Musings on Our Fifth Session

Session 5 of our War of the Burning Sky campaign was the best session yet! Not only did we get six hours of gaming in, five of those hours were solid roleplay; the session’s combat only lasted one hour. We finally hit the sweet spot of how long combat should last. Between Condition Cards, the initiative board, and a familiarity with their character’s powers, the players zipped from turn to turn with barely a moment in-between.

Also: My marriage to Janelle Kann is less than a month away! Unfortunately, this means scheduling future sessions will be difficult as the excitement, stress, and anxiety of becoming man and wife gets closer.

Session Summary

Session 5 took place on Sunday, June 12, 2011.

The group’s prisoner—a wizard calling himself the Thundermage—lays sprawled out on the surface of the warehouse, unconscious and barely breathing. The companions spend some time discussing what to do next, and eventually decide to bind, blind, and gag their captive.

After a thorough search of the warehouse, a cache of letters is found that details the terrorist group’s activities over the last few months. Each letter provides the White Wyrms with a list of instructions, including a target, special precautions, and payment details. The letters are signed with a mysterious, ornate “M.”

The most recent missive directs the White Wyrms to create a diversion near Councilman Erdan Menash’s home in the near future; thought not specific, the instructions strongly suggest that he is to be either kidnapped or murdered. The last line on the note says, “Wait for the signal.”

The companions had read enough—they needed answers. A sharp slap on the cheek and the captured White Wyrm woke with a start. They remove the gag and blindfold, and thoroughly question him, asking about past, present, and future terrorist activities against Gate Pass. Eventually, they are able to determine that the White Wyrms weren’t alone; in conjunction with the Black Horses, the White Wyrms had assisted the Ragesians in getting a jump on Gate Pass and its militia. The group also learn of a dark undercurrent that is beginning to make its way across the land out of Ragesia—a cult dedicating itself to the worship of a being calling herself the One God.

Through diplomacy and a little intimidation, the group is able to appeal to the Thundermage, even convincing him to rethink some of his recent actions and this One God cult he had adopted himself into. Eventually, he is calmed down and ready to deal—even going as far as to admit that he had done wrong and needs to atone for his actions.

After dropping the White Wyrm off at the nearest guard station, the companions head back to the safe house. On the way there, word quickly spread of a powerful snowstorm that was brewing and how the dragons are unable to take flight in such conditions.

Finally, there was hope.

At the safe house, Kara shares what she has discovered about Shealis; apparently, the eladrin wizardess lives and operates out of Gabal’s School. In fact, she is not well-liked by any of the students or faculty; a wizard named Diogenes has an especially strong enmity towards Shealis. Kara also explains that they will need help against her, for her power far outstrips those of the party. Fortunately, Rivereye has an old friend in town—a wizard named Artimus—that has agreed to help. Kara and Rivereye leave the safety of the temple to meet this friend and ask the group to remain and wait for their return.

Unfortunately, the time that Kara and Rivereye were supposed to be back with their friend comes and goes. And then Buron Watcher arrives with news that Shealis could be on the move soon, according to one of his contacts. The group has no choice but to head to Gabal’s School and stall the eladrin—no matter the cost.

At the school, the companions encounter Diogenes leaning up against the front gate, calmly smoking a cigarette. They speak with him, explain their plight, and intimate that Shealis is a danger to the school, and more importantly, the community at large. Diogenes pledges his support and adds that he has a ritual that will keep Shealis in her apartment for around 15 minutes—long enough for either the group to convince Shealis to turn over the case, or for Kara, Rivereye, and their sorcerer friend to arrive and provide backup.

And so they head to Shealis’ apartment, silent and fearful of what was to come.

Fortunately, Shealis is willing to talk—but only for so long. After a few minutes of conversation, the wizardess begins to tire of the group; her words suddenly take a sharp, dark tone. She even reveals that Arender is not who he says he is and is, in fact, operating as a spy for the Shahalesti government. Finally, after one too many lies and intimidating remarks from the group, Shealis has had enough.

The encounter was quick, but bloody. Near the end, only a few of the group remain standing, while the rest lie dying on the ground. As Shealis moves toward the fallen, Maril grimly blocks her path. He only has enough strength for one last spell and after letting loose a missile of freezing energy, he raises his quarterstaff and steels himself for her counterattack.

