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:
- Instead of stat blocks for pregens, I should have brought character sheets to ease the B/X-ACKS transition.
- 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.
- 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.