Wednesday, 13 December 2017

On the level: some thoughts on advancement

Recently, after eighty-odd hours of play spaced out over more than a year of real time, the Team Tsathogga PCs hit level 5. Partly because half the players were new to D&D when we started, I didn't use an experience point mechanic, going instead with a 'level when it makes sense' set-up; and, so far, it seems to have made sense approximately once every sixteen hours of actual play. (They started at level 0.) The time between level-ups has been getting longer, though, and I'm sure the average will increase the longer that the campaign continues.

Of all D&D's innovations, the levelling system is one of the oddest, and one of the most influential. Like most of the game's other features, its origins can be found in the historical wargames that D&D evolved from, which sometimes featured rules to model how a unit of troops might go from raw recruits to hardened veterans over the course of a long campaign: but D&D took this simple concept and stretched it so far that it became almost unrecognisable. A D&D character advancing from level 1 to level 20 isn't really like a wargame unit advancing from green to veteran: it's more like a unit starting out as a regular WWII infantryman and gradually evolving into a Sherman tank.

As far as I know, this advancement paradigm - in which characters begin as more-or-less ordinary people and gradually transform into mythic heroes - was a D&D innovation. It's since gone on to become deeply embedded in the structure of both fantasy RPGs and computer games, to the point where it's easy to overlook how utterly weird the idea actually is, especially in its more extreme implementations. It's clearly not rooted in any kind of realism, but it also doesn't appear in any of D&D's source material: Conan, Elric, Aragorn, et al are highly capable individuals right from the start of their respective careers, and become at best only slightly more powerful over the course of their adventures. Only with D&D does the idea arise that a character can effectively change genres, metamorphosing from a grubby desperado to Conan the Barbarian to Beowulf, if only they can manage to kill enough orcs and steal enough gold along the way.

The levelling system persists largely because it satisfies what, for many players, is clearly a very basic desire: the desire to see your numbers increase, power grow, and options multiply, to have your progress and achievements measured and quantified and validated in clear numerical terms. Given that people enjoy levelling, though, it's still worth asking just how many 'experience levels' a game actually needs. Wargames usually got by with just two or three, but D&D's innovation was to add many, many more. Most D&D editions and variants assume a 20-level structure, but it's often been noted that the higher levels tend to get very little actual play: the original B/X rules provided no rules for characters over level 14, which I believe was also the highest level reached by any character in Gygax's original campaign. Early D&D 'endgame' adventure modules, like Queen of the Demonweb Pits, Tomb of Horrors, Dragons of Triumph, and Temple of the Frog, were written for PCs of levels 10-14, which further reinforces the impression that level 14 was the highest level that real PCs were actually expected to reach. (Interestingly, most modern Pathfinder adventure paths top out at level 15 as well, which suggests that the level 14-15 ceiling has held remarkably constant across different eras and editions, even though rules for going much higher have been around for decades.) TSR was publishing ultra-high-level modules as early as 1985 - M1 Into the Maelstrom was for characters of levels 25-30! - but no-one ever seems to have liked them very much, and the question of how to write good adventures for very high-level characters never seems to have been adequately solved. Look at the early adventures that people still talk about today, and you'll find they're all written for level 1-14.

So there are strong grounds for suspecting that the top quarter of the standard 20-level progression has never seen much real use. But I think one can go further: in practise, even going much higher than level 10 seems to be pretty rare. In the original game, 'name level' - the point at which your character had 'made it', and could settle down as a lord or a high priest or an archmage somewhere, was level 9, 10, or 11, depending on your class. The highest level a PC has ever reached in one of my games was level 12. The 5th edition campaign books which WotC has been bringing out over the last few years are mostly designed to take a party from level 1 to level 10, which makes them very similar to the old B-X module range of 1978-87, which theoretically covered levels 1-14 but in practise very seldom went higher than 10. Some recent D&D spin-offs, such as The Black Hack, Shadow of the Demon Lord and 13th Age (I think), even set level 10 as the maximum level achievable.

