Musings on Our Seventh Session

The last month has seen a lot of changes to our roster.

First, Brian went and got himself married, and then let his wife convince him to move to the other side of the country. This put a damper on the campaign, not only because we will genuinely miss Brian’s presence at the table, but also because his character was a linchpin the campaign was eventually going to revolve around; being a dragonborn, he was going to play a major role when the Bahamut and Tiamat plot waltzed into the forefront. Fortunately, we’ve built a solid campaign foundation and so that focus can easily be shifted.

Second, we lost Paul, player of Maril Snowblood—wizard extraordinaire. As a recent transplant to our country, he had yet to find a way back into the career he had left back in Wales. Then, without warning, a job opportunity presented itself and Paul was right to take it. Session 6 was Paul’s last session with the group.

Third, Cody’s character—Arender Alridion—died during the last session, taking us all completely by surprise. Rather than lament the loss, Cody looked at it as an opportunity to try something different and introduced his new character Tomeriel during this session. And Arender? Though he had recently been outed as a spy for the Shahalesti government, he was able to redeem himself to the companions, dying to save his people from a forced mass exodus into the Feywild. Though the group will miss him, we look at it like this—Arender was an awesome character who died near the end of the first season. Though we’re loath to see him go, his character arc was complete.

Last, but not least, we’ll be taking on a new player in Session 8—Seth’s friend Stewart will be joining the party as Tharin’Di, a dragonborn monk. His story will most definitely take a different approach than Buckidu, as Stewart’s character is from the mysterious Monastery of Two Winds.

(Oh, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I, too, got married this summer. I will not be moving to the other side of the country, however.)

Session Summary

Session 7 took place on Sunday, August 21, 2011.

The group stands silent, their eyes mirroring each other’s fear over the news that Gate Pass has 24 hours to admit a group of Inquisitors or it will be razed to the ground. One thing is clear: they have to get out of Gate Pass with the intelligence before then, no matter the cost.

Inside the Temple to the God of Protection, Kara provides the group with directions to Councilman Erdan Menash’s home and wishes them good luck. She then takes Buron Watcher by the arm and draws him in close, whispering recent developments softly to him—such as the revelation that Arender had compromised the rebellion and this very safe house.

Resolved, the companions march back out into the storm and head east down the main thoroughfare toward the Nobels’ District. It isn’t difficult to find the Councilman’s home, for it is decorated quite ostentatiously; vivid hues of purple, yellow, orange, and green cover the walls, and standards of every shape and size hang from various parapets.

While deciding what to do next, the group is approached by an elf named Tomeriel—a young man dispatched by his people to join the party. Tomeriel explains that the elves in the ghetto are aware of what had transpired within the doormaker’s shop; they’d overheard the party speak of their mission and of its grave importance. It was decided by the elders that if the elven people were ever to rise above their current situation, they would have to stand with the people of the lands and not apart from them.

The companions are skeptical, remembering their recent experience with Arender. Though he had redeemed himself in the end, it was hard to ignore his betrayal. Did this new ally have similar goals? Realizing the importance of the elves extending this olive branch, the group is reluctant to turn it away, and so accept Tomeriel into their ranks. Only time will tell whether he will become a truly valuable member of their team.

After requesting an audience with Erdan Menash through his guards—who are all dressed equally outrageously—the companions are ushered into the Councilman’s mansion. There, they are greeted by Erdan, who proceeds to give the group a tour of his home, pointing out various weapons and trophies of the most exotic nature.

Despite more than a few stories of his valor and heroism, the party is finally able to focus Erdan’s attention on the task at hand: they are on a mission for the rebellion, hoping to receive aid in escaping Gate Pass. The Councilman is reluctant and so the companions impress upon him that if they don’t succeed, Gate Pass will be reduced to rubble. Still, he isn’t swayed. Finally, the party reveals that he is a marked man and that they have already foiled one assassination attempt by the White Wyrms and their mysterious benefactor, M.

