Musings on Our Sixth Session

Session 6 was a spectacular session! My closest friend and the best man at my wedding—Jeff Farnsworth—sat in as a guest player and portrayed the role of Artimus, an acquaintance of Rivereye’s. This was lucky, as Brian was unable to make it to today’s game. Additionally, our session took place on my birthday—I am now the ripe old age of 32. Lastly, we lost Arender—finally outed as a spy for the Shahalesti government. He fell in combat against eladrin terrorists who were trying to undermine the King of Shahalesti, Lord Shaaladel.

Best of all: though the session was eight hours, only one of those hours consisted of combat.

Session Summary

Session 6 took place on Sunday, July 10, 2011.

After Shealis’ death, the group calls upon Diogenes to disable the ritual of sealing surrounding her chambers. They quickly explain that the encounter was over—but went badly. In the end, they killed the eladrin wizardess in self-defense. Despite their justifications, Diogenes is aghast that it came to this and is ashamed at his involvement. In Diogenes’ eyes, magic is life and the death of Shealis was a blow to the continuance of that life.

He immediately orders the group to leave Gabal’s School and rushes away to deal with his guilt. The party immediately searches Shealis’ chambers but doesn’t find the case of military intelligence. Instead, they discover several important pieces of evidence. First, there is a torn map leading to the elven ghetto. Could this be the final location of the case? On it, in elven script, “Fey before World before Chaos” is written.

Second, Shealis’ devious plot is unearthed through documents she planned to burn before being interrupted. The papers detail her organization—the Exodus Alliance—and their plans to forcibly relocate the entire eladrin nation into the Feywild, thought to be their ancient home. A portal called the Singing Chasm was to be their route into this new world, a doorway that will be open within days.

As the group searches, Kara arrives with sad news—Rivereye’s wizard friend, Artimus, has been abducted and the halfling took it upon himself to track his old comrade down.

Suddenly, the group remembers what Shealis had said about Arender; they turn toward him and slowly back away, their hands near their weapons. After a few minutes of questioning, the truth comes out—Arender is a spy, sent by the Shahalesti government to secure the military intelligence stolen from Rageisa. His mission is to deliver it to an eladrin contact in Lyceum.

Though a trator to the group, Arender passionately explains that the more he sees of the world’s plight, the less he believes in what he is doing. Unfortunately, he isn’t simply a spy—he is an indentured servant, carrying out the penance for crimes he committed in Calanis. He can’t just disregard his orders without serious repercussions, up to and including exile.

Thoughtfully, Ykoren is the first to speak of his cousin’s courage and honor. Kara, though moved by Ykoren’s speech, asks the most important question: Would Arender betray the group if asked to? Would he betray the Resistance? When Arender firmly answers in the negative, the group visibly relaxes and allows him to see their mission to its conclusion.

The group then follows their only lead: the map into the elven ghetto. As outsiders, the elven population look at them with stony eyes and angry glares. When the party realizes that they can’t pinpoint the map’s final destination, they decide to ask for help—only to be turned on by the elves as soon as it is discovered that there are eladrin in the party.

The group then learns firsthand that the eladrin people hadn’t simply taken over their neighboring brother’s lands a thousand years ago—the Shahalesti utterly destroyed the elven way of life and the elves are still picking the pieces of their culture up from that encounter. With no home to return to, several cities have ghettos such as this.

Before the situation can come to blows, an elven woman appears, speaks sharp words to both sides, and points to a doormaker’s shop—that is where the party will find two of their eladrin “friends.” So it was true—eladrin were hiding out here and it’s possible these were the eladrin who had helped Larion capture the intelligence from Rivereye at the Depository!

The doormaker’s shop seemed normal enough; a door and a few windows face the street, and a chimney belches black smoke into the wintery air. After a quick search of the perimeter, a secret door is discovered in the back. Carved into the door is a scene of elves and eladrin fighting against demons. Remembering the clue written on the torn map—Fey before World before Chaos—Maril reaches out and presses the carvings in the order of eladrin, elves, and demons. Silently, a handle forms in the stone.

Without warning, Asher opens the door, revealing a group of Shahalesti: a Mystic, a Lieutenant, and four scouts. The Mystic and Lieutenant are embroiled in conversation, wondering what to do in light of Shealis’ tardiness. At the group’s sudden appearance, the eladrin draw their weapons, but Asher is able to deftly convince them that the party was sent by Shealis.

