Borderlands: Session Ten
I failed to ask what the party planned to do next at the end of my previous gaming session, and thus have a limited idea of their future plans. Next session I will have to be far more reactive and unable to plan for their actions. Which is somewhat advantageous, as I have only a week and a day between sessions, and wouldn’t have time to plan anything elaborate anyway. Especially not while also writing this blog.
Back in planning for Session Five, I hoped to have the dragon dead by around Session Eight, so events are close to where I anticipated. However, with the death of the dragon, all my players’ immediate goals have also been achieved. Prior to the session I will have to send out an e-mail, asking my players to consider what their character would do now they’re flush with cash. I didn’t want to plan too far beyond given how deadly the dragon was, and how easy a TPK (or a couple deaths) would have been. Having half the party ripped apart by a dragon changes things
At this point I’d also like to slow down my party’s advancement. They’ve been rocketing through levels. Levels 1-3 are designed to pass quickly, and level 5 was accelerated through killing an ungodly high CR dragon, but it still feels too fast. I’d like to keep them at level 6 (and below level 11) for a goodly time. Slow down the pace of levelling for the rest of the campaign. I might even switch to an alternate experience track. Or find some way to have downtime, as I’d prefer not to have the entire level 1 to 10+ campaign cover less than a year.
Order of Operations
The start of the next session will be some ever fun bookkeeping. I have to begin by reminding the party to subtract four days of rations, which I neglected to do during the previous session. Plus feed for the horses. This is important as I need to have them calculate the weight of their newfound treasure. As they’re loaded down with the massive dragon hoard from the fallen blue dragon, they might be close to their weight limit. Maybe. Without a bag of holding, carrying thousands of gold pieces is an issue (50 coins to a pound) so I’ll have to have them determine what they’re carrying and where. If all their gold and silver is on their horse that’s worth knowing, as horses can be stolen or die.
After that I can get reactive. There are a few dangling plot hooks I do need to consider: the Swashbuckler promised to return the dragon’s eyeballs to Mother Knottfinger (the sand hag who gave them some assistance), there’s the two rescued halflings and the human child (which the kobolds were planning on using for dragon bait) to care for or escort to safety, and there’s the matter of the dryad whom they were planning on visiting again with their decanter of endless water. Upon rifling through the dragon’s hoard the party also discovered a mysterious metal cube with gnomish writing they couldn’t read. They’re also likely to return to Dougins, the town occupied by human soldiers. I need to plan for what happens in each of those situations, and at the least should have some details of resulting scenes
I don’t need to let them decide their full plan of action initially. Instead, after each destination is reached (the hag, the town, etc) I can ask them their next destination. And during the ensuing discussion, I can think about what I want to happen next. Letting the party plan their next move takes less time initially but potentially more time overall: the longer I let the players discuss their plans, the more time I have to do the same.
Two of the more probable goals involve the Sharpshooter, who wishes to spend some time training with elves and/or rebuilding his hometown, which was partially destroyed via backstory. Either would be nice, as rebuilding and training in specialised combat techniques takes time. I can use that opportunity to jump ahead a month or two or allow other characters to retrain.
There’s also the aforementioned mysterious metal cube. While this was enigmatic during the session, it’s a straight-from-the-book magic item (a Daern’s instant fortress for anyone who’s interested). I initially kept its activation secret to add some drama that could potentially turn it into a side-quest, but now I wonder if that was a mistake that would build up the cube to be more important than it actually is. The more time passes before there’s a plot payoff, the grander that payoff has to be. If the party has to spend two sessions discovering the command word for the item, it had better do something worthy of two sessions worth of time. Thinking on a way around this, I might take a different route with the cube. The Red Mage has a magic hat (read MacGuffin) that’s been largely forgotten, but seemingly holds the souls of former wearers. Now would be an ideal time to remind the player of this, perhaps by having a past wearer able to read the writing. This allows me to bring the hat back into the spotlight at an appropriate and useful time, when the hat itself can be given the attention it deserves. Just like I don’t want to give the cube too much of the spotlight, I didn’t want to give the hat too little by introducing it at a time when it would either detract away from immediate plot-lines or be ignored because of more immediate problems.
Payback is a Bastard
In the previous session the kobolds tried to use captured halflings and a human child to drug the dragon, sending them to be eaten with small casks of poison on their backs. The party objected to and altered this plan, and sent in a wave of goblins instead. I hand waved most of the capturing of the goblins, since it was being done by the rogue, who should be able to move undetected through the ruins and one-shot most goblins. While I could have shifted the end of the session to goblin capturing and begun the next session dealing with the dragon, it didn’t seem necessary to focus that much time on one player, nor was the forgone conclusion of beating up goblins interesting enough.
But as I think about the beginning beats of the next session, I wonder if there should be some fallout to just snatching up a half-dozen goblins. The party took a short rest, so they’re not completely expended. An ambush by goblins as the party rests might be an interesting way to begin the session. Especially if the goblins tracked the missing goblins to the dragon and see its loot free for the taking.
I also need to consider who else might be interested in controlling the town. With the adult dragon slain, who would claim the ruins as their own and seizes upon the vacuum of power?
There are sessions where everything goes as you expect. And then there are sessions where you look at your notes and then look at what’s happening at the table and wonder how they’re connected at all.