Finally understanding the gravity of the situation, Menash provides the group with fake papers ordering them to join a detachment set to leave that night for the southern border. He also includes instructions for Captain Harriman, an old friend of his, to see to the party, ensuring their escape from Gate Pass goes unnoticed and without incident.

The group departs the Councilman’s home, orders in hand; they are finally ready to leave Gate Pass behind, but with hope that they will return with an army. Their thoughts are cut short, however, when a gruff voice calls out across the chill air: “Drop your weapons and come quietly, Asher. Your friends are free to go, but you will come with us.”

It was the Black Horses—and they have returned for Asher, intent on completing what they had started only two days ago. The party moves to protect Asher, but see it isn’t necessary as chaotic energies swirl around him in a maelstrom of magic. Ykoren, once under the sway of the manipulative Black Horses, is also eager to even the score. Kathor Danava, who accompanied the thugs in order to oversee the capture of Asher, was only too happy to dispatch Ykoren—who was seen among the Black Horses as a traitor.

The combat was tense and evenly matched—for a time. However, Kathor was eventually able to get the best of the party, mortally wounding Maril and Tomeriel. Seeing his comrades fall, broken and bleeding, Asher hangs his head in defeat. He lets his magic dagger hang limply from one hand and stands silently, seemingly in surrender. Kathor advances on Asher, laughing at his victory, the sound arrogant and scornful. Then, at the last second, Asher reverses the dagger, makes eye contact with Kathor, and plunges it deep into his would-be captor.

Kathor falls to his knees, blood pouring from his lips. In one last defiant act, he laughs again and whispers, “Ykoren, you could have been so much… you have no idea… who Renard is…” And then he is dead.

Buckidu and Ykoren quickly heal the party, one with words of prayer to his secret god and the other with encouraging words of defiance against death. With the party roused, they quickly depart the grisly scene, hoping to make it to Captain Harriman’s barracks before anyone can connect them with the encounter. On the way, Buckidu asks Ykoren who Rernard is. Ykoren explains that Renard Kol is the enigmatic leader of the Black Horses, always passing his orders down through Kathor Danava. To his knowledge, only the top ranked Black Horses had ever met Renard; Ykoren never had.

The party didn’t have time to ponder this mystery, as they had arrived at their destination: the barracks that housed many of Gate Pass’ militia. They quickly find Captain Harriman, show him the orders written by the Councilman, and are whisked away to be dressed and armed with militia uniforms and weapons. Within hours, the group is marching towards the city’s east gate with Captain Harriman and eight of his own men. The companions look at each other, their faces echoing each other’s grim resolve.

As they journey to the gate, a cloaked rider moves alongside the party. A soft chuckle is heard; then: “It’s me! Menash! This is exciting, right?”

Quizzically, Asher asks, “Don’t you have work to do here in Gate Pass?”

“Oh, I’ve got work to do alright, but it’s not going to be here! Look, I listened to what you said. White Wyrms? Mysterious M? I’m not dealing with that. I’m a marked man here. But at Lyceum? I’m a banner the people can rally to. I’m a standard under which they can fight. I’m someone that can gather the Resistance together; you need me and together we’re going to bring them back to Gate Pass.” Dubious over this new development, but without the power to do anything, the companions ride on.

And then a single bell tolls out across the city. Kara rides in close and whispers, “That sound can only mean one thing: the fools have let the Inquisitors in.”

What would that mean to the city? Was the Council surrendering Gate Pass? Was it a trap? Did they really think they could double-cross the Inquisitors, Ragesia’s cabal of mage-hunting clerics? Would Gate Pass still be standing when the party returned? Such thoughts are quickly pushed aside as they approached the great gates of eastern Gate Pass. Within moments, they are open; the column rides outside the confines of the city and the gates close behind them, giving off a sound finality.

South the column rides, until several hours later they are stopped; up ahead, twelve armored figures stand in the snow. The fading sunlight glints off of copper, gold, iron, and silver scales. It was a group of dragonborn! As the soldiers look at each other questioningly, wondering what this occurrence of ominous portent meant, Buckidu kicks his horse’s flanks hard and rides to the front of the column. He meets with his kinsmen, speaking in the language of their kind. After a moment, Buckidu returns with dire news; his father is dying and he is to return to his tribe to take over leadership. In order to ensure the success of the mission to Lyceum, he will leave behind one of his most trusted men, Tharin’Di, to travel with the party.

