Borderlands Session Twenty-One

This will final session of this “season”, as it’s a good place to take a break as one of my players is itching to DM another adventure, while I have an idea for a Star Wars mini-campaign. The next session of this campaign will be the Tomb of Annihilation as I work that into my world and story, but that will take a little long to work through. Easier to take the break now.

This makes the upcoming session a little trickier to plan. I can’t introduce any story elements that will take longer to unfold than a single session or start a new story. While I can work towards the Tomb of Annihilation, I don’t want to include too many clues that will be forgotten in the intervening months.

The End of Some Things

When doing my regular sandbox game, I don’t want to know where the story is going. In fact, it helps not to know, so the table can decide for themselves and I won’t try and steer things in a different direction towards stuff I want to see. But in this instance, some leading by the nose is necessary.

As I know where the story is going, I can work towards a cliffhanger or more dramatic ending. And end that will stick in the mind and make it easier to jump back into story following the break(s). I can forge ahead and get the players to a good place, so when we resume we can jump right in with limited fumbling or filler.

Really… I’m already breaking the sandbox by dropping in a big prepublished module. If the party chooses to ignore that quest, they certainly can. If they find the entrance to the Tomb of Nine Gods, see the leering face of certain emerald devil, and opt to bugger right off then that’s fine. The story goes in a different direction. But the Swashbuckler has been asking for a big dramatic quest for his character, and stopping the Soul Monger qualifies. After all, you have to listen to your players.

Thinking on the end, there’s two or three places that would make a good ending. Reaching the location where I’m moving the adventure is a good end (a region of my world known as the Lizard Swamp). Finding the Lost City of Omu (or whatever I rename it) is another idea. Or reaching the city and finding some sign of whom their opponent is, some example of a certain devilish face. That would be a dramatic cliffhanger. This means this session needs to really get the characters on track for that destination, confirming the location and focusing on travel with perhaps a dash of research.

Making Boon Boon

I’m going to start the session by handing out a few player boons. I’ve been teasing some changes for the Sharpshooter that I should formalize in a way they’re aware of, so they can remind me if I forget. And I want to reward the Red Mage with a small boon for the completion of their story arc. Both players gave me story seeds that I was able to use to launch quests, and so they get rewarded.

The Sharpshooter died and was resurrected by a revivify spell prior to my decision to use Tomb of Annihilation as the big storyline for the middle of the campaign. As he finished his storyline, I was using his death and resurrection as a justification for giving him a unique perk. But, with my decision to bring in the Death Curse, this adds extra weight as he was resurrected when he probably shouldn’t have been able to. So I’m using his semi-animation as a spectre to hand wave his being brought back to life: part of his soul was used to form the specter along with negative energy. And when the revivify failed to find his full soul, it instead found the still animate specter, pulling that into his body to revive him. So he’s partially undead. I’m halving his biological requirements (food, air, water, sleep, etc) as well as giving him resistance to necrotic damage.

Meanwhile, the Red Mage drank unicorn blood to regain his waning sorcerous powers (which is a thing in my setting). So I’m giving him some kind of unicorn-based power. Curing poison or healing damage might work, but I might go with teleportation. It’s fun and gets the character out of trouble (or closer to an injured ally) without impacting the sting of the poison traps they’re likely to face.

My reasoning for the boons comes down to eschewing Pathfinder. Characters in the PFRPG were very balanced, and bonuses came from a myriad of sources: class features, feats, mandated magic items, and the like. I didn’t need to give anyone a buff or small bonus, as that extra power would be lost among the numerous other little powers. But in 5e, my players are very aware of the fewer options each character possesses. The smaller “hand size” to use the card game terminology. So I’m giving them small unique bonuses as a perk, a reminder of my freedom as the DM to just hack the rules and do what I want with the game. While I could do this in Pathfinder, I feel more enabled and encouraged by 5th Edition and its looser balance and focus on DM empowerment, and less worried that powers I hand out will just go unnoticed (or become prone to abuse through synergy with a feat or magic item).

Post-Game Report

The middle of this past session went to a weird place.

I started off in the unicorn wood where the final session ended, passing out the various notes denoting new powers and potentially divine dreams. Then back to the Bluescale kobold city, a rendezvous with with NPCs, and some very minor research. Having discovered the location of the Lizard Swamp, the party wandered off in that rough direction. I sighed sadly, the party having missed the opportunities to find out about the Forbidden City of Omu (or Ohmou as I’m calling it for when I add it to my map), or the Nine Gods.

I told them the swamp was westernly, and they could reach it by going southwest or west-by-southwest or even westish. They opted to go directly southwest. Okay so far. Cue the travel montage. I revealed the path to the southwest from the kobold city on my displayed map (I use RealmWorks to display that sort of thing, with a fog of war obscuring areas the PCs haven’t been). Checking my overland map, they passed right by a gnomish Vault. Pretty much directly overtop… They’d seen a Vault before, and knew they were places gnomes hid from the presumed apocalypse. I hadn’t planned for them to hit this location, and knew nothing of the Vault itself. But they walked right over it. So I described it, presenting it as a sealed location that had been unassailed and unopened for centuries, hoping it would be a memorable curiosity in the world, like an ancient relic or statue. A generic place of wonder. But nope, they fumbled at the entrance until I let them in. At that point, they’d become so fixated, they’d waste hours trying to brute force a way inside (on the remote chance of treasure) so my choices were to let them waste an hour, handwave them giving up through narration, or surrender and let them inside early before a quarter of the session flickered away.

With me swearing under my breath, they entered the gnomish apocalypse vault.

Fumbling, I decided to have it inhabited to contrast with the last vault, making it full of gnomes who had spent the last two centuries locked away. I quickly opted to have them relying entirely on automatons to do all their manual work, a little like the humans of WALL-E. Not wanting this to be a useless sidequest in what was supposed to be the climactic session, I scrambled to make it relevant. Quickly, I had the gnome king also be suffering from the Death Curse, tying him into “the plot” while also providing a little extra information on the Lizard Swamp. A PC also had the idea of asking the gnomes for a greater restoration spell for the Swashbuckler who was missing memories after a time in the Feywild. This worked and was a lovely opportunity to get the PCs directed right to Omu, namedrop Acererak, and give the Swashbuckler a little impromptu boon. The random unplanned diversion suddenly filled in the narrative gap I was stumbling over.

(This was followed by a little aborted sandboxing as the players debated the benefits of going underground or overland through the remaining mountains, before resuming their journey. But this was mercifully quick. And allowed the Swashbukcler to get a feel for some new class features.)

From there, the party travelled overland to Om/Ohmou and after some fumbling found the entrance to the Tomb. Which was locked. This allowed me to end the session at a semi-dramatic moment: standing at the entrance and having to find the nine cube keys. This allows for a quick easily resolved goal at the start of the next session followed by some prolonged dungeon crawling.

Now comes the break. The table voted and they want me to run some Star Wars before one of my players does a little mini-campaign, so it will be some time before the Tomb of Annihilation resumes. But it’s nice to shake things up, which prevents the long campaign from getting stale.