Tuesday, April 30, 2024

High times on the Flying Island

A bunch of new players joined our game recently, and I wanted a brief starter adventure to get everyone on board and teach them how to crawl before they're left to fend for themselves in the big scary world. The previous players are already very new so this would be a good time for everyone. 

The ideal starting adventure is of course:

  • vanilla fantasy enough that embellishments can be made without disruption and everyone more or less understands what's going on without having to wrap their head around any oddball setting details
  • ...but not so generic that my friends check out and lose interest.
  • appropriate for level 1 but reasonably epic and high-stakes. Rats in the basement fuck off. 
  • mechanical gimmicks and special rules kept at a minimum. Manually tracking inventory is already the most daunting game-related task anyone here has ever done before; no need to pile on more things things. 
Now given that the number of starter adventures is probably in the high thousands and more are being produced every day, I'm sure there are hundreds of suitable modules that fit the bill but shopping around for modules is uninteresting to me and I was unemployed when I was first planning this out so time was no issue. 

The adventure I envisioned would serve as a little intro so we wouldn't have a flock of new players just show up in the middle of the in-progress dungeon excursion returning players are currently embroiled in. 

The trickiest part is being vanilla but not too vanilla. Once the feel is figured out, everything falls in from there. There are probably a lot of ways to triangulate the appropriate setting vibe and thread the needle between familiar and new but the easiest one I know of is to put familiar things in unfamiliar contexts.

So what I did was take a generic D&D sandbox and put it IN THE SKY.

Flying island. Sandbox. Maybe its from seeing Castle in the Sky at an early age but the concept of a landmass floating above the earth is like a shortcut for my brain to think "this is great!"

Anyway, the adventure I banged out has an inciting incident, time pressure, a starting town with well-meaning yet down-on-their-luck villagers, a wizard of dubious intentions, humanoid mooks, peculiar treasures, a dungeon, and a dragon. Everything you need for a balanced D&D.

Session 1: The characters all awaken in a giant nest, surrounded by eggs the size of carriages. The last thing they each remember was going about their days as normal when, all the sudden, the sky went dark as a giant bird blocked the sun and plucked them from their terrestrial trappings to soar off into the clouds. 

They messed around the nest a bit, gathering equipment from corpses old and new and trying to get their bearings. A couple PCs found a rocky outcropping on the far end of the nest they could climb to get a lay of the land. To the left: the edge of whatever landmass they're on and then ocean hundreds of yards below, the sun slowly descending toward the blue horizon. To the right: windswept fields, hardscrabble farmsteads, and low-drifting clouds casting long shadows along the ground. 

The players decide to get a move on when one of the eggs starts to tremble. Wandering down from the giant nest, the party came across a little ranch where a bushy man tends to a herd of giant pill bugs.

Introductions are made, but cut short when the ground begins to shake and the wind picks up. The man urgently rushes everyone into his hovel. Peering through the rough planks of the ceiling, the PCs see a freak storm roll in, rapidly accompanied by a giant winged serpentine shape flitting in and out of view above them. "Was it the thing that brought us here?" they wondered. No, that's no bird—for each PC, it was their first time seeing a dragon.

The dragon flew off as night descended on the island. Spending some time around the little hamlet of past bird-survivors, the party learns the following:
  • They're on an island flying high above the earth
  • The island is watched over by something they refer to as the Ancient. Normally it stays around the island, but recently it fell into its centennial slumber and drifted to the upper firmament. 
  • Since it has departed, a malevolent dragon has made its way to the island and lairs in the Sky Temple. A bunch of other probably related bullshit has been going on, namely the tengu-men native to the island have gotten dramatically more hostile, people have been disappearing in clouds of ghostly fog, and freak weather patterns are causing chunks of the island to break off.
  • Pillbug milk is thin and grassy.
And so the PCs are beseeched to travel to the SKY TEMPLE, brave its perils, and blow the MISTRAL HORN to awaken the ANCIENT so that it may set things right once more—and hopefully get them off the island. 

They also broke up a bar fight, befriended the strange alewife lady and received a gift in her secret makeshift alchemy lab, learned of a mysterious fellow with an ape-like henchman who also recently stopped by the hamlet (everyone's first thought was "wizard," which goes to show how strong genre conventions can be even for non-fantasy people), and charmed the town bully into journeying with them. He died by crossbow bolt not more than several miles outside of town during an encounter with a pack of recently marooned sky pirates. But dead follower be damned, the encounter ended happily with a delegate from the party and the pirate captain getting drunk together.

