Musings on Our First Session

It’s been a long road getting to where I am now. So, a little background.

First of all, my friends Brian and Cody returned from their trip around the world on a cruise ship. This event was what I needed to finally get off my ass and return to serious gaming. That only left finding three other players to round out the group. Brent, Paul, and Seth quickly filled the empty seats, prompting me to begin thinking about what kind of campaign I’d like to run.

The new players joined on October 31st, 2010. Our first session of the new campaign took place on Sunday, March 20, 2011. Why did it take so long to finally sit down to our first game? Well, let’s just say it was a busy winter for all.

War of the Burning Sky

After discussing a few campaign options, such as Dragon Magazine’s Scales of War adventure path and Wizard of the Coast’s Points of Light modules, we settled on EN World’s War of the Burning Sky campaign. It offered two things that got the group super pumped:

  1. Almost no dungeons.
  2. Intense, political intrigue.

The other campaigns, though I’m sure enjoyable, were pretty much more of the same: delve into dungeons, fight monsters, and take their treasure. War of the Burning Sky, on the other hand, promised that by the end of the campaign, the players would get a chance to influence political events, lead armies into battle, and possibly rule the world or let it be destroyed as they see fit.

That’s not a promise many campaigns make right off the bat. Here’s the introduction:

As the new year begins, the weather takes a sudden chill turn: Drakus Coaltongue, the immortal emperor whose armies conquered everything he set his gaze upon, has fallen in a distant land to the north.

Now war is coming.

While the generals of Emperor Coaltongue strike for control, oppressed peoples rise up in rebellion and dangers—once held in check only by fear of the mighty warlord—bring doom to the world. As those in power prepare for the coming conflict, readying fervent armies, powerful weapons, and subtle, deceptive plots, two questions burn in their minds: who killed the seemingly-immortal Emperor Coaltongue and what has become of the artifact that would let a man rule the world?

Who has the Torch of the Burning Sky?

Session Summary

Session 1 took place on Sunday, March 20th, 2011.

A local rebellion devoted to keeping both the Ragesians and the Shahalesti out of the city of Gate Pass, has gathered vital military intelligence. Messengers are needed to deliver the information to allies at a distant wizard’s school. With all their strongest warriors preparing to hold back the Ragesian assault, this vital mission falls to a party of inexperienced heroes. With the Ragesian army nearly at Gate Pass’ doorstep, time is short.

The adventure begins with three local residents—Asher, Buckidu, and Maril—and one stranger—Arender—arriving at the Poison Apple Pub for a meeting with a member of the local rebellion. The inn, closed for business due to accusations of the owner being “in hostile collusion against the Ragesian Empire,” sits on a deserted street, dark and alone in the snow. The four arrive, just before midnight, on the Eve of the New Turn.

It is known by Kara Ravencaster—the woman with whom the group arrives to meet—that each of the four seek to strike out at the Ragesians and are interested in helping in any way they can. During their meeting, Kara reveals that a case of military intelligence has been delivered to Gate Pass. It must immediately be snuck out of the city and escorted to a distant wizard’s school. This case holds information vital to the war effort.

While talking with Kara, they learn that the Ragesian army is on the march and will arrive at Gate Pass the very next day. Additionally, the city gates have been sealed by the ruling council so that Gate Pass will appear to be complying with the demands of the Ragesians to hand over all practitioners of magic to the Inquisitors and surrender. With the gates sealed, no wizard would be able to escape through mundane means. As for magical means, recently something has gone terribly wrong with spells of spacial displacement. User of such rituals find themselves ignited in transit, arriving on the other end a burning husk of embers.

The party is told that the case is in the hands of someone who worked undercover in the Ragesian palace at Ragos for over a year—Rivereye Badgerface. Peppin Irongale, his normal contact, was recently found murdered, and Kara speculates that it would be difficult getting him to release the intelligence to a group of strangers. Hopefully, her retrieval of Peppin’s signet ring and code phrase will be enough to convince Badgerface that they are representatives of the rebellion.

While the four discuss retrieval of the intelligence and plan for escape from the city, the Ragesians begin their attack—a full twelve hours early. Not only that, but they bring with them beasts straight out of a child’s nightmare—long thought to be mere legends, it seems the ancient tales are true: Dragons exist and Supreme Inquisitor Leska, currently leading the Ragesian army, commands them.

Meanwhile, using the attack as cover, a local mercenary group called the Black Horses approaches the inn, looking for Asher. The leader of the Black Horses has ordered Asher to be captured alive. It was made known among these unsavory thugs prior to the attack that Supreme Inquisitor Leska believes Asher to be “the key to everything.”

