BorderLands: Session Six
As I start planning for my next session I’m really planning for my next two sessions. With the game killing one-two punch of Christmas & New Year’s Eve looming, my group is meeting two weeks in a row. The more I can prep in advance (with two weeks prior to the game) the less I need to prep in the single short week between games.
In addition to their long term aspirations and schemes for dragon slaying (or at least hoard stealing) two things are presently going on in my campaign: ettercaps that have captured a band of elven youths, and a player is buying magic items from the black market. The former was introduced as a potential Task for a character to prove themselves an elf-friend, while the latter was initiated by a player looking for magics. Having two adventure hooks is reassuring, as I can plan a spider-man themed dungeon while also brainstorming some other ideas, so even if the party blows through the dungeon crawl there’ll be plot to fill the rest of the session. And if not, I have ideas to drive the beginning of the following session.
Upon selling some recovered gemstones, one player found themselves flush with a few hundred gold pieces; still thinking like a Pathfinder player and feeling the need to spend all their gold on magic items. Magic items are somewhat rare and more tightly controlled, mostly being relics and familial heirlooms, and thus seldom sold. So the player immediately sought out a black market. The elven capital of my world has a large dragonborn ghetto along the outskirts of the city. As non-elves, they’re not permitted into the city core (neither are humans) limiting their access to goods and jobs. It seemed reasonable that they would create a thriving black market.
This proved to be a nice opportunity to highlight the differences between elves and dragonborn in my world. As elves don’t sleep they don’t need bedrooms, and thus don’t have the same sense of privacy or personal space. Elven buildings don’t have personal rooms, and their inns don’t rent rooms (or even have rooms). Elves eat, bathe, and live socially. Dragonborn are the opposite and eat in private, with dragonborn taverns being a series of small booths enclosed by curtains. Upon requiring a place for a dragonborn black market it occurred to me that private booths are perfect for that sort of thing. While describing the tavern the player was directed to in order to make contact I could also drop in some relevant world flavor. Bam! DMing win.
The black market contact had an enticing offer: a pair of magic bracers that could help make the party’s swashbuckler a finer swordsman. This would take a few days (so I could figure out what the hell magic bracers that make you better at swordplay mechanically do), so the PC arranged a return meeting where he would bring a few hundred gold. He’s also bringing the rest of the party along, expecting trouble.
This is exactly the sort of hook a good DM leaps on. They’re expecting trouble, so part of them wants an ambush or a double cross. That’s what they’re preparing for – that’s the story they’re telling in their head – so that’s the story I should give them.
The trick is to give them what they want and are expecting… with a twist. I need to reward their preparation and forethought, but preferably in a way they’re not entirely expecting. Maybe there’s no double cross but someone else tries to mug the PCs. Or elven guards show up in a raid on the black market, threatening to ruin the PC’s reputations as burgeoning heroes. Perhaps the bracers were stolen (during the time between their requested purchase and delivery) and the guards have traced the thief to the restaurant. Maybe a rival gang arrived for a hit. I could take that in lots of different directions.
The main focus of the adventure will probably still be the ettercaps. I arbitrarily decided that the ettercaps had taken elven children “a mere 50 years old”, who were exploring. Elven youths that were likely the equivalent of the scouts, or on an apprenticeship. (I need to work on that a little more.) As there’s more of a time limit to this quest (i.e. getting it done before people get eaten), this quest will come first.
For a little while noted D&D internet luminaries James Introcaso, James Haeck and I (the odd-man out) were talking about doing a dungeon delve based project (before life and things like the Critical Role setting book) got in the way. The first idea I had was ettercaps lairing in a giant tree. This is my chance to salvage that idea, re-appropriating it for my home game.
There will webbed animals and bundles of remains hanging from the branches of the tree, which is covered with strands webbing like something exuberantly decorated for Halloween. Ettercaps will be lurking in the leaves, and in the surrounding areas. Their primary lair is among the roots, dug underneath the tree. There’s something terrifying about having to crawl into a narrow hole into a dark cavern filled with crawling spiders. Below I can have things like pits covered with bouncy webs, spider swarms, chambers thick with webbing to navigate around, and more. Lighting might be an issue as torches might potentially ignite the lair, killing the hostages.