So there seems to be a second milestone, which has again remained surprisingly consistent across eras and editions, which sees level 10 as the end-point of a 'normal' campaign: levels 11-15 are for those rare campaigns which go the extra mile, and levels 16+ are barely used at all. There's clearly a third milestone around level 6-7: the original campaign-in-a-module, X1 Isle of Dread, topped out at level 7, and level 6 is used as the maximum level by several D&D spin-off systems, including Dungeon Crawl Classics, Hulks and Horrors, and the E6 hack of D&D 3.5. Levels 1-7 is where the majority of famous adventure modules tend to cluster, and it also accounts for the vast majority of my own gaming experience, in which campaigns going beyond level 7 have been a distinct minority. Not coincidentally, the 1-7 level range - especially the level 3-6 sub-range - are also the ones which are most likely to give you the 'classic D&D experience', before the easy availability of game-changing magic like Raise Dead and Teleport starts pushing the game away the default fantasy adventure paradigm. The games I ran for my level 10-12 AD&D 2nd edition group back in the 1990s were great - but they were also weird as fuck, and bore very little resemblance to traditional D&D adventure scenarios, simply because by that stage the PCs had so many tools available to them for bypassing or trivialising the kind of obstacles which form the building-blocks of lower-level adventures. I'm sure they'd have become even stranger if we'd gone higher still.

The boundaries, then, have remained fairly constant: levels 1-7 for fairly grounded fantasy adventure, levels 8-11 for high-powered heroic fantasy, levels 12-15 for fantasy superheroes, and levels 16+ for a largely theoretical end-game which very few people actually use. But what hasn't remained constant is the rate of advancement. TSR edition D&D assumed you'd need to play for years to reach name level, whereas I seem to recall that 3rd edition was built around the assumption that you'd level about once every ten hours of play - more than twice as fast as seems to have been common in 'the old days'. Shadow of the Demon Lord goes further still, recommending a structure in which one session = one adventure = one level, which would mean characters advancing twice as fast again. Personally, I find the rapid levelling of more recent editions strains my credulity: even Team Tsathogga's advancement from level 0 to level 5 over the course of two years of game time seems rather on the fast side to me. But many adventures are clearly written with the assumption that no-one will be surprised if a band of peasant irregulars transform themselves into mighty wizards and warriors after a few orc-stabbing excursions into the woods. That's what 'experience' does to people, right?

So there are two independent variables, here: both how high levels go (either in the form of a hard limit, or just a vague shared assumption that the levelling rules probably won't actually be used beyond a certain point), and how quick or easy it is to move up the scale. In conjunction, they can be used to generate four very different environments:
  • Low level cap, slow advancement: The most 'realistic' option. People get more powerful, but not that much more powerful, and it takes ages. Everyone is vulnerable - no-one is ever so strong that they can afford to simply ignore low-level characters - but tearing down the powerful is much easier than rising to their level yourselves. Suitable for gritty or tragic games, in which destroying things (and people) is much easier than replacing them. This is the Lamentations of the Flame Princess model.
  • Low level cap, fast advancement: The most dynamic option. The power available is limited, but it comes quickly to those who seek it. The power gap between the weak and the strong is never all that big, and can be rapidly closed by someone sufficiently determined, meaning that it's never safe to rest on your laurels: there's always the risk of some ambitious young punk bursting up out of nowhere and tearing down all your achievements. Suitable for short, fast-moving games which feature rapid shifts in the status quo, especially as surviving characters will rapidly hit the level cap. This is the Shadow of the Demon Lord model.
  • High level cap, slow advancement: The most hierarchical option. There are people out there who are much, much more powerful than you are, and you will probably never be able to rise to their level, so you'll probably be spending your whole life living in the shadow of their power. Could lend itself to a revolutionary narrative about underdogs banding together to defeat the powerful through intelligence and guile, but much more likely to turn into a nightmare of being the archmage's errand boys, forever. This is the AD&D Forgotten Realms model, and it's my least favourite combination.
  • High level cap, fast advancement: The weirdest option. There are enormously powerful people out there... but, with enough luck and determination, anyone can join their ranks, and do so fast. Likely to resemble a superhero setting more than a traditional fantasy world, with ultra-powerful individuals just bursting out of nowhere all the damn time. ('Last year, I was just a lowly farm boy... but now I am Darkaxe, Slayer of Gods!') Both Pathfinder and D&D 4th edition lean heavily in this direction, in practise if not necessarily in theory.
My instincts have always led me towards the first of these options, with characters levelling quite slowly, but with very few high level NPCs around to make them feel small by comparison. (In a world where almost everyone is level 0 or level 1, a 3rd level D&D PC is badass.) But I think any of them could potentially be fun - as long as the group knows, in advance, what they're getting into, and prepares their expectations accordingly. It's when there's a mismatch between system and expectations - and especially when the PCs seem to be weirdly out-of-kilter with the assumptions governing the rest of the setting - that problems are likely to occur...