With the Black Horses travels Ykoren, a disillusioned man who has recently fallen on hard times. Ykoren was easily swayed into joining the Black Horses by their leader, a charismatic, yet dangerous individual known as Renard Kol. Little does Ykoren know, his cousin Arender is one of the four meeting with Kara.

During the ensuing battle, the two recognize each other and Ykoren realizes what he has done. He’d witnessed the Black Horses murder, rape, and pillage, and always looked the other way because he felt it was for the greater good; their mission was always to capture magic users for Leska’s Inquisitors—and magic was known to serve evil. At least, that’s what Ykoren was lead to believe.

Turning on his former companions, Ykoren helps the group defeat the Black Horses. With little time to spare, they rush outside of the quickly collapsing inn to see Gate Pass in ruins. The dragons have laid waste to much of the city, and that which wasn’t reduced to rubble was on fire. Choking smoke and a panicked populace fill the streets as the companions make their way to the Gate Pass Depository, said by Kara to be where their contact would be waiting with the case holding the military intelligence.

But would Rivereye still be waiting when they arrive?

The group take the main road leading away from the Poison Apple Pub, but find it difficult to traverse the distance without heeding the cries of the injured. Near them, a man, woman, and three small children exit a ravaged building; the adults are covered in burns, while the children huddle behind them, crying softly. Buckidu whispers a soft prayer and provides the husband and wife with divine healing.

And again, after less than five minutes of pushing their way through the thick crowd, the group is stopped by the cacophony of shattering glass and cracking timbers. A house has collapsed just ahead, trapping a man under a heavy oak beam. Arender immediately slides to the man’s aid and yells out orders for Buckidu and Ykoren to stand to his left and right. As one, they lift the timber and Asher pulls the injured man away from danger. Noticing he is near death, Buckidu lays his hands on the crumpled man, whispering another secret prayer to the god of protection. Warmth spreads through the broken body, healing his wounds. His eyelids flutter open and he smiles at Asher, who has knelt down in the snow and the ashes. “Thank Pelor,” he whispers as he presses an amulet in the shape of the sun into the halfling’s hands.

Quickly, they resume their journey to the Depository, only for their attention to be caught by the shrill scream of a woman about to hurl herself from the third story of her home. Fire licks the inside walls and smoke billows out from the open window she finds herself clutched against. Thinking quickly, Asher pulls a tent out of his pack and unrolls it. Each member of the group grabs a section, pulls it tight, and yells “Jump!”

The woman leaps and is caught easily in the center of the tent.

Finally, the companions reach the gate that separates their current district from the next. Before it gathers a hysterical crowd, overcome with an unnatural, magical fear. A solider, guarding the gate from atop the wall, jumps to his death in his attempt to escape whatever imaginary nightmares chase him. Suddenly, a dragon—born of fairy tales and ancient legends—leaps into the sky. The sight brings both terrible horror and unimaginable beauty.

Finally, the group finds themselves before the Gate Pass Depository. What awaits them inside?

Changes to the Adventure

Dragons

I’ve included Bahamut and Tiamat’s epic battle deep into the background of the campaign. In the first adventure, this is felt immediately through the attack on Gate Pass. Rather than use wyverns and “fire bombs” as noted in the adventure, I changed the attackers to red dragons. I l laid the groundwork for this by sending the following to the players:

The world doesn’t believe dragons exist; people think of them as fairy tales, legends told about in ancient stories and fables. They certainly don’t exist, except in the minds and hearts of children.

This allowed the players to roleplay their characters’ surprise appropriately. Secretly, however, I’m sure they thought to themselves, “Oh, so no dragons? Since he’s going out of his way to mention they’re not there, that probably means they most assuredly are…”

Religion

Though I’ve added Bahamut and Tiamat’s unending struggle for Heavenly dominion to the campaign, I want to run a “gods are apart from the world” theme—at least for now. To that end, I sent each player the following:

After thousands of years, the names of the gods have been forgotten. The people of the Lands simply know them as the God of Knowledge, the God of Healing, the God of War, etc. It is heresy to name the gods, or to attempt to personify them with idols of stone, wood, paint, or metal. The gods are not to be understood; they are beings to be feared and caretakers to be worshiped.

Why not name or personify the gods? It’s been passed down through generations that the gods are the ones who originally delivered this edict. Most civilized folk have been raised to believe it’s blasphemy to go against it; the gods themselves will punish those who defy this mandate. Why things have gotten to this point is a major secret and will unfold slowly as the campaign progresses.

Torrent

In The Scouring of Gate Pass, Kara Ravencaser is named Torrent.

