Musings on Our Eighth Session

This week saw a major addition to those who would return order to the world of the Burning Sky—Stewart Boyles, a friend of Seth’s, has joined our gaming collective.

I met Stewart a few months ago when I sat in with his group during a couple of random sessions. I was impressed with Stewart’s style of gaming, which closely matched my own. He also has a great attitude, is extremely interested in story and roleplay, and loves beer—all good things in my book. When Brian and Paul dropped out, I extended an offer to Stewart and he graciously accepted. That brings our group up to four players, which I think is an excellent number. The sessions will go quicker, which might let us finish this campaign before 2012 is out.

Session 8 didn’t see us get quite as far as I had wanted. Originally, I thought Session 7 would conclude The Scouring of Gate Pass, but we stopped just short of the ending. In fact, in order to push things along, I was originally going to remove two NPC’s, Haddin and Crystin, in order to expedite the group’s entrance into The Indomitable Fire Forest of Innenotdar. However, since we still had one last encounter with the Black Horses, I decided to go ahead and leave in Haddin and Crystin, thus making Session 9 the proper beginning to our second adventure.

Session Summary

Session 8 took place on Sunday, September 11, 2011.

The great wooden barriers of the Free City-State of Gate Pass closed behind the group, giving off a sound finality. South the column rode, until several hours later they were stopped; up ahead, twelve armored figures stood in the snow. The fading sunlight glinted off of copper, gold, iron, and silver scales. It was a group of dragonborn! As the soldiers looked to each other questioningly, wondering what this occurrence of ominous portent meant, Buckidu kicked his horse’s flanks hard and rode to the front of the column. He met with his kinsmen, speaking in the language of their kind. After a moment, Buckidu returned with dire news; his father was dying and he was to return to his tribe to take over leadership. In order to ensure the success of the mission to Lyceum, he would leave behind one of his most trusted men, Tharin’Di, to travel with the party.

And as quickly as they arrived, they were gone. Tharin’Di introduced himself to the group, explaining that he was at their service; there to provide any assistance they needed until relieved by another dragonborn, or until the success of the mission. Asher briefly detailed their mission, explaining that they must journey south—beginning with passing through the deadly Fire Forest. He told the tale of the Rebellion of Gate Pass, of the Resistance of Lyceum, and of the case of vital military intelligence that must bridge to two ere darkness fall upon the lands. In return, Tharin’Di explained his origins; of having been saved by Buckidu’s father and of having grown up in the Monastery of Two Winds.

An hour later, Captain Harriman explained that he had traveled as far south as he dare go—and so the soldiers turned and returned to Gate Pass.

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

“Ahead,” explained Kara, “lies the Fire Forest—our first destination.” Asher asked if anyone had any details about the Fire Forest, beyond the map Kara held in her pouch. Ykoren piped up, explaining that he once lived in an area southwest of the forest; he had heard many stories of the unnatural wonder, and considered most of them exaggerations or simply old wives’ tales.

“However,” he explained, “among the known facts are that the Fire Forest was once an ancient home to a tribe of elves. Forty years ago the forest was set on fire. Days later, when the fire should have burnt out, it remained. And today, the fire still rages as hot, as angry, as when it was first lit.”

“Regardless, we better make it there before nightfall.” Kara’s words trailed off as a soft “thunghk” could be heard—a sound much like a cantaloupe would make if run over by a carriage. As the party circled in, searching for the origin of the sound, they discovered Maril slumped over his horse, an arrow sticking out between his eyes.

“No!” Asher cried as he leapt off his horse and ran towards his friend. Tears streamed down his face in despair and fire flew from his fingertips in anger. “Who did this?” he screamed. “Show yourself!”

Evil laughter echoed from the depths of Councilman Erdan Menash’s hood. At that, lines of archers, hidden in the snow, rose up and trained their weapons on the party; the symbol of the Black Horses was displayed prominently on the armbands they wore. One of the archers was in the process of reloading, his bow still empty from the killing shot he’d dealt to Maril. Asher gave off an inhuman growl as he faced the ambush.

Erdan backed his horse away and addressed the group. “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?!” exclaimed Ykoren.

“You might know me as the Mysterious M… but I prefer you call me by my given name: Renard Kol.” At that, he released his cloak and let it fall to the ground, revealing a gleaming set of plate mail; strapped to his back was a sword that would be large for a giant. “I feel like we’ve been here before. Twice, actually. So Asher, when I say you are coming with us, I say it knowing that you will resist. Nevertheless, know my Queen does not take no for an answer. Unfortunately I cannot extend to the rest of you that which Kathor offered—the rest of you must die.”

