, where he could gather gossip. By night he lurked in secret passages and peeped in keyholes for his master, collecting intelligence with incredible finesse. 

None knew the secret places of the castle as Mirdon did. In fact, he knew places in the castle that no one else did, like Queen Magdha's forgotten laboratory in a secret chamber beneath the garderobe. It was there, looking through her secret grimoire that he mastered the rudiments of witchcraft. A skill he kept secret until he was forced to protect himself from an enraged duke (Mirdon was caught exchanging intelligence for... ahem... the Duchess' "favours"). Once his demonic pact became known, Mirdon was forced to flee the court.

NOTE: Backstories

I gave the characters backstories not just because they are fun to write, but because they allow me to adjudicate some non-combat situations more readily; reasonably sized backstories are a boon to a GM. The key is to make sure that there are hard limits to length and complexity.

I lucked out when creating my PCs insofar as I rolled the extremes when it came to possible wound levels. Mirdon is delicate, and I look forward to seeing how that affects play.

Like my first playthrough, I decided to run the game by creating a random dungeon using Donjon. I skimmed it very lightly, but will be giving it a fresh read as I explore (I let my random dungeon, "The Vaults of Gloomy Chaos" sit for some time. I will put a copy of the dungeon up online later.

Turn 1: Entering

Doraleous and Mirdon learned of another dwarvish ruin which may have some hints to the lost fortune of Koganusân, I made a mistake in designing this map: I did not turn on a peripheral entrance. So the stairwell is the entrance. For the sake of making things cooler... and maybe more complicated, let's make the entrance a pit that they had to rappel into. I am not going to force rolls here, though. It is boring to have to do a bunch of skill checks to just get started.

NOTE: Deciding How It Looks

A lot of DMing is a mix of logic and theatre. Most of the time, the descriptions you get in a bog-standard adventure module are not particularly helpful... and a random generator certainly isn't. It helps to stop and think for yourself about how things should look and feel.

In this case we know the dungeon is frozen over and has extreme cold effects. Being covered in glittering rime and frost makes sense. Why is it so cold? Well its probably haunted, but being Dwarvish it makes sense that it is in a mountain, so adding snow, breath vapour, and wind makes logical sense as well. It gives me something to work with.

This also suggests a set of narrative factors: the floor is going to be slippery in places, light is going to bbounce and shed more than usual, and stuck doors are likely frozen shut.

Sliding down the rope, Doraleous and Mirdon find themselves in an ancient stone-vaulted corridor. A pile of snow at their feet softens the landing. The shaft of sunlight surrounding them partially blinds them to their surroundings. Stepping out through a cloud of their own breath they can see a glittering hallway filled with dreary blue light from the sun bouncing off the rime coating the stone walls. They can see that to their East, the stone corridor takes a hard turn, while to the West it vanishes into the gloom. The mountain wind wails mournfully through the halls. 

Marching Order: Mirdon cowers to the left and slightly behind Doraleous.

Mirdon elects to try to create a floating ball of magical light to keep his hands free by calling on Lucis. In almost every RPG out there this is easy to do, and so I will set a Difficulty of 2, meaning I need to beat a 6, -1 for the strength of the pact, so 5 on 2d6. (⚄⚃) Duration is up to the GM, but, Pacts and Blades offers a good simple solution: you determine damage with the highest die roll while attacking, so let's use it for duration. Given that dungeon exploring in OSRIC  is done in 10-minute  Turns, I'll just use the highest die to give me a number of turns... so 50 minutes. As it was a Total Success, I also consult the magical feat chart: , so I choose one. I decide that Mirdon will call a protecting light. For the next 50 minutes,  he can only be affected by things that harm ethereal creatures.

Muttering an invocation to the Lord of Light, Mirdon summons a shimmering ball of unearthly light that follows him. He senses that it will drive back creatures of darkness. Lanern bright, it fills the hall with sparkles off the rime-jewelled walls

From here, I am just going to decide that they head West.

NOTE: Keeping it Rolling

The long, dreary hallway needed some flavour, so i added the eroded frescoes to keep things interesting, and that gave me some inspiration.

It just doesn't pay to have a slow start to a dungeon, no matter how cool or evocative you can make it. You have to throw your players a bone. I decided to start by giving my PCs a leg up with a chance for Advancement.

Howling winds that are going to kill the PCs if they are not wary, strange sounds, eroded frescoes... it seemed to fit thematically with an existing pact, why not hand Mirdon a chamce to advance and Doraleous a chance to sell his soul?