Here’s the thing: I’m a dirty pirate. Every time I saw Torrent’s name written down, I thought to myself, “Oh crap, did I torrent last night’s episode of Conan?” Funny as that was for the first few weeks of preparation, I realized I needed to change her name. Being a huge Superman fan, I named her Kara. Additionally, I didn’t like that she was a cleric in the adventure; I don’t want her running around the battlefield healing PC’s—I want them to be in charge of their own destiny. With that in mind, I changed her to a wizard and gave her the last name Ravencatser.

Speaking of Kara running around doing stuff that I want the PC’s to do, I certainly didn’t want to run a full on NPC with tons of powers—which is exactly how she’s statted in the adventure. I looked into the Companion Character rules in the Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 and didn’t like that a companion character counts towards the difficulty of a battle. That would mean I’d have to fix all the encounters to account for six PC’s. No, I needed something less intrusive. That’s when I realized I could turn her into a minion. I picked a first-level minion with a melee and ranged attack, made the melee attack a longsword (to match the mini), and made the ranged attack a magic bolt. The damage for each is a flat 4 points and I gave her average hit points for a 1st-level controller.

This way, she won’t be forgotten as so many NPC’s that travel with the PC’s are, and she will be able to contribute to the combat without doing the PC’s jobs for them.

The Black Horses

I didn’t like Renard Woodsman’s last name as given in the adventure. Instead, I gave him a swank sounding last name: Kol. Also, I made Ykoren a member. Together, Brent and I put in plenty of reasons why Ykoren would want to turn on the Black Horses during the first combat, and it worked out great.

Also, I made Seth’s character Asher a key reason why Leska was attacking Gate Pass. To that end, she’s given orders that he is to be captured alive, and of course this reached the ears of the Black Horses; Renard Kol ordered his men to capture Asher during the attack on the Poison Apple Pub. This gave the Black Horses solid motivation for attacking the inn at that moment.

Encounter Modifications

I immediately noticed The Scouring of Gate Pass was converted from 3rd Edition to 4th Edition before the Monster Manual 3 design shift. I know firsthand how poorly combats run with monsters from the first two Monster Manuals, so I was quick to “update” them. However, rather than opening up the errata and sitting down to fix all the numbers for every monster in every encounter, I just looked at the level and role and then picked a monster from the Monster Vault with the same level and role.

For example, I used the stats of a Grasping Zombie for a Black Horse Thug. No, the combatant didn’t suddenly become a Grasping Zombie—it was still a Black Horse Thug. I just fluffed all the descriptions: The Grasping Zombie’s slam attack became a dagger attack (to match the miniature, who holds a prominent dagger), the zombie grasp power became headlock, and so on.

Ambush! The entire inn was reworked to fit the cardstock I’d built for the encounter. In the end, it still pretty much looked like the map on pages 39 and 40 of the adventure, though the areas increased in size to grant the combat a bit more breathing room; I’ve learned over the last few years that 4th Edition combats flourish more in wide, open spaces, rather than cramped quarters.

As for combatant adjustments, I removed the attack dogs and Renard’s second-in-command—Kathor Danava—from the combat. I’d rather have a few, interesting monsters to control than many, ineffectual ones. The dogs didn’t add anything interesting, so they got cut. As for Kathor, I want the PC’s to meet—and hopefully beat—him later in the adventure. To include him right off the bat and have him possibly lose (or worse, win) wasn’t something I wanted to deal with.

For a more detailed account on how Ambush! was reconstructed for my group, please see Redesigning Encounters: Ambush!

Aid to the Wounded, Burning Building, and Terror in the Skies: These three encounters remained exactly as written with one major exception: in Terror in the Skies, I made sure the characters knew it was a dragon—their first introduction to the fearsome beasts that will become a major enemy as time goes on.

Animal Crossing: The Scouring of Gate Pass includes an encounter where, as the PC’s rush to the Depository during the Ragesian attack, a man frantically pleads with them to save his weasel.

This encounter just didn’t sit well with me. I couldn’t justify in my head the PC’s stopping to help someone find their pet, no matter how hysterical the NPC was. The most I expected to happen was for a PC to slap the man on the face and yell, “Get a hold of yourself! The city is falling down around our ears! Grab your loved ones and get to safty! Forget your pet rat!”

Nevertheless, I still wanted to introduce a skill challenge early on in the adventure; I love them and wanted to see how the players would react to one. To this end, I changed Animal Crossing so that the NPC—Corian—was instead trapped under a fallen, burning beam. This gave the PC’s a life or death situation to either help with or move past.