This is what sky pirates look like.

Session 2: After the engagement with the pirates, the party got a rude map of local area and was informed of some of the dangers surrounding the temple. They also heard that the pirates recently espied a strangely dressed fellow wandering around near the temple with his ape-like follower. 

After traversing through ruined gardens and terraced fields the party finds a floating tower like a column of purple obsidian hanging in the air, tethered to the ground by a long thin chain. Near the foot of the chain is a small tent with the remains of a campfire outside and a hunched figure sitting in the grass. Immediately all interest the players' have in their current goal is supplanted by urge to partake in the venerated tradition of plundering a wizard's tower. 

I was almost certain the party would pounce on the unsuspecting henchman and climb blades-in-teeth up the chain to take a crack at what lies within the mysterious hovering tower on the mysterious hovering island but they in fact did not—the more diplomatic voices of the group won out, the henchman was consorted with (reaction role dictated he was overwhelmingly happy to see the party) and some info was learned about this wizard who's been looming in the margins of the adventure.

The party makes it to the temple, skirted some tengu-men sentries guarding the main entrance by traverse-climbing dangling roots and vines to get to a wide crack in the side of the lower temple structure leading to the undercroft. From there the party navigated the temple complex, avoiding unquiet spirits, toppling a stone guardian through the nimble maneuvering of a 10'-foot pole, beheld some ancient murals, and messed around with a strange altar until it granted them a magic prayer flag that makes weightless whatever it is tied to. Poor Berda the torchbearer was brained by the stone guardian but otherwise setbacks were navigated and morale was high.

All throughout the interior parts of the temple complex, the party noticed a strange chlorine-like acridity in the air and massive claw-marks on the walls, shattered masonry all strewn about. While the rest of the party decides to move on after they were done investigating murals and playing with the altar, one PC splits off and heads in the opposite direction, eventually leading to the main entrance chamber. It looked like a bomb went off inside—big enough at least to blow the roof off and collapse most of the floor. 

Hawthorne, the level 1 chaos cleric with barely an experience point to his name, examines more cryptic murals before peering into the hole in the floor. Far down below, he sees the form of a fearsome dragon sleeping atop a gleaming hill of gold. At that moment, something primordial gripped poor Hawthorne's player: the atavistic drive, known well to generations of D&D players since the hobby's dawn, to do something really stupid just to see what happens. Reaching into his meager coin purse, perhaps still transfixed by the dragon's majesty, Hawthorne withdrew a single silver piece and let it fall into the chasm. 

I ruled there was a chance the dragon would stay asleep—normally I apply Smaug logic, where a dragon can sense even the faintest manipulation of its treasure horde while laying atop it, but there may have been enough complicating factors that consulting the dice would be appropriate. Nevertheless, said dice dictated the dragon was roused. Seconds after the faint tinkling of the dropped silver piece met Hawthorne's ears, a rumble shook the room and the dragon burst forth from the pit, driving upward out of the absent ceiling and into the open air above. 


So the party is entered the temple, won some treasure, lost a couple followers, and now has a menacing dragon on their hands. Fortunately for the party, there are enough nooks and crannies in the temple that they can hide from the searching dragon, but many dangers are still as yet undiscovered. 

A lesson I learned with this group is that a lot of these new players, and new players in general I guess, are more turned off by the sort of boring, neutral things that can happen in sessions than their seasoned counterparts. Where experienced players may have more practiced patience to apply to internalizing whatever framing information may prove useful later, even slight bits of expository background info were causing these newbies' eyes to glaze over and hands to reach for snacks in the hopes that chewing and swallowing would provide enough stimulation to make the passing moments more bearable. Just more reason to leave the slow stuff to the side and keep the action front and center.

But I love playing with this group. New players who don't immediately lose interest always prove how the way the game is played is a function of what make its a good time. People want to push and prod and mess around not just because it's what you're supposed to do in the game but because it's fun. Everything the players come across is something new to latch onto—is that guy in the distance friendly or hostile? Will these pirates choose booze over treasure? Will flipping this switch open a door or blow my head off? Every problem, every challenge, every ambiguity is begging to be resolved or understood because the act of doing so is in itself engaging.