“We knew there was a traitor somewhere, but we didn’t realize… we didn’t think it would be you!” Asher sobbed in rage.

“Traitor is such a strong term,” Renard returned.

“I prefer traitor.”

“Tsk, tsk. I prefer to think of it as Gate Pass just needs to be pushed in a specific direction—the direction the Ragesians are going, for example. For too long Gate Pass has stood to the side as a neutral city-sate. When we join Ragesia, we will have the might of the Empire behind us. Which is why I voted the Council allow Leska’s Inquisitors enter the city.” Renard drew his sword slowly, and as he did it gave an evil hiss.

“I have a feeling you’re doing this for your own personal gain, not for the good of the people you claim to represent. Regardless, murder is murder and I will not come with you.” Asher said defiantly.

Renard smiled. “Well, whether you come with me conscious or unconscious is of no moment to me. But for the rest of you, unfortunately I cannot leave you alive to return to Gate Pass to speak of my… treachery, as you put it. So you do need to die. Any last words?”

The group closed in around Asher and Tomerial quietly challenged, “You’re not taking him anywhere.”

“Au contraire, elf. I think I will be. And know, in the new order, we won’t have any place for your kind. So whether you fall on the sword or die in the cold makes no difference—but you will die.”

Tomerial looked to his new comrades and then back at Renard. “Then you’ve sealed your fate, because a world without us will never exist.”

“Then come at me, bro!”

Renard charged into the middle of the group, completely ignoring the hip-deep snow, and swung his colossal sword so fast that it became a blur. The blow connected with Tomerial’s shoulder, spraying a fine red mist onto the virgin white ground. Renard’s archers begin to fire a deadly rain of arrows from their secure locations, high on the mountain bluffs. Asher ran towards them, oblivious of the danger, and clapped his hands high above his head. When he brought his arms back down, an orb of chaotic energy has formed, which Asher them immediately directed to the first archer—who died a most horrible death. The man slumped forward and fell the forty feet from the bluff down into the snow. The dark energy, however wasn’t through. Before the body fully dropped over the side, the chaotic orb leapt to the next archer, and then the next, and then the next—until the valley between the mountains was a cacophony of screams and shrieks from the dying.

Renard, still locked in battle with Tomerial as the rest of the group dealt with his henchmen on the ground, saw what had become of his archers. His grim resolve slipped, if only for a second—which was all Tomerial needed to turn the tide. He rained blow after blow upon Renard and was soon joined by the rest of the group as they closed in, having dealt with the other Black Horses. Renard began to kneel down to the ground, seemingly on the verge of defeat. The companions moved in. Then suddenly he stood straight up, powerfully throwing the group off of him. Renard dug deep and swung his sword in a deadly, wide arc, knocking all but Ykoren to the ground. With his companions lying bleeding in the snow, the eladrin faltered.

Renard smiled, seeing that victory was at last his. Though he was bleeding out, Asher was within his grasp; he had only to deal with the traitor, the only one to have ever left the Black Horses and live. Ykoren looked to his fallen comrades, and then whispered, “You betrayed me… and now it’s down to you and me. Let’s go!”

With that defiant yell, Ykoren rushed Renard, taking him completely by surprise. Ykoren repositioned his greatspear to trip Renard Kol into the snow, and with an expect twist, that’s exactly what happened. As Renard crashed into the churned snow, bloody and melted from battle, Ykoren reversed his weapon and gave the Black Horse leader a sharp rap on the side of his head, cleanly knocking him unconscious.

Ykoren was quick to see to his friends, bringing them back from the precipice of death. Once everything had settled, they learned that in addition to Renard, two of his thugs had survived the battle. Ykoren and Tharin’Di tied them up while the rest stood over Renard’s unconscious body, wondering what to do with him.

“Kill him,” Asher spoke first, his voice hollow. “He killed Maril, he betrayed us, he almost killed all of us, he has no mercy. Even if I had surrendered, he would have killed all of you.”

“I hate to take the role of judge, jury, and executioner,” Kara sighed, “But Asher is absolutely correct. He would have killed us and taken Asher as a prize. We don’t have time to go back to Gate Pass to see him stand trial and we’re definitely not taking him into the Fire Forest. So what do we do with him?”

“Even if we return to Gate Pass, we’ll look like we attacked and captured Erdan Menash! We’ll look like the terrorists and he will be innocent!” reminded Ykoren.

“You raise an interesting point,” mused Kara. And so it was decided that the Mysterious M, Erdan Menash, Renard Kol—whoever he was—would travel south to Lyceum with the group. Even though their journey would take them through the Fire Forest, as the leader of two terrorist groups—the Black Horses and the White Wyrms—the information he could provide to the Resistance would prove immeasurable.