Additionally, I added a piece of treasure to this encounter that will serve as an introduction to the “religion is different” plot: a holy symbol of Pelor. Though no character would recognize the importance of such a relic, as time goes by and the gods reassert themselves in the world, this amulet will hopefully play a major role.

Things That Could Have Gone Better

Time Out

Brian’s character Buckidu was down for most of the first combat encounter. Unfortunately, it was just one of those unlucky moments in a character’s career where he was caught in the crossfire of strong bad guys and unlucky die rolls. Were it a novel, it wouldn’t be a big deal; the character would learn from what happened and then move on. However, since this is a game, we had a player who couldn’t do anything for several hours. Looking back, I realize too late that I should have had Kara get over there and administer a healing check. This would have activated Buckidu’s Second Wind and gotten him back into the fight.

Also along the line of players not getting to play, Brent wasn’t able to get involved for the first two hours of the game. This was due to background elements that he and I had implemented: being a member of the Black Horses. While they waited outside the inn for the Ragesian attack to start, Brent had to sit there and watch the other four players roleplay with Kara. Fortunately, now that he’s fallen in with the group, this is unlikely to happen again.

Initiative

I think it’s time to pass on one of my DMing duties to a player. You see, I use my iPad for everything other than rolling dice. I keep encounter notes, monster stats, and track initiative—all with the iPad. I used to also control music with the iPad, but now I do that with my iPhone; running too many things on a single device means switching back and forth between all those things. Sure, the iPad has fast app switching, and each switch probably only takes a second or two. However, it’s easy to get confused or forget something in the notes when it’s not all right in front of me.

When I look at the things I use the iPad for, I immediately see what has to go next: keeping track of initiative. Right now, I use an app called DM Tools. It’s a fair piece of software but has an unpolished user interface; it’s too easy to hit the wrong button and make things go horribly wrong. When you’re trying to keep a fast pace during combat, having to undo a mistake can cost valuable momentum.

In the old days, I used index cards placed in the proper order to keep track of initiative—and that’s what I’m going to switch back to. In fact, with 4th Edition’s proclivity for status effects, index cards are even better since you can write down what each creature is affected with right on the card.

Seth has thankfully volunteered to take control of running initiative. I plan to have the cards pre-made before each session with names and hit points listed, and a spot to write out the initiative count and status effects. Then I’ll hand the stack to Seth, and he can be in charge of keeping track of it all. This has the added benefit of allowing me to focus more on playing the monsters. Looking back on all the monster abilities I forgot about because I was so focused on keeping everything fast paced and on track, I know things could have been more exciting for me and my monsters.

Things That Went Great

Setting Information

I was pleasantly surprised by how much background information people brought up during the roleplay with Kara. Prior to the game, I sent out quite the text dump on the world, its lands, its peoples, and other tidbits of information the players should know. As a DM, it’s always a concern that no one will read any of it, wasting my investment of time and robbing the players of valuable roleplaying fodder. Thankfully, this was not the case as the players were very interested in using that information during their conversation with Kara.

Skill Use

I really appreciated how much the group used their skills and the environment to do things other than swing a sword or cast a spell. Buckidu used his impressive Diplomacy and Intimidate on several occasions to great effect. Arender moved a large table to barricade the Poison Apple Pub’s side door. Asher immediately jumped behind the bar to gain cover. All these things showed outside the box thinking, which was refreshing. Too often players resort to looking at their powers, forgetting that there is a wider spectrum of options available to their characters.

Skill Challenge

Another thing that went really well was the skill challenge I snuck in. Skill challenges are a hot button topic amongst 4th Edition players. Some love them, many hate them. I, for one, think they’re awesome. The problem is finding a way of running them that works for the players. Personally, I prefer the transparent approach; you don’t know it’s a skill challenge and I don’t tell you how to go about succeeding. I do, however, give a lot of help along the way by interpreting player actions into appropriate skill checks.

Sunday’s skill challenge was lifting a fallen beam off of a man. It might not have been the best way to introduce a skill challenge, especially since there was only one obvious way of solving the situation—lift up the dang ol’ beam—and yet I wanted the scenario to be more difficult than something that a single skill roll could solve.

Also, it was a good opportunity for non-strength-based characters to lend a hand. People could have used Endurance to gain an extra boost of strength, perform a Heal check to sooth the man, call out to others for help by using Diplomacy, etc. In the end, retrying what worked (Athletics checks) seemed to be the clearest solution. Fortunately, it was a short skill challenge and the group only needed four successes before three failures (of which there were none).

Photographs

Last, but not least, here are the pictures from our session.