Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Tale of Adolph The Red-Eyed Reindeer

Have you ever had a DM who always planned sweeping, epic campaigns, then after a few sessions lost all his notes? But, conveniently, he had this whole other idea brewing, and if we wanted to make new characters for it, we could start that game instead? Yeah, that was a DM I had for a while. While my group was pretty easy going (we were mostly just happy to play), there came a point where we were losing both patience and enthusiasm for Rob's constant switching from one game to another. So when he came to us with this cool idea he'd had for a post-apocalyptic game using the D20 Modern expansion, and swore that it was going to be a big, continual, level 1 to 20 campaign focused on a single group of heroes, we weren't biting.

Until he mentioned we were all playing children, who would grow into the wasteland's next generation of legends. That got our attention.

So, enthusiastic but wary, we set off on an adventure unlike any we'd had before. It was a game so poorly-run, badly thought out, and comically ridiculous that after the first session, Rob didn't just lose his notes. He threw them out intentionally.

So what does this have to do with a red-eyed reindeer?

The Crew

Faced with the prospect of a serious, long-running game where our PCs had to match wits with an apocalyptic landscape, we decided to go all-out.

The first member of the crew was the youngest at 12 years old. Maggie, alias Magpie, was a fast hero with a penchant for shiny objects. Her parents ran the local scrap yard, and she fancied herself something of an inventor. The only problem was that nine out of ten times her inventions either caught fire, didn't work, or fell apart. So, while a little scatterbrained, she knew her way around the wastes. That, and she carried a sawed-off double barreled shotgun with exactly two rounds. Just in case something big tried to eat her.

The second member of the gang was Ark. A half-feral child, Ark and his parents were taken by mutants who raided the town years ago. While Ark's parents were never seen again, the boy wandered back after he'd been missing for some time. Long and rangy at 14, Ark barely spoke, but he was a consummate hunter, and he knew how to survive in the savage wilds of the post-plague world. A tough hero, Ark was no one's easy meal.

Lastly there was Skrewe. His mother was the last of the divas, and her looks had not been enough to secure her prominence of position in this new, decaying world. Embittered, she'd more or less ignored her son, even going so far as to name him after the act that had foisted him on her. Skrewe spent most of his childhood around Emeril Brooks, a stolid black man who'd been a professor in the time gone by. Skrewe took quickly to crafts, as well as to chemistry, and botany. By the time he was 13, he'd left home, cleared a patch of cacti, and built a little sanctum for himself and the bizarre animals he took in. A major source of everything from aloe lotion, to purified water, to ethanol, Skrewe was an integral source of knowledge and skill as the group's smart hero.

The DM also did something that I would highly recommend not doing for anyone taking notes. He gave each of the players a chance to make up a unique ability for our characters, above and beyond the stuff you get from being a PC. Magpie gained sneak attack, Skrewe added both his Wisdom and Intelligence bonuses on Craft and Knowledge checks, and Ark... well, have you ever seen a Tarzan movie? He had what was called the 5-second kill. In that he would roll an attack, and if he hit, he could use this ability instead of dealing damage. He would roll percentiles, and if it was under a certain amount determined by the character's level (it started at 7%), then the creature would instantly be killed. He could use this once per day at level one.

This will become important later on in this story.

The Quest

Our party all lived (nominally, at least) in a small town in what was once New Mexico. Insulated by the surrounding desert, there was a ritual where people had to bring back something of value to the town in order to be considered full-fledged adults. So despite the fact that one character was the daughter of prominent community members, another was a fringe-dweller who didn't much care what everyone else thought, and the third was responsible for a huge portion of the town's functional medicine and science, we all agreed to follow this plot hook. Even though it had more holes than a wheel of Swiss cheese that had been the target of a Mafia hit.

So, eager for adventure, we set off into the badlands.