At least it keeps the game moving instead of the slow start I would be worried about as a DM.

Although, switching to a player perspective,  I am not sure Doraleous is ready to dabble with a demon so obviously foul... even if it would make him stronger.

Turns 2 and 3: A Long Hallway

Along the cold, frosty tunnels, made comforted by the warming light of Lucis, Doraleous and Mirdon wander, noting sparkling reliefs, many of damaged by battle and eroded by wind until their faces look like skulls. Mirdon pauses to contemplate the dread winds, and salutes Mephistopheles and the power of cruel winds.

Each adventure using Pacts and Blades should grant two or three opportunities for Advancement. I decided that the Ill Winds in this hall are close to Mephistopheles' domains and that I would give Mirdon a chance at a boost here. As he now has 4 advancements he requires a 9 to hit, and I can re-roll 1d6+4 for wounds. . His new wound track is:

◻◻◻◻◻◻◻ Light
◻◻◻                   Moderate
◻◻                        Severe

A far cry from the original one wound he had at each level when I first created him.

Turn 4: Weeping Winds

As the two proceed, the wind seeming -appeased - they reach a junction. For a second, Lucis' light seems to dim, and a coppery smell fills the air. The sound of a woman weeping drowns out all else for a moment.

Doraleous spares a glance and a word at his hunchbacked companion, "Mirdon?"

"Not me, Nuncle, but a soul lost here. It lingers, but I... hope... is harmless."

All the same, Mirdon grabs the drowish longsword he claimed in the Cavern of Crawling Hate and holds it tight in shivering hands, in spite of the magical warmth.

Noting an archway just a little further down to the left, turn into a vast, ice crusted forge room, bathing it in pale light. Here, they spot a goblin hunched over a fire pit, its back to them...

NOTE: Being Fair

What is fair? 

I have seen so many debates on it in the context of TTRPGs that the one thing I will say for certain is that the waters are muddy.

What I do know is that this is not a game of Munchkin! Where you get to just treat every combat as a brawl the instant the PCs open a door. It has to make sense.

And what makes sense here is that these bloodthirsty goblins would have heard these two coming and prepared something nasty. Anything else would seem improbable and break the realism and immersion a player has a right to expect.

I know it would absolutely not be fair if the players expected a game of Dungeons & Dragons  and instead found themselves playing softball.

Doraleous and Mirdon are not being subtle here: bright light, clanking armour, and chatter. The glamour in the hall is a good warning, too. There is no way anything in rooms 9 or 4 are surprised.  Bugbears are masters of ambush, as well. I can imagine the goblin playing bait while the Bugbear lies in wait to the left of the chamber. The real question is, are Doraleous and Mirdon surprised. I will give the Bugbear a roll to ambush Mirdon (Difficulty 3) and because it is a particular trait, I will give the bugbear a -2 modifier, meaning  it needs a 7 to surprise the PCs. (⚄⚂)

As they creep through the threshold motion erupts beside them, the hulking shaggy form of an ape like beast crashes into Doraleous, bringing down a morningstar like a hammer on an anvil, even as the goblin, cackling maniacally pulls hard on a chain in the coal pit, slinging flaming coals and a storm of sparks at Mirdon.

The bugbear attacks Doraleous with a Morningstar -2, and having a huge narrative advantage -2. Only snake eyes could miss. (⚀⚅) with a severe wound, and a total success, meaning it also rolls a Feat . Doraleous is stunned and cannot counter attack on a partial success from an enemy attack.

NOTE: Adapting Monsters to New Systems

It is pretty rare that a monster makes an easy transition from one system to another. When adapting, I find the best two questions to ask are:

How tough do I want it to be relative to the PCs?

What are the monster's defining abilities?

Using these questions to guide you generally will let you make something that "feels" right, regardless of game engine. With bugbears, making them good at ambush and tougher than a man covers most of its essence.

The Goblin also has narrative advantage from surprise (-2), and a nasty attack incoming (-2) To hit Mirdon. 9-4=5 to hit. (⚄⚄), a searing strike, but Mirdon has a few minutes left on his spell. No damage; the goblin has no "Firey Chain" advancement, however. No feat is rolled.

The Bugbear's blow cracks timbers as it sinks into Doraleous' shield, and hus head rings as the steel rim crashes against his helmet. Mirdon lets out a shrieks and throws up his arms as he is pelted with coals, and is shocked to find he is not hurt. Lucis' voice whispers in his ear "Not yet... I still have use of you."

