Borderlands: Session Seventeen

My last session was probably a textbook example of poorly executed Dungeon Mastering. My players jumped through a super obvious adventure hook, but a couple sessions before I thought they were going to. I responded with a staggering lack of imagination and stingy treasure. I need to do much, much better this week.

Rest and Recovery

Attempting to bounce back from the above gives me a few really big goals to accomplish this session:

  1. Think of a *real* treasure of the ages that would be found in a gnomish vault
  2. Establish how it was missed the first time round
  3. Get the players to realize they might have missed said treasure
  4. Prompt the players to return

I have a couple ideas for Step #2. Given the Vault was created by gnomes, illusions are the easy solution. Secret doors were searched for but no one disbelieved or thought to check for magic. The real treasure could be behind an illusionary wall that is hiding an entire chamber or wing of the Vault. And since the party was quickly exploring, I can put on my “hardass DM” voice and remind them that they never looked for illusions or thoroughly checked for secret doors.

This makes Step #3 easy as well: the players are in a gnome crypt. If I introduce two or three significant illusions it will remind them that gnomes are known for trickery. And this encourages me to be tricksy with the crypt, having illusion-based traps or hidden chambers.

The harder part is the “Treasure of the Ages”. More money works, but this feels cheap, especially as my party already has more gold than they can spend. That feels like taking the easy way out. This is especially true since the world follows post-apocalypse tropes. The treasure could be a wealth of lore. The lost gnomish library. Alternatively, I have some magical MacGuffin gemstones in the world (called Nexus Crystals) that are used to power golems and magical devices, and the “Treasure” could be a storehouse of those.

I have another idea. I have warforged in my campaign setting, and have established in the campaign document that the secret of creating more warforged is lost/ unknown. Forgotten during the “Great Catastrophe” that made things all post-apocalypsey. The “Treasure of the Ages” could be a creation forge: a way to create a small army of warforged or golems. Enough to defend and rebuild a town or create a loyal and undying army. Or create a lasting future for the warforged already in the world.

Crypt Keeper

Where the story left off, the party had reached the crypt suspected of being source of the undead plague causing so much suffering to the Sharpshooter’s hometown. Delving through the crypt should occupy a good chunk of the session. Maybe as much as half. I don’t want to make the crypt so large that it takes a full session to explore, let alone multiple sessions of dungeon crawling. It’s not that important, and I’d like to move onto other stories as quick as the plot allows.

As a functional crypt there needs to be numerous alcoves for storing or intering bodies. There might also be some mass graves for the human and dwarven workers/ slaves that built the crypts. I’ll probably have their section decorated with skulls like the Parisian catacombs.

In addition to zombies, I’ll populate the crypt with other assorted undead. Whatever strikes my fancy. Likely some skeletons and wights plus whatever is in Tome of Beasts that’s roughly around the right CR. A bone swarm will likely be too high a Challenge, but I’m tempted to throw one in anyway. See how my players react and work around such a beast. Drain some resources.

During a recent Paizo sale I purchased a few assorted prepainted plastic minis. I always like grabbing critters I don’t have during such sales. Whatever is different and cheap. This time I snagged a boneclaw: a monster from 3rd Edition (Monster Manual III) that also ended up being a filler monster in the 4e Monster Manual. Its shtick is that it has really long claws and mega-reach (and literally nothing else). It was a dick/ gotcha monster in 3e, which pretty much took advantage of how opportunity attacks and reach on large creatures worked in that edition. Spiked chains: the Monster. But I need something simple at the end, and it’s unexpected/ unfamiliar. So it might end up in the dungeon as a nasty surprise.

I’ll also need to consider what’s going on with the undead. Why they’re rising and what started the undead plague that’s currently befalling the small mountain town of Norall. A necromancer? Some kind of demon or freed unnatural force? Whatever it is, it will largely be a MacGuffin that’s just a justification for the problem and should be reasonably easily solved. I don’t want this to become a major part of the campaign.

Post-Game Report

The dungeon ate up more of the session than I anticipated. Mostly because of some bad luck and party dynamics.

I placed the bone swarm in a sub-level of the dungeon, accessible via an illusory pit trap. A couple characters fell in and engaged the monster, but one remained up top, dealing with a couple skeletons with bows. (I positioned them on the far side of the pit behind cover, to draw adventurers into the trap. Which worked nicely as the Swashbuckler charged forward and into the pit.) The Grippli Rogue proceeded to unleash the wand of wonder instead of attacking the swarm, allowing it to spend a couple rounds shredding the Swashbuckler and Red Mage (and then grabbing the Red Mage to use as a body shield against the Swashbuckler).

The wand of wonder continues to be the entertainment MVP, first covering the bone swarm with honey and then filling the trapped pit area with a dozen cows, which are then promptly shredded by the swarm filling the area with meat 7.5 cubic meters of meat. It then made the Grippli Rogue perpetually invisible. Which is going to be interesting…

On a whim I had a wraith in the final fight with the bone claw, to add some variety to the physical undead. This definitely changed the battle when it ghosted through the wall and crit the Sharpshooter, reducing them to 0 hit points. Dead. The next turn the wraith raised them as a specter and sent them after the Red Mage (who was still heavily injured after the bone swarm). Meanwhile, the Swashbuckler had been separated and was solo-in the bone claw and a trio of zombies. There was certainly some tension… In the end, the Red Mage cast revivify on the corpse of the Sharpshooter, which caused a micro rules questioning: that spell doesn’t specify if it affects undead or not. This was semi-answered in a rules question on Twitter but that answer applies if the raised specter was killed. In my case, the specter was still alive. I ruled the specter was “slain” as its essence discorporated when the animated life force/ soul. But I’ll probably have some additional complications arise from the Sharpshooter being near-undead: using that to give the character a small “boon” reflecting the completion their story arc.

I decided the cause of the undead plague was an evil book. Which I settled on because I had an evil book-and-stand miniature. Minis are a great tie breaker or inspiration. I had the book sealed by magic, and its circle was broken, allowing necromantic energies loose. I figured the party would either re-seal it or it’d become a future plot hook. But my players found an interesting alternative, and brought it to the guardian sphinx they met earlier in the campaign.

Now the party is happily on its way to a nearby faerie forest to find a unicorn for the Red Mage’s personal subquest. This means a travel session next followed by some wilderness encounters and the like. Maybe a smaller quest encountered en route.

Bonus Monster

Boney claw

Large undead, chaotic evil

Armour Class 15 (natural armour)
Hit Points 97 (13d10 + 26)
Speed 30 ft.

Str 12 (+1) Dex 17 (+3) Con 15 (+2)
Int 10 (+0) Wis 8 (-1) Cha 12 (+1)

Skills Perception +2, Stealth +6
Damage Vulnerabilities bludgeoning from magical sources
Damage Resistances bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from nonmagical sources
Damage Immunities necrotic, poison
Condition Immunities charmed, exhaustion, poisoned
Senses darkvision 60 feet., passive Perception 12
Languages Common
Challenge 5 (1,800 XP)

Reaching Claws. The first time in a turn a creature moves within its reach, the boney claw can make a claws attack.


Multiattack. The boney claw makes two claws attacks.

Claws. Melee Weapon Attack: +6 to hit, reach 15 ft., one creature. Hit: 7 (1d8 + 3) slashing damage.