BorderLands: Session Nine
This is the Session that Would Not Be. It was first delayed because one player was out of town, and delayed again because another player’s work scheduling a weekend training session. *sigh*.
I have two goals for the ninth session of my campaign. The first is to introduce more people from the city-state of Lookview, expand the number of metaplots & drama in the world beyond “The Predation of Gnolls”, and broaded the scope of the “known” world from a couple cities in the world to the larger region. Two, have the players slay an ancient mother effing dragon.
I’m not sure what goal will be harder.
I’m thinking of adding a Lookview metaplot because it’s nearby, so it makes sense that it will be active in this part of the world. Beyond that reason, why they might be in the wastes is murkier. In order to know what the city-state of Lookview is doing, I need to have an idea of their motives.
In my initial world document I placed two small city-states at the far eastern edge of the map: Brighthome and Lookview. (Naming is not one of my worldbuilding strengths.) These two towns were fairly similar apart from location. Both were formerly part of the human kingdom of Lesmarch, which was destroyed by the gnoll hordes 125 years prior to the start of the campaign, making the two cities fairly similar. And as I expanded the setting, they actually became more similar. I effectively have a redundant city-state.
Brighthome was the home of one of the PCs and has been a centerpiece of the campaign so far. A repeated destination and the bastion of civilization. As I’m planning to have citizens from Lookview represented in the next session (to show what that half of the region is doing), I’m taking this opportunity to refocus the city. I don’t need to change anything, just add more details to differentiate.
Because they are so superficially similar, my first instinct was to make Lookview the dark reflection of the more familiar Brighthome. But this isn’t ideal: there aren’t “good” and “evil” nations in the real world. Every nation has its flaws. Twisted counterpart is fine, but the “dark mirror” is right out.
I’ve established Brighthome has merchants and traders that are somewhat state run, with the local earls also managing the trading companies. The nation is effectively a stratocracy, with the military having power but answering to the actual head of state. To contrast with that, Lookview could be a more mercantile nation, with competing merchant and guard companies. Or I could double down on the military and make more of a dictatorship, with less distinction between the army and the state. The one Lookview NPC the players will likely recall from the previous session was fairly racist towards elves, as I established an elf bias to make the nation memorable (and different). It might be interesting to have propoganda be common in the nation. To distinguish the two nations on a philosophical level. This actually makes logical sense: as Lookview is not regularly under siege by gnolls, the military needs to use other means of generating the fear that allows them to maintain control. Which is dark, but potentially necessary to prevent complacency in a hostile world.
Plans & Machinations
Knowing Lookview is a military dictatorship that has absolute control over the city-state, I can now think about potential goals. The gnolls have been focused on the western region (and Brighthome) for years, so this might be the opportunity Lookview needs to take back some lands and/or create a buffer between themselves and the gnolls. A forward base from which they can launch attacks or trade convoys. And watchtowers to give them advanced warning of gnolls. There are also orcs in the area, so Lookview might be aggressively focusing on the other threats, being proactive by going on the offensive.
This gives me a very clear motivation: one of the few easily secured locations in the region is the ruined town of Dougins, once a dot on the map but described during the second session during an extended incidental encounter. There the players encountered goblins and set the town on fire, before fleeing the town while pursued by several waves of goblins. The players will pass by the town again at the very start of the next session, so it might be interesting to add an unforeseen consequence to their actions: soldiers from Lookview claimed the town to build an early warning tower. The troops killed the remaining goblins, who were easily routed after spreading out to chase the PCs.
This has a couple fun effects for the game. First, it reinforces that the PCs’ actions in the world can have lasting consequences. Second, I can establish Lookview as expansionist, and start the session with a tense confrontation with a group that could become either allies or could end up enemies. They could try and recruit the PCs to help with remaining threats, ask them to help secure or rebuild Dougins, or make it known they’re securing their borders against unallied travellers. If the PCs become confrontational, the soldiers might try and confiscate items of use for the State.
I’m happy with that plan. I have a logical motive for other plots occurring in the world, which I can also spin off the player’s actions. Moving on to the elephant-sized creature in the room.
In 5th Edition D&D, an ancient blue dragon is CR 23, while the smaller adult is CR 16. In the first session I broke out my gargantuan blue dragon mini for the slumbering blue monster whose hoard the players are now planning on stealing. After drugging the beast to also drain its valuable blood.
I can go with the straight ancient blue from the Monster Manual, or I can enlarge the adult (bumping up its hit points in the process). With the party being level 5, even a CR 16+ monster will be a deadly threat, even with a small army of kobolds running interference. So the question is how to run that encounter with an even larger and challenging monster without having an instant TPK.
Some of this is easy. If I don’t focus fire with the claws and the bite it will spread out the damage help. If the dragon is poisoned, it will have disadvantage and miss more often (slightly), also helping avoid deaths. I can also stack the deck slightly by making the poison unusually effective against dragons, giving it some disadvantage on saves, while also rendering the dragon drugged and not thinking clearly, and thus not played to its full effectiveness. The frightful presence is a biggie, as a DC 17 save is hard, and poisoned doesn’t affect saving throw DCs. Far and away the most dangerous part of the dragon will be the breath weapon. It’s likely not an instant-kill for the fighters, but for for the rogue and sorcerer is could very well be. Above average damage and they go from full health to dead-dead. (I did include an “out” by way of the sphinx in session 8: its well could conceivably raise the dead. It’s a “get out of TPK free” card, provided either of the NPCs, Shea or Mery, survive.)