And as quickly as they arrived, they were gone; and then an hour later, Captain Harriman explains that he has traveled as far south as he dare go—and so the soldiers turn and head back to Gate Pass.

Asher, Maril, and Ykoren look at each other in silence, wondering whether their new comrades will prove to be a nuisance or an asset.

“Ahead,” explains Kara, “lies the Fire Forest, our first destination. We better make it there before nightfall.” Her words trail off as a soft “thunghk” can be heard—a sound much like a cantaloupe would make if run over by a carriage. As the party circles in, searching for the origin of the sound, they discover Maril slumped over his horse, an arrow sticking out between his eyes.

“No!” Asher cries as he leaps off his horse and runs towards his friend. Tears stream down his face in despair and fire flies from his fingertips in anger. “Who did this?” he screamed. “Show yourself!”

Evil laughter echoes from the depths of Councilman Erdan Menash’s hood. At that, rows upon rows of archers, hidden in the snow, rise up and train their weapons on the party; the symbol of the Black Horses is displayed prominently on the armbands they wear. One of the archers is in the process of reloading, his bow still empty from the killing shot he’d dealt to Maril. Asher gives off an inhuman growl as he faces the ambush.

Erdan backs his horse away from the group as he addressed them. “So now we are alone, truly. As we were meant to be. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for releasing me from Gate Pass. I had hoped I would have been gone yesterday, but you foiled my extraction by interfering with the White Wyrms. No matter; like chess pieces, I moved the rebellion into a position where they would be of some use—and you were, my friends. Oh, you were. I didn’t think it was going to happen in a way that would retain my reputation, but you made it happen. To the city, I will have been abducted by terrorists; by vigilantes. And when I return after my mission has been completed three months hence, I will relay a harrowing tale of torture, and of escape. I will be heralded as a hero.”

“Who are you?!” exclaims Ykoren.

“You might know me as the Mysterious M… but I prefer you call me by my given name: Renard Kol.”

Changes to the Adventure

The Dianoem

The Dianoem is a strange marvel of dwarven technology, given to the PC’s by Councilman Erdan Menash with a request that it be delivered to Dougan Rambausen, a dwarf instructor at Lyceum. Since Erdan Menash ended up betraying the party as the Mysterious M/Renard Kol, it didn’t make sense that he would relinquish control of this item to the party for further examination—or that he would be in possession of the device at all. My plan is to move it to the next adventure, The Indomitable Fire Forest of Innenotdar.

Black Horses, Revisited

In The Scouring of Gate Pass, the Black Horses return after the PCs’ encounter with Erdan Menash, but in an uninteresting way; their goal was simply to watch the Councilman, who was reportedly a magic-user sympathizer. In the adventure, they only attack the PC’s because they are seen visiting with Erdan. I had grander plans for Councilman Erdan Menash and since I had already given the Black Horses a bit more to do in the first session than just attack the Poison Apple Pub, I decided that it would make sense that they continue their goal of capturing Asher.

Additionally, since Brent’s character started off the campaign as a Black Horse, I thought this would be a great way to tie up that storyline by having him confront the man who recruited him in the first place: Kathor Danava. This made the encounter much more personal, for both Asher and Ykoren.

Encounter Modifications

If there’s one thing that can’t be said about this campaign, it’s that it doesn’t have a lot going on—because it really does. Every page turn there’s a new NPC or plot thread that winds off from the main story. Under normal circumstances, this would provide the group with a rich, vibrant world. Unfortunately, my group averages about one session a month. At this rate, 5th Edition will have been released before we finish! Though I’m doing my best to keep some of the more interesting and exotic trappings of the campaign, I’m also trimming off the chuffa—as Bruce Willis would say—when possible. With that said, several encounters didn’t make it to the final cut.

