Borderlands Session 32

I’ve mentioned in the past that I seeded a rivalry between the Swashbuckler character at my table and an NPC, named Gharinthar. Gharinthar was always one step ahead and off having epic, heroic adventures elsewhere. So whenever the Swashbuckler introduced himself as “the greatest swordsman in the land” the NPCs would respond with “you’re Gharinthar?”

I ended the last session with the reappearance of Gharinthar, also training in swordsmanship under the Immortal Master. This means this session had to include two elements: a training montage and a climactic duel. It feels like time to end the rivalry or have it come to a semi-climax.

You Need a Montage

I planned the montage to be open ended. I planned alternating scenes between those training at the monastery and the other characters who were getting into shenanigans while freeing slaves. It was mostly quick descriptive scenes where I asked loaded questions or presented the event and asked how it unfolded. Training moments like balancing atop a pole with a bucket of ice water on their head and then asking how they fall. Having them stare at a boulder and then asking them what they realized about themselves or the rock. Setting up a situation while a group of escaping slaves is ambushed and asking what they talked about.

Quest for the Duel

The bulk of my planning was spent considering how to handle the duel. I initially envisioned a quick battle that could happen at the start or middle of the session, leaving room to continue the story. But that wouldn’t work. The Swashbuckler is an optimizer who would rush into battle with both swords swinginging, dropping an Action Surge for a quick six attacks, with every hit having a Superiority Die attached. If I had Gharinthar built the same way, whoever won initiative would just ginsu the other party: the amount of damage a 12th level PC can dish out far outpaces their hit points. I considered preventing the nova effect by splitting up attacks, having each player alternate between attacks. But that felt… forced. It would certainly work, but I wanted something longer and more dramatic.

So I had to find a way of having a duel come at a point when the Swashbuckler had already burned a bunch of resources and spent their action surge. It had to be at the end of an adventuring day.

There needed to be a dungeon under the Monastery. Several quick combat encounters to sap hit points but without the opportunity for a short rest. And maybe something else for the other players to fight, so they wouldn’t be bored. Such as a rival adventuring party…

This led to an instant story: there was some magical MacGuffin at the end of a gauntlet beneath the monastery that could be won by a group of champions.

Most of the group had alternative PCs from past one-shots (Madness at Gardmore Abbey and Tomb of Horrors, both of which I’d moved into my world). I quickly brought them in, updating a few in level. One player was lacking an alt. Which meant they could play Gharinthar, leaving me to watch the PvP.

Puzzling

My wife adores puzzles. They’re her favourite part of D&D. So I opted to throw a couple puzzles into this dungeon between combat encounters.

Because this dungeon wasn’t a straight dungeon but a gauntlet to a prize, each room had to be an element of a larger test. A series of trails. So there could be a couple straight combat challenges, but also challenges that required teamwork or wisdom.

I devised a Test of Bravery that involved sticking one’s hand into a cauldron of opaque acid, which magically dissolved everything except living objects. A Test of Cooperation where you had to pull a series of levers as a group. And a Test of Cunning where I had the players play Sudoku, using a glyph sudoku puzzle stolen from Mass Effect Andromeda. (Because no one at my table had played that game, it was a perfect puzzle: it followed logical rules everyone knew, but the variation in presentation forced them to think. And as it used glyphs rather than numbers, the solution wasn’t obvious, but once you figured out the answer it made sense.)

The time of a dungeon crawl is always something that’s hard to manage: you can’t always predict how long certain chambers, especially puzzles that can grind a game to a slow halt or be solved instantly. When planning a dungeon with puzzles, it helps to have the puzzles frontloaded, so you can shuffle later rooms if things are solved too slowly (i.e. dropping fights or secondary puzzles) or improv additional scenes in the adventure if they speed towards the solution. Having an extra optional puzzle can also help, having a puzzle that you can include if there’s time.

In planning this dungeon, I knew I needed to have a few glyphs revealed early (for the Sudoku puzzle) but I didn’t want that to come at the end, in case everything prior took too long. So it was a mid-dungeon puzzle.

Finally Finale

If there’s time, I’ll have the session end with the arrival at the capital. A fun cliffhanger where the heroes find out they were expected and the God-King is surrounded by innocents (and witnesses).

I’ve had a vision in the back of my mind for awhile where the heroes arrive and find the audience chamber filled and the God-King gives them an offer to join him and become legends. Which is the kind of offer the egotistical Swashbuckler will have a hard time turning down. And having potential innocent bystanders will delay the urge to just rush forward.

Post-Game Report

The dungeon crawl went textbook. It was fun with an appropriate length of time spent in most of the chambers. Which just makes it a little tricky to decompress here, as there’s less to give feedback on. “Things went gud” makes for poor analysis. Things did go a tad long, so I had to have the epilogue moment mostly as a quick cutscene, rushing through the travel prior to that scene. But things were just a hair rushed, so I still managed to have my dramatic cliffhanger and it didn’t really hurt immersion.

The montage made for some amusing scenes and some fun player interactions, especially between the mischievous grippli rogue and the swashbuckler. Those two players often feed off each other to the amusement of the rest of the table.

The PvP aspect of the fight didn’t really happen. Despite my suggestions that the other PCs also wanted the “prize” at the end (a +1 bonus to two stats, to a maximum of 21, which could be gained by up to 5 PCs) most of the group just sat it out and let Gharinthar and Flynn the Swashbuckler duel it out. A few rushed right to the reward while others just sat down and chatted with their rivals. A few participated by attacking Flynn and Gharinthar, but after it became a one-on-one duel they actually stopped and healed their opponents to make the fight “fair”.

As expected, Flynn burned a bunch of resources early on in the duel, having a sudden nova that almost claimed victory immediately. But without Action Surge, Ghary lived. Rather than have a direct mirror match, I made Gharinthar a swashbuckler rogue/bard of the College of Swords, so he was able to turn invisible then heal himself and get back into the fight. The college of swords proved very effective when paired with Sneak Attack. At the end, it came down to single digit hit points, with several bad rolls swinging victory from one to the other. The weakened PC swashbuckler scored a few good hits, but at the end a few good rolls led Gharinthar to victory. It was very satisfying from a narrative perspective.