Musings on Our Fourth Session

It’s been a busy spring for several of the players in my group and the fallout from that has been less time for War of the Burning Sky. Since I’m one of those weird DM’s that prefers every player be present for the campaign, weeks can go by without playing. My go-to excuse has always been, how would The Lord of the Rings have ended if Frodo had called in sick the weekend they were supposed to toss the ring into Mount Doom? I guess Samwise would have had to do it…

In the meantime, our group finished up the first adventure in Seth’s Essential’s campaign; hopefully there will be further adventures.

Aside from that, we’ve made sure to meet up away from the table for the occasional night of bowling and karaoke. Unfortunately, due to more spring business, it looks like there will be another month-long break before Session 5.

Hopefully it won’t be a busy summer!

Session Summary

Session 4 took place on Sunday, May 8, 2011.

The companions stand in the snow, in shock. Rivereye, the first to move, leaves his hiding place behind a barrel and joins the group, echoing their dismay at what has just happened. In the background, Kara silently weeps over the broken body of the dead child.

Asher, unable to process the horrors that have chased the group since the Poison Apple Pub, drops into the bloody snow and stabs the dead body over and over. As he does this, an evil hiss emanates from the dragonrider. Before anyone can react, a dark smoke rises from the corpse and is quickly drawn into the blade of Asher’s dagger. His eyes grow wide as the dagger’s rust flakes off, revealing a shiny new blade underneath. The worn leather thong wrapped around the hilt becomes like new. Its ruby, set into the blade’s haft, manifests a strange glow.

Arender, giving Asher wide birth, quietly walks over to Flagnus’ body and removes his own dagger, which is buried to the hit in the back of the dead warrior’s head.

Maril, sensitive to the presence of nearby magic, detects something odd near the body. After a quick search, the group finds Flagnus has enchanted plate armor equipped, as well as an odd, arcane dagger hidden in a pouch. The group take command of these objects, as well as any wealth the invader has.

After pausing a moment to say some words over the freshly dug grave for the murdered boy, the group continues their journey to the rebellion’s safe house, located under a temple dedicated to the god of protection. As they enter, Rivereye is quickly whisked away to receive medical attention, as he is suddenly overcome by an attack of wracking coughs and incessant sneezes. Grimly, Kara leads the five remaining men across the temple floor—which is filled with wounded Gate Pass residents—through a door, and down a long flight of stairs to the basement. There, the companions finally receive the respite they so surely deserve.

In the middle of the night, Arender is woken by a strange eladrin man. The intruder lifts a single finger to his lips, evincing the need for silence. Arender quietly follows the strange man to the safe house’s larder. There, the eladrin introduces himself as a messenger, sent by the Shahalesti government. It seems, like Arender, the man has been drafted into covert service. The group they work for sent this messenger to ensure that Arender did not let the vital military intelligence return to Shahalesti with Shealis. It seems Shealis is not working towards Shahalesti’s best interests, and in fact, is working for a rogue group that seeks Lord Shaaladel’s downfall. After providing this information, the man quietly slips out of the safe house and back up the stairs into the temple above.

Around this time, Ykoren—who is suffering from insomnia—has returned from exploring the safe house’s surrounding chambers. He overhears the two men speaking in the larder and decides to hide. After the nameless man exits the safe house, Arender returns to the sleeping chambers. On his way, he spots the hidden Ykoren. Unfortunately, there is no way to hide what had just transpired and Arender reluctantly explains to his cousin the truth: It wasn’t chance that Arender happened upon this group at the Poison Apple Pub—he was sent to intercept the intelligence by a covert group within the Shahalesti government.

Ykoren now knows that Arender’s loyalty is not with the free peoples of the Lands, but with the Shahalesti. He decides, for the moment, to keep his cousin’s secret safe—as long as that secret doesn’t put their new friends in harm’s way. Arender promises it won’t, and the two men join the others in the sleeping area.

Morning brings news that Rivereye will be incapacitated while healing from a nasty bout of pneumonia. Additionally, Kara left before dawn to track down information on Shealis. In the meantime, the leader of the rebellion cell—Buron Watcher—sits down to have breakfast with the companions. He reveals some dark news: a terrorist cell comprised of Gate Pass residents is working with the Ragesians within the city walls. Intelligence suggests that an attack from this group is imminent. With rebellion forces stretched thin, and the group having proven themselves valiantly the night before, Kara suggested to Buron that they follow this lead.

It seemed the terrorists, calling themselves the White Wyrms, are hidden in a nearby warehouse. The group is given directions and cautioned to tread softly; the terrorists don’t know anyone is aware of their plot, and surprise is on the companion’s side.

Outside, daylight reveals much devastation. As the five men make their way through the ice and snow, they survey the damage. All around them, buildings smolder, smoke rises into the sky, children cry out for parents who would never answer back, and a frightened populace spreads news and rumors about the attack. Before long, the group reaches the warehouse.