Sadly, we didn't get the appropriate war rig that Skrewe would have built, given advanced warning.
We drove for several hours, finding little of note that hadn't already been picked over or scrapped. Finally, though, we found our way to a small ghost town off an unmarked road. We pulled up to what was once a gas station, and we found there was plenty of loot still inside. Hermetically sealed first aid kits, some canned food, and a dozen different odds and ends. Not exactly conquering hero stuff, but useful, and definitely worth taking.

We were back at the pumps, with Skrewe trying to puzzle out how to check on if there is still fuel in them (and if that fuel is any good), when we all heard the sound of roaring cycles. Before we could do more than take strategic cover, a dozen men in black leather and chains, smoke belching from their fat boys, circled us. We can see they're armed, but we also notice their hollow eyes, oozing sores, and general shakiness. Their leader, one eye weeping dark blood, demanded we give them medicine for their sickness. Skrewe shouted back that they didn't have any medicine, but if they wanted the food we'd found they were welcome to it. The leader snarled that if we didn't hand over the medicine, they'd kill us all.

So, being young, stupid, and hoping for the best, Skrewe said he'd hand them the medicine if they kept their fingers off their triggers. So he mixed up a cocktail from the components in the back of the car, and, when the leader held out his hands for it, tossed the chemical mixture at him. It burst into flame as soon as it was jostled, and lit the leper war chief up like a holiday tree.

Combat was begun, and as the most visible source of betrayal, Skrewe was the target. After a few lucky misses thanks to cover, he took a crossbow bolt in the shoulder. A big deal for a first-level smart hero, but not something that instantly killed him. However, when the DM asked for a Fortitude save against the disease on that bolt, things got serious. My dice, out of spite, rolled a 19. Which was fortunate, because the DM told me as soon as I made it that the save was a DC 19 save-or-die effect.

So much for a long-term game meant to showcase character growth.

CR Isn't Always Just A Number

Whether the bolts were actually a save-or-die effect, or he'd ad-libbed that to make it feel like Skrewe had cheated death, the table was not pleased that something we had such a low chance of making was now canon. Sensing the mood, and that he had definitely overstepped the appropriate challenge, the fight was ratcheted back in deadliness. Skrewe managed to perform triage on himself from inside the car, ducked down out of sight, and was sitting pretty at 0 hit points and stable. Ark and Maggie managed to fight off the bulk of the gang, and when all was said and done, they burned what the bikers had left behind, got in, and headed back to town. They'd gotten some supplies, and been blooded in the attempt, which was enough for them.

Unfortunately, they were too far back to make it home before nightfall. And while the car had headlights, they had been shot out during the fight. So, rather than risk further accident, they pulled over in the evening, and made camp. Skrewe, one arm bandaged, dug a short trench for himself, set up a tent over it, and curled up to bitter sleep. Maggie slept in the car, and Ark stood watch, his bow in hand, staring out over the desert. As the sun set, a huge beast lumbered through the dying light. Its antlers prominent, it ambled through the scene like a metaphor for life continuing on, even after calamity.

That was where we all expected the session to end, but the DM kept staring at us as if he expected us to do something. So Ark shrugged, took aim, and fired. After all, you could never have too much game meat.

Unhurt by the arrow, this thing comes thundering into camp just in time for Skrewe and Magpie to rouse themselves to see what's happening. Maggie thumbed back the hammers on her shotgun, and Skrewe grabbed a canister of ethanol, readying an action to throw it at the charging behemoth's face. While he gets the throw, a second later the DM asks all of us to roll Will saves.

Why, you may ask? Well, for the 15-foot tall mutant reindeer's Frightful Presence.

Roll initiative, bitch!
For the second time that evening there was an uncomfortable silence sitting over the table. Then, flabbergasted, Ark's player asked, "What is Adolph the Red-Eyed Reindeer doing here?"

