If you’re only here for the narrative, look for the boxed text. My GM introspection is sprinkled between those.
I usually start my campaigns in media res. I start players right as they open the door leading to the big boss of their first adventure, or just as tempers start running hot in a negotiation, or as their home town is attacked by goblins. Anything to hit the ground running, so that when we get to the first talking scene, players know each other some, and have something to talk about. Especially with a new group, I find it makes such a difference.
All this to say I’m not exactly sure why I didn’t this time. I did the exact opposite, and it showed. I was super nervous and out of my depth, and stuff wasn’t working the way I had thought it would. Part of it was poor design of the starting scene, part of it was the rust of not having run in years, and part of it (a huge part if I’m being honest) was technical difficulties running on Roll20.
Phaldrimi had a vivid dream of tentacled horrors in a cavern under a field of black roses, a message from her patron. As she left the inn she was staying at, she heard of a soirée being held at the Blackrose Estate: she had to get invited.
Braeran ran away from the corpses of his friends, scared for his life. Whoever had hit them was probably looking for him, too. When he got to New Port, famished, tired, he ran into Medrash, a Dragonborn he had befriended in the prisons of Underhome. Medrash had a bodyguard gig, protecting a merchant at a bougie party that night: maybe Braeran could get himself a job?
After one of his best performances in the arena, Yvarge went to his local drinking spot. It wasn’t rare for fans to recognize him and sit with him for the night, but they were never as well dressed as these two, especially in a tavern like this one. “That was quite a show,” the gnome led. “You’re such a talented swordsman, would you mind coming for a private show at this little event we’re organizing?” The half-elf continued: “My sister is training to become a fighter, maybe you could show her a few tricks?” Yvarge missed the snarky smiles they exchanged at that idea.
Eliel had known for a while that one of her fathers’ diaries was held in the Blackrose’s private exhibit of historical curios, but she couldn’t believe it when she heard they were holding a reception in their New Port estate, exactly where the memoir would be. Plus, rich people are so careless when it comes to their possessions: how hard would it be to get her hands on an invite?
I had decided that the first scenario would take place in a high society soirée, a way for the players to meet influential NPCs and get some contacts from the get-go. I asked the players if they wanted to meet there, or already know each other: that was, retrospectively, a mistake. I worked with each of them to have a reason to get to the party, and something to do once they got there, but even that wasn’t enough to get them actively engaging. I’m still not sure whether the idea or the execution is to blame, but I regret not starting in media res, like I usually do.
As the PCs get to the Blackrose Estate, they are escorted to the reception hall, which contains about a dozen people: 3 waiters, of various age and ancestry; 4 guards, two next to each door; a middle-aged dwarf, smoking on the balcony; a dragonborn in leather armour, leaning on the wall next to the bar; two women, a half-elf in pristine armour, and a human dressed more appropriately for this setting, in a hushed tone argument; an old lady and a young-looking elf, dressed in matching red attire, looking over the scene; right next to the door, the hosts, a gnome lady with a crown of roses, and a half-elf dressed in the eclectic fashion of those who were born rich, his colourful hair in a long rainbow braid.
Phaldrimi puts her plan in motion: she has studied just enough botany to pretend to be able to grow black roses, and is hoping to pitch that idea to the matriarch of the Blackrose family. She knows she won’t be able to follow through, but all she needs is to get her foot in the door, get to the basement, and find the horrors she was warned about.
She chats with Pendleton, the host of the reception, the one who invited her, and he introduces her to his father, Nigel, who seems on edge and not very receptive.
During that time, Eliel walks around, trying to see if she can find the diary she’s looking for. The reception includes a charity auction, and the memoirs are on one of the displays. Given her superhuman dexterity and her experience with stealth, she easily pockets the item without anyone noticing.
Yvarge and Braeran quietly hang out at the bar, turning down anyone who tries to chat them up.
Again, I’m not super happy with how that turned up. The charity auction was meant to give the players stuff to talk about, and including the book in there made sense: however, it also meant Eliel’s objective was one die roll away, and then she had nothing to do. Yvarge and Braerann’s objectives were both related to others NPCs