A quick survey of the structure reveals no windows, two large sets of double doors, and a smaller, office door. To the office door the group heads, quickly making their way inside the building. The White Wyrms are completely unprepared for the companions and are made short work of. In the end, a single terrorist survives, who is summarily knocked unconscious by Asher.

The group now has a prisoner; their next step is to find out what they can about this terrorist plot against Gate Pass. But is there enough time to stop it?

Changes to the Adventure

Order of the Aquiline Cross

For the most part, the main storyline running behind War of the Burning Sky is the return of some ancient enemies who would like nothing more than to destroy each other once and for all: Bahamut and Tiamat. This plot is not part of the original storyline, but was in fact added because Brian was interested in playing a campaign that featured dragons. I’d already decided I was interested in running the War of the Burning Sky campaign and figured it wouldn’t be too hard to feature the dragon gods doing battle into the background. After four sessions, I’ve been able to foreshadow that eventual conflict with a few new story tidbits. One of those tidbits was renaming the Order of the Aquiline Cross to the Order of the Platinum Shield. It was hinted at in this session that the Order still secretly reveres the ancient god Bahamut, though speaking his name has been illegal for hundreds of years…

Encounter Modifications

Dirge Player and Dead Rising: When the War of the Burning Sky campaign was converted from 3rd to 4th Edition, that meant adding to the amount of experience points received so characters could reach 30th level. That’s ten extra levels from 3rd Edition’s limit of 20! Even though 4th Edition’s experience point system was reworked, the campaign still fell under the neccesary amount of experience in order to get a party of five characters all the way into epic tier. In order to solve this issue, the writers added in new encounters. Unfortunately, many of those encounters have been fluff, not directly related to the campaign.

For example, the Dead Rising encounter: though it’s an interesting battle with some undead, all it would serve to do is pull time away from what really matters. My group averages one combat a session. To run the Dead Rising encounter would have meant almost an entire session away from the main plot! Since I don’t grant experience and simply level the group at predefined points, removing these extra encounters helps maintain momentum.

White Wyrms: The warehouse setting for White Wyrms was reworked to fit the cardstock I’d built for the encounter. Though it didn’t end up as large as the map on page 46 of the adventure, I added a balcony that served as a second floor of sorts.

As for combatant adjustments, I only made one major change:

Pseudodragon: Because this is a campaign where dragons have returned to the world after a long absence, I want to keep their use limited in the heroic teir—and so I replaced the pseudodragon with a giant eagle.

For a more detailed account on how White Wyrms was reconstructed for my group, please see Redesigning Encounters: White Wyrm Terrorists.

Things That Could Have Gone Better

Terrain Fail

I make sure to fully realize each combat in three dimensions. This means looking over the encounter area as envisioned by the adventure writer, and then converting it into something that I can build. In the past, I’ve noticed most players see cardstock terrain as pretty window dressing, but little more. They tend to keep their characters on solid ground, rather than attempting exciting feats of daring such as swinging on chandeliers, climbing onto tree branches, or ducking under tables.

In order to facilitate better use of the terrain, I mentioned I was going to start granting bonuses for outside-of-the-box thinking. Going to climb up onto a huge rock? Take a +2 to ranged attacks. Thinking of jumping down from the building’s roof onto the back of a monster? Treat it as a charge and gain a use of an at-will power as well. Well, in this session, the players finally began making good use of the terrain: Seth’s character, Asher, climbed to the top of a stack of crates to get a better view of the enemy. Instead of giving him a bonus, it cost him extra movement—there was literally no advantageous reason to do what he did. As far as he was concerned, he might as well have stayed on the ground floor and saved the movement.

In the end, even if it’s exciting to the narrative, no one’s going to use terrain if there’s no incentive and only negatives when using it.

Poor Tactics

On top of rolling poorly throughout the session’s combat encounter (three natural 1’s in as many rounds), I also played the monsters horribly.

For example, the giant eagle in this combat had a camouflage ability that made him invisible. Before the encounter began, I made sure to review all the combatant’s abilities so that I’d know what to do when their turn came around. For the giant eagle, I clearly read the ability as a move action. I thought, “Great! I’ll have him disappear and then use the power that allows him to move four squares and then attack!”

When it came to his turn, I looked at the power again and saw that I had misread it—it was a standard action to turn invisible. Cripes! Rather than use the ability and then move into position above the characters, I got antsy and made the eagle attack without the protection of invisibility; having to waste a turn to set up an attack didn’t appeal to me. Unfortunately, I rolled a 1. Then, adding insult to injury, Ykoren used an ability to drop the eagle prone. The eagle, resting at a comfortable 20 feet in the air, fell to the ground and was eviscerated by the characters—all without getting a single attack off.

