Friday, April 3, 2015

Play Report: Amazonian Rivercrawl

My first session of my more-or-less open table Amazon exploration LotFP game was this weekend. Seven friends from college came from out of town to play. We had a blast, spending about 4 hours on Friday night playing and another 12 hours on Saturday. When we game, we game seriously.

Dungeon: The First Foray
For Friday's session, I had them generate completely random characters using +Ramanan S's Random LotFP Character Generator, and then sent them through a version of +Dyson Logos's Ruins of the Gorgon that was reskinned for the Amazon Rainforest setting. They ended up forcing one of the hostile native men that they encountered in the ruins outside to poke around the first few rooms of the dungeon with them. He had the wherewithal to escape the moment they turned their backs, but the party didn't get out of the dungeon until a giant capybara felled one of them. The surviving characters soon packed up and left, but not before digging through the capybaras' disgusting nests to pick up some silver trinkets, and then hauling out one of the beautiful ceramic statues in the entry room while under the watch of a ceramic fresco of a harpy eagle with a woman's head tearing apart a man's body under her talons.

The next day, all my players were available and we began running through the actual rivercrawl. I took a hint from +Zzarchov Kowolski's Thulian Echos and placed the dungeon from the night before on the map of the river, and gave the players vague directions on how to get there. They'd encountered one of the last party back in town, who gave them their map and some warnings about hostile natives, giant rodents, and valuable statues. The players then got to start the exploration of the tributary they've been assigned to map and conquer for the Spanish crown by the Viceroy of the Maranon, the one-eyed conquistador Francisco de Orellana.

The players choose to go back to the dungeon from the night before to try to loot more of it. Being as this was the main adventure and for them was going to be a one shot, they were playing 2nd level characters and each had a 1st level NPC retainer (whose gear was chosen by running through +Jeff Russell's Gears and Careers Secret Santicore entry). They had a riverboat they'd pooled up to buy, as well as a number of oarsmen, dogs, horses, and personal retainers. This was as I'd hoped, and the amount of loot they had mimicked the conquistador expeditions of the early 16th century—as did the losses they would later suffer.

Crawling the River: Social Encounters
The first day on their way to the probable location of the dungeon, they had to scare off an otter that was trying to gather food from their stores. The next day they saw a pink river dolphin shapeshift into a native and join what looked to be a festival at a particularly large river village. They made landfall and contact with the natives in order to discover more about the shapeshifting dolphin, but were distracted by the excitement of their first native contact going so well that they were invited to join in with the festivities. Since this was a festival, I gave them the chance to give away their possessions as gifts in return for gaining their worth in SP back as XP, then had them save verses Poison or roll on +Jeff RientsCarousing Table.

The next morning they woke up hung over, closer to level 3, and with a Magic User beaten up and naked, and a Native Guide madly in love with a local Indian girl. A few of their oarsmen had gone native (failed morale checks), but four of the natives, young cocky men, wanted to come explore and adventure with these crazy white people (successful morale checks).

It was only then that they remembered about the dolphin that had brought them there in the first place, just in time to hear the commotion caused when one of the women in the village found out that she was unexpectedly about to give birth even though she had only had a one night stand with a stranger the night before. Turns out those dolphins don't necessarily have the best intentions. (This outcome I DnDified from an actual Amazonian myth about the river dolphins.) The party made the mistake of admitting that they'd known about the dolphin's presence without telling anyone, and were asked to leave under less pleasant terms than expected.

The Bobs
They then continued up the river with their new native hirelings (who they called "the Bobs"). They did some exploring, and came across another small hostile native village who drove them off, then to a final friendly native village near the dungeon. This village was cold but not hostile, and gave them reports of strange black magic that had happened up the river, and promised to convert to Christianity if the party could resolve it.

The Jungle and the Dungeon, Again
So into the forest they trudged, dogs, retainers, and Bobs in tow. On the way, a jaguar and a poorly-aimed crossbow shot managed to take down one of the party's henchmen. Once they got to the dungeon, they left the Bobs, a retainer, and one of the dogs up top, fought off the dungeon's guardian tree which had regrown since the last party's foray under ground, and descended below the forest's floor.

Below, they found the remaining ceramic statues re-arranged, and the entrance to part of the dungeon they'd cleared before now blocked off. An Open Doors check catastrophically failed thanks to my helping houserules and one of the fighters sprained a wrist, so they went the other direction to explore new parts.

They found a storeroom with more smaller ceramic statues, and then came across a party of warrior women with feathered bodies and taloned feet who tried to drive out the invading party. While the carnivorous Harpy Eagle Women had won a surprise round, some earlier smart thinking on the part of the Magic User—blocking off a door with an unseen servant that was not being used—managed to prevent too much damage from happening.

In the resulting combat (which, quite frankly, took much too long because of my own poor handling of combat with such a large party—lessons learned for future sessions), another henchman died and some of the PCs were taken out of combat with spells or taken down in HP, but they eventually got the upper hand of the five harpy eagle women due to good tactics and overwhelming numbers. At one point an expended Magic User brought a set of hand puppets into play, and it actually did the party good.

The party was supremely disappointed to find out that the dreadful black magic harpy eagle women were defending nothing more than the dungeon's fresh water supply, so went back to loot the dungeon they'd explored so far. They set up guards on all the doors and had the remaining party (+ the Bobs) ferry the statues out. They made easy work of all the wandering monsters the commotion brought to them.