From an encounter design perspective, making sure there’s lots of cover and terrain will help. Having 3D terrain is nice for this, as it emphasises what the party can duck or hide behind. It’s easier to see where the hiding places are. While I’ve never felt the urge to embrace Dwarven Forge, the “ruins” add-on would be handy: that set and some pillars would do for 90% of my terrain needs. Instead, I’m putting my sad arts-and-crafts skills to the test and making some styrofoam walls. I saved a few choice pieces of packing from various larger purchases for things like this. And I can craft the walls to fall apart (holding them in place with toothpicks), so the dragon can smash through, changing the battlefield during the fight. If I were more dedicated (and handy), actual craft foam and a heated knife would produce a better looking product (that could also be used repeatedly). But this will do just fine for a one-off encounter.
There were definitely some moments of tension in this session, and most were caused by the players and thus less artificial. First, the minor confrontation with soldiers from Lookview almost escalated to a full brawl, as the PCs fired first. But they managed to talk things out (via healing a downed soldier) and didn’t end up antagonising an entire city-state. To add some drama to almost killing a soldier, I made him young (17 or so). When they asked why he would risk joining the army so young, on a whim I had him refer to “citizenship”, deciding that military service allowed one to vote. Shortly before the session I realised Lookview’s government could function like the society portrayed in Starship Troopers, where only those willing to serve the State can vote and influence policy. This meshed well with the propaganda-heavy nature of the nation that existed in my headspace. This and the elf-hate quickly established the tone of that nation to the players.
From there I had a short barghest fight in a tower to get some dice on the tower and allow the party to earn the gratitude of Lookview and its soldiers. And because, despite the fact I’m terrified of damaging my copy of Volo’s Guide to Monsters, I can’t stop using monsters from it…
After some additional interactions throughout the town, I had the party encounter a sand hag in their travels (pulled from Kobold Press’ Tomb of Beasts), as a semi random encounter in an old lighthouse. Despite not wanting an evil old woman (having deliberately eschewed the stereotype last session) in the end I just could not resist bringing in a hag. I thought it’d be a fun contrast after having a helpful old woman the previous session, since the players wouldn’t know what to expect. Rather than an overtly villainous hag, I thought it would be interesting to have a manipulative hag, one acting as a tempter. Someone to push a character or two in the direction of something foolish. Which the Swashbuckler completely did, after she offered to help him towards his destiny.
This left the dragon fight. The kobolds arrived, ready to enact their plan: feed the dragon victims carrying poison casks, which would weaken and presumably knock out the dragon. Or leave it vulnerable enough to defeat. Their victims were trio of “gnomes”, purchased fairly and thus able to be sacrificed without guilt in the minds of the kobolds. (The “gnomes” were really two halflings and a human child bought from an orphanage. But the kobolds didn’t really care.) I wanted this to be a hard reminder to the players that while kobolds are willing to communicate and strike a deal with humans, they’re still evil. The lawful good Sharpshooter objected to this and prior use of innocents as dragon bait, and put an arrow into the lead kobold, threatening to derail the dragon slaying. Quick use of a sleep spell spared most of the support kobolds, and a compromise was reached: the second-in-command would receive a sudden promotion, the unconscious leader was to be fed to the dragon first, and no more unwilling creatures were to be fed to dragons during business transactions with the party. And instead of the gnomes, the part rounded up some goblins I’d established were squatting in the ruins, sending them to their death at the hands of the dragon.
Then, finally, the fight began. Nine sessions after it was introduced, the dragon acted. I’d made a hybrid of the ancient and adult blue dragons (a mature blue dragon) that was a *slightly* less ridiculous CR 19, but still gargantuan in size. The party’s “plan” was to feed it poison (doing some high initial damage, some limited ongoing damage, and giving it the poisoned condition penalizing its attacks), then hide and let the kobolds die. Meanwhile, the Grippli and the Swashbuckler would scavenge the hoard for magical items in an attempt to just steal the treasure and run. But the Red Mage and the Sharpshooter decided to attack from range while the dragon busied itself with the kobolds. So it descended into a crazed battle with a poisoned dragon. All but two of the kobolds perished, the Sharpshooter came within an inch of death, and was saved by an inspiration die (used to reroll his third death save and thus keep himself alive long enough for the healer to arrive). At the end, the Swashbuckler and Grippli were spotted and engaged the dragon, but managed to drop the badly injured dragon with a well timed critical. Much treasure was gained and divided among the party and kobolds.
With the dragon dead, the Swashbuckler followed the directions told to him by the hag, drinking a special elixir she had gifted to him before consuming a bite of the dragon’s heart, gaining a measure of its power. And thus took a step towards his destiny. At least according to what the hag said. I only have some loose ideas of the effect of this, but the intent is mostly to tempt the Swashbuckler to listen to the hag and do some foolish things that might generate more stories.
I definitely went easy on the party with the dragon fight, justified by the dragon’s drugging. However, the party didn’t do themselves any favours by spreading out, making it harder for me not to focus fire (or reach each other for healing), or bring the melee combatants to bear against the dragon. Spreading out has almost killed this party before.
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