Monday, February 15, 2010

The Thieves Guild campaigns: The Featherguild & Sword and Gold

These days I’ve noticed on various game blogs, and forums like Dragonsfoot, that thieves as a character class get a lot of smack talk (at least as far as 2nd and earlier editions are concerned) . Most recently, their quality as player characters has been most called into question. Skills with very crappy percentages, lack of affective fighting ability, Magic Users being able to better duplicate thief abilities, etc.

Also, I’ve seen some talk about thief related city campaigns failing and being abandoned after just a few games. Monotony and lack of variety is often cited. I mean, how many times can you get a kick out of burgling gems out of temple towers and city townhouses?

Personally, I’ve had two long thieves’ guild campaigns in my time; one in the 80’s, and one in the 90’s. Both were a huge success. I have to admit that they were both conceits of mine. I didn’t actually discuss them before hand much with players or anything. It was pretty much me deciding to do it. Picture an authoritative voice “OK, this campaign is over, you have to run thieves now in the next campaign.”

Now my players in a meek, almost apologetic voice “Oh…OK”

But they worked out great. The campaign in the 80’s was characterized by infighting and bloody violence; and the one in the 90’s by a sort of family feel.

The campaign in the 80’s came to be known as “The Feather’s Guild Campaign.” The major character was Kraylar Eaglesfeather, a half-elf fighter/thief who worked his way up to mid-levels in standard dungeon adventures. Several of my players at the time had thief or thief-type characters, and at some point they became associated with a guild in the main city of Tanmoor. The guild was mostly human of course, but some of the characters, including named Kraylar, my girlfriend of the time’s MU/thief Jarell, and some others were elvish or partly elvish. They often clashed with the human guild members who were a bit racist and not happy with the amount of elvish blood moving into the city, and that eventually led to violence. The human guildmaster died, Kraylar took over in a bloody coupe, and suddenly PC’s were in charge of what remained of the guild. Renamed “The Featherguild,” it became characterized by its racial diversity.

The Featherguild became strong, but Kraylar joined an adventure that took him to the snowy north, and during the months he was gone his second in command Jarell, also half-elvish, took full command of the guild due to popular opinion. When Kraylar finally returned, the guild split in two and a small war commenced with many player characters caught in the middle.

At some point some innocent folk were hurt in a street battle amongst guild members, and a cousin to the city Grand Marshall was killed in the crossfire. This led to the guild being shut down permanently.

In the 90’s I decided to work in another guild angle, this time with an NPC named Marlow, a young human ex-soldier who had grown up as an orphan thieving on the city streets. This fighter/thief gathered up some 1st level PC’s, and went about setting up his guild. He named his new guild after a small tavern he owned in a poor part of town named “The Sword & Gold”. PC’s went on lots of typical dungeon crawls and such, but most game sessions got bookended by trips to the marketplaces in the city for some nice purse-cutting and other thieving activities.

The Sword and Gold campaign went on for a couple of years, and the characters got to be like family to each other. One teenage female thief character became Marlow’s apprentice, and another female thief character became his lover (she would eventually leave the guild because he would not commit to marriage).

Marlow’s guild was mostly human, and at some point came into various conflicts with a guild of half-elf thieves. Coming out on top of most conflicts, Marlow had a golden touch. The part of the city they operated in became a nicer place as Marlow invested money into the area. He also avoided anything to do with murder or violent crimes, so he got little attention from the city watch. Towards the end of the campaign, Marlow became involved with the unmarried queen of the city (he had bought a local falconry establishment she frequented), further cementing his power on the streets. The campaign pretty much ended with Marlow’s young apprentice being groomed for Guildmaster status. That was all several years ago in game-time, so I’ll for sure have to revisit the Sword and Gold at some point.

I should note that both of the major thieves’ campaigns had a big difference between them. That is, the Feathersguild campaign was very player driven. PC’s got in charge, and they made the big decisions. In Sword and Gold, I had Marlow, an NPC, call most of the shots. But it did free up the player characters from administration chores. Although most characters had high level positions in the guild, they had private lives and agendas they were able to focus on.

Weak and often overshadowed by other character types? Sure. Fun to play in a thieves’ guild campaign? No doubt! It takes some work, and you for sure have to mix in standard D&D stuff with the thievery, but in my case I really lucked out with a couple of great campaigns that I will never forget.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Ecology of the Dire Corby

Yeah, it’s not normally all that exciting a creature. It was one of those morts that first appeared in White Dwarf magazine, then found it’s way into the Fiend Folio. The Fiend Folio is a book mostly known as being filled with monsters that seemed to be randomly rolled off of a bunch of charts, with art by Hieronymus Bosch. The Dire Corby is no exception.

But, it is always possible to make lemonade from the many lemons in the book. The Hook Horror is one of those monsters that has evolved over time away from the terrible depiction in the Folio into a fairly cool beastie. Both the Horrors and the Corbies were featured at some point in those Salvatore Drizzt books, and that probably has a lot to do with them being upgraded, at least in appearance.

I never dreamed of using the Corby. With so many cool monsters around, why bother with the various page-filler scrub creatures that litter game material? But I had a big change of heart about this particular monster some months ago when I bought a cheap copy of a Drizzt graphic novel. I wasn’t a big fan of the books or the character, but I was getting ready to do a campaign set in Night Below, and most of the comic took place in The Underdark. I got it for inspiration.

In the graphic novel, Drizzt and his little deep gnome companion get jumped by a flock of Dire Corbies while they are travelling in the Underdark. They are scary and cool here. They even give the cry of “doom!” It’s sounds stupid in the Folio description, but in the graphic novel it is comes off as chilling. These Corbies are black and sinewy, kind of like the creature from the Alien movies. They have nasty claws, and their heads are those of crows, but with tiny, glowing eyes (unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find them online as depicted in the graphic novel. The crude picture above was the best I could find).

So last night in my Night Below game, the party left the kingdom of the deep gnomes to head to the deeper caverns. They encountered a human ranger of the Underdark, and he told them more about the horrors below, including that they might need to go through Corby territory. Choosing that path over the more hazardous and treacherous tunnel, they found themselves swarmed by flocks of hundreds of Corbies. Not too worry – unbeknownst to them the Corbies would flee when 80 of them were slain (note: I was replacing the Grell encounter area in NB book 2 with this encounter).

The players put the tougher fighter types into a circle, with the couple of magic users in the middle. They wanted to protect the low hit point MU’s, but they didn’t really do a good enough of a job making a tight circle, and the Corbies just swarmed on everybody. I didn’t use figs for the Dire Corbies, I just said they were on everyone. Each person was on the average getting attacks from at least 3 of the creatures, and the Corbies have two D6 attacks, so it started adding up pretty damn quick. The elvish MU, Lumarin, used levitate to float above the melee, but the MU/Thief named Lily was not so lucky. Lily had a fairly poor AC, and if I had not made lots of poor rolls on her attackers, she would have been ripped apart. Still, when the battle was over, Lily was at negative 5, but Kayla the hobbit cleric did a good job of getting heals on people.

It was nice to run a huge battle without having to move lots of miniatures around. It took the party a while to kill 80 of the Dire Corbies, but nobody got killed. It was a nice long battle, and I was sweating from the bookkeeping and the dice rolling workout. I must have made over two hundred rolls in that hour and a half. Phew!