Street Ambush: The Street Ambush encounter changed quite a bit. As written, the conflict begins when a group of Black Horses—dressed as city guards—approach the party under the guise of “taking them in for questioning.” Along the way, the Black Horses make a turn down some dark ally and jump the heroes. Instead, I decided to turn the ambush into an all out assault; as noted above, I also added Kathor Danava in order to make things personal for Asher and Ykoren.

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

Rantal: Including Rantal—bounty hunter extraordinaire—would have taken steam out of the session. In the adventure, he shows up either just in time to save the PC’s from the Black Horses or just after the PC’s give the Black Horses a good throttling, depending on how well the combat was going. He specifically seeks out the PC’s to request they deliver a message to his sister Katrina down in Lyceum. If his plight—and that of his sister—becomes more important as the campaign winds on, I’ll introduce the plot in a more personal way—tied to one of the PC’s, if possible. (Also, how does he know the PC’s are travelling to Lyceum? So much for the PC’s being on a secret mission of grave importance!)

Magic Mayhem: Magic Mayhem is an interesting encounter. As written, Kara and Riverye head off to find Riverye’s friend, Feris, who is a magic-user of some power. This is all to help the group deal with Shealis, who is also a magic-user of some power. I kept all of this, except I replaced Feris with Artimus, a character my friend Jeff played during his visit to Oregon for my wedding. If I had kept the original plot going, Feris would have showed up later in the adventure as a racketeer, ruffing up locals in return for protection money to fund his small school of sorcery. On its face, a pretty sweet turn of events and an interesting diversion from the story. However, since I’d recast Feris as Artimus, the Magic Mayhem encounter—where Feris decides that a robbery in the middle of a seige would be a good idea—made no sense.

Gauntlet Run: The Guantlet Run is The Scouring of Gate Pass’ attempt at a skill challenge inside a combat, meant to take place in the mountains just outside Gate Pass. Though the encounter is presented in an interesting way, I decided I wanted an all out, final Black Horse assault on the PC’s; instead of a hit and run chase through the mountains, I plan to add the Black Horses into the Inquisitor encounter; this will kick off Session 8.

Chasm Gate: By itself, the Chasm Gate encounter is an interesting roleplaying situation and the party’s first major encounter with dwarves. Unfortunately, when taken into the context of what the party has been through over the last two days, it’s a speed bump that keeps the group from advancing the plot. The Chasm Gate is a barrier that prevents the party from reaching the Fire Forest. Only after solving a few of the dwarves’ problems do they allow the PC’s to use the gate. Again, a fascinating encounter and rife with good roleplay, but one that needed to be cut to advance the story faster.

Gnoll Hunt: The Gnoll Hunt was pure XP fluff; an encounter designed to make sure the PC’s are of the appropriate level before wrapping up the adventure. It didn’t seem wise to interrupt the flow of the story with a combat between the group and a gnoll and his hyenas. (I’ve also decided to remove any and all “monstrous humanoids” from the campaign. Other than the main PC races, you won’t find kobolds, goblins, gnolls, lizardfolk, ogres, minotaurs, or any of their ilk.)

Things That Could Have Gone Better

Rule Questions

As the group gets more comfortable with the 4th Edition rules, questions about their application crop up less often—which is great! However, I’ve noticed over the last few sessions a few queries have popped up that we’ve already looked into; the answers of which have been posted to the Rules page. An easy way to avoid this situation would be to review that page every month or so. I’ve even decided to keep the page open on my iPad as I DM so that I can quickly scan it the next time a rules question comes up, just in case it’s already been answered.

Session Recording

I record every session and transcribe those recordings in order to keep track of important details that would otherwise be lost. While the iPhone serves as an adequate recording device, sometimes player voices are too soft and aren’t picked up easily. It would be great to find a high-quality microphone that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg; something that could be hung from the ceiling, above the table, would be perfect.

Things That Went Great

New House Rule

This week we tested out a new house rule: an action point after every combat instead of after every other combat. I’ve been having trouble remembering milestones and since a single extra action doesn’t throw the balance off too much, I thought we’d try it out. For Session 7, I think it worked just fine, though we need to make a few decisions, such as whether action points will still reset after extended rests.