Asher walked over to Maril’s body, still slumped over his horse. The rest followed, and together they dug a hole within the icy tundra to bury their fallen friend. After the body was wrapped in linen and carefully placed into the grave, Asher moved to place in Maril’s most prized possession—the staff of winter—on Maril’s body. But then he stopped; instead, with focused thought, Asher concentrated on the staff and it suddenly collapsed to the size of a coin.

Ykoren gasped. “How did you know that would happen?”

“I… I didn’t,” Asher replied.

Before leaving the scene, Renard was carefully bound so that he could walk, but do little else. His thugs, however, were tied up and left in a cave.

The companions moved on, eager to reach the Fire Forest and leave behind the events of the last few days. They road in silence, casting no more than quick glances at each other from time to time. About five miles from the edge of the forest, the sky began to glow a faint red and orange. The air smelled of ash and the frigid winter temperature warmed noticeably. In the sky, cinders drifted. Eventually, the cliffs alongside the road turned into craggy hills, and the forest fire itself came into view; tall pine and deciduous trees stretched down into a valley that burned to the horizon. A steaming river marked the border of the Fire Forest, and a vast field of ash coated the ground.

Just before the ash field, the heroes spotted a small farm: a two-story stone house and adjacent barn, and what looked like a pair of simple stone cairns. A young woman stood in clear view, dark-haired, eyes wide and blue. She stood still as stone and stared far beyond into the distance. She neither blinked nor twitched as the companions approached, and even though she appeared to be in a trance, she spoke with a clear voice, “The Scourge comes and the heads of the dragon pursue you. Your arrival signals the end is near.”

Tomerial walked forward and placed his hands on her shoulders, gently shaking her out of her reverie. Though she remembered nothing of what she had just said, she revealed to the group that she has seen them in her dreams for quite some time—her and her father were meant to follow the group into the forest, and then south to Lyceum. Unfortunately, her father did not agree—and needed to be convinced. The woman introduced herself as Crystin and lead the party to the farm. Her father, Haddin Hallressin, was a wizard of some skill—and was extremely adamant about staying behind to watch over the farm.

Ykoren recognized the name, having heard it while working with the Black Horses. Twenty years ago, Haddin was a skilled artist and respected citizen of Gate Pass, but his half-brother Mandragore was a notorious criminal. One day, suddenly, Mandragore turned over a new leaf and began working to redeem his name. Rumors arose that Haddin was mentally dominating his brother, and an investigation revealed it was true. Within weeks, the protests of countless people who believed—rightly or wrongly—that Haddin had likewise dominated them utterly ruined Haddin’s reputation. Mandragore tried valiantly to defend him but was killed by rioters, and Haddin fled the city in disgust, taking his wife and newborn daughter. Occasionally, Gate Pass residents see a young woman who closely resembles Haddin’s wife purchasing supplies, her expression distant. The stories say that this is Haddin’s daughter, dominated by the bitter old mage.

The group, through diplomacy, convinces Haddin that there is nothing left for him at the farm and that war would soon bring death and destruction to his doorstep. The next morning, the group—now with Haddin and Crystin in tow—walked to the edge of the forest, having left their horses behind at the farm. Kara pulled out several amulets, one for each member of the group, and explained that the magical devices would help them survive the heat of the fire. Renard was given Maril’s amulet, and Haddin cast a spell over himself and his daughter to protect against the elements.

With steely resolve, the companions and their new charges crossed a charred bridge over the river and into Innenotdar.

Changes to the Adventure

Haddin and Crystin

Since I removed the Inquisitor combat (see below) and still wanted Haddin and Crystin to accompany the party into the forest, I needed to adjust why the two were going to join the group. Instead of being attacked by an Inquisitor—as written in the adventure—I instead decided Crystin had been having premonitions about the group; she believes hers and her father’s paths lie with the party as they travel to Lyceum.

Oh, and I changed their last names from “Ja-Ladda” to “Hallressin.”

Encounter Modifications

Gauntlet Run: The Gauntlet Run is The Scouring of Gate Pass’ final encounter with the Black Horses. Because I’d greatly changed the influence the Black Horses had on the first adventure, I felt they deserved a grand showdown—a final, all-out assault that would let the characters have at the person who, behind the scenes, had pulled all the strings. For the encounter, I removed the skill challenge and placed the combat in a snow-choked mountain pass. Other than some ledges to climb for ranged attackers, the terrain was straightforward.