Friday, 1 December 2017

[Actual Play] 'Nath, I am your father!': Team Tsathogga fake it until they make it

Sorry for the gap between posts - work has been crazy lately. Team Tsathogga have continued to meet, though, so I'll try to get caught up with their wacky adventures as best I can...

This actual play write-up covers one of the most complex and elaborate exercises in deception that the Team Tsathogga party have carried out to date - which, if you've read any of their past adventures, you'll know is really saying something. (It's not their most elaborate scam, though: that would be the time when Sophie tried to convince everyone that she was actually 'Lady Penelope', a noblewoman afflicted with the curse of contagious amnesia, and went around saying things like 'You don't remember me either? Alas! The curse has struck again!') If it's difficult to follow in places, just imagine what it was like for me trying to GM it!

So - having incinerated the eastern half of Xam's Old City, destroying most of the myrmidon infestation in the process, the PCs had to face the fact that they'd sworn loyalty to both of the pretenders to the throne of Qelong: King Nath, whose followers still controlled the western half of Xam, and Queen Beja, whose army was currently struggling to hold the line against the myrmidon mob to the east of the burning city. Hash's keen elven vision allowed him to see the problem from their vantage points on top of the city walls: each time the queen's men hacked one of the Myrmidons down, the silver ants animating it poured out of its body and swarmed over the soldiers in glittering tides, climbing into their mouths and noses, and causing their shield wall to disintegrate as the men threw down their spears and shields to claw desperately at the ants swarming across their faces and into their orifices. Already the queen was signalling from the top of her elephant for the men to fall back, in a retreat that was swiftly turning into an ill-disciplined rout. Not wanting to give the myrmidons a chance to create a new infestation to replace the one they'd just incinerated, the PCs climbed down from the city walls and rejoined the queen's army on top of a nearby hilltop, where her shaken soldiers watched the myrmidon mob pinning down the men who hadn't been able to escape fast enough and vomiting great torrents of silver ants onto their faces - the first stage, no doubt, in transforming them into more of their own. Something would have to be done, but the queen and her army were in no hurry to re-engage with so horrible an enemy.

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How can we fight so horrible a foe?

Fortunately, the PCs had observed the myrmidons for long enough to work out that their behaviour was extremely predictable: they marched in straight lines, swarmed potential victims, avoided fire and deep water, ate all the organic material they could get hold of, and pretty much nothing else. They thus proposed that the queen's outriders should approach the mob on horseback, get close enough to attract their attention, and then ride off - then pause, wait for them to approach, and ride a bit further, and so on, until the myrmidons had been drawn well away from the battlefield. Then the PCs and a band of hand-picked volunteers would sweep in with oil from the army's baggage train, pour it all over the now ant-infested soldiers and corpses, and then set fire to it, incinerating the ants and removing the threat of a new infestation. The plan worked pretty much perfectly: the myrmidons took the bait, with only a few of their number left behind to guard their new victims, whom the PCs and their followers easily took down. Oil and fire put paid to the ant swarms on the battlefield: and when the PCs realised that the remaining myrmidons were moving much more clumsily than before, presumably because so many of the ants animating them had left their bodies and been destroyed, they rode back to the queen's army and rallied them for one final attack, in which every second man would wield a burning torch rather than a spear. It was a bloody business - the myrmidons stood and fought to the last - but by beating them down and then using the torches to incinerate the ant swarms as they poured from the broken bodies of their hosts, the queen's soldiers were finally able to destroy the last remnants of the infested force - although the PCs insisted on them setting fire to all the surrounding grasslands, just in case any of the ants had escaped.