We roll, and pretty much all of us fail. So, we're shaken, on the verge of bolting. This thing slams its head into the side of the car, getting stuck there, with flammable fluid dripping from its face. Entangled, it's declared that it loses its Dex bonus to armor class. So Magpie takes her shot, giving it both barrels. Five or six d6 later, this thing is burning and wounded, but most of all, it's pissed.

Ark rushed in to try saving Magpie, and rolled the same number as she had on his attack. However, in the time between her turn and his, it appeared the demon moose's armor class had spontaneously gone up from 20 (already pretty high for an enemy facing a level one party) to a 24 (impossible for anyone in the party to hit, barring a natural 20). According to the narration we were given, as the fire burned away its fur, chitinous armor plating had grown up out of its skin, knitting together in heavy bone plates.

Magpie battered at it with the butt of her shotgun, and Skrewe took a shot with his crossbow, but failed between injury, panic, and being a brain-based character. Ark decided, hell with it, and rolled again. A natural 20. Instead of bothering to confirm, he activated his ability for the day. He had a seven percent chance of getting through to something vital, and instantly downing this beast.

The percentiles rolled aught five. Adolph dropped, dead as a Christmas tree after New Years.

The Aftermath

For those who don't know, a creature had to be at least a CR 8 in this system to have Frightful Presence. So we sat down, cracked the books, and tried to figure out how much XP that single middle-finger from the dice actually earned us. When all was said and done, and we'd applied all the formulas, the entire party should have gone from level 1 to level 5 after that single fight. Additionally, we had the hide of a powerful mutant creature whose chitinous plating had expressly been described as nearly impervious to close-range shotgun blasts, and to fire damage. Just as good as post-apocalypse dragon hide, as far as we were concerned.

Let is not be said that Satan's reindeer doesn't bring frightfully good presents!

Though this game had been pretty rocky up to that point, this turn of fate actually had us pretty excited. We had enough hit points we could survive a fight, we had all sorts of new abilities under our belts, and we could tackle some more serious issues. We'd even advanced far enough that our DM's propensity for throwing the PCs into the deep end with anvils tied to their feet might be exciting, instead of discouraging.

So, needless to say, he conveniently lost all his campaign notes after that. While he tried to pitch us a new game in a more traditional Dungeons and Dragons setting not long after, we'd had enough. A game that started fun, nearly resulted in the table being flipped when we'd been given impossible odds, and then actually defeating those impossible odds using the tools we'd been given was a wild ride. We were not interested in starting something new after that, so we found someone else to fill the chair for the next campaign.

That's all for this installment of Table Talk. If you've got a gaming story of your own you'd like to share, feel free to contact me with it! I love featuring my readers' stories, and giving other gamers a moment in the spotlight. If you'd like to see more gaming content from me, check out my Gamers archive. If you're interested in a podcast I've been helping out with, head over to Dungeon Keeper Radio to get advice for players, DMs, and fluff on the ever-growing world of Evora! To keep up on all my latest updates, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support Improved Initiative, then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss a little love my way. All it takes is a $1 a month pledge to make a difference, and you'll get some sweet gaming swag while you're at it.


  1. I had a discussion similar to this with a DM friend of mine (we swap places in the Hot Seat often enough to be sounding boards for each other) where he wanted to run a series of small stakes games, get people attached to their PC's, and then (during some big village heroes tourney sort of thing) have a number of them killed by the BBEG to really push in the stakes before the player's would roll-up serious hereos, or a surviving member picked up their broken blade and stood against this darkness like the hero they'd been playing at.

    Your DM might've been trying for this, the way it's been pitched he did not want you guys to survive this little romp through the Toxic Hell's Angels and Adolf the Red-Eyed Reindeer, but if he did he did in a bloody backards way.

    Personally my main idea for doing that (if I ever run it) is to make a border settlement and give the PC's control of a townie, or a guard, before the BBEG strikes, and the PC's just get to see how long they can last, or if they can get others to safety. The session should realistically end with "Okay guys, I'm going to need you to roll up X lvl characters, who are have heard that a border settlement has just been wiped off the map, and you're all going to investigate. Reasons are your own."