Relieved, though a little confused that Shealis has involved outsiders, the Lieutenant reveals that they had not been able to open the case and that Artimus, whom they had recently captured, has not given up the password. The group offers their services, thinly veiling their intent to torture this Artimus fellow. The Lieutenant allows them to go upstairs where the prisoner is being held—but not before Asher offhandedly explains that they will need the case; intelligence suggests that it isn’t just a password that is needed for it to open, but a magical ritual. If they got Artimus to talk, the case will need to be in the same room.

The companions swiftly make their way upstairs to see Rivereye’s friend Artimus—also an eladrin—beaten, but not broken. The group quickly explains that they are friends, there to help. The wizard smiles wanly and introduces himself, after which the party springs into action. Immediately, they open the case—curious to find out just exactly what is inside. Within the worn leather satchel is a thick steel box etched with swirling patterns and warded with a powerful Arcane Lock ritual.

Hastily, they decide on a plan: replace the steel box with papers detailing fake intelligence. Before they can act, however, they notice the steel box floating towards the exit! An invisible creature, calling itself Kurychek, explains that it is a messenger from Grand Inquisitor Leska. Having also been tricked to believe the case was locked, the creature was waiting for the right time to steal the intelligence inside. It thanks the group and silently slips out the door and down the stairs.

The party rushes to the first floor and manages to convince the Shahalesti that, not only had they opened the case, but an invisible creature had stolen its contents. The Mystic calls for silence, cocks his head to one side, and yells out, “There!” In the direction he points, arrows, spears, and magic blasts are directed. The creature, revealed to be a demon, falls to the ground— visibly dead. The metal box slips out of its lifeless hands.

As the Lieutenant moves to retrieve the box, Asher slips in to intercept. Though the Lieutenant grabs it first, this odd change in behavior gives the Shahalesti pause—who are these outsiders? A long drawn out game of cat and mouse follows as the Mystic and Lieutenant ask the companions probing questions. Skillfully, the party is able to scramble together plausible excuses explaining their presence, including a lie that they are supposed to rescue Shealis after opening the case—and for that, they will need the metal box.

Though the Mystic and Lieutenant are ready to believe this group has, in fact, been hired by Shealis, at no point is the group able to convince the Shahalesti to let them take ownership of the metal box. Finally, the party switches tactics and begin to ask of the eladrin’s intentions. That is when the Lieutenant confirms the Exodus Alliance’s plans to forcibly relocate the eladrin people into the Feywild. When it is asked why the eladrin left the Feywild to begin with, the Lieutenant is only to happy to explain: Scriptures detail that before man walked the earth, the eladrin of the Feywild were at war with the demons of the Elemental Chaos. At the end of this war, as punishment for defeat, the demons transplanted the eladrin to the Natural World so that they could never know the true beauty of their homeland.

Finally, the party had found the chink in the Alliance’s armor: “How do you know the demons didn’t kick you out of the Feywild so they could use it for themselves? Perhaps when you get back, the demons will be waiting…” This seems to coincide with feelings of doubt and guilt already brewing within the Lieutenant, for he turns to the Mystic questioningly. The Mystic refuses to answer such a foolish question and demands absolute loyalty. It was too late, however—the seeds of suspicion were sewn.

For a moment, a tense chord plays out across the room as the eladrin scouts divide up to take sides. In the impending conflict, Arender makes a simple statement to the Lieutenant: “If you want our help, you have it.” And so, with the party’s assistance, the Lieutenant is able to take control of the situation, finally ordering the Mystic and his men to surrender. Unfortunately, during the melee, Arender falls to one of the Mystic’s men—the first eladrin on eladrin killing in a thousand years.

While the Shahalesti prisoners are dealt with, Ykoren bends over his dead cousin’s body. At this, his mother’s amulet gives off an urgent warmth and begins to tug against the inside of his tunic. Ykoren removes the amulet and it pops open; the voice of his dead mother can be heard.

“Nephew, your time here is not finished. Join me; you have much left to do.” In answer, Arender’s soul rises up and sinks into the amulet.

Artimus and the Lieutenant decide to use the Alliance’s secret escape tunnels under the doormaker’s shop to travel back to Shahalesti. It is their intention to reveal the Alliance’s insidious plot; but will they arrive in time?

The party returns to the safe house, heavy in emotion over Arender’s death. There, with the help of Kara, Rivereye, and Buron, the decision is made to seek Councilman Erdan Menash’s help in leaving Gate Pass. During this conversation, a messanger from the front gate arrives: the invading Ragesian force has left an ultimatum. Allow a group of Inquisitors entrance to the city, or Gate Pass will be razed to the ground.

