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I Ain't No Fortunate Winter's Daughter

Posted in Correspondence

After thinking a bit too much about the system, adventure, and pitch my Muster-inspired campaign finally hit the table. There was an immediate twist, though, as one of the players was familiar enough with The Hole In The Oak for me to pivot to Winter’s Daughter instead. We’ve played a handful of sessions with a rotating cast of players, mostly 2 hour delves, and completed Winter’s Daughter. Next up will be The Incandescent Grottoes, but here’s what we’ve learned so far:

The Playstyle

Yes. I’m sure I’ve drifted some from Eero’s Muster approach, but it’s been very enjoyable. I’d only played in a game close to this a couple of times, and never successfully run it. Thanks in large part to Muster this has been a roaring success.

There’s a degree of free spirit that comes from a game where so little is known and we’re all in the conceit that we’re here to see how these adventurers do, not how they develop as people. When the characters are interesting and unique pawns (less extensions of the players) there’s a willingness to just be along for the ride and an open tone. One of the tougher tasks in games is keeping everyone on the same stylistic and tonal pages; when the game is explicitly not picky about the in-character style and tone there’s an ease to it.

In our case that lead to our youngest player, playing a halfling thief, occasionally breaking into Fortunate Son as I’m pretty sure he’d heard the term “Fantasy Vietnam” somewhere. Moving this style of play beyond that militaristic conceit is feeling like my personal mission at this point, but as a bit of play it was laid back and fun—all the more so since Fortunate Son feels old to me and this player is 20-something years younger than me.

It also brought us through a total party kill intact. When the players guessed wrong at a clue in the dungeon they set off a horrible fight they couldn’t quite get away from, and I was slightly nervous as the dice fell that this might be the end. But both players were on board, the pitch was clear enough, and everyone had a great time.

The Rules

Shadowdark is, overall, a solid rules system. For lightweight rules that enable Muster-style play I recommend them highly.

That said, I’ve already hacked them up with other ideas, bits and pieces, which I think make a better set of rules for this genre. When I read the bit in Muster about how many GMs end up with house rules I had thought “sure, but not me” and now I’m seriously considering releasing the LaTorra House Rules under some title.

The Adventure

Winter’s Daughter was, as suggested by people smarter and (I’m told) better looking than me, a strong adventure. It’s nicely scoped to be easy to manage. The information presentation is top notch making it easy to play off the cuff. There’s a good variety of kinds of encounters and plenty of open-ended phenomena which can be used in various ways by wily adventurers.

That simplicity, though, did point me towards some things that were lacking that I think will be going on my personal list of dungeon criteria:

  • Multiple approaches. With 2 hour sessions a long series of rooms will eventually become tough to do anything but get back to where you were last time. The ability to find multiple entrances to the area keeps things dynamic and allows exploring in different directions within the supply of the party and the time of the session. Winter’s Daughter does have this to a degree, but given the overall layout it makes little difference which entrance is used.
  • Dynamic inhabitants. Just about everything in Winter’s Daughter pretty much stays in place. The only challenges that may move around do so without much of a goal or strategy. A dynamic dungeon where forces may oppose the players in different ways based on their actions makes repeated delves and the knowledge that comes with them all them more important.
  • Internal consistency. Things exist for a reason that would make sense within the setting and can be reasoned about, even if that reason is “it’s weird chaos intrusions that’s beyond us to understand.” Winter’s Daughter has a number of features that make for interesting obstacles but seem incomprehensible as things that someone would actually put in a tomb. There’s room for the GM to bridge that gap, sure, but there are some features that seem like arbitrary game challenges. Who buries their legendary hero in a tomb that can only be opened without setting off a trap by speaking the names of his dogs? And then leaves a hint on the door? And makes sure the names of said dogs are discoverable within the tomb? My ideal adventure should be one that makes sense as a fictional (fantastical) place that could exist for reasons so that the GM can make judgements forward from the reasons a thing exists and the players can strategize based on them.

Several of the classic D&D adventures do well on these counts (Caverns of Thracia and Caves of Chaos for example) but the information presentation makes it considerably tougher to run with the time and effort I have available. So we’re on to The Incandescent Grottoes next since at this point the most important factor is ease of use.

But much like my house rules this feels like a gap I may want to fill and share: adventures that keep many of the excellent characteristics of the classics, but with the ease of use of modern texts.

Tales From Middle Earth is out, and it’s been about as much a hit for me as you’d expect for someone on the record as loving games translating Tolkien.

With the paper cards I’ve been playing with my eldest (6 years old). It’s her first time playing Magic and Tales From Middle Earth is definitely the deep end, but she’s taken to it voraciously and now wants to play all the time. Mostly Jumpstart so far, but she’s on her way to building a W/G Hobbit deck and is interested in trying Commander.

Digitally I started out trying to make an elf deck work, but I couldn’t find any reliable success. Since about 75% of my interest in the concept was just that I had an excellent name for it I eventually left it by the wayside, but I’ve still pulled it out occasionally to complete some “play x [Green/Blue] spells” quests.

Elbereth Gilthoniel

Deck 5 Island (LTR) 265 2 Elrond, Lord of Rivendell (LTR) 49 2 Ravenous Pursuit (Y22) 54 2 Celeborn the Wise (LTR) 156 5 Forest (LTR) 271 2 Arwen Undómiel (LTR) 194 2 Elrond, Master of Healing (LTR) 200 2 Glorfindel, Dauntless Rescuer (LTR) 171 2 Nimrodel Watcher (LTR) 63 2 Horses of the Bruinen (LTR) 55 2 Rivendell (LTR) 259 2 Fall of Gil-galad (LTR) 165 2 Secluded Courtyard (NEO) 275 2 Lothlórien Lookout (LTR) 175 4 Elvish Mariner (LTR) 283 2 Lost Isle Calling (LTR) 61 2 Gift of Strands (LTR) 170 4 Forsaken Crossroads (Y22) 63 2 The Grey Havens (LTR) 255 4 Dreamroot Cascade (VOW) 262 2 Hithlain Knots (LTR) 54 2 Arwen’s Gift (LTR) 39 2 Galadhrim Guide (LTR) 168 2 Elven Farsight (LTR) 161

Once I gave up on deckbuilding-via-great-names I moved on to a Nazgûl deck which has been delightfully reliable. It probably favors Tales cards too much at the cost of some good cards from other sets I could have in there, but overall it’s performed well enough.

Rule Them All

Deck 2 Call of the Ring (LTR) 79 24 Swamp (LTR) 267 4 Gollum, Patient Plotter (LTR) 84 4 Orcish Bowmasters (LTR) 103 4 Claim the Precious (LTR) 81 1 Uruk-hai Berserker (LTR) 112 2 Ringwraiths (LTR) 284 2 Witch-king of Angmar (LTR) 114 2 Gollum’s Bite (LTR) 85 2 Lash of the Balrog (LTR) 92 9 Nazgûl (LTR) 339 2 The One Ring (LTR) 246 2 Sheoldred, the Apocalypse (DMU) 107

  • Looking back over my reading for June: 30 comics, 3 RPG books, one non-fiction book. RPG reading was probably the most interesting, with DIE and Errant each deserving a longer post to unpack. Fiction reading was all Perhaps the Stars which was long but extremely enjoyable. I finished it up just into July, and that also probably deserves its own post.
  • A while ago I mentioned that John Snow had stopped blogging. Fortunately she’s back. I haven’t caught up, but I’m glad to see her posting again. Not someone I always agree with, but one of the more interesting posters on gaming.

Sage LaTorra is a game designer and engineering manager at Google. You may know him from Dungeon World.

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