Borderlands: Session Fifteen

I like television. That’s a bold statement, I know. I enjoy the narrative constraints television seasons bring to an ongoing story. The idea of ups and downs leading to peak viewing weeks, with cliffhangers, and finally the end of seasons where there can be a passage of time. While there can be ongoing story-lines stretching between seasons, serving as the foundation for a series as a whole, not every season need be exactly alike. Even if the story is heavily serialised, there are plots that end and changes in the tone of the story, as the narrative and status quo changes.

This structure has its weaknesses – such as stretching out storylines to fill a year – but it’s also a good structure for a roleplaying game campaign. You have a beginning and an end, but numerous small plots that unfold over the course of the entire campaign, told over singular stories that last a finite length of time. You have an ensemble cast that all generally get featured each story, and while the plots of only one or two characters are typically spotlighted at a time, every character get some time in the spotlight.

On Hiatus

This session is my “season finale”. Not on purpose. As mentioned last time, one of my players has a story they want to tell and is taking over my group for a few weeks. This has forced my hand. But I like to think I would have realised the narrative potential for this to be the “climax”. I’ve wanted to do a time jump for a little while, and the best place would have always been this coming session or the one after (depending on if I wanted an “epilogue” or not).

It’s a good idea not to drag out storylines too long. Things need to change and progress in a campaign, or they begin to feel like an endless quest. The dynamic of the campaign and the PC’s status quo should change as the story progresses. The motivations of the character need to evolve, and the stakes cannot remain static.

4e and 5e both have concepts of level “tiers”. These are mostly a narrative device, and can influence how characters are perceived in the world and the types of stories they’re involved in, which shift over the course of levels. The challenges a level 13 party faces should be structurally different than ones a level 3 party faces. You can’t make a story appropriate for level 13 characters just by increasing the level of the opponents. 13th level heroes should not be guarding a wagon of goods being escorted between small towns. That type of tale no longer works, not just because a 13th level party will just bypass the plot via teleport or tree stride or wind walk, but also because you do hire the Heroes of the Realm to do the job of rookie guards.

By the end if this session, my party should be 7th level. Their status in the world needs to change in response. They should have a reputation, and their skills should be respected. By reaching 7th level they’re close to the status of heroes of the realm, known throughout the immediate region. Stories will be told of their adventures. At this point, they’ve secured a legacy.

As such, the tone of the campaign should shift. Taking a break from the campaign emphasises this, as it gives appropriate time for reputations to spread and stories to be shared. That way when the adventures return, every tavern in the kingdom might know them by name, while nobles might be seeking them for favours and offering high value patronages.

What Lies Beneath

I’ve known for six months or so that the yuan-ti were the villains of the meta-plot. That they were the secret masters of the gnolls, and using them to gather slave labour. Almost instantly after I decided this, I had the image of a buried pyramid in the desert being unearthed by slaves. Something ancient. Lost by the sands and formerly guarded by the elves until the Catastrophe in the world’s backstory left it vulnerable to rediscovery.

Beyond the idea of a buried ziggurat, I was uncertain of the rest of the plot. Why did the yuan-ti want it so badly?

Again, Volo’s Guide to Monsters had the solution: a yuan-ti anthema. This beastie is giant snake and the result of a failed attempt at divinity. These first appeared in the 3e Fiend Folio and are also in the aforementioned VGtM. And a Huge miniature of the anthema was released several years back (way back in 2004?) Perfect! It’s immortal and could have been preserved in a hidden layer, waiting to be released and restore the yuan-ti to glory, as it knew forgotten lore and rituals from the days the yuan-ti ruled the land. And it’d also act as a leader, uniting the various yuan-ti cults. That’s both a good reason for yuan-ti to be digging and a solid boss monster to serve as the season’s climax.

There were two problems with this plan:

The first problem is the monster is a Challenge 12. This is tough (for level 7s!) but potentially still not enough for my party if they’re fully rested (which they might be). At <200 hit points and no resistances, it will likely only last a couple rounds of full nova. Since I want it to be a boss fight, I might have to make a legendary variant with extra hp, maybe some damage resistance, and some legendary actions. I don’t want to increase its damage too much, so I can potentially remove its multiattack action and instead spread its attacks over multiple turns in a round.

The second problem is larger. I didn’t have the miniature! I got all excited and fell in love with my plan, then realised the mini was one that somehow escaped my purchases. D’oh! Thankfully, it was still available on the secondary market. I found one at Troll and Toad for a decent price (for an 13yo rare) (That e-store has served me well over the years, and I’ve received some *solid* customer service from them in the past, so I’ll happily give them a small blog plug.) Had that failed I imagine I could have used the stat block but found a dollar store snake monster or something.