    1. Having played dozens of games under this DM, I can say with some authority there was no such forethought in this game. He had no idea how to scale challenge rating in any game he ran, but since he had to make up his own monsters for this setting rather than using the Monster Manual, he overdid everything without asking whether it was even possible for the characters at the table to accomplish a given challenge with the tools they had on hand.

      Even if there was a master plan with a bait-and-switch, though, that wouldn't have gone over any better. When a DM tells you he wants you to make characters that you will be playing long-term, and everyone spends more than a month mapping out a long backstory, and recording everything they'd done worth noting (I even had blueprints to Skrewe's laboratory and living quarters), killing them off in the first session so they can make new, stronger characters is not going to get the DM what they want. Players aren't going to be wowed by the storytelling; they're just going to be mad that you lied to them, and they aren't going to trust that you won't just pull the same thing again on their new, stronger characters.

      If a DM is going to pull the "you're all going to die" card, then they need to be up-front with that. Be perfectly clear that if the PCs survive, then they survive, but this is a high-risk, good chance of death setup. That way if PCs do die, the players won't feel they were brought in under false pretenses.

    2. Was he any better as a player?

      Also do you have any tips for balancing CR for rougher/tougher encounters. I ask 'cause I've now had 2 of my low level boss encounters end with the party almost biting it (first one was a 5 lvl PC's against a swarm of 8 Goblins without armour and wielding broken knives, and their boss Ball'zoch the Krusha (a lvl 2 Warrior), and a Gnoll Slaving party with 4 Gnolls (Pathfinder Bestiary 1) a Dire Hyena, and a Lvl 3 Gnoll Barbarian when all 5 PC's were lvl 3.

    3. He wasn't any better as a player. He was the sort of guy who always wanted the overpowered racial template that would completely throw off the party balance, along with more obscure classes whose powers often didn't work the way he wanted them to work.

      As to balancing encounters, you have to make them to your party. As an example, a half dozen shadows would be a cake walk for a level four party made up of a paladin, a cleric, a warpriest, and an evoker. However, if no one has a magic weapon, spells, or even items like wands, then those incorporeal undead are going to TPK them because they can't actually be hurt by the party at your table.

      You have to make sure your players always have the tools to reasonably deal with an encounter. Throwing an unexpected werewolf at them is reasonable if they have silver to hand, but if they don't, and they can't get over the DR, you're more likely to kill them than you are to give them a challenge.

    4. A help to that would be if my players stopped changing their characters. (That makes the problem sound far worse than it is, they ask me if they can and so far they've all been reasonable about it.)

      So far I've had 2 character deaths(Ranger - Warpriest, Gunslinger - Cavalier), 1 character retiring his character and changing to a new one because he wasn't enjoying it(Fighter - Sorcerer), and one player changing her character when she was made aware of an archetype that allowed her to get much closer to her original character idea (Rogue - Archaeologist Bard), and they've only just hit lvl 4.

      And with these changes they haven't dropped me myth-weaver copies of their new character sheets, despite me chasing them.

      The second part is that my players (and me) have some of the most erratic luck/dice-rolls I've ever seen, and I do mean that without hyperbole. No session goes by without at least 1 nat 1 & 1 nat 20, usually more.

    5. I once rolled 11 natural 1's in a row. I know how that goes.

      The other thing to remember is that a change in tactics and area can raise the difficulty just as much as creature choice does. Fighting orcs in broad daylight in an open field isn't that big of a deal. Fighting them at night in a crowded forest, though, instantly adds a slew of different challenges.

  2. After reading a few of these, I'd have punted Rob from the group. I wouldn't wanna play with someone who's cheap as a DM and a cheat as a player. I'm lucky that I haven't had to play with someone like that, though I have suffered other problem players quite a bit.