BorderLands: Session Eight
With a long, long month between sessions I had lots of time to prep, and plan, and scheme. But, with Christmas, the winter break, and my son, much of my time will be taken up being a daddy. It’s also a good time to get some more mapping and worldbuilding in.
As a Christmas gift from me to me, I’d like to treat myself and publish a copy of my campaign setting via Lulu, but that’s requiring a heck of a lot of formatting. To say nothing of also trying to fill in any gaps and placeholders in the document.
The Player Characters will be starting the session hurt. They faced an entire day’s worth of encounter experience in a single massive brawl. The Red Mage is running on fumes as far as spell slots go, the Swashbuckler has single digit hit points, the Gippli’s wand of wonder is getting low, and the Archer… well, he spent the fight sniping from 550 feet away. He’s fine.
I’ll start by giving the Red Mage the choice of either healing the swashbuckler or the refugees. Then I’ll present the initial dilemma: should they stop for a short rest or get an immediate head start? Then I’ll have the last of the gnolls attack while the group is at their weakest. Cause I’m a dick.
The rest of the session hinges on a choice between two unappealing options: the players either need to escort the refugees back to town – and thus blow their deadline to meet kobold allies – or let the refugees make their way to safety on their own. This can be a hard dilemma where I make it a difficult choice, with consequences for either action. Or I can make it easy, perhaps portraying the refugees as self-sufficient, removing the dilemma and allowing the the PCs to continue on their quest.
Really, this is more of a dilemma for me. I want the players to be able to continue their self-established quest, to reward them for the independence in quest generation. But I also want actions to have consequences and there not to be easy choices.
NPCs are People Too
Regardless of my final decision regarding the dilemma, it’s important that I present the freed slaves as people. I need to give some names and personality traits, and give some (but not all) of these newly named NPCs backgrounds, useful skills, and quirks. I can maybe some tension by adding a jerk or two to the mix. Perhaps someone else who wants to assume leadership of the group or question’s the PC’s abilities to keep them safe or make decisions.
The big reason for this is to humanize the refugees, so they’re not just a group of nameless NPCs. That way, if/when some die it will have an emotional impact. (Games imitating life…) It also allows me to bring some of the ex-slaves back to play a support role later in the campaign. It’s always a good idea to build a supporting cast, a stable of potential NPCs, to have them ready when needed.
Making NPCs on the fly can be tricky. Naming is easier, but coming up with a general personality and “voice” for a character is hard. Plus I’m not great with voices. I have like three go-to voices. One trick for making a quick memorable NPC is to think of a character from and TV show with a strong personality and emulate that. But stay away from their catchphrases or actual quotable lines. Just think of how the character would act in that situation and give the NPC that personality. The stronger and more exaggerated the character the better, as players will miss subtleties, unless the character is a very regular NPC. To be memorable, an NPC has to immediately catch the attention and stand out from the baseline.
I like to go with TV shows like the Simpsons or Futurama, who not only have over-the-top personalities, but distinct voices. Sitcoms can work as well, especially ones with a long runtime that experience pronounced Flanderization. (warning: TV Tropes link!!)
Of course, with a month to plan, I can have a variety of NPCs, personality traits, and quirks ready to go.
There should also be a spy. The “Necromancer” who was behind the flind and part of the mysterious villain group (remaining unnamed in case my players read this) is cunning enough to plant a mole among the slaves. Someone to warn the Necromancer if the slaves were planning a revolt, and to advice on the best potential workers to send to the excavation. The mole would either try to make himself an ally to the PCs or try and slow down the refugees so the gnolls could recapture them.
A few sessions back, inspired by Volo’s Guide to Monsters, I introduced a hag as an incidental encounter. This was loosely planned as more of an NPC that straight fight. A creepy woman in the wood offering wisdom, information at a tempting price. My players saw the hut and immediately rejected the bait, avoiding the hut twice. Now they’re going to be marching through hag central with a small army of a hundred former slaves.
After listening to Darcy Ross during the Round Table podcast discussion on female empowerment in D&D, and hearing my player’s reactions to the idea of a “creepy old woman” I’m tempted to undo that idea and just make her an old druid or hermit in the wood. A good figure who can help, rather than conforming to the evil old woman stereotype.
Maybe she was a survivor of a massacre. Or a cursed individual who isolates herself to avoid hurting people. It might be fun to make this little old lady a barbarian who lives alone to avoid killing people during a berserker rage. Oh yeah…. I’m totally going with that idea.
Oh, the best laid plans of mice…
A week before the session a player was called away on a business trip. So I’m a man down. But because it had been a month since the last session, and it will be another month before the best time for the next session, canceling is not desirable. Too many details will be forgotten: both about the campaign’s plot (if you can call it that) but also PC abilities and such. The absently player was the Swashbuckler, who was bitten by the cloaked figure nicknamed “the Necromancer” at the climax of the last session. Sometimes you need to just have a character catch “plot sickness”, so the Swashbuckler was retroactively poisoned and incapacitated for the several days of the session. Although there might be more to it than that…
I had a small mix of NPCs, trying to seed small hooks and world lore. I wanted the NPCs to remind the players there was a larger world, and introduce a few new ideas, such as the town of Lookview to the east, which was expanding outward in the absence of gnoll attacks. But also that this town was more intolerant of elves. And I also included a reminder to one PC that I was considering his desire to rebuild his home, and that it was an actual potential quest in this campaign.