Queen Beja's army had suffered heavy losses, but the queen herself was elated: with the myrmidons dead, and King Nath nowhere in sight, surely there was now nothing that could stop her claiming the throne of Qelong. Of course, all the bridges across the river had been torn down to prevent the myrmidon infestation from spreading into the western city, so her army would need to march upriver, ford it, and then march back - but then, surely, victory would be theirs! Surveying the queen's depleted, war-weary and dispirited troops, and remembering the strength of the fortifications which still protected the western half of the Old City, the PCs weren't so sure. Volunteering their services as scouts, they rode out of sight, used their ring of water walking to cross the river - Sophie put it on, and took turns carrying the other PCs over the river on her back - and headed back to see the commander of Xam's remaining defenders, General Ngour.

General Ngour, of course, was entirely unaware of the fact that the PCs had been working with Queen Beja. As far as he knew, everything they had done - first sending their monster to wreck the eastern city, and then burning it with the myrmidons inside - had been done in the name of King Nath, and he now begged for their help in dealing with the queen's forces as well, knowing that it would only be a matter of time before her army descended upon Xam. He knew that she didn't have enough men to storm the city, but his soldiers were already living in a state of virtual famine, and couldn't possibly withstand a siege of any length. (The general population had reached the 'starving to death in the streets' stage weeks ago.) When the PCs broke the news to him that they couldn't call their giant purple monster back to crush the queen's army, he implored them to try to find out what had become of the king and his remaining forces, who had been last seen fleeing to the south after being defeated by Queen Beja's army in the field.

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'We'll be back aaany miiiinute, guys!'

Looking at their maps, the PCs had a suspicion about where the king might be: the riverside city which was first defended and then abandoned by the Company of the Hawk, which had since been depopulated by the myrmidons and would thus have been both empty and defensible by the time the king's men reached it. Skirting around the queen's forces, which were still trying to work out a way of getting their horses and elephants over the river, they headed south through the day and into the night, until the sight of lights glimmering on the previously deserted walls of the city revealed that their suspicions had probably been correct. Coming closer, they saw that these lights belonged to the king's sentries, who nervously demanded to know their business. The PCs replied that they had come with urgent messages from General Ngour; and a few charm person spells later, they found themselves on their way to meet King Nath, who had taken up residence in the fort at the city's heart.

Talking to the king's soldiers soon revealed that they were, if anything, even more demoralised than Queen Beja's were. Half their men had fled or deserted after the defeat inflicted upon them by the queen, and those that remained were deeply dispirited by the days they had spent cooped up within this creepy depopulated city, which they seemed desperate to leave despite the safety provided by its walls. A brush with the myrmidons during their retreat had convinced them that Xam was probably now uninhabitable, and they were delighted to hear that General Ngour still held out on its western bank. Enquiring why they were so eager to leave their current station, the PCs learned that when they had taken possession of the fort they had found some very disturbing things inside it, which convinced them that the whole place must be cursed or haunted or both. When they asked to see this for themselves, they were shown a network of rooms previously occupied by the Company of the Hawk, containing alchemical distillation equipment, vivisection tables, surgical equipment... and pits containing huge numbers of picked-clean human skeletons.

Her curiosity piqued, Circe decided to use a speak to animals spell to question one of the carrion crows perching on the battlements, and asked it exactly what had happened here before the Myrmidons arrived. In exchange for some food, the crow told her that as refugees streamed into the city from up-country, the 'bird-flag men' had systematically taken all the sickest and most curse-stricken of them and carried them inside the fort, from which none of them ever emerged. (It also mentioned that the company's commander had been accompanied everywhere by a strange silent bird which never ate, which to its corvid eyes had seemed far creepier than all the mass-murder.) Concluding that the Company had clearly been up to something extremely unwholesome, the PCs staged a series of made-up rituals of blessing and exorcism to make the soldiers feel better, before going to see the king, who was finally ready to receive them.

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Yes, this is a Civ 4 screenshot. You try finding a better picture of a miserable-looking Khmer Empire king...

It swiftly became apparent that King Nath was a broken man. Depressed and exhausted, he could no longer muster the energy for any kind of action, despite the urging of his officers; and only the knowledge that Queen Beja would surely have him killed if he surrendered kept him from abandoning the war on the spot. When the PCs described the military situation, his commanders urged him to march forth and attack the queen before the walls of Xam, so that her army would be caught between General Ngour's men and his own; but the king seemed deeply unenthused by the prospect of yet more fighting and bloodshed, and argued that the safest course of action was for him and his men to remain where they were. So the PCs formed a plan.

