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Merric's Musings

Thoughts from an Australian Board Gamer and RPGer
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Running the Lost City (4E)

Merric Blackman
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Ramping up my reviewing.
Happily playing games for many, many years.
At present, my Greyhawk campaign has wandered into the Lost City - a Open Design module on which Logan Bonner, Jobe Bittman, Michael Furlanetto, Tracy Hurley and Quinn Murphy have design credits. It's an adventure written more in an open, sandbox style than the overly linear quests that Wizards has been producing.

It's been a lot of fun to run so far, not least because of the range of play it supports. There's roleplaying, puzzle solving and (difficult) combats. I've seen more ritual use in the four sessions I've run of it that in most of the campaign leading up to this point. The biggest problem with rituals isn't really the amount of time they take to cast: it's the structure of the adventures they're used in. When you have a bard turning his parrot familiar into a giant size that he could ride, then towing a thief on a Tenser's Floating Disc behind him over the traps so that the thief can disable it, you can safely say that ingenuity and ritual use can go hand in hand.

However, the adventure isn't exactly complete: the DM has to bring a lot to the adventure. It provides the tools to create a memorable campaign, but it requires massaging. Why are the PCs there? Several hooks are given, but choice of what hooks to use and the emphasis the DM gives to various sections of the module can really change how the game goes.

Through all of this, I'm trying to pay attention to my players' desires. Oh, and then there's Archibald, who is showing every indication of hijacking the adventure.

My original set-up for the adventure involved a vision given by Heironeous to our paladin (of armies marching across the sands), and by having Archibald, the NPC nemesis of the group, steal one of the player's Obsidian Horse and set off in search of the Lost City. So, the group wanted to get back the Obsidian Horse, and the paladin had an additional hook.

Archibald is great fun. He was Adam's original PC in the campaign. In an early adventure, a priest of Iuz offered him wealth and power in exchange for betraying the party (and killing the paladin). Adam accepted, and started rolling up a new character as Archibald changed into an ongoing NPC who pops up every so often to plague the party (and tries to kill the paladin). Just to rub it in, it was Adam's Obsidian Horse that Archibald stole. He really is a villain they love to hate. I wouldn't be surprised if the final encounter in the campaign is Archibald *finally* being defeated by the group.

Anyway, the group reached the Lost City (which I placed in the Bright Desert, not so far from the City of Greyhawk where most of the campaign has taken place), and started exploring and looking for Archibald.

It wasn't long before they met the oklu, the strange reptilian race that make the primary NPCs the group can interact with in the adventure. They're meant to be incredible mimics, but I don't think I've managed to get over that point yet to the players: it doesn't help that I do have trouble handling multiple NPCs at once. So, the group mainly have interacted with just the one oklu, Kade, of the warrior caste.

The adventure suggests way that the various castes of oklu should act. I read them, and promptly threw them out. That's actually not true, but I'm pretty sure the way I run the oklu is not the same as how someone else would who was following the module's text more closely. The Lost City is an adventure I feel very happy in bending, folding, mutilating and spindling. It consists far more of situations, characters and ideas rather than a strict "you must do this" path. So, I used Kade as an introduction to the oklu of the city, far more sympathetic to the party than perhaps the original description might imply, and then had him take the group to another faction of oklu... who had become allies of Archibald.

Of course, this isn't in the original module. However, it does a couple of things: it allows a force to be actively working against the PCs, and it highlights the difference between the different castes of oklu.

The drawback of all of this is something I realised last session: it concentrates the adventure far too much on being an Archibald-hunt rather than an exploration of the wonders and mysteries of the Lost City.

Another blunder: I suggested to the group when they met the third group of oklu (members of the Cult of Rebirth), that the oklu would be able to help them if they just helped them first. Well, the PCs helped the oklu - which led into the wonderful failed resurrection (and giant mummies) encounter - but the oklu then weren't able to help the PCs as a result.

That's not good, because it undermines the role of the oklu as allies. I'll need to try to fix that: interacting with the oklu can be one of the highlights of the adventure, but the PCs need to have a reason to do so. If the oklu are just an annoying hindrance, then they end up like Jar-Jar Binks: something to be avoided at all costs.

There is an overall climax to the adventure which I want to work towards, which involves the PCs retrieving three parts of a key first. They've got one part of it, but the other two parts must be found as well, and they're in parts of the city that the PCs are unlikely to visit on their own, especially as they want to hunt down Archibald first.

In theory, I could have Archibald racing to get the keys first, but in terms of play that doesn't actually work so well. Archibald could quite easily overcome the challenges guarding the keys... and leave nothing for the PCs to do. I'd rather like the PCs to overcome those challenges themselves. Archibald will want the keys, certainly, but he needs to get them in a way that doesn't take away from the heroism of the party. That's going to be difficult.

At this stage, I need to take the focus off Archibald. I'm thinking that this needs to come in two parts: first, the group has to actually recover the Obsidian Horse that Archibald stole. Not sure how that can come about, but it's something I'll be thinking about. The other part is emphasizing some of the other threats in the Lost City. I'm doing that already, by giving visions from their deities to the cleric and paladin in the group.

Here's the one I sent to the cleric:
You stand on a ruined tower on the sands. All around you, you can see the people of the desert going about their lives - trading, working, sleeping, laughing, crying. Then a madness begins to overtake them. Brother fights brother, husband fights wife, neighbour fights neighbour. The sands grow red with blood.

Your gaze is drawn to a young girl, drawing water from a well. As she drinks from the cup, her eyes fill with madness... and you wake in fright.

I'm able to send that vision because it's something suggested as one of the original adventure hooks in the module: the water supply of the city is tainted, and as it leaks into the surrounding lands, it taints the water of the communities around causing madness. The group found the route to the waterworks last session, but showed little interest in it. I hope this gives them a spur to go visit. If not, they can always return to the above and discover a civil war...

I don't want to railroad the group into doing something, but conversely I feel that the game will work a lot better if I shape the adventure to provide an entertaining narrative: I'll act in response to what the players do, but letting the game drift isn't really in its best interest.

Whatever happens, it's going to be interesting. The Lost City is really giving us a chance to play some entertaining sessions, and showing what 4E can do when it has the chance.
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