I am going to simplify OSRIC's group initiative a little bit. The Goblinoids go on ⚃ and Doraleous & Associate on . From here, I'll write out the rolls quickly then summarize descriptively. Let's assume the -2 advantage from surprise only lasts a round.

NOTE: When the Dice go Bad

For a moment here it looks like a difficulty 3 baddie will beat Doraleous into a bloody pulp. If I was DMing someone else, I would feel at least a little edgy about what is happening. The temptation to fudge the dice is strong... not because I want the players to win, but because I want my players to have a good time.

I have found the best compromise is to let the players do the fudging by giving them the power to re-roll once per session or using a "battle rage" mechanic where players get a cumulative bonus each time they fail a roll, only resetting when the player finally makes a roll.

Giving the players a little ability to fix a streak of bad luck, so that they don't feel helpless has, to me, been the best compromises to keep players happy while remaining fair.

The real trick is to call for rolls as seldom as you can manage; players should only roll when there is a cost to failure. And if it would bring the story to a halt otherwise, let them fail forward.

As it is, this turned into a story worth telling: a turnaround from near certain death. 

Doraleous, reeling, slashes out wildly (⚂⚀), his blade goes astray, and the bugbear counters with another brutal blow to his shield (automatic damage: , light wound); Mirdon, desperate to help tries calling forth a ray of cutting light from Lucis to burn the savage beast (⚁⚁) only to find the spell, and his resolve wavers; the protecting light breaks, leaving them vulnerable and in the sickly light of the coal. The bugbear chuckles, pushing its advantage (⚃⚂,⚃: mod. wnd.) smashing his shield to useless splinters, leaving him off balance. Mirdon narrowly ducks as the glowing chain snaps overhead (⚃⚁).

NOTE: Partial Success

In Pacts & Blades parital successes are not well-defined. When a weapon attack misses, your enemy gets to roll an attack against you. If you fail the roll, it gets automatic damage.

This is pretty straightforward... and brutal to Doraleous throughout. But for other situations I often find that Partial Success can be one of the hardest things to adjudicate in a TTRPG.

Breaking Mirdon's spell and costing him his invulnerability seems like a pretty good choice in this circumstance, because it is connected to the same pact.

Partial success is one place where being logical and consistent are absolutely necessary.

Shaking the ruins of his shield off his arm, Doraleous two-hands his sword and throws himself desperately (⚃⚀), only to feel gasping pain as the bugbear slams an elbow down on his back (: lt. wnd.). Mirdon rushes the goblin in the gloom swinging his sword furiously (⚄⚅,⚁: severe wnd.). His sword tears into the tiny monsters flesh, spilling its guts onto the frozen floor. With his heart pounding, he lifts the blade and brings it down through the goblin's clavicle (⚃⚁,⚃: mod. wnd.). The Bugbear twists and brings the morning star onto Doraleous's back, (⚃⚂,⚁: mod. wnd.) once, twice (⚅⚃,⚀: severe wnd.), tearing mail and bruising ribs. It grins: it sees the perfect spot to strike to shatter flesh and bone. 

Barely clinging to life, the goblin tries to get ahold of Mirdon to take the jester with him, (⚀⚄), only to taste another hand-span of drow steel (), leaving it to expire messily on the floor.

Howling with the wind, Mirdon calls on Mephistopheles to choke the bugbear with a black wind (⚄⚁,⚂: -3 difficulty). The Bugbear suddenly gasps and drops its club, choking. 

Doraleous catches his breath and begins slashing at the monster with a mix of fury and desperation (⚂⚃,⚁; ⚁⚀,⚁; ⚀⚄,⚅; ⚃⚃,⚂: 1 lt., 2 mod., 1 sv. wnd., weakened.) In his red haze he swings with inhuman speed.

Mirdon rushes in with his own blade, driving ot through the beast's back and out his chest (⚅⚂,⚀).

NOTE: Emergent Stories

In a traditional role-playing game, story is an emergent phenomenon. It comes out of play, rather than being the goal of it.

No system does a great job of making a story happen. Although, this is the pivotal difference between an role-playing game and a more modern "story-game". Story-games try their best to help story along, even if it needs to be forced a little.

Honestly, the scene I imagined between Mirdon and Doraleous over the shield is some of the best story I have created in solo play, mostly because it is not something I forced. There was no reward for doing it except the reward of seeing it on the page. No mechanics dictated that Doraleous mourn the loss of his shield. That was just what I thought would be right.