And it was a great plan. And it was a crazy plan. And this is how it went.

The first step was to persuade King Nath that Queen Beja had suffered such heavy losses in her battles with the myrmidons that she was now willing to negotiate a treaty at a pre-arranged location by the river. The king's officers were sceptical, but the king jumped at the chance to secure even a temporary pause in hostilities, and gave orders for scouts to ride forth to check whether these might be genuine negotiations rather than a trap. The party then left the city - supposedly to inform General Ngour of the king's position - and rode to the queen's army, which had almost reached the walls of Xam. They told her that they had found the king's forces, and that King Nath was so broken-hearted by defeat that he was now willing to surrender to her unconditionally... at a pre-arranged location by the river. Having become uncomfortably aware that Xam's defenders would not surrender without a fight while they still believed the king might be riding to their rescue, she also sent outriders to check whether this offer might be genuine. The PCs then rode off towards the coast on some trumped-up excuse or other, before sending Hogarth, Sovan, Circe, and Sophie circling back to - where else? - the pre-arranged location, which they had already visited on their march upriver, and had chosen for its natural acoustics and the presence of a big, spooky tree. Both of those would become important later.

The king's scouts and the queen's scouts had met one another, each confirmed that the other one was expecting a meeting there, each checked that the other side didn't have a hidden army lurking nearby, and ridden back to their respective commanders: so all that was left was for the PCs to conceal themselves near the Spooky Tree and wait for the armies to arrive. The next day, they did - each approaching with great caution, and clearly expecting treachery from the other. They drew up well over a bowshot apart, obviously ready to retreat at the first sign of things going wrong, and their respective heralds rode forwards. The king's herald announced that the king was willing to hear the queen's proposals for a cessation of hostilities. The queen's herald replied incredulously that the only thing the queen had come to hear were the terms of the king's surrender. Discomforted, each started to ride back to their army for further instructions... when the miracles began.

It started with a great cloud of mist which erupted from nowhere, right in the middle of the field. (Obscuring Mist.) Then the mist was lit up from within by an unearthly golden radiance. (Light.) Then a regal figure rose out of the mist, wearing the royal crown of Qelong, its face obscured by the an unbearable blaze of glory that radiated from its kingly but vaguely-glimpsed features (Illusion and another Light.) And in a thundering voice - which was actually just Hogarth yelling out from inside the mist, trying to sound suitably sepulchral - it cried out: 'NATH! I AM YOUR FATHER!'

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Old Hamlet's ghost, from the 1948 film Hamlet. This was pretty much the effect they were going for.

Amazement struck the assembled forces. Was this really the old king's ghost? Nath pushed forwards to the front of his army, eager for a closer look; Beja, mores suspicious, sent her court magician forwards to check it out instead. The mage incanted, and his eyes widened - and then suddenly the glowing figure gestured at him, and spectral hands appeared from nowhere, wrapped around his neck! (Choke.) Gasping for breath, he stumbled and staggered and collapsed, while the 'ghost' declaimed: 'THIS MAN KILLED ME SECRETLY WITH HIS BLACK MAGIC! ON THE QUEEN'S ORDERS, HE PLACED A SPELL UPON ME WHILE I WAS SLEEPING IN MY GARDEN!' (Hogarth was basically just paraphrasing Hamlet at this point.) 'NOW WITNESS MY VENGEANCE FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE!'

All eyes turned to Beja. Furious, she opened her mouth to deny the spectre's charges - but no sound came out. (Silence.) In a mounting panic, she struggled to speak, but no words emerged. 'SEE HOW HER LIES ARE SILENCED!' roared the ghost. 'IT IS SHE WHO HAS BROUGHT THIS WAR UPON YOU, UNTIL THE LAMENTATIONS OF THE PEOPLE BECAME SO LOUD THAT THEY DISTURBED MY MEDITATIONS IN HEAVEN! UNITE NOW BEHIND MY SON, NATH, THE ONE TRUE KING, AND BRING PEACE TO QELONG! RENOUNCE THE TRAITOR QUEEN AND YOU SHALL BE FORGIVEN!'