Looking for ettercap inspiration in Dragon: Monster Ecologies there’s a reference to brood swarms of ettercaps being fed by captive prisoners, kept alive for several days before the egg sacs hatch. That seems like the perfect reason the elven youths were taken and a great justification for why they weren’t killed and can still be rescued: they’re alive and wrapped in webbing with a large sack of eggs affixed to their chests. Very Aliens. And a horrifying way to die.
The exact location of the ettercaps can be a little vague and require some hunting. Thinking about this now, I can treat this as a bit of an exploratory minigame, presenting a hex grid map to wander across, having the players search hex by hex until they find the spiders. Maybe give each hex a baseline time to search, with the ability check to search increasing or decreasing the time it takes. The longer they take the increased chance of a captive being eaten.
I can also have ettercap or spider encounters in the hex around the “dungeon”, as well as other hazards such as thickets of thorns, ridges, and the like. Something to burn some resources so I don’t need to cram as many encounter into a small space.
Looking at the math of things, I want the party on “the clock” while searching hexes. But I also want to leave enough time for a short rest if necessary (in case the party gets their ass kicked). The countdown before captives get eaten needs to be measured in hours and not minutes. But having each hex take an hour means the party can only search 8-16 hexes before they need to stop for the night. And it means taking more/less time to search a hex is trickier. If I track time in 15-minute chunks I can have searching a hex take 30 minutes (two chunks) +/- 15 minutes.
Figuring out the time to search also gets me the size of a hex. At a slow pace, a group can cross 2 miles in an hour. Since I’ve decided a good check should search a hex in 15 minutes, that should represent be rushing through a hex without stopping. Half-mile hexes seem about right.
In theory the exact countdown should be less than 8 hours in order for that taking a long rest to be a failure. However, since the party would only need to take a rest after exploring, a 10 hour or even 12 hour deadline wouldn’t be too unreasonable. As there’s multiple captured elves, I can have a countdown to when casualties begin until another deadline when all the elves have been eaten. Perhaps the first at 9 hours and another every 30 minutes until all are dead.
10 hours would be 20 hexes. If I have the destination in the corner of a hex (so entering any of three surrounding hexes discovers the dungeon), that means there’s also 7 hexes around the destination which should direct the players to the central hex. To have some minimum pressure, there should be at least 6 hexes from the start until hitting spider territory. Possibly more as the party will likely have a couple good rolls speeding their progress. However, the maximum the map really needs to be is 10 hexes in any direction away from the spiders: any larger and there’s no ability to recover from choosing the wrong direction in time. A bad guess at the start shouldn’t result in total failure. Similarly, I should also include friendly NPCs that could give clues if they pick the exact wrong direction. Hopefully my players will be smart enough to equate no signs with travelling in the wrong direction, but people do funny things.
I totally goofed when considering the timeline of events. I had the party arrive at the elven youth’s camp near the end of the day, so they opted to check out a few hexes first and then take a long rest. In retrospect, I should have had the camp a little bit farther away to force an overnight rest prior to the exploration. Instead, I just allowed the group to rest overnight. But they also went in the exact opposite direction of the ettercap lair, so they still barely made it in time to save the youths from a messy death.
The ettercap lair was fun, and a very different dungeon as the party lacked a lantern or light spell, meaning 3/4 were blind. Lighting a torch risked setting the place ablaze. I allowed them to try, but called for a Dexterity saving throw each time the torchbearer moved to avoid catching the roof or a wall on fire. Lighting is so rarely considered in dungeons, and keeping the party in the dark is troublesome, but sometimes it’s nice to push the players out of their comfort zone. To make them worry about things like torches.