Doraleous is in rough shape: all the armour from his shield is gone (and beyond restoration), as is more than half of the protection that his armour gave him. Here's his current health monitor:

Doraleous' Wounds

◾🔳 ◻◻◻◻◻◻ Light
◾🔳 ◻◻◻              Moderate
◾◻◻                        Severe

Doraleous picks the last bits of his shield from out of his mail as he drops to the floor, trying to catch his breath.

"Damnation. My great-great grandfather carried that shield during the Serran Crusade. It was an heirloom."

Mirdon, lighting his lantern, claps Doraleous on the shoulder. "Be glad, my friend! I am sure that your great-great granfather would be happy that his shield saved the fruit of his wife's loom from being served as applesauce with roast hunchback."

Gathering their wits, they take note of the doors: an archway to the right, or a door made of interlaced bone covered in gobling fetishes crudely fitted straight ahead.

NOTE: The Value of Resource Management

Light, encumbrance, and food are often hand-waved in modern TTRPGs. I understand why they do it: they are some of the most fiddly bits of Dungeons & Dragons to play with... but it is so valuable.

When a player is forced early on to think about light and shadow. When they are forced to choose each piece of gear - and treasure - wisely, and when they are finessed into thinking creatively and making decisions with forethought.

At-will light spells, bags of holding, decanters of endless water, goodberry, etc., don't just remove fiddly gameplay: they change how the players engage with the game.

I have observed that if players get these resource-savers too early, they come to expect solutions to be handed to them. They want the DM to provide for their characters, rather than seeing the game as a series of creative challenges.

This is why light spells were limited and expensive in early editions of D&D, and why spells like teleport only appear at high levels.

Turn 5 & 6: Through The Bone Door

Normally at this point I would look at what is in rooms 1, 4, and 3 to see what might have been drawn by the noise, but to keep myself honest, I am only going to look as I proceed. It may mean more ambushes.

Doraleous ries conjuring a magical light at this point to save on lamp oil: (⚀,⚀) and manages to replicate Mirdon's spell. Lucis blesses Doraleous with a -2 on his next roll, but not the same incredible protections.

Mirdon and Doraleous take a brief rest, then get on their feet, noting ancient graffitti carved across a relief: "The Circle of the Orb killed a Blue Dragon here." in the Dragon-Tongue. Neither know of the order, but wonder if the door to the North might be made in part of dragon bone.

Testing the grisly door, they find it open: a massive room filled with ornate pillars of Dwarven worksmanship. They decide not to tarry in the room, they are already shivering.

At the beginning of Turn 6, Doraleous has been eposed to cold long enough to be in danger. He will need to make a save to avoid taking automatic damage from the cold. I will set the difficulty at 3 for a RV of 9, -2 thanks to his spell means that he needs a 7 not to take damage ()

Turn 6: The Ogre

Pushing past an ornately-carved stone door, Doraleous and Mirdon enter a new room. Here a fire of dried bones, offal, and grease warms the room and fills it with a horrid stench, A great tusked beast, all scars and sinew, shaped barely like a man, gnaws on the leg of a wold. It sniffs the air as they enter.

I decided to roll for surprise here, as the Ogre has several closed doors between itself and the Heroes (). It wasn't ready to ambush them, but it didn't miss the sound of a door opening. Given an Ogre's temperament, it isn't about to parlay with a malformed dwarf and a warrior who is already looking battered and in torn armour. Initiative: Ogre goes on segment  and the heroes on segment .

Snarling in a tongue neither hero understands, the brute stands up and hefts a club made of a great white femur, grinding its teeth. The room shakes as it charges at Doraleous. (Club -1, ⚂⚂, ⚅;  ⚄⚂,⚅; ⚁⚄,⚅; ⚅⚀,⚃; 1lt. wnd., 2mod. wnds., 1sv. wnd., stunned). The monster drives into Doraleous foot first, throwing hm off balance before it brings down its club like an avalanche against his upraised stword. Even as he tries to rise, a knee throws him off-balance again, then there is a crunch, as the orge dents in Doraleous' helmet.

Dazed, Doraleous swings a clumsy arc (⚀⚀) that only gets him cuffed by the Ogre's backhand, bringing the taste of blood to his mouth (, lt. wnd).

Mirdon, desperate to help his friend calls on Mephistopheles to slow the Ogre with buffeting winds (⚁⚁), but the magic is of no avail. Mirdon suddenly chokes as the magical fumes he tried to conjure get caught in his panicking throat (mod. wnd.)