It wasn't about being believable. It was about telling people what they wanted to hear. The PCs had mingled with both armies, and knew that the soldiers on both sides were demoralised and exhausted, kept going not by the hope of victory but by the fear of defeat: and so when this mysterious, supernaturally-powerful figure appeared to offer them a chance to change sides without repercussions, many of the queen's men were eager to grasp it. As the men nearest the apparition began to waver, King Nath rode forwards and called out: 'Father! Is it really you?'

'IT IS!' roared Hogarth. 'YOU ARE THE TRUE HEIR TO QELONG! BEHOLD! EVEN THE TREES BOW DOWN IN HOMAGE!' From within the mist, Circe cast Warp Wood: and the large, spooky tree nearby began bending, bowing down towards the king as he approached. Amazed by this miracle, more and more of the queen's forces began falling to their knees: and her officers, realising that they would soon have a mutiny on their hands, began ushering her away while she continued to try, vainly, to speak in her own defence. Seeing her departure, the 'ghost' cried out: 'TRAITOR! MURDERESS! FALL!' (Command.) Beja promptly threw herself off her own horse, landing on the ground in an undignified heap: her officers, who knew a lost cause when they saw one, spurred on their horses and rode for the hills. As the apparition continued to furiously denounce her as the cause of all Qelong's sufferings, her own men, seeing which way the wind was blowing, turned on her and unceremoniously clubbed her to death.

'TREAT THE QUEEN'S FOLLOWERS MERCIFULLY, MY SON!' The 'ghost' boomed. 'THEY WERE DECEIVED BY HER LIES! BRING PEACE TO THE LAND! RESTORE THE LOST GLORY OF QELONG!' And with that the old king vanished, apparently ascending back up to heaven, while the glowing mists dissipated into nothing. (Sophie, Sovan, and Circe concealed themselves under an illusion of a perfectly ordinary patch of grass, while Hogarth, standing nearby under the cover of an invisibility spell, couldn't resist a last, mournful cry of: 'Beeeee gooooood....') Aside from the bodies of the queen and her magician, the only remaining sign of the miracles which had occured there was the tree, still bent to the earth as though bowing: so the soldiers rushed forwards to snap off leaves and branches, brandishing them like relics, while a quick-thinking officer began orating about how one day a stupa would be built here to commemorate the events of this day. King Nath was kneeling on the ground in tears, crying out: 'Father! Come back! I still have so many questions!', while around him gangs of cheering soldiers from both armies celebrated the end of the war. The PCs sneaked off, rejoined their comrades, and nonchalantly wandered back to Xam just in time to see the king re-installed in what remained of the royal palace, where they feigned surprise at hearing about the remarkable sequence of events that had finally brought peace to Qelong. When General Ngour told King Nath about the way that they had destroyed the myrmidons, Nath was happy to confirm that he would raise statues in honour of their foreign gods within his royal temple... just as soon as he'd finished rebuilding it.

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Dream big, team Tsathogga! Dream big!

Nath invited them to stay in Xam for as long as they liked, but the streets of the still pestilent and famine-stricken city held little appeal: and so, promising to return one day to help reconsecrate the new temple, they rode east, picked up the faithful band of followers from Pralaj who were still waiting for them on the beach, and sailed north to pass the winter on the Purple Islands.

And thus Team Tsathogga's time in Qelong ended, rather remarkably, in peace and victory: their biggest success yet, and by far their most heroic. (As Hogarth's player mused: 'We seem to have shifted from being villains into being heroes. Maybe we've started believing our own hype...') More crazy antics still lay ahead of them: Hash's 'to do' list of mysteries to investigate was terrifyingly long, and as soon as spring came he was planning to drive his comrades back out into the world once more. But for now it was time to rest on their laurels, and cultivate their golden lotus addictions, and reflect that, for a bunch of murderous cultists of an amoral alien frog god, maybe they really weren't such bad people after all...

(Closing note: Ken Hite's Qelong is amazing and everyone should buy it. Normally I pick and choose which bits of an rpg book I actually want to use in my campaign: this time I used virtually everything, and it was awesome. This 53-page book provided material for something like 24 hours of actual play, which is pretty amazing given the speed at which we tend to burn through content, and the trailing plot hooks it left behind will no doubt provide the basis for many more sessions to come. I recommend it very highly indeed!)

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