When I named the NPCs I turned to an online random fantasy name generator online. I picked a few names, each starting with a different letter, to make them stand out to the players. No need to have similar sounding NPCs. But I neglected to read them aloud to myself first, which is always a must. And so I ended up discovering a useful elf NPC had the name “Nerdiser” while introducing her to the table. After toying with changing the vowel sound (“Nardiser” was so much worse and “Nurdiser” had the same pronunciation) I said “eff it” and just accepted the NPC was going to be “Nerdy”. But, hey, instantly memorable.
I began with the leftover gnolls from the raid on the camp, attacking after the initial planning of the session had been done. The planning and talking helped people get into the session and familiarise themselves with events and the NPCs. Both players and player characters needed to get things together. Then the action allowed them to focus themselves in the immediate drama of the game.
Having backed the first two Reaper Bones Kickstarters, I have a metric tonne of plastic minis. With the long break (and return of my painting entertainment, Critical Role) I opted to throw some paint at a few gnolls for this battle. One gnoll mini has a long magic staff of bones, begging to be some kind of gnoll shaman. As one didn’t officially exist, I statted him him as a demon summoning gnoll (see the end of this blog).
From there the party (finally) marched through the swamp I had teased twice before and interacting with my newly altered aged barbarian woman, paying for passage through her bog with a bottle of wine and some salt. And the swampy terrain allowed the party to take advantage of the archer’s new ranger level. 130+ refugees all counted as his “group” and thus all ignored difficult terrain. They also picked the destination that allowed them to save the refugees while also potentially making their rendezvous, so dilemma was avoided.
After the long rest, I had another gnoll battle, as a few managed to catch up, weary and exhausted but ready to fight. This was meant to be an easier battle, as the PCs were rested and able to set-up some crude defenses. But their dice were cold and I was rolling 20s like critical hits were about to be retired. I even had Doreen Mbeshi, the self-exiled barbarian, charge in to “help”. But by the time she managed to get into melee, she just managed to kill a single injured gnoll, so it felt less like deus ex machina. I do love how a bunch of CR 1/2 to CR 2 gnolls can be such an effective challenge to a level 5 party.
After six or so gnoll fights, I’ll be happy to shelve those monsters for a few more sessions. They’re fun but I’ve used them a lot. And I’m unimpressed by their racial ability, which only triggers in the unlikely event of a creature’s “death”, making it seldom occur in play. (And when it does trigger, it’s usually when you least want a gnoll to gain an extra attack.)
From there I had a few small incidental scenes on the road. The players encountered a forgotten tower that housed a sphinx guarding a pool of magical water (connected to the positive energy plane, and thus with healing properties). Having solved two of its three riddles, they won the right to take a vial of water (acting as a healing potion of some potency) or returning at a later date to bathe in its restorative waters. This occurred primarily because I’d just purchased a gynosphinx miniature done by Paizo/WizKids from Miniature Market , and sometimes just having the miniature is a strong incentive to use that monster. Following that there was a short flavour encounter at a ruined ranch where a few escaped sheep and goats still lurked. A reminder that people once lived in the area but are now gone. Something simple to emphasise the passage of time and distance travelled rather than just saying “you travel for three days”.
The session ended outside of a small town (where the party encountered goblins and started a few fires at the end of the second session, and only a couple days’ travel from the city claimed by the dragon. Very likely next session will be the long anticipated “dragon assault”, where I’ll have to figure out how a party of level 5 adventures and maybe a dozen kobold mooks fight an ancient blue dragon.
Here’s a monsters I statted up for the session.
Gnoll Blood Caller
Medium humanoid (gnoll), chaotic evil
Armour Class 13 (hide)
Hit Points 55 (10d8 + 10)
Speed 30 ft.
Str 14 (+2) Dex 12 (+1) Con 12 (+1)
Int 6 (-2) Wis 16 (+3) Cha 7 (-2)
Skills Religion +0
Senses darkvision 60 ft., passive Perception 13
Challenge 3 (700 XP)
Rampage. When the gnoll blood caller reduces a creature to 0 hit points with a melee attack on its turn, the gnoll can take a bonus action to move up to half its speed and make a bite attack.
Spellcasting. The blood caller is a 3rd-level spellcaster. Its spellcasting ability is Wisdom (spell save DC 13, +5 to hit with spell attacks). The blood caller has the following cleric spells prepared:
Cantrips (at will): guidance, sacred flame, thaumaturgy
1st level (4 slots): bless, cure wounds, guiding bolt, inflict wounds
2nd level (2 slots): prayer of healing, spiritual weapon
Summon Demon (Recharges after a Short or Long Rest). The gnoll blood caller chooses what to summon and attempts a magical summoning. It has a 50% chance of summoning 1 maw demon, 1d4 dretches, 2d4 manes, or a quasit.
A summoned demon appears in an unoccupied space within 60 feet of its summoner, acts as an ally of its summoner, and can’t summon other demons. It remains for 1 minute, until it or its summoner dies, or until its summoner dismisses it as an action.
Multiattack. The gnoll blood caller makes two attacks: one with its bite and one with its staff.
Bite. Melee Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, reach 5 ft., one creature. Hit: 4 (1d4 + 2) piercing damage.
Bone Staff. Melee Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, reach 5 ft. or range 20/60 ft., one target. Hit: 5 (1d6 + 2) bludgeoning damage, or 6 (1d8 + 2) bludgeoning damage if used with two hands to make a melee attack.
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