Thursday, September 17, 2009

Critical Hit: Vaenna, 1997

Here's another storyteller success--one of the DMing moments I'm the most proud of.

Vaenna (1997): In the early days developing my campaign world of Meathra, I used to multi-purpose every creation I could, whether it was related to gaming or not. This way, every task or assignment I did could somehow inform the world. In my sophomore year at the Ohio University School of Theater we had to design a production of Cinderella for costume class. Fresh out of a summer theater production of the Pirates of Penzance, as well as a stint as a pirate at the Ohio Renaissance Festival, it was pretty easy for me to choose my theme (uh... yes, that's real pirate drool in the photo below).

(Tangent: Piper Perabo was in that class; this is inconsequential to the story, but an interesting anecdote, as she's gone on to make something of a name for herself; we shared deep, meaningful conversations in that class, such as, "Hey Piper. What are you doing for your project? That's cool... I'm doing a pirate theme." /end of tangent)

While I was developing my costume project, I decided to world build a little, and I placed the pirate-plagued port that was the setting for my Cinderella project on the nebulous, unmapped western coast of my world and called it Vaenna. It was far enough away from the rest of the campaign world that nobody was in any danger of encountering it any time soon, so there it rested and a couple of years went by.

In 1997 I set up a short adventure for the PCs. The premise was simple: at the School of Starra (aka magic), two student potion makers switch out the dean's medication with a love potion as a prank. The dean falls in love with the elf princess PC, and when she rejects his advances (a safe bet), he teleports her and her friends into a snow globe on his desk, which contains a short adventure scenario (and a dinosaur!). He uses this snow globe to challenge his students to beat the puzzles within, and once they solve the puzzles, the globe transports them safely out. My idea was for the PCs to do exactly that. I probably don't need to mention that this did not go at all as planned.

The PCs decided they would rather attempt to break the snow globe from the inside, a feat I told them was probably impossible. Regardless, they attempted it anyway, quaffing a levitation potion provided by one of the potion making students that was also an inmate within the globe. One PC bound a rope around himself while the others hung on, and as one they ascended to the top of the globe and started banging on it with their weapons. I decided to let them crack it ONLY if they rolled a 20 on their first shot. And of course that's exactly what they did.

As they cracked the snow globe, I wondered what would happen if they didn't exit using the correct procedure. I decided that since the magic of the globe was supposed to restore their size when teleporting them out, then breaking the globe would prohibit such magic from functioning. So the PCs (each currently about the size of a d6) levitate to the ceiling of the dean's office and rappel across the ceiling, looking for something to restore their height.

So what does this have to do with pirates?
I'm glad you asked.
Before the adventure, I'd made a brief list of things that could be found in the dean's office, just in case. One of them was a closet with a series of buttons on the side. Thinking this must "obviously" be the way to regain their proper height, the PCs rappel into the closet and choose one of the buttons. Suffice it to say, the closet was not a "resizing" closet. It was a teleporter. And each button corresponded to a different part of the CAMPAIGN WORLD. They pushed the button that, in my notes, corresponded with Vaenna, and suddenly they were half the world away in a disconnected part of the map, at half an inch tall, inside a storage shed, being pursued by... well, by rats, I guess, as that seemed the very best option at the time. But now these hungry rats looked about the size of bullettes!

What followed was an adventure of pure, delightful, improvisational fantasy. We were so far off track there was NO way we'd ever get back on. All I could do was go with it. And this, by the way, is where preparation will save you. Since I already had an idea of Vaenna and its people, that's what I used.

The PCs lassoed a pirate's rapier and rode in its basket hilt, their point of view narrated from the hip. After witnessing a pirate duel, they stowed away on a pirate wench to end up in the midst of an amorous affair between her and the pirate king Calithus, who noticed the diminutive folk and promised to help them return home if they would help him with some espionage against the king of Vaenna. And so they mounted a carrier pigeon and flew it across the city, communicating with other spies, infiltrating the king's court, getting the information necessary to free some pirate prisoners, and assisting in the pirate king's fight to free his men from one of the king's ships. And all the while the 1/2 inch elf princess developed a crush on the pirate king.

The adventure was wild, crazy, out of control, and a complete blast for everyone involved. It had its fair share of looniness (the pigeon was called "Speckled Jim" from Blackadder IV; at one point, two PCs whispered in opposite ears of the king's guard, imitating the voices of his conscience and driving him batty "This is God, Kurk!"), but in the end the pirate king honored his bargain and took the characters home, laying low for a while after his raid. There were a number of jokes about sailors and a chorus of "What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor? (Shave His Belly With a Rusty Razor)," amidst the non-stop fun.

When the characters were restored to their proper height by the (now sober) dean, one of them remarked, "It all seems like a dream..."
To which the gnome responded, "Yes, but if it was all a dream," (the player mimes reaching into his pocket and pulling out an enormous object) "where did this rusty razor come from?"
And scene.

I called it there. A fitting end line to an exhilarating, lighthearted game where anything can and did happen, despite all my best laid plans. One of the best sessions I've ever done.

What was great about it: absolute spontaneity, absolute freedom of choice, momentum, lightheartedness, fun characters, a real sense of play.

Rule Set: D&D 2nd Edition; Skills & Powers, Combat & Tactics options

Dramatis Personae:
Lowell Kempf as Donald Giovanni, a gnome of impeccable character
Jen King as Eladora BreaLe, princess of the elves
Erik Seebohm as Coen Weald, guardian of the elf princess

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