Lighting shoots out from Sheals’ fingertips and strikes Maril’s quarterstaff. Instead of searing pain, he is instead shocked at what happens next: energy, intense and blinding, runs up and down the length of the wood. Suddenly, there is an explosion of many-colored light. When Maril next looks down, his quarterstaff has taken on the hue of ice; in his hands, the weapon is almost too cold to grasp. Shealis gasps in surprise and Maril takes the opportunity to lunge at his opponent, striking her with the powerful fury of winter.

In the end, Shealis falls to a chaotic blast of swirling energy summoned by Asher. Her body, unable to handle the magic contained within the effect, explodes into light and dust.

Changes to the Adventure

The One God

For the most part, everything from today’s session was run as written—from the end of the White Wyrms encounter, to waiting at the safe house; from Gabal’s School, to Diogenes and Shealis. My only addition was weaving more of the background dragon plot into War of the Burning Sky’s… well… war plot. In Session 5, this took the guise of the mysterious One God and her cult of true believers.

Though Bahamut has only been named once—in reference to the dragonborn race’s ancient name of Bahamut’s Children—he’s never been directly called out as a divine being. Nevertheless, the players know that the ancient conflict between him and his mortal enemy plays a role in the campaign’s final few adventures. Because of this, one enterprising player—Brian—was quick to surmise the One God’s real name very quickly. When her true identity will be revealed is still a mystery, but suffice it to say, the seeds for this important plot have finally been sewn.

Terrorist or Patriot?

Okay I lied—there was one other change I made to the adventure and that’s Shealis’ true goal. In The Scouring of Gate Pass, Shealis’ motivation is quite clear: she intends to take the case of military intelligence back to the Shahalesti in order to provide Lord Shaaladel with the information necessary to secure control over Ragesia. In my version, her reasoning is much more sinister.

It has been discovered that she represents a group of eladrin who are tired of Lord Shaaladel’s ancient leadership; these “patriots” intend to use the stolen military intelligence to secure control over Shahalesti, including the installation of a new ruler and a completely new way of life. The details of this plot are still under wraps, but the characters are close to unraveling Shealis’ startling endgame…

Encounter Modifications

Convincing Shealis: Since the group was able to talk their way into Gabal’s School, we skipped the alternate Duel encounter (though I had it prepped just in case). Inside Shealis’ chambers, the party started off by establishing a dialogue—which launched the skill challenge, completely rebuilt from the ground up using the updated rules in Essential’s Dungeon Master’s Book. If a success, then it would be possible to retrieve the case of intelligence without resorting to violence. In fact, a successful skill challenge here would mitigate the Spy Headquarters encounter later on. Unfortunately, the dice was not on their side.

Shealis’ Apartment: Once the skill challenge had failed, Shealis opened up with some serious magical firepower. For this encounter, I went all out—not only did I make her apartment larger than the map on page 49 (in order to accommodate all the moving around 4th Edition loves), but I also built more than a few adjacent rooms and corridors. Just in case.

For a more detailed account on how Shealis’ Apartment was reconstructed for my group, please see Redesigning Encounters: Dual at Gabal’s School.

Things That Could Have Gone Better

Cardstock Conundrum

One of my goals for this campaign is to build every combat encounter entirely out of cardstock. Thus far, this has meant constructing streets, homes (both whole and destroyed), a bank, a warehouse, the cross section of wizard’s school, and even a dragon—all out of cardstock. I feel this this creates an awesome atmosphere and there’s no doubt that miniature play is enhanced by the terrain.

Unfortunately, there is one unfavorable side effect.

For every encounter, there is the possibility that the characters will find a way to overcome the obstacle without resorting to violence. Thus far, every encounter that can lead to combat, has lead to combat. Session 5, however, brought with it the first good chance of diplomacy making an impact.

During the Shealis encounter, it’s written that the characters have two main ways of approaching her: with hostile intent or with calm discourse. If the group is able to pass a skill challenge, she can be convinced to give up her current goal and join the rebellion. Because I want the players to have as much free will as possible (as much as you can, anyway, from an adventure path), I was fully prepared to honor whatever the outcome—which meant it was possible I wouldn’t need to use anything that I’d built.

In the end, the group failed the skill challenge and Shealis attacked—but up until then, they were seeing some good luck with dice rolls and there was a strong possibility that they were going to walk away with an ally. In either case, I would have been happy. It’s important to remember that anything I build now can still be used down the road. All the props, such as desks, chairs, bookcases, and fireplaces, are still usable. Her apartment was simply a collection of walls and floors that fit together like LEGO’s; nothing that can’t be taken apart and put back together for another indoor combat down the line.