Old School Reconnaissance

One of my goals for this dungeon crawl is less combat and more puzzles and hazards. I’d like things to be a bit more old school. Not quite a full funhouse dungeon, but more chambers that require thought and problem solving.

I’m hampered by the in-world purpose of the dungeon. As a yuan-ti ziggurat where commoners came to worship, it has to be functional. There can’t be a horrible murder-trap in a hallway people regularly walk through or a fiendish puzzle in a bedchamber. I dislike illogical dungeons.

The problem is these kinds of dungeon are hard. I’m super out of practice at this kind of locale. It requires far more original thought and problem solving. You can’t just pick a monster and throw it into a chamber. I also haven’t been particularly inspired of late, which is somewhat unfortunate. You really need inspiration to strike. But even a lame chamber is better than a completely undetailed chamber. Every room needs *something* interesting inside. When in doubt, add another combat or weird feature or just some treasure. Even if you have zero ideas for a cool trap, you can somewhat entertain the players with what looks to be an obvious trap that they can overcome: nothing happens, but they still have a moment of satisfaction and triumph. Even some potentially trapped treasure can work, as they might debate how to extract gemstone eyes from a statue or question if something is threat or not.

Post-Game Report

Things went okay.

My opinion is skewed because, just after the climax, my 6yo son needed help. Technology had failed and Netflix wasn’t working. This took longer than expected and derailed the momentum of the session, so when I returned everyone was out of the game and just chatting I wasn’t able to segue into a denouement. Not easily and without feeling artificial anyway. It was easier to just join the chatting and say “see you next time”.

Weak endings ruin everything.

I think the rest went fairly well. Puzzles were solved – some faster than others – and the dungeon was fairly completely explored. Every corner and nook had to be excavated. As always, there were some great interactions between the part, which tend to really make sessions. Even if my adventures are terrible, the player interplay can keep a game session entertaining. And once again the wand of wonder proved to be the entertainment MVP as a hilarious roll resulted in a powerful yuan-ti aberration falling in love with the grippli rogue. Which was awkward for me as yuan-ti are meant to be emotionless, and I’m uncertain how a creature like that falling madly in love would react to these strange new experiences. It was confused and uncertain, helpful but still evil.

I also made sure to include a return appearance by “the necromancer”: a yuan-ti mindwhisperer that survived a battle an earlier with the Swashbuckler. Enemies that survive, even if they were initially throw-away and unnamed mooks, are automatically elevated to villain status. As a player, you don’t want to be taken out by an unnamed nobody: finding out they’re an important figure makes the narrative of losing to them make sense and also allows the PC to retain some ego. So its return became a much more dramatic fight, with lots of extra enemies. There was some lovely drama at the end with a couple badly injured adventurers, almost tapped at the end of an adventuring day. The final end of inaptly named “necromancer” came when the Gripli engaged it, and was knocked unconscious in a brutal attack. (Then, because it’s a villain and I’m a dick, it used its extra attack to hit the dying Grippli rogue while down, imparting two failed death saving throws before its turn.) But, as was quickly pointed out, it did this in plain sight of the love struck yuan-ti abomination, who promptly attacked and grappled the mindwhisperer mini-boss, allowing for the eventual victory.

The party adventured fairly deep before resting, and fought the boss mostly at full power. Which wasn’t really unexpected, and was the reason I jacking-up its hit points. (Had they rested earlier and been more exhausted before final chamber, and were in danger of a TPK, I *might* have defaulted to the book hp.) The final fight was still over very quick: three rounds at most. One PC went down and another was really close, but was saved by polymorph. A fortunate critical hit also helped knock down the monster while another almost killed a PC outright, after a devastating multiattack dropped him from full health to 0.

I’ll likely handle the epilogue via emails. I can write a little flash fiction describing what happened after. Having sent off a few texts to players, I know what they would have done immediately after, so I can describe those events as a historical perspective. This also reminds the players that they’ve moved into the level range of “big damn heroes” that are much more well known.

From there, I know six or nine months will pass. I can fire off individual emails with some loaded questions, allowing me to narrate what happens. But I’ll likely wait a few weeks, doing so in the middle of the mini-campaign so people will be reminded of their old characters and that events are happening. And a little while after that I can take requests for the next storyline. Find out what the immediate goals are and then plan ‘n’ brainstorm.