The Ogre raises it club to finish Doraleous with a snort (⚃⚁, ⚄: sv. wnd.) The crushing blow shatters the knight-errant's head. Mirdon screams, and tries to flee as Doraleous crumples to the floor.

NOTE: Character Death

Character Death shouldn't be the complicated topic people make it into. This is a game about taking dangerous risks for fame, fortune, or the glory of one's gods. Characters die doing that, just as real people do. If there is no threat of injury or death this world you are making can't feel real.

But this is part of the culture of story gaming that bears a lot of consideration. 

Doraleous is dead. The dice were savage, letting the ogre brutalize him. At this point, I have a much-improved understanding of Pacts & Blades, because of it. Without at least 4 Advancements, characters are still pretty soft. They are not ready to face Difficulty 3 foes. At least not in such small numbers.

Intoning a call to Mephistopheles, Mirdon begs for wind to speed his flight (⚃⚁, ⚂), and finds his speed vastly increased as he runs into the pitch blackness, feeling along pillars for a place to hide as he fumbles to re-light his lantern. The heavy thudding of the Ogre's feet behind him.

Turn 7: Flight Across the Ice

Mirdon lights his lamp, throwing the room of pillars into bright relief, eliciting a roar from the blood-spattered monster now lurking in the centre of the room. Magic may make him swift, but it has not sharpened his reflexes.

NOTE: "Fly, You Fools !"

Running away and fleeing the dungeon just does not occur to a lot of players. And modern games don't enable it very well.

Even the most experienced players sometimes need to be reminded to exercise the better part of valour.

I often rack my brain as to how to encourage it more... and here I fell into the same trap. Doraleous and Mirdon could have backed up and ambushed the ogre with magic in a tight space, getting narrative advantages to make up for the Ogre's sheer nastiness.

This is a problem that needs working on. Maybe finding a way to reward discretion with more than longer-lived characters is in order?

Initiative: The Ogre goes on Segment , and Mirdon on . Mirdon is going to need to dive past the Ogre. Normally this would be a target number 9, but here is where that backstory comes into play. As a jester, Mirdon has done some tumbling and pratfalling: he knows how to move swiftly. So, I will give him a -2 modifier. He has to beat a 7. On a partial success, the ogre gets a free shot. On a fail, it hits automatically.

Mirdon lets out a nervous chuckle and dives, bringing the best capering he once did before kings (⚅⚅), and perhaps the finest performance of his life. Guided in part by the wicked winds at his heels, Mirdon flips, skips, and rolls around the Ogre's flailing club and then moves at full haste along the route he had followed to reach this point.

I've tripled Mirdon's speed as a result of his spell - and he is not moving carefully. So he should be able to move an insane 900' this turn. The Ogre will never catch him... but I also ruled that the floor is slippery. I will require a Difficulty 3 roll to keep his feet at that speed. Once again modded for his capering skills by -2. 

With the ill winds of Mephistopheles guiding him, Mirdon skates, slips, and bounds with inhuman speed towards the rope (⚅⚄). The frost is his ally, letting him move ever faster towards freedom.

NOTE: Rewarding Player Creativity 

If you want an enjoyable game and happy players, reward creativity!

Saying "Yes" all the time is a terrible idea, but saying "Maybe," or "that is so crazy, I want to give it a chance to work" is important.

Whenever possible, I like to reward players describing their actions by letting them avoid rolling. For example, if you tell me how you are using your tools to jam a pressure plate, I will never ask you to roll a disarm traps.

In this case, once I imagined Mirdon skating on slick patches, I  decided to let him go without dice rolls to fall.

Turn 8: Ill Met in the Vaults of Gloomy Chaos

Perhaps in the first lucky break since the dungeon began, I rolled no wandering monster in Mirdon's path as he zips through the dungeon back to the rope.

Laughing, crying, and screaming, Mirdon climbs the rope out of the Vaults of gloomy chaos to the sound of drms and the bellowing of an enraged monster. The sight of the grisly beating of his friend replaying itself across his eyes. Mirdon was always halfway to madness; and for a time, as he climbs up into the snowstorm, he embraces it. It is easier than giving in to despair.

By the time he reaches Saltmoor village, he has found some of his mind again. And a deep, burning sense of shame. He will return to the Vaults, and soon. Doraleous deserves a proper funeral. Koganusân still beckons... But with many more warriors this time. Witches, warriors, savages, mercenaries... whomever he can find.

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