Saltbox Report

I was able to wrangle some of the NYRB faithful into another saltbox this session this weekend.  Because I am either ambitious or masochistic, I also began trying to run the saltbox sessions under the ACKS ruleset.

The latter provided some utterly predictable pain as we shifted from a just-ended B/X session, but I want to soldier on there.  The actual session:  The players collected around Poseidon (a player) and the Venerable Brude (likewise), as they have a small ship.  They set out from the port town of Nantaticut with the intention of finding the lair of a sea hydra killed by the players in the last saltbox session, hoping to scoop up a treasure protected only by li’l baby hydras.

I’ve been running these sessions more-or-less like a hex crawl: Stocked with a fistful of undiscovered islets, kelp forests, and random encounter tables, I let the players put out to sea and look for trouble.  In general, I think this would have a lot to commend it in a more regular game, but it’s a little slow to start with an irregularly attended one.  This sense of slowness is compounded by the mechanics of sea voyages:  Every day begins with a flurry of DM dice-rolling (Wind direction! Weather! Random encounters! Other events!), most of which boil down to a fairly trim description.  This is the area I think the most about improving: How to make the daily rolls more compact.  It’s effectively like randomly generating a dungeon with very similar-looking rooms as it’s explored.  Until the players have a thread to pursue, it can feel a bit like you’re waiting for a fight to happen.

Of course, once those fights start happening, things change in a hurry.  “Fight” #1: Nixies.  I had included them on my encounter tables in place of some shark entries, and am reconsidering that decision.  On the open seas, a passle of nixies is basically a save-or-die trap.  Retrieving a character lost that way is a deep-water affair.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it means I need to have thought through that scenario better.  Fortunately, the players bailed me out with some snappy initiative and attack rolls, and the captain of the ship made a difficult seafaring proficiency throw to evade the pursuing nixies.  Thanks, dice!

Fight 2: Cockatrice.  This is an entry from the Flyer subtable that I’ve also thought about removing, but for different reasons: It sounds ridiculous when you start describing it to the players.  “From the crow’s nest, you see a dark shape approaching.  It appears to be a seagull or small albatross, but as it approaches it seems to be struggling to carry a snake. It flaps awkwardly towards you, and you see that in fact the bird has a snake-like neck and tail…”  What the hell is that cockatrice doing out over the ocean?  Did it get lost in a storm?  With most of the flyers, it’s not difficult to imagine them ranging out over the water from an island, but this thing is an even less aerodynamic rooster.  Roasted by a fireball, dead.

Now, that fireball: One of the things I’ve been dissatisfied with in the saltbox sessions is the resource management of spells.  A norm of a single combat per day allows your wizards to just unload in every fight.  This session I began using a “Blood in the Water” rule to address that: When the crew draws blood in a fight, I immediately make another random encounter check. In this case, it meant that  they were beset by Giant Carnivorous Flies later that night.  While not especially difficult, this is a fun encounter on a ship at night.  The flying beasties are able to position themselves over the water (to their detriment at times), and having them pursue the light sources under which the players are defending themselves is entertaining.

The last phase of the evening was the delve into the hydra lair, where the party killed a couple of small hydra spawn and found an enormous treasure guarded by the mate (or parent?) of the previous session’s hydra: An 11HD regenerating hydra.  This was a wall for the party, but they did seem to hit on a strategy for dealing with the thing next time.

Thoughts for next time:

  1. Instead of stat blocks for pregens, I should have brought character sheets to ease the B/X-ACKS transition.
  2. I need to come up with a way to determine the various characteristics of a day at sea faster: As it was, I found myself “cheating” a few days ahead when the players made plans.
  3. With the melee bells and whistles ACKS has, I wish we would have run into a naval encounter.  Maybe my North Seas tables need to be adjusted a bit to reflect more maritime traffic.
There’s a chance I get to run another session this coming weekend: If so, it’ll be a bit more of a scenario for lower level characters.  If it’s successful, I’ll try to run it again at third-annual Arneson Game Day in NY.

10 Responses to “Saltbox Report”

  1. September 5, 2011 at 6:24 pm

    Looks like a fun and educational session. The “Blood in the Water” rule makes sense and should produce the desired result.

    It’s effectively like randomly generating a dungeon with very similar-looking rooms as it’s explored.

    Hey, I resemble that remark!

  2. September 5, 2011 at 7:05 pm

    I like the sound of that Blood in the Water rule too. As for cutting down rolls, could one chart tell you “the interesting thing about today” and have various weather/encounter results. Or maybe you could pregen a bunch of days and then randomly roll from those possibilities.

  3. 3 Adam
    September 5, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    Telecanter’s comment suggests one possible solution: merge all the rolls into a single table, by using each roll as a digit (d8 for wind direction becomes the first digit, d8 for weather the second, etc.) You can then roll a handful of dice and then quickly look up the result and read off the whole result, instead of looking up each result separately on a different table. For added speed, put the chart in an Excel file and use a laptop to allow searching. For even greater speed, automate it: use a computer program and one click can get you all the dice rolls and just spit back the results. Not as satisfying as rolling them, but if you (A) don’t want to pre-roll and (B) want to roll many different things, but (C) want to quickly get to “Wind out of the Northwest, heavy storm conditions, encounter with a sea serpent (9 HD), violent response”, then computer automation is the way to go.