The people have 24 hours to decide.

Changes to the Adventure

The Elves and the Eladrin

None of the material I’ve read for War of the Burning Sky has been specific about how elves and eladrin fit together in the world. Since the campaign was written during 3rd Edition’s reign, I don’t know that the matter was given a lot of thought when it was translated to 4th Edition. What I’ve done over the past few sessions is hint that the eladrin did something bad to the elves. Finally, it was revealing during this session that the Shahalesti annexed the neighboring elven lands and subjugated the entire race around a thousand years ago.

The Doormaker’s Secret Door

I modified the entry into the doormaker’s shop to include some of the elven versus eladrin flavor I’d been working into the campaign. As written, the door was described as carvings of demons fighting from the walls of a citadel, with three figures standing side-by-side: a winged woman with a trumpet (a solon), a noble and muscular man with a lion’s head (a leonal), and an armored eladrin woman with a gleaming greatsword.

First, I’ve taken solons out of the campaign. Second, the players haven’t had any experience with leonals—a 3rd edition monster—so the meaning of including such a creature is lost on me. I realize it was probably just a throwaway description and wasn’t going to have any greater effect on the campaign, but why not make use of this opportunity to work in some backstory?

The new description was this:

The carving depicts an army of demons scaling the walls of a crystal citadel. Two figures hold them off: a winged eladrin female with a trumpet and an elf male wielding a longsword. The eladrin, elf, and demon figures are raised from the rest of the work.

Since elves are looked down on by eladrin, this carving depicts a time when elves and eladrin stood together against their common foe—the demons from the Elemental Chaos. This was learned during a History check, laying future groundwork for something I have up my sleeve…

Lastly, the clue to enter the secret door went from the adventure’s “Arborenea before Elysiun before Kelesta” to “Fey before World before Chaos,” which of course refers to the Feywild, the Natural World, and the Elemental Chaos. Simply pressing the raised figures of the eladrin, elf, and demons in that order opened the door.

The Exodus Alliance

Shealis’ true plan was finally revealed: her group—called the Exodus Alliance—is intending to forcefully relocate the entire eladrin nation back into the Feywild. They feel that living in the Natural World among elves, humans, dwarves, orcs, and the other races has tainted their species; only the one true home of eladrin will return their culture to a place of enlightenment. I decided to open up the naming of this dastardly organization to EN World. A member there, catastrophic, came up with the awesome-sounding “Exodus Alliance.”

Because the players can’t be everywhere at once, they decided to let Artimus and the Shahalesti Lieutenant return to Calanis to expose the details of this dastardly plot. I really liked how it turned out; it showed that while what the characters are doing is important, it’s not the only important thing going on right now. I will definitely revisit the Exodus Alliance in the future. Whether Artimus and the Lieutenant were successful or not will play a major role in how Shahalesti’s involvement in the war factors out down the road.

Unabashedly, this eladrin sub-plot is my favorite addition to the campaign so far.

The Singing Chasm

I was surprised to learn that this “escape tunnel”—mentioned once in passing during the Depository encounter—was never visited again throughout the entirety of the campaign (I only discovered this after asking the authors). Nevertheless, I knew exactly what my plan for it was. For the past several sessions, I’d hinted that the Singing Chasm was most likely an escape route out of Gate Pass for Shealis and her eladrin cohorts. In actuality, its true purpose as a portal to the Feywild was revealed.

Encounter Modifications

Spy Headquarters: Though I kept the setting of Spy Headquarters (a doormaker’s shop), I removed the free-standing door mechanics. Other than that, the size and shape of the shop remained much the same. Oh, and I removed the Feywild badgers; their inclusion seemed… silly.

For a more detailed account on how Spy Headquarters was reconstructed for my group, please see Redesigning Encounters: Spy Headquarters.

Things That Could Have Gone Better

Time Out

Much like in Session 1, a player had to sit out for most of the game—this time, it was our visiting player, Jeff Farnsworth. What happened was, in Session 5 I had established that Rivereye Badgerface had a good friend living in Gate Pass—a wizard named Artimus. I decided that since the Shahalesti thought there was a spell on the case of intelligence requiring a password, that they would kidnap Artimus if they couldn’t get at Rivereye a second time. And where better to keep their prisoner than their hideout?

