Monday, 21 August 2017

Another Murder At Flaxton

A Murder At Flaxton was the first Dungeons and Dragons scenario I ran as a DM that demonstrated to me that there was more to RPGs than dungeon exploration. I should have taken this on board earlier, with The Keep On The Borderlands, that early TSR classic, which featured a fairly detailed human settlement with its own scope for adventures, but it was Flaxton which proved to be the real eye opener for me, back in 1985. Warning - spoilers occur in this article, so avoid it if you think you might be in danger of participating as a player in a scenario which is older than many sovereign nations now.

I have run it again, this summer, a mere 32 years later! It has aged a little, but is still great fun. The scenario is written for low level characters and was one of a series of very atmospheric low level adventures which appeared in White Dwarf magazine in 1984-85. It features a small fishing village and a trio of dastardly smugglers who have murdered a law enforcement official just passing through their town and are now trying to cover their tracks, while keeping their operations running of course. This is a difficult juggling act for the smugglers, let alone the DM! The PCs are assigned the role of finding out who is responsible for the murder, and the disappearance of three constables sent to kick start the investigation.

I largely decided to play this out of a sense of pure nostalgia, and also because we had such a good time adventuring in Apple Lane over Christmas, using Mongoose Publishing's RuneQuest rules (now reborn as Legend). Trips down memory lane can be entertaining.

For my return to Flaxton I used Lamentations of the Flame Princess, largely because Labyrinth Lord was probably a little too basic, and also because the adventure was originally written for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, and I needed something with a little more granularity. This was my first game using Lamentations, and Flaxton suited the Lamentations oeuvre very well, as the latter leans towards games set more in a grim, dark 17th century environment. There are no monsters in this adventure, unless you count the canine encounters and only one non-human character, so the lack of a bestiary for Lamentations would not be an issue either.

We used four starting characters, with the players picking a fighter, cleric, magic user and specialist (this is the thief in Lamentations, but it is configured a little differently from the traditional 1980s AD&D thief). Nobody bothered with any of the non-human classes on offer, which intrigued me.

The vulnerability of these novice characters is high, of course, and while Flaxton does not involve adventuring in the traditional hostile environment of D&D games, it can prove dangerous. The smugglers are higher level than the PCs, their leader is 5th level, and they have scope for additional back up from a 5th level pirate and her war dog. However, the game begins with the PCs poking around Flaxton trying to figure out what is going on, chatting with a wide range of NPCs and squirreling out the truth. There is no course of events here - like the best scenarios the bad guys are really going to react to the activities of the players, and for the most part just want to keep their heads down and maintain their criminal network.

Eventually it is going to kick off - in this case the PCs finally decided something suspicious was going on at the local inn, and that its proprietor was more than he claimed to be. By sneaking around at night, they managed to break into the inn's cellar, which then led them to the smugglers' underground cove. However, they were not quiet enough. I had to improvise a bit, as unlike Pathfinder, Lamentations does not have rules for everything, and the skill system only allows the specialist character to sneak consistently. I frequently called for attribute checks on 1d20 - e.g. DEX rolls when trying to open a trap door quietly in the middle of the night, less than 20 feet from a sleeping smuggler.

Once the smugglers reacted, they faced a choice between quietly taking care of the heroes or simply bugging out. The latter is always an option, but first they tried to kill/capture the party. One adventurer was already successfully drugged using spiked brandy, so the group was down to three when the smugglers ambushed them. One of the PCs was kitted out with flintlock pistols - I have the rules for these on a book mark kindly given to me by the author of Lamentations at Dragonmeet a couple of years ago - and these proved useful in the fight. In the end, I declined to equip any NPCs with firearms, and stuck with their original AD&D load out, which, combined with their magic, was nearly good enough to wipe the party out.

Following an unsuccessful attempt to kill the PCs, which resulted in the deaths of two smugglers, and left one PC on zero hit points, the smugglers' leader decided to leave town by boat, taking the drugged PC with him (which also happened to be the party's cleric - note that one PC was now at zero hit points and thus surplus to requirements). The adventurers were down to their specialist and their magic user, who only had an enlarge spell to hand. They gave chase by rousting the village chandler out of his bed and taking one of his boats, offering him silver to help them to get out to the island in the bay, which they now correctly surmised might have something to do with the plot. There followed a second encounter with smugglers, which this time nearly wiped the remaining adventurers out, but they inflicted enough damage on the criminals that they decided to flee rather than stick around.

Lamentations includes rules for morale, yes, morale. In my earliest D&D games, we used morale rules regularly. Lamentations has these. I like morale rules. That may be because I also play wargames, and wargamers like morale rules - well almost all wargamers, maybe not naval wargamers.

I added morale to the existing NPC stats by simply rolling 2d6. This gave me a pirate leader with a morale of 5 who was therefore somewhat flighty, and despite being in a winning position, decided not to stick around once the blood started flowing. As she was a 5th level fighter, this helped the PCs considerably when she exited stage left. The adventurers were also aided by their drugged cleric, previously a prisoner of the pirates, coming around at just the right time to administer cure light wounds. Morale injected an interesting element into the game; it sometimes seems sadly lacking in RPGs, where adventurers expect encounters to be sufficiently balanced to allow them to win every battle, and where the opposition dutifully fights to the last man (or orc).

Everyone had a great time. A Murder At Flaxton is an interesting little scenario. It has aged a little, but not much, and seems ideal for starting parties. There is also enough loot here to generate the XP an old school group needs to get to 2nd level. I still heartily recommend it as a campaign starter if you can find a copy.

As a rules set, Lamentations leaves plenty of gaps that the GM must fill when questions occur about "how do I do X"? In some respects it feels more like a recommended WAY of playing rather than a pure rules set. Players of more detailed, comprehensive rules will expect a mechanic when one does not exist. The limited skills system is largely there to help the specialist look good, but often you find it is the other characters in dire situations that are dealing with the specialist's tasks. This may be partly the fault of our being used to more recent rules systems, and forgetting that the specialist is there for a reason - namely doing all the sneaking and scouting, while players have an expectation that they should ALL be able to sneak and scout.

There is a lot to like about Lamentations - for example, the weird elements, the crazy spell descriptions, the encumberance rules, the black powder weapons - but I think my players, given the choice, would opt for Pathfinder or RuneQuest. We may return to Lamentations in the near future regardless, as there has been considerable investment in the characters and in Flaxton itself.

1 comment:

  1. I think you're right about the Specialist; it's a difference of philosophy. In a game like LotFP it's the Specialist's job to go sneaking and you've got to get into that mindset to get the most out of it, or at least be prepared for an interesting outcome if the Fighter decides to try stealth!

    And you make an excellent point about morale. I'm a big fan of morale too, and I think it's an underrated mechanic; not only is it more realistic than the fights-to-the-death of modern D&D variants, it adds a bit of unpredictability to combat.