Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Evil Eye: Actual Play 1

Thus begins RamaD&Dan. After a lot of dilly-dallying and second-guessing, I picked an old Ravenloft adventure because it was written by the same dude that wrote a couple Al-Qadim things I liked a lot. My concern was that it was light on combat and slightly rail-roady, but my other option, Feast of Goblyns, looked a bit bigger and I only have four sessions this year to run this game in. In retrospect, that felt more D&D as it has a couple dungeons strewn about but also feels very old school Ravenloft with domain hopping, and Evil Eye felt like I could reskin it as a separate things, kings like how Curse of Strahd is Barovia, not Ravenloft. Feast of Goblyns, Bleak House, and Walking Dead are consistently rated (along with Evil Eye and the original Ravenloft module) as some of the best of Ravenloft, so I hope to try my hand at all of these eventually. Minor spoilers for how I'm running this follow.

The Evil Eye is firmly a 2nd Edition and Ravenloft module, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. In the grand scheme of Ravenloft, it seems to be in the golden era of Ravenloft adventures, focusing on investigation with a horror trope that other Ravenloft adventures hadn't covered before. Totally obvious, as my player's guessed it already, but there's time to make them second-guess it and grow to fear things plus there's some good questions in this adventure about who is really the villain.

So, I spent the past month and a half prepping this bad-boy, and some of it seems useful so far. First-off, there's the expected cut-and-paste work of getting the likely enemies into 5e form for about the right level. This involves converting the major NPCs, but thankfully Volo's guide plus the basic 5e Monster Manuel made it fairly obvious, though I gave out some legendary and lair powers for encountering the main adversaries.

Next, I wanted to make eyes important. A simple eye-color chart (with minimal human eye-color research) lets me assign everyone an eye color. With the modifications in Curse of Strahd, I plan on describing all the important/souled NPCs as having an eye-color, and less important husks as having dull, grey eyes. One draw from the Tarokka deck will do it, but I also have 2+ descriptors for eyes for each alignment, so for NPCs I'm only drawing a suit because the colors are a red herring, the descriptors might reveal a character's allignment if the player's are canny.

I also find Ravenloft adventures a little difficult, since they're the weekend-in-Hell trope. So I used the high-deck to assign an ideal, bond, or flaw that I expect to come up to each character. Each player had two options to choose from and I asked them to replace one of their background traits with one based on the card they got. Also, because I'm using the high deck to track inspiration (like others might use poker chips or some other physical item), if they draw their card it'll be advantage plus 1d6. As an aside, I allowed players to swap a language granted from their background for a tool proficiency.

Finally, I added in 2 major NPCs who can potentially replace the main ally faction in this adventure. I just wanted a little less railroad. What I want to add in is some more combat options, and I think I've got some solid ideas on that.

It took us a little while to get started, as the players all gathered by 6pm and we ordered food and finished characters, so we really played 7pm to 10:30. We almost finished the first two chapters, stopping short of the big fight in chapter 2. This is good, because I added in a temple of Ezra near the midpoint and one flavor encounter with the main villain, so we almost finished chapter 2 and next time I can expect to ready my own 2.5 plus starting chapter 3.

The added material I'm looking at is basically additions to chapter 3, giving the players an extra route or two to get to the end. That's a major NPC from the Church of Ezra, Tara Kolyana, and an NPC from the Fraternity of Shadows. Secondarily, it involves fleshing out the towns of Beltis and Curriculo, and ensuring that the characters really get a chance to be terrified by the villain. Besides a couple NPCs and fleshing out the domain of Invidia (mostly as suggested in the adventure), I plan on fleshing out Castel Loupet for an extended endgame as needed.

One huge help with this was an actual play youtube series I found, an actual play of The Evil Eye. This series mostly followed the book, but gave me some sense that I could easily run the adventure in 16-20 hours of play, and that I could expand on it a bit to flesh things out. The DM didn't modify things in the adventure too much, though it was a bit hard to tell how long it took him to run because he seemed to skip around between chapters 3 and 4 and also fast-forwarded through some of the combats. (Aside: I think every adventure should contain an approximate estimate of play time in this day and age. I mean, you playtest it with a few groups, right? That should give you an approximate window of play time...)

So, what did I learn here? First, I remembered that even keeping things subtle, the players will guess the correct answers. They almost immediately figured out what was up with Raul and Leyla, and even used the awkward Italian term that the author used as the villain's name. Clearly I need to do some renaming.

Second, though I dilly-dallied a bit, I guess I had a reasonable guess at time-frames. If I had pushed through a few jokes and last-minute character changes, we could have finished chapter 2 and ended with my chapter 2.5. That means I've got about the right amount of content. If we do a marathon weekend game, we might not need the final Wednesday night, so I should flesh out the castle or consider stealing the Amber temple from Curse of Strahd for an extended endgame.

Third, my initiative system worked fairly well for now. I decided to only use "passive" scores for NPCs, so the enemy's initiative will always be 10+ their mod, and the PCs will roll one die for the group (unless I change it). That means the quick PCs will always act first, but they don't know if the NPCs will go before or after them each round. It adds a bit of uncertainty and was easy to calculate at least. Initative kinda came up from Mike Mearls' recent discussions on the matter, which seem to me just to be the old 90s 2nd edition system, but also the 5e DMG basically presents a version of his system as well, just with the standard d20 mechanic.

Fourth, I need to work on my voices. Specifically, I need to figure out how to stick to one, whether it's deep slavic for Raul, nasaly mid-atlantic for Matton, or deep southern-sailor for Nathan Timothy. My vague ideas aren't enough, I need to be more consistent. Strangely, that probably involves developing a stronger vocabulary for my own voice, so I can take the appropriate notes and practice the voices a bit till I can be consistent. So much effort, but the players were getting into some voices as well, so that's a minor victory.

Overall, I'm pretty satisfied. The adventure was a bit combat-lite so far, but this was one of my concerns from the beginning. I think I can add in a few more, plus I have a set of random encounters that can add a bit of violence here and there as well as fleshing out my chapters 2.5, 3.5, and 5.5.

What I didn't get to was my last-minute re-skim and making good notes on NPC motivations and appearances. Too much time cleaning up and no one really noticed (though I suppose that's the point, so that no one thinks I was a pig for the past week...). So that's my job for next time when the party investigates the Temple of Ezra and Karina: do a bit more personality work for the upcoming NPCs and have a good idea of what is where and when they might encounter it.

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