The small delve was also a nice change of pace, and I was able to slip in five combats into a very short period. I managed to actually wear down the party’s resources for the first time in several sessions. It was rather nice.
The session ended with the magic item purchasing at the black market. To add a complication, I had the bracers being sold to the PC recently stolen in a botched burglary that left several people dead. As the players were about to leave I had the elven guard burst into the restaurant where the exchange was being made, having tracked the stolen property down to that location. The players have the painful choice of having to face the town guard and become criminals, attempt to flee, or turn over the stolen items they just spent so much money purchasing. Dilemma!
However, only three of the players were involved in that drama, as the Lawful Good archer was left out of the shenanigans. Having reported to the NPC contact who gave the party the ettercap quest, he asked if there were any other small tasks to be done in the city. This was too lovely an opportunity to pass up: I pulled the player aside, and told him of the magic bracer theft and looming raid on a black market den. When the guards burst in, he was among them. Now there’s a dash of party conflict as one PC is unknowingly hired with arresting the other.
I have no idea what direction that is going to go next session. It’s going to be interesting.
Here’s a few monsters I statted up for the session.
Ettercap Brood Swarm
Medium swarm of Tiny monstrosities, neutral evil
Armour Class 12 (natural armour)
Hit Points 38 (7d8 +7)
Speed 30ft., climb 30 ft.
Str 8 (-2) Dex 15 (+2) Con 13 (+1)
Int 5 (-3) Wis 12 (+1) Cha 8 (-1)
Skills Stealth +4
Damage Resistances bludgeoning, piercing, slashing
Condition Immunities charmed, frightened, paralyzed, petrified, prone, restrained, stunned
Senses darkvision 60 ft., passive Perception 11
Challenge 1/2 (100 XP)
Spider Climb. The brood swarm can climb difficult surfaces, including upside down on ceilings, without needing to make an ability check.
Swarm. The brood swarm can occupy another creature’s space and vice versa, and the swarm can move through any opening large enough for a Tiny creature. The swarm can’t regain hit points or gain temporary hit points.
Web Walker. The brood swarm ignores movement restrictions caused by webbing.
Bites. Melee Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, reach 0 ft., one target in the swarm’s space. Hit: 12 (4d4+2) piercing damage, or 7 (2d4+2) piercing damage if the swarm has half of its hit points or fewer. Additionally, if the target is a creature must succeed on a DC 11 Constitution saving throw or take 4 (1d8) poison damage.
Ettercap Brood Mother
Medium monstrosity, neutral evil
Armour Class 14 (natural armour)
Hit Points 65 (10d8 +20)
Speed 30ft., climb 30 ft.
Str 14 (+2) Dex 15 (+2) Con 14 (+2)
Int 7 (-2) Wis 13 (+1) Cha 9 (-1)
Skills Perception +3, Stealth +4, Survival +4
Senses darkvision 60 ft., passive Perception 13
Challenge 3 (700 XP)
Spider Climb. The ettercap can climb difficult surfaces, including upside down on ceilings, without needing to make an ability check.
Web Sense. While in contact with a web, the ettercap knows the exact location of any other creature in contact with the same web.
Web Walker. The ettercap ignores movement restrictions caused by webbing.
Multiattack. The ettercap makes two attacks: one with its bite and one with its claws.
Bite. Melee Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, reach 5 ft., one creature. Hit: 6 (1d8 + 2) piercing damage plus 10 (3d6) poison damage. The target must succeed on a DC 13 Constitution saving throw or be poisoned for 1 minute. The creature can repeat the saving throw at the end of each of its turns, ending the effect on itself on a success.
Claws. Melee Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 7 (2d4 + 2) slashing damage.
Web (Recharge 4-6). Ranged Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, range 30/60 ft., one Large or smaller creature. Hit: The creature is restrained by webbing. As an action, the restrained creature can make a DC 12 Strength check, escaping from the webbing on a success. The effect ends if the webbing is destroyed. The webbing has AC 10, 5 hit points, resistance to bludgeoning damage, and immunity to poison and psychic damage.