  4. September 5, 2011 at 10:35 pm

    This is the area I think the most about improving: How to make the daily rolls more compact.

    Have you considered possibly rolling a week or two’s worth of wind/weather/encounter rolls ahead of time, and simply consulting the results as needed? That way the tedious dice-rolling is at least done outside the view of the players. Might speed things up a tad.

  5. 5 Charlatan
    September 6, 2011 at 2:34 am

    Eric- You know I love the oracular dice.

    Adam- I periodically get a bug to make an Android app to do all the relevant rolls, but I’m hesitant for two reasons: One, I’d like my ultimate solution to be more portable; two, my phone’s battery is always dead when I game.

    All- Pre-rolling is the compromise I arrived at during the game. For some reason, it feels wrong- like I’m breaking the contract of random tables by presenting prior results. But it’s the most straightforward way to do it. I had rewritten my wind direction table to use relative shifts rather than absolute direction before this session, and that tweak actually lends itself to pre-generated, generic days.

    In previous sessions, I had used a combination of Talysman’s reaction rolls for weather with the wind speed (which is actually a sailing speed) table from B/X to infer wind direction. I think that’s an idea I should refine a bit more, since it might be the right way to narrate pre-generated days as a believable stretch of continuous time.

  6. 6 Greengoat
    September 6, 2011 at 4:45 pm

    I thought the session worked quite well and was a hoot. I think that giving everyone their ACKS character sheet and explaining one or two differences before play would have solved all system transitional issues. (despite some caterwauling from some factions about AC and hit rolls). Most of the hiccups was from looking stuff up that would be on a character sheet.

    I had visions of the weirdly flapping cockatrice tiredly making it’s way towards our vessel, desperate for a place to land before it was fireballed.

    I didn’t notice any real slowness with the sailing part of the adventure but I do suggest that you co-opt the players for this bit of fun. First I would have the players roll the daily weather roll to an “encounter” roll where the weather stays the same as the previous day unless a 1 in six is rolled (tacking on modifiers for season, successive days, trade-winds on the map, etc.) And then noting the wind direction on the hexmap and have the players navigate the ship on the map themselves so they can tack and beat or whatever themselves. Turn it into a simple sailing game and get them fiddling with navigation and working the ship.

    Maybe that is just me though. I have maps on the brain.

  7. September 8, 2011 at 12:36 am

    It could actually work to your advantage. Maybe one of the sought-after artifacts in the setting is something that predicts the weather a week out. THAT would be something worth going after…

  8. September 9, 2011 at 5:16 am

    As for the Cockatrice, had you considered making it’s snake half an aquatic snake? While the idea of a chicken desperately flapping for a landing space is amusing, for some reason the serpent bit gets short shrift and a Cockatrice bursting up from the water and onto to ship’s deck is more deadly.

    For the weather, I’ve long since translated the results into a d1000 roll that covers wind shifts, storms and what sort of encounter there will be (if any), though not the exact encounter. It’s a pain in the ass to do, but once done a simple print out of the sheet and one or two dice rolls and the day is ready.

  9. 9 Charlatan
    September 9, 2011 at 3:38 pm

    @Tom- that’s such a great idea for the cockatrice, and fits so well with some of the other stuff that I’m doing, that I’m ashamed not to have thought of it. I’m also seeing, as it swims, maybe replacing one awkward land bird with another that swims well- I’m thinking a rockhopper penguin head with a serrated beak, a mix of scales and oily black feathers on a serpentine body. Goofy and scary? It feels a little weird to have a swimming ‘Flyer’, but you’ve definitely got my wheels turning. Is it less silly to have a serpent leap 10 or 20 feet out of the water onto the deck of a ship? Hmm…

  10. 10 1d30
    September 12, 2011 at 8:10 pm

    Maybe roll 1d6 to determine how many days the given weather holds. That way you reduce your workload by about a third while still giving unpredictability.

    You could also combine your tables for weather into one large d% weather table. One entry might be “light wind, light precip., cool. Wind dir. 1 left of prevailing”. Mark prevailing wind patterns on your map, or if it’s small enough just say it’s generally from X to Y. Modify results by piece to reflect season and region. For example, in a desert say the precipitation is always 3 places lower. I made up lists of precipitation, heat, and wind speed that go 1 to 6. You could just as easily do this:

    Wind: Calm / Light / Heavy / Storm
    Temp: Cold / Cool / Warm / Hot
    Precip: Dry / Light / Heavy / Monsoon

    That leaves you with 4^3 permutations (56 entries on your table) which is not enough to give variety in chance of each result.

    If I were you, I would get a d6 that’s white for wind, a blue one for precipitation, and a red one for temperature. Roll all three. If you get 1 it’s lower than normal, 6 it’s higher than normal. A green d6 shows wind direction: 1 means 1 place left of prevailing, 6 is 1 place right. Roll the lot and describe what you see in order, using the seasonal “normal” for rolls 2-5.

    A pair of black d6 for encounters: you get a hostile monster on 2, a wary monster on 3, animals on 11, friendly encounter on 12. That’s a 1 in 6 encounter chance, with half being generally avoidable from the start.

    The main benefit with that is you don’t need to look at a table, so it should be a LOT faster. In fact, you should be able to roll and interpret while you describe, so the rolling doesn’t take longer than the description would take anyway if you made it up on the spot.

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