Encounter Level

The Shealis combat was damn swingy; she was regularly doing at least 16-20 damage per hit, which meant PC’s were dropping after two rounds. (It also didn’t help that I rolled three natural 20’s during the entirety of the combat.)

Let’s break down the math to see where we were as far as the rules are concerned:

All five characters are 2nd level. After my modification to the encounter, Shealis ended up being a Level 6 Solo. There were no other combatants; this made the encounter 4 levels above the group. Page 56 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide states:

Choose an Encounter Level: Encounter level is relative to the number of characters in the party. An easy encounter is one or two levels lower than the party’s level. A standard encounter is of the party’s level, or one level higher. A hard encounter is two to four levels higher than the party’s level.

…and:

Levels of Individual Threats: Choose threats within two or three levels of the characters’ level. Threats in an easy encounter can be as many as four levels below the party’s level. Threats in a hard encounter can be as many as three to five levels above the party’s level.

I seem to be okay on both counts, as Shealis was only four levels above the party in both monster level and encounter level. Technically, she was near the upper-most suggested limit a party could fight. So then what went wrong?

In addition to a swingy combat, I was a little bored with playing her. She did a ton of damage, but didn’t have very many powers that applied conditions or changed the battlefield. There didn’t seem to be any strategy to playing her other than staying away from the party and dropping massive amounts of damage on them. This problem occurred because of the monster I chose to fluff into Shealis: the young blue dragon, a Level 6 Artillery from the Monster Vault. There’s not a whole lot to dragons in the artillery role except doing massive amounts of damage; I suppose if I had wanted something more varied, I should have gone with one of the Level 6 Controllers.

Spending Money

This isn’t really a “bad” thing per se, but more of an interesting development. It recently came to my attention that the group is amassing gold, but has nothing to spend it on. Since I level-up magic items, the characters won’t be spending any treasure on those sorts of things. And I typically hand wave day-to-day expenses, such as the few silver pieces a character might spend at an inn or a tavern. So then what will they do with all this gold?

During Session 5, the group discovered that they had interrupted the White Wyrms just as they were waiting for a signal to begin their next terrorist plot. The party wanted to wait for that signal, hoping to get more of an idea as to who the movers and shakers of this terrorist cell were. Since the party needed someone to come and take custody of the Thundermage, they came up with a plan: write a quick note to Buron Watcher asking for backup, find a man on the street, and bribe him into taking the missive straight to the rebellion leader.

I used this opportunity to inject some off-beat humor into the campaign; I created Jeremy Tressel—a down-on-his-luck bard whose theater was burned down by the dragons. Jeremy flamboyantly requested a 100 gold piece donation be made to the restoration of his theater, and for that, he would be happy to play the part of the courier. Unfortunately, the group double-crossed Jeremy: They promised they would make the donation, but when he returned, they said it would take a month to get him the money—they knew full well that they would not be in Gate Pass when the time came. I had Jeremy try to negotiate an earlier meeting time, such as the very next day, but the group flat out refused.

As a DM, I was perplexed: what were they intending on spending the money on anyway? I can understand at least one or two of the players playing penny-pinching characters, but all five? And what of Buckidu, the paladin? He was the one who held out the most! In the end, it was only when Jeremy gave a thinly-veiled threat to pass on word of the grisly scene of the warehouse (they had, after all, slaughtered several terrorists and not bothered to clean up the blood before inviting Jeremy in to talk) that they relented and offered 60 gold.

I had not anticipated the group being so stingy. It seems getting them to part with their gold will be more difficult than I thought; and since they have nothing really to buy with it, I suppose it will just weight them down as it accumulates. One bit of disappointment was that I was planning on having Jeremy be a great source of information and help, lending aid in future adventures. Though I wouldn’t say the PC’s made an enemy, they certainly didn’t garner a friend.

Music

I’ve noticed that the music is starting to get a little stale; hopefully no one else has observed the same. Part of the reason for this is caused when I find myself strapped for time as far as adventure prep is concerned. When it comes down to the wire, music is the first thing to get shafted. When this happens, I’ll typically just reuse music from an earlier encounter rather than pick new songs. The easiest way to avoid this would be to stop procrastinating, thus giving me more time to hand pick new music for encounters.

Also, I decided early on to stick with the LOST soundtracks for music. Michael Giacchino’s style evoked the exact feel I wanted for this campaign. In the future, I plan on adding in more than just the LOST albums; Michael Giacchino has a range of great soundtracks, from Star Trek to Mission: Impossible III. Since they all have Michael’s signature style, I think they’ll do a great job of keeping that same feeling, while simultaneously inviting a little variety.