Things started well. I reintroduced the cube/ Daern’s instant fortress along with the MacGuffin hat of the Red Mage, and the party played with that for a time. That player had felt a little left out with magic items following the dragon fight, so getting both made him feel excited.
Then came the twist.
For the last couple sessions the party had a meek ex-slave with them, who was serving as a cook and general servant. One of the hundred or so captives freed from the gnolls, she was flirty and servile, and told the party she was a water genasi due to her green skin. In reality she was a yuan-ti pureblood, who was planted with the slaves to spy on them and warn of escape attempts or dissent. When “rescued” she took the opportunity to spy on her would-be saviours and find out their intents and if they posed a threat to the yuan-ti and their bewitched gnoll allies. I knew there’d have to be an eventual betrayal, but was uncertain when made sense. I wanted it to be later, so it’d be more dramatic (and so she could gain more information). But from a logical point of view, it seemed likely some or all of the party would be killed by the dragon and she was left alone with a single NPC. Now was clearly the best time for her to escape. Plus, because she was a water genasi, the party had entrusted her with their decanter of endless water. Having her flee stranded the party several days outside of civilisation in the middle of a super hot desert without anything to drink. Which is just too perfect.
Most of the party decided to follow the traitor. So they rode long and hard, almost crippling their horses in the process. And, in the end, they defeated her, and discovered her serpentine nature.
However, while the pursuit was occurring the Red Mage – devoid of spells – opted to remain behind with a few NPCs in the ruins of the town, hiding in their new fortress. Preceding this, the goblinoid inhabitants of the ruins had warned the party they wanted a third of the treasure. Seeing easy prey, they surrounded the fortress and laid siege.
Don’t split the party, folks.
Initially, I’d planned to have the goblins attack before the party could rest. But I didn’t, as that would have interrupted the flow of the betrayal scene. It didn’t feel like it was the right time. With the new situation, I anticipated an encounter where one PC was in the tower and the rest were ambushing the monsters from behind. Which could be fun. However, the isolated player had other ideas and tried for a long-shot gambit, casting suggestion on the head goblinoid: a hobgoblin warlord who was the defacto ruler of the ruins. The goblinoid failed and the encounter ended. Lucky roll. Sometimes that happens.
Had the player phrased the suggestion more cleverly, things would have worked out far more in their favour. They could have suggested “return to your base to regroup” or “flee from the powerful wizard”. Instead, he said “escort me to the edge of town.” It seemed like a good idea: two-thirds of the goblin forces stayed behind as the warlord escorted the Red Mage to border. However, upon the suggested behaviour being complete, the spell ended and the warlord instantly attacked. The Red Mage decided to get clever with the Daern’s instant fortress but fumbled the roll. Then he tried another suggestion, this time on the ogre henchman, but spoke a too long and awkward sentence that wasn’t as useful as intended. The next round he activated the fortress, but no opponents were caught in the area, and the warlord and his ogre minion proceeded to beat down the Red Mage.
(Meanwhile, the NPC hireling – Shea the half-orc merc – fled with the two horses completely laden down with the entire party’s share of the dragon’s hoard.)
I was left with an interesting predicament. Would the goblins leave the Red Mage alive? I had an instant idea for a rescue mission, with the rest of the party trying to save the captured PC. Or a ransom situation. But that felt soft. Like, as the Dungeon Master, I was letting the character live when they shouldn’t.
I left the player wondering on their character’s fate (as I considered it myself), until the rest of the party finally returned and found the Red Mage’s body dangling from the fortresses’ battlements: a warning to others intruding on the hobgoblin’s territory.
The party quickly reclaimed the tower, killed the guards, grabbed the body, and fled the town. They chased down Shea, who lacked water and thus quickly became dehydrated and was easily overtaken. Reunited with their wealth, the party decided to visit the lair of the Sphinx from a couple sessions earlier, which had the potential of resurrecting their friend. I’d introduced that plot point as insurance against a TPK in the event of poor luck during the dragon fight. I asked the player if he wanted to keep playing his character or make a new one, and he opted for resurrection. All-in-all a short death, with the character back before the end of the session. I considered dragging out the journey and return from death, but that always seems unfair to the dead player who just has to sit and watch. If there needed to be more of a gap that’d be fine, but at this point any delay would have literally been filler. It didn’t serve the story and it meant a player was bored. So things went smoothly for a change.
I view the death as a warning. So far being knocked down could mean be being captured. I’d been forgiving as a DM. Killing the character – even if he could quickly be resurrected – was a sign that I wasn’t always going to pull punches. While the character came back, I had killed him and he could have stayed dead. I’ll probably have the Sphinx’s pool of resurrection only work once, and then need some time to recharge. So the next death will be more permanent.
Still, after the discovery of the tower, I don’t think anything that happened this session entirely went according to plan.
The crazy events of the session even set-up a future goal for the party. The Red Mage was resurrected, but the goblins had looted his body, stealing several magic items, hundreds of platinum pieces, and several valuable diamonds. The throw-away hobgoblin warlord name dropped for a quick introductory encounter (who wasn’t even meant to be encountered, let alone, fought) just became a nemesis deserving of retribution.
Because they split the party.
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