Problem is, they group spent a lot of time doing other things and didn’t get to Jeff until 3 hours and 26 minutes into the session. I thought for a long time whether or not this was a pacing problem on the part of the group, but decided in the end that it wasn’t; the group smoothly slid from encounter to encounter, only stopping long enough to enjoy detailed roleplaying where it mattered. No, I think the problem was where I placed Artimus. Instead of having him already captured, I could have had the group stumble upon the kidnapping in-progress. Or, I could have even gone less involved and just had Artimus join the party without any plot complications at all.

New Difficulty Class Rules

Recently, I introduced a new house rule detailing how I will handle future skill checks and DC’s. In a nutshell, I will completely ignore any DC’s listed in the skill chapter of the Rules Compendium and just decide on the spot whether the DC is easy, moderate, hard, or impossible. So far, it’s worked great! We haven’t had to crack open the skills chapter at all, which has really sped up the game—at least, until this session. You see, there are a few other rules hidden in the skills chapter that aren’t DC related, such as whether a skill allows a retry, or whether there are penalties for rolling a failure.

The fix to this is kind of easy and will be implemented immediately. First, any time the DC on a skill check is missed by 5 or more, there will be a negative consequence. If you’re balancing, you fall. If you’re swimming, you begin to drown. If you’re attempting to recall some piece of history, you remember it wrong. The severity of the consequence will depend on how bad the roll was and, I admit, will rely largely on DM fiat and “the moment.”

As for whether retries are allowed, that will tie largely into how badly the roll failed. If it failed by 5 or more, then a retry will almost never be allowed without some change to the situation. If the failure was by 4 or less, then a retry will almost always be allowed. Again, this will rely largely on DM fiat and what makes the most sense to the story and the situation.

The Indomitable Kurycheck

Kurycheck, an imp sent by Leska to retrieve the military intelligence, created several problems during the game.

First of all, Kurycheck caused the first instance of “fluffing myself into a corner.” You see, I love to fluff—and throughout my blog you can find examples of my efforts, from fluffing class powers to monsters; movement to entire encounters. Well, as awesome as all that fluffing can be, it’s bound to be taken advantage of sooner or later.

Let me explain.

If I allow a player to fluff the description of his wizard’s magic missile into bolts of fiery energy, eventually that player is going to forget that magic missile is a force effect and not fire. So when the player comes up with the brilliant idea of setting some papers on fire with magic missile, it’s going to suck to have to remind him that that’s not really possible. It’s not the player’s fault; hell, after all that time of describing it as fire, even I would forget. It’s just natural to think that something that looks like fire should burn like fire.

When Kurycheck, the first demon the character’s have met, began the encounter invisible, they were confused as to what exactly they were dealing with. That’s when Jeff—playing the enterprising mage Artimus—did what all good mages do and rolled an Arcana check. Thinking that this would be a great opportunity to show the party that they were dealing with something new and exciting, I described the effect as a floating black hole; as if all the evil of the world were centered on one point in space.

The problem with doing that is, invisible creatures should never be located by an Arcana check. It defeats the purpose of being invisible. Of course Artimus continued to use Arcana checks to keep a bead on the demon, pointing his location out to Maril, who in turn proceeded to plug away with round after round of magic missile.

I had inadvertently fluffed myself into a corner.

I was finally able to extricate Kurycheck from his precarious situation, only for the party to run after him, still rolling Arcana checks to pinpoint the invisible creature’s new location each round. Eventually, I had to pause the game and explain that I had made a mistake. Fortunately, I have a group of level-headed players who all quickly understood the ramifications of being able to Arcana check invisible creatures. In the end, we explained it away by the fact that Artimus had initially rolled a 32 on his Arcana check—the impossible DC for level 2 (see my house rule on impossible DC’s here). I explained that it was an impressive flash of insight that slowly faded away after a time. The group accepted the ruling and we moved on

The second bit of trouble ol’ Kurycheck gave me was that he completely caught the group with their pants down. Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, per se. What was bad was that the group was so flabbergasted as to how to stop something they couldn’t see from making off with their quest goal, that they rushed into a roleplaying situation that they weren’t ready to deal with. They were behind enemy lines, having bluffed their way into a position where the bad guys believed that the group were also bad guys. However, without thinking, Asher ran into the next room, rolled some poor bluff checks, stammered out a jumble of crazy speak, and almost blew everything. Worst of all, none of the rest of the group backed Asher up; they stayed behind, unsure of what to do—which made the halfling look all the more nutty.

A few things went wrong here and it all stemmed from the players feeling out of control of the situation. Again, this isn’t necessarily bad—sometimes the players need to understand that, no matter what they do, some things are out of their character’s control. Of course, this is not something to be dealt with lightly, as deus ex machina can be a stale literary technique not well received by gamers.