Back to Civilization: Dealing with Consequences
On their way back to the boat with all their loot (statues made of glazed ceramic which were more beautiful than any ceramic work they knew of in Europe), they encountered a golden lion tamarind. Another of the party's Magic Users cast darkness on its eyes—a spell he hadn't used in the big fight for some reason—and the party managed to capture the creature. The spectacle of the characters running around chasing a monkey was one of the funniest things the Bobs had ever seen.

They made it back to the last village that afternoon, and after some negotiating and giving a gift of one of the statues, the village agreed to be converted. They spent the night there after erecting a large cross in the middle of the village (an actual tactic of the Spanish missionaries when converting native populations).

They traveled downriver quickly, making it to the Bobs' village before nightfall. They gave each of the Bobs a small looted statue as a parting gift. The Bobs' tale of adventure was the talk of the town, and their favorite part was recounting the party running around in circles trying to capture a blinded monkey.

The next day, the village made a gift of one of the finest bows that the party had ever seen, and they left having established excellent diplomatic ties with one of the larger villages on the lower reaches of the river. On the way back down the river, one of the specialists (a gnarled old Greek sailor who doesn't speak any Spanish, the only non-Spaniard European in the party) spent the whole time trying to teach the monkey pickpocketing skills.

The party made it back to town quickly, and sold off their loot for a pretty penny. They declined to sell the monkey, hoping instead of fetch a better price by finding a female of the species and selling them together as a mating pair. The Greek sailor specialist, who had stolen some extra loot when others weren't looking and had made full use of the carousing rules, managed to just level up to level 3, and after that succeeded in teaching the monkey just enough pickpocketing skills for it to be dangerous.

Conclusion: What Does it all Mean?
We left our adventure there, as it was nearly 10pm and time to meet some other friends for drinks. Overall, the adventure had been a lot of fun. The players all told me they enjoyed the exploration and social encounters more than the dungeon, and in the future they will likely seek out more exploration. Part of that was probably my own fault for letting the combat drag as much as I did, and in the future I'm going to be more limiting of who can go into dungeons and who can participate in combats, while still allowing the players to have a large party that is necessary for jungle-based overland scenarios to work out.

One thing that I was quite pleased with was the way that the game mechanics came together. Gaining silver and gold through adventuring is the only way to level up in +James Raggi's Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and it encourages the players to be greedy in a way that puts them in the conquistador mindset much better than any storygame rules could, I believe. Multiple times out of game they discussed wanting to play the game in a way that was not exploitative or overtly colonialist. They wanted to do first contact right. Even so, they were willing to exploit the natives the characters encountered both directly and indirectly, even as the players discussed openly the discomfort they felt with those actions. It was interesting to me to see the players' moral guilt at the actions of their characters, even while they enacted Raggi's principles of Heavy Metal DnD. It was exactly the kind of game I wanted to run.

The average Spanish explorer of the new world was someone out for dangerous work in order to gain lands, a name of themselves, and most importantly a fortune. Gonzalo Pizarro and Francisco de Orellana's quest into the Andes that led to them discovering the Amazon river started as a search for cinnamon trees, whose spice would have made Pizarro a rich man. His older brother Francisco Pizarro's conquest of the Inca was predicated on extracting as much of the gold form the civilization as he could, and in return for those riches the Spanish crown granted him governorship over the Peruvian province that conquest created. The conquistadors were truly the original murderhobos: they went to people's homes, killed and enslaved their men, and took their things.

In some ways, this makes it the ideal setting for an open-world DnD game. It is the age of exploration and adventure, and some of the stories of the Spanish conquest of the new world are more DnD than DnD is. (For instance: A group of four Spaniards lead by Cabeza de Vaca were shipwrecked in Florida in 1527 and trudged their way across N. America to the Pacific over the next eight years, the first Europeans to do so. They started out occasionally enslaved by and escaping various tribes, but by the end of their journey were known as shamans and messiahs amongst the native populations.)

It also makes running a game of DnD in this setting problematic, but in a way that is hopefully useful and good. In DnD, every player is accountable to only themselves. Their choices are completely their own and are not constrained by the rules. No player has to try to level up, and even further no player has to try to harm others, enslave natives, take what isn't theirs, etc., even if they are trying to level up. While the characters did bad things, and did so at only the conscious urging of their players, it's useful and good to be able to ask why they did.

When a group whose players are variously Christian, atheist, Buddhist, and Jewish; are male and female; are progressive, conservative, and libertarian; are white, black, and even Native American; when that group still opts in-game to exploit native characters, all because its in their best interest in-game due to the structures of that game, it hints at the importance of structure and ideology in our day to day lives.

This is why a work of art's being problematic can be a good thing, and should not be a reason for us to shun that art. It gives us a somewhat safe space to actually examine what makes it problematic, how it got to be that way. It can fully be enjoyed as art, analyzed as a piece of ideology, and used to better understand the world, all at the same time. That said, I do think that one can have badwrong reactions to art. The moral discomfort my players felt was good—an enjoyment of those same character actions, an unwillingness to admit that they were wrong or to further analyze the inputs that went into making those decisions, would all be terrible reactions to the problematic work we created together.

Anyway, this is all a longwinded way of saying that the game went very well, and I'm very much looking forward to running more in this setting, with these and other players. Anyone who wants to play in person or on G+ should get in touch—I hope to get to the point where the rivercrawl is a living open table, a sort of New World West Marches.