Combat Roleplaying

In Session 4, I’d noted that there was a definite lack of roleplaying during combat. Since then, I’ve done my best to include quips and jabs by enemy NPC’s whenever possible. This session, that materialized perfectly during the combat between Kathor, Asher, and Ykoren. Every time Kathor spoke, Asher and Ykoren had plenty to say in response.

Anti-Combat Grind

One of the best ways of avoiding combat grind is to simply end the combat when it’s obvious the PC’s are going to win; whether the opponents surrender or the last hit does enough to kill, as long as it makes sense to the story. For Session 7, I applied that logic to the Street Assault encounter. Though Kathor had dropped a few PC’s to below 0, he was hurting—badly. Asher was next in the initiative order and we were already 45 minutes past our end time for the day. We could have played it out, but I decided that it made sense to the story—and would be more exciting—if the next hit killed Kathor.

Kathor called out for the group’s surrender, citing the broken and bleeding bodies of Maril and Tomeriel as examples of his combat prowess. Seth, falling into my plan perfectly, had Asher pretend to surrender. I asked for a Bluff check, and when it passed spectacularly, I allowed Seth a free reuse of his daily power. Kathor died in an amazing way and Asher got a sweet, thematic death blow in.

The Mysterious M

The leader of the White Wyrms, known only to the party as M, is a mystery that never gets answered according to the campaign’s authors. Much like I did with the Singing Chasm in Session 6, I got to work thinking about how best to make the answer to this mystery personal. The obvious choice to me would be to make M someone the PC’s know; to make it Erdan Menash seemed too obvious, since his last name started with an M. But then, the more I thought about it, the more I realized there was no way the players would suspect a trick so pedestrian. So I went for it—and then I added another layer; he wouldn’t simply be M, the man behind the White Wyrms—he would also be the faceless Renard Kol, leader of the Black Horses, whom no one had ever met but everyone feared.

Roleplaying Goodness

Session 7 had several excellent chunks of roleplaying. Here are two that especially caught my eye:

Erdan: So you are saying that you stopped the threat but it could be… it’s possible that I’m still in danger?
Asher: We stopped the hand, but the head still lives.
Erdan: Where’s the hand at? What did you do with the hand?
Bukidu: The hand is lying on the ground of a warehouse.
Erdan (Shrewdly cocks his head to the side): What do you know about a dragonrider that crashed into a woman’s home, killed the mother and her son, but was then found the next day, himself slaughtered?
Bukidu: We…
Erdan: You’re the vigilantes!
Asher: Well…
Erdan: You are! You are the vigilantes! You’re the… you’ve been leaving a trail of bodies around the city! Bodies that need to be bodies, but… (His eyes light up) You’re like an alchemy machine! You put a live person in and a dead person comes out!

…and then later:

Erdan: I am ready to listen. Tell me more of this mission.
Asher: I thought you knew?
Erdan: Well, I know you are traveling with vital military intelligence, but I don’t know to where. I just know you are leaving Gate Pass, which is quite impossible with two locked gates I might add.
Bukidu (Looking from side to side): Do you know for a fact that this room is secure right now? I don’t want anyone listening in on this conversation except us.
Erdan: I’ve know you for 15 minutes, but I feel I can trust you. I have four on these premises that are not me and they are all guards; two at the front gate, two on the grounds. No one is within the mansion but myself and so we are alone. You can trust me.
Bukidu: I worry about prying ears. Is there any chance of someone other than us hearing what is said here?
Erdan: Impossible.
Bukidu: We are taking this case of intelligence to Lyceum.
Erdan: Of course, it makes sense! That is where the Resistance is forming; they’re building an army down there! (Thinks for a moment) So you’re telling me that Kara and her band of rebels… her rebel alliance, if you will… they’ve stolen this intelligence from Ragesia and their plan is to take to Lyceum?
Asher: Many Bothans died to bring us this information.

Photographs

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