Session Recording

Early on, it was suggested that I use my iPhone to record sessions, and so far that’s worked great. A few problems have started to crop up, however. For example, if I receive a call in the middle of a game, the recorder shuts off—and I’ve forgotten more than a few times to turn the recorder back on. Although I could put the phone in airplane mode, that brings up another problem: I use the iPhone as a mini remote control for playing music. Since I need Wi-Fi for that to work, I can’t place the phone into airplane mode. The reason I don’t use the iPad is because I hate switching back and forth between my encounter notes and the Apple Remote app. Lastly, the iPhone barely makes it through a session before running out of batteries.

Things That Went Great

Model Keep-Away

As I noted above, a campaign goal for myself is to fully construct each encounter out of cardstock for miniature play. Nevertheless, I don’t want the focal point of the game to be on the miniatures. For this session, in order to keep attention on the game and not the cardstock, I kept the terrain in another room, away from the table. Thanks to this small, yet subtle change, there was definitely a positive shift in focus.

New Difficulty Class Rules

Although I already explained my new Difficulty Class house rules elsewhere (The Difficulty Class by Level Chart and The Impossible DC), here they are in a nutshell:

No Static DC’s: My group and I are tried of flipping back and forth between the different skills in order to figure out what the DC for a given task is supposed to be. I now solely use the Difficulty Class by Level chart on page 126 in the Rules Compendium. If I decide that detecting a magic spell should be easy, it will be an easy DC. If I decide that jumping across a pit should be moderately difficult, it will be a moderate DC. If I decide that deciphering a puzzle should be hard, it will be a hard DC. I realize that many of the skills in the skill chapter already use this chart; our house rule just makes its use consistent across all skills. Although some oddities popped up here and there, we were much more happy to deal with them as they came than to constantly flip through the skills chapter to track down one DC.

The Impossible DC: I hate saying no to players. I also hate giving away information I know the characters won’t be aware of, or allowing a task that I know will be impossible—thus the impossible DC. Rather than give a flat out no, I’ll let them roll against the impossible DC. Keep in mind that even if the player has totally pimped out his character to the point where the skill is making use of various feats and magic items to boost its modifier, he will still only have a 10%-15% chance of succeeding. This way, there’s always the possibility a player will be able to succeed unexpectedly.

Both new house rules were well received and did exactly what they were supposed to. We didn’t once have to open the skills chapter of the Rules Compendium, which sped the game up dramatically. I even got a chance to use the impossible DC a few times (no one succeeded). We’ll keep an eye on these house rules and amend them if necessary.

Three Monster Powers to Speed Up Combat

I came across this gem of an article a few weeks ago and I was dying to make use of its advice. Basically, if I want to speed up combat, the article provides three powers that can be added to any creature. The powers allow the creature to trade hit points for minor boons: anything from shrugging off conditions to doing more damage. I used all three of the powers in the Shealis combat and they were quite effective.

Impromptu Skill Challenge

Skill challenges have gotten quite a beating over the last few years from players and forums posters alike. Personally, I love them; I think skill challenges are a great way to help guide non-combat encounters, especially when something’s at risk. Sure, groups could wing it, relying mostly on the player’s ability to roleplay and the occasional die roll, but then that lessons the impact of having skills in the first place. Skill challenges put the chance of failure or success squarely on the player’s clever use of skills and the whims of their dice, just like a combat encounter does.

In this case, our impromptu skill challenge was with the White Wyrm Thundermage. The characters needed to gain information on his terrorist cell and learn what the White Wyrm’s plans were for Councilman Erdan Menash. Interestingly, as the skill challenge played out, questioning the terrorist became only a minor part of the challenge; getting the Thundermage to see that his fundamentalist ways were a destructive force became the group’s focus at the end. The party succeeded at the skill challenge, attaining not only the information they sought, but also getting the Thundermage to rethink his stance on what he had done. In the end, he was willing to speak with a member of the clergy to set about repenting his heinous crimes.

Amazing Roleplaying

This session had the most roleplaying of any session yet—and I didn’t realize just how good that roleplaying was until I listened to the session recording.

The Easel

This is really a minor thing, but made a huge difference: Up until Session 5, we had the initiative board a few feet from the DM’s chair, sitting on a stool, leaning against a bookshelf. A real amateur hour setup. Then Seth brought over an easel for us to use. Now the initiative board sits right next to me; any time someone delays or dies or whatever, I don’t have to get up. Lazy? Yes.

Photographs

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