Sell Them a Bee, Deliver a Butterfly
Inconveniences are adventures wrongly considered, is one of my favorite sayings----as you may already know.
I am running Ravens Fell for two groups.
Both groups are devouring the depth of the setting, as intended. Which is good, since I have not yet finished keying the Silver Castle! I have keyed all 8 levels of the upper works and am working through the dungeon now from all possible entry points. This means I'm well covered.
I think out of 452 keyed locations I have about 85 left. That's still a lot, primarily because some of those locations are actually locales...with a lot of surface area and a lot of sub locations.
The more I work on this campaign, the more I think I want to release it one day. I love it because it represents to me all the old black and white films: Nosferatu (1922), Frankenstein (1931), The Wolfman (1941), Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954), and melds them with Colour Out of Space (2019).
It is a hodgepodge, I think, in all the right ways for me personally. Subjective, of course. But this is the campaign I think I've always wanted to run. Founded on solid pilings driven deep into the mud by pulp and 1970's & 80's D&D adventures.
I love it because it feels classic. Almost generic, but not quite, in my opinion. I think it will become iconic as the players begin to uncover the twists. Currently they know almost nothing.
The real question is where I draw the line if I try to polish and package this into something for the masses. It would make a helluva last hurrah if it proves my final offering. Problem, as I have mentioned in other posts, is size.
So how is the playtest going?
One of the parties has just made it to the Silver Castle (finally) but they were extremely cautious and did not engage in any combat. They did hit the first illusions the castle has to offer and the players (after a poll) are almost universally "dubiously optimistic" about the role illusions will play in the campaign.
I am using my retro-fitted mechanics to overlay as much as possible the existing (nebulous) AD&D rules, as I have explained in other posts. Not a lot of love from the readers, I'll add, as many expressed skepticism and sometimes disdain for my direction.
My players were quite skeptical when we switched from Pathfinder to AD&D so skepticism isn't much of a deterrent for me. I maintain vociferously that illusions, as they are in AD&D, can only serve as occasional curiosities or (at the worst) fuck-you moments. Trying to run a group of players who have illusionists regularly casting illusions has, for me, always turned into a slog of mental acrobatics; of no's and maybe's; of frustration and dissatisfaction.
Having hard mechanics govern the moment-to-moment is critical and the Silver Castle is meant to test that theory. So far it's going well, I think.
The party encountered a room enchanted to cause all non-living materials to rapidly age and molder (Illusion). This prompted a secret save from the lead character (who's WIS is 7). He failed. All of Ellery's clothing, armor, gear and weapons turned to rust and dust and his chance to disbelieve had been burned.
The rest of the group, witnessing this (but not physically interacting with the illusion) believed the same reality----but had not yet triggered a roll for themselves. The players thought it was real and so did the characters.
But slightly later on, the ranger triggered the same illusion. He secretly succeeded in his disbelief roll (because of his direct interaction with the dweomer). Thus, he did not perceive anything; no destruction of the object he was carrying. And the rest of the witnesses saw nothing either. But when the second person entered the room, they secretly failed their roll. All their gear was destroyed. Now the players began trying to account for the discrepancy.
Attempts to disbelieve were voiced. I allowed open rolls at this point by PCs that had not yet tested their belief. Those that succeeded now saw that the denuded characters were actually fully clothed and their gear was NOT destroyed. However, the believers could not be convinced. They had already burned their roll and so the illusion remained real for them.
The cat was out, so to speak, but the mechanics meant that the naked fighter still saw himself as naked and therefore had an AC of 8 and remained completely unarmed.
This worried one of my players who confided that, if there had been "even a goblin around" Ellery the Unwise would likely have perished. I noted this feedback, opting not to quip that that's precisely why there were no goblins present at that location. One needs a DM and sound design to make this work after all!
On the flip side, when shortly thereafter, a rack of glowing spears was discovered, Bancroft the Ranger immediately attempted to disbelieve and they vanished. But Ellery the Unwise simply tried to pick one up. He failed his disbelief roll again so now he has an illusory spear +1 that remains permanently real for him (barring Dispel Magic and the like) and it will deal real damage to an opponent that fails their disbelief check when struck.
Already, Ellery's WIS has both punished and rewarded him in tangible, mechanical ways that have created stories while providing the foundations for the party to understand and anticipate the system. Forthcoming illusions will still trick them and I have designed methods whereby the cure (disbelief) is often worse than the disease.
[Aside: after leaving the Silver Castle's area of enchantment, the veil was lifted and Ellery saw all his armor and gear. He was much relieved]
I remain highly optimistic that the cadence of illusions (sprinkled rather than slathered) will help with managing the potential for chronic distrust of EVERYTHING. And it is my hope as we continue to play that my design theories will prove sound. Nevertheless, I will not go stubbornly forward. I will be watching and listening MOST carefully as the castle is explored.
Already I have tweaked one room as the way in which the PCs interacted with it sent up a red flag. I edited the document during play with a modification that made the result more palatable. The players never noticed.
I think the players now are pondering if there will be a way to methodically bypass or neutralize illusions in general. This amuses me since they do not return to town looking for a panacea for traps or monsters as an example. And they will come to realize that illusions will simply be another category of these types of hazards, but one in which the mechanics (I hope) make them easier to grok, interact with and therefore emerge from, victorious.
Part of the challenge with illusions is that no one likes being lied to. To be told that things are a certain way and then discover they are not is where the point of dissatisfaction lies. However, if there is a reward for this discovery, we can mitigate a portion of it. E.g.: There was a moldering pack in the room where Ellery's gear turned to shite. Once the illusion was detected, the other PCs had the aha!-moment and retrieved the pack to discover it filled with useful items.
The players have already begun speculating. For there was a silver key (which was an illusory possession like Ellery's spear) which ALL party members disbelieved----because they were notified by the first PC who disbelieved. Therefore, the rest of the party all saved at +4 vs the Illusion, and so the key was lost.
How can we get this key back? Is a thought they seem to be having. Rest assured I have already prepared a way, many months ago, and it pleases me greatly that instead of an ephemeral ruling, I can adjudicate these things fairly and predictably with a simple and brief set of rules.
There will be evil illusionists in the wild of course and illusions are a theme to the campaign, but they will remain densest and most localized at the Silver Castle, as a way of maintaining the special flavor of the place. The party needn't worry that everything everywhere is a trick.
And so, for the moment, I am optimistic that all is well in hand and things are moving nearly as I planned.
I hope your adventures are proceeding likewise apace.
And Happy Gaming!