The Inquisitor: Removing The Scouring of Gate Pass’ last encounter, The Inquisitor, was simply a matter of wanting to get started on The Indomitable Fire Forest of Innenotdar; we didn’t have enough time for two combats and the roleplay between Haddin and Crystin in Session 8. I’ll probably move the solo Inquisitor into the second adventure; this gives The Scouring of Gate Pass a pleasant denouement in Renard and short coda in Haddin and Crysin.

Things That Could Have Gone Better

Combat Length

As the campaign has progressed, I’ve been trying to find ways to shorten combats. With only four hours to play, a three to four hour combat isn’t the best use of our time. In this case, the group’s encounter with Renard and the Black Horses lasted three hours, leaving only one hour of roleplay with Haddin and Crystin. Nevertheless, if any combat deserved to be long, it was this one—the final showdown between the group and the enemy behind the curtain, Renard Kol.

Lack of Preparation

Due to massive procrastination, I didn’t accomplish as much prep for this session as I had wanted—and that manifested itself in two ways. First, the combat terrain was very boring. Since the characters found themselves in a mountain pass, hip-deep in snow, I rolled out the snow map and threw down some modular mountain passes I’d built for a previous campaign. There wasn’t anything else I could think of to put out, so I suppose even if it was boring, at least it was realistic. Second, I didn’t have the time to create new stats for the encounter, so I ended up recycling stats from Session 7’s Black Horse encounter.

Intimidate

During combat with the Black Horses, Seth decided to use one of Intimidate’s lesser-known powers: to force a bloodied opponent to stand down. In this case, Seth’s character, Asher, used it on Renard Kol. I didn’t have any strong objections against this tactic; after all, I have complained on more than one occasion that combats are running long and this is certainly one way to shorten them. Nevertheless, as the adventure’s Big Bad Evil Guy, I certainly didn’t want to make it easy—so I made the DC impossible (from my Impossible DC house rule). In fact, I think going forward, all main bad guys will be impossible, second-tier mooks will be hard, and anyone else will be moderate.

In fact, this was an excellent example of why the Impossible DC house rule is great. As a DM, I usually wouldn’t want the PC’s to be able to make the main bad guy surrender, bloodied or otherwise. However, a character should still have a chance to succeed, no matter how small the chance. After all, who wouldn’t want to see the impossible become possible? If a player’s been pimping a specific skill as much as possible via feats, class abilities, and magic items, then the impossible should be within reach.

Knocking Opponents Unconscious

The entire combat, all Renard talked about was how much he was going to enjoy killing the group. And rightly so—he has an evil master plan and the characters being alive isn’t part of that plan. Nevertheless, I need to remember that not every bad guy wants to kill, just like the characters shouldn’t kill every bad guy. In fact, had I remembered, it’s possible Cody’s old character, Arender, might not have had to die in Session 6.

Things That Went Great

Character Morals

The capture of Erdan Menash, now revealed to be Renard Kol, created an interesting moral situation. Had he died in combat, no one would have batted an eyelash. But that didn’t happen—instead, Brent’s character Ykoren decided to knock him unconscious. So now what? Does the group kill him in cold blood? Then why let him live in the first place? Or do they just leave him tied up in the snow, which would almost certainly mean death by the elements? Or do they keep him alive and take him back to Gate Pass? Certainly a failure, since the group has a poor reputation there and Renard Kol has been serving as a councilman for quite some time. What about transporting him south to Lyceum, knowing that at any opportunity he will try to escape? Half the group wanted to slice his throat right there, while the other half were against a cold-blooded killing. Kara, the tiebreaker, explained that as a highly-placed member in the opposing army, Renard would have lots of information to give—and thus Renard Kol joined the group.

NPC as a Sounding Board

Occasionally, progress will grind to a halt as the characters hash out what they’ve learned and decide what to do next. Conversations sometimes go in circles with no decisions being made. In these cases, it’s great to have an NPC like Kara, who I can use to focus the group. I typically have her remind the characters of things they’ve forgotten and help them put into focus some of their goals. I also use NPC’s to give an option or two that might not be readily apparent, but only if they’re on the right track and having problems making that one connection that’s on the tip of their tongue. This was used to great effect when the group was trying to decide what to do with Renard.

Tokens for Healing Surges

Healing surges can be a hot button topic among gamers. I, for one, love them. They replicate an often used trope of fantasy and science fiction—digging deep and finding that extra reserve of energy. Luke Skywalker did it, Indiana Jones did it, The Man in Black did it, and so should your characters be able to. With that said, I wanted healing surges to be more tangible; I wanted them to be something that you could look down and psychically see so that when you only have a few left, it means something. More than a number on a character sheet. With that, this session saw small glass tokens represent healing surges. Now when one is used, the player hands it to me—and sees his pool of tokens deplete.

Photographs

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