Unfortunately, the eagle isn’t where my tactical errors stopped. During the combat, I had some guards hang back behind some pits, hoping to lure the characters to their doom. Rather than close in, the player’s ranged attackers got into place and riddled my bad guys with holes and burns from arrows and spells. I spent too much time focusing on a single battlefield feature, hoping to make some use of it, rather than rolling with the punches and adjusting my tactics. In fact, after push came to shove, the guards would have done much more damage as a group than the pit ever could have—even though it would have been cool to have a character or two fall in. On the other hand, if I had given ranged attacks to the guards, they too could have hung back and pelted the good guys with hurty, pointy things.

Running the enemy mage was a comedy of errors. First of all, because the characters entered in a way I hadn’t anticipated, they had constant cover from the mage, who was all the way across the room. Rather than move into a more advantageous position, I had him hide and wait for the characters to move, wasting a full two turns. When Maril finally came into view, the enemy mage sprang into action—and missed. On Maril’s turn, he began pelting the mage with the ever-awesome, auto-hitting magic missile. Then for a moment, things ground down to a halt while we looked up the line of sight and line of effect rules. Based on the combat terrain, I was surprised that magic missile would hit with all the cover the enemy mage had! Unfortunately, the rules weren’t with me and the magic missiles continued. Also, I forgot a crucial tactic: I should have had the mage hide after every attack—maybe even shift away from his square.

Lack of Roleplaying

I missed out on a good opportunity to roleplay with the characters during the combat encounter. I know not every combat can be attack, defend, pithy one-liner, repeat. And yet… every combat can. Since the beginning of War of the Burning Sky, I’ve been trying to increase the level of roleplay. I should be setting an example by having every NPC the group comes across chat non-stop—almost to the point of annoyance. I want to draw the players out of the shells of being in a new group and get them invested in their characters. This can be accomplished by raising the available roleplaying opportunities, including those that come up in combat.

Railroading

A problem is created when you build encounters out of cardstock; without knowing it, you’re railroading your group from one combat encounter to the next. Let’s be honest here: If you spent a week building a huge scene out of cardstock where you hoped the characters would become embroiled in an epic combat of good against evil, wouldn’t you want to see your hard work get used? Wouldn’t it be annoying if the group bypassed the entire scene? It’s not the fault of the players, of course. That’s their job—to do the unexpected. During Sunday’s game, just such an occurrence took place.

What happened was, the group wanted to follow up on the information about Shealis they had recovered from Rivereye. They knew where she was located, and they were excited to track down one of the bad guys pulling the strings behind the adventure. At this point, a few things went through my mind:

  1. I hadn’t prepared the encounter with Shealis. By that, I mean I hadn’t prepared the cardstock for the encounter. Sure, I’d read through the notes several times and I could have easily run it off the cuff with a dry erase map. But without the cardstock, I didn’t want to run it early; the cardstock, in this instance, was a crutch.
  2. I had already built—and laid out—the warehouse encounter. I always set up that session’s encounter before the game because it takes so long. This only solidifies the railroady-ness of the whole thing; since it’s set up, it really should get used.

What ended up happening was, Buron Watcher gave a passionate plea for the characters to go to the warehouse where the terrorists were planning their attack. The players listened, but decided that it was more important to follow up on Shealis. Knowing that I wanted them to go in the direction of the warehouse, I tried a new approach, coming at it from the angle of how dangerous this unknown terrorist plot could be; it was obviously more important (wink, wink). Despite their reservations, the players went along with it—which was awesome on their part.

How could a more flexible DM have handled it? Let them go! I could have lead them to Shealis’ hideout, which is at Gabal’s School. She could have not been there, but they could have encountered some interesting NPC’s along the way. Maybe get some info that would have given them a leg up on the encounter with her to come. Then they could have run into Kara, who could have then accompanied them to the warehouse. Or better yet, I could have had the terrorist plot happen, showing them the consequences of their inaction.

Things That Went Great

Story Advancement

There was some great roleplay between Brian’s character, Buckidu, and Buron Watcher. During this roleplay, the two discussed an ancient entity known as Bahamut, and how it won’t be long before he returns to the world to set right what has gone wrong. I was happy to finally name Bahamut; after all, his presence has been hinted at for the last three sessions. He will become a huge player later in the campaign, and it was great to discuss some of this background information with Buckidu.

Magic Item Leveling

I had a great opportunity to level up Asher’s dagger using my magic item leveling rules. Shortly after Flagnus’ defeat, Asher went crazy on his dead body, plunging his dagger into the corpse over and over. Well… something was let loose and took residence in Asher’s dagger. That resulted in a +2 increase and who knows what else for the future.

Kicking Ass

The players finally got to kick some ass. After three sessions of fighting increasingly difficult encounters—to the point where session three almost ended in a total party kill—it was nice to let the players wade through some ineffectual opponents for a change.

Photographs

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