Next time, when I see that the the train is about the derail, I’ll pause the action and let the group hammer out just exactly what their plan is next. After all, even if the players don’t have Intelligence and Wisdom scores of 17 or 18, the characters do—and they should be given every chance to take advantage of those high scores, up to and including pausing play to allow some extra planning, even when in-game there are only seconds to act.

Things That Went Great

Amazing Roleplaying

Session 6 had no shortage of amazing roleplaying. From the first encounter between the elves in the ghetto and the group’s two eladrin characters, to the interchange between the party and the Shahalesti terrorists. Each time, there was the perfect mixture of Diplomacy, Bluff, and Intimidate rolls, and honest to goodness roleplaying. While normally one or two players will dominate a scene, this session saw all five players taking the lead in exciting and innovative ways.

Terrain Powers

For months I’ve been trying to get the group to use the terrain more than how often they had been using it—in other words, more than none. I don’t expect anything spectacular; the occasional flipped table, rolled barrel, or smashed chair would suffice.

That’s when I stumbled across terrain powers.

Terrain powers are nothing new. Page 62 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 detailed these little gems when the book was released in September of 2009. In fact, they were even showcased online at the Wizards of the Coast website earlier this year. Somehow, I missed them both times. Now that I know of them, they’ve become an official part of my table and we were richly rewarded by their inclusion.

For those who aren’t familiar with terrain powers, they work like this: you use one of your normal actions (minor, move, or standard) to cause the terrain to do something awesome, like damaging a foe or giving you a small bonus. As someone who consistently uses cardstock terrain, I frequently include little bits like tables, chairs, barrels, crates, curtains, and bookshelves—all of which are just waiting to cause some hurt. The problem is, players never really understood what was possible. Terrain powers do just that—they codify what you can and cannot do with a piece of terrain and explain it in the same format as one of your character’s powers.

Typically, the use of a terrain feature is finite (chairs can only be smashed over someone’s head once, a rug can only be pulled out from under an enemy once, bookcases can only be tipped over once), but occasionally, terrain can be used over and over—such as kicking up the ash in a fireplace to create a zone of concealment or sliding down a stair railing for an extra boost in speed.

One more note on terrain powers: the rules listed in the Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 attempt to balance them out with normal character powers. I actually up the ante a bit by letting them do more damage or allowing them to be used as minor or move actions. For example, if a terrain power is supposed to do 1d4 damage, I’ll let it do 1d6 damage. Or, if a terrain power is supposed to be used as a move action, I’ll allow it to be squeezed into a minor action. I do this to further encourage use of the terrain; by making the terrain slightly sweeter, the players will be more likely to use terrain powers when the moment presents itself.

Download my sample terrain powers here.

Arender’s Death

Though a character’s death could hardly be called something that went great, in the end, it was. You see, Arender didn’t just die due to some freak twist of fate or poor die roll; he didn’t trip off a cliff or drown after one too many failed swim checks. He died in combat, fighting terrorists intent on forcibly relocating his entire race to another dimension. You really don’t get more of a hero’s death than that.

The Impossible DC

Though I already mentioned the impossible DC house rule earlier in this entry, I wanted to take the opportunity to highlight its use in this session: After the group retrieved the case of military intelligence, they found it wizard locked. In the adventure, it’s not really supposed to be opened. Though it can be opened, it is better for the plot if it isn’t. For most DM’s, the decision would be easy: “Can it be opened?” would be met by a resounding no.

That’s what the impossible DC is for. I gave the group the possibility—however small—of opening it. Sure, there was only a 5% chance of making the DC, but if they had been successful, it would have taken the story in a new, unforseen direction—which can be exciting in its own right.

(They weren’t able to open it.)

Consequences

When the campaign began, I made it clear to the players that this isn’t your typical romp through the dungeon. There probably won’t be many monstrous opponents; most bad guys will be people, just like the PC’s. And since the first adventure takes place in a civilized society, going around and sticking the pointy ends of weapons into things isn’t a good idea. I reminded them that they could always choose to knock an opponent unconscious on the last hit rather than let it be an outright kill.

Well, let’s just say the group’s left a small trail of bodies—and it finally caught up with them. During this session, the party woke up to a group of officers of the law on their doorstep. Though they got out of the trouble with a stern warning, it showed the players that this campaign is different than others and that there will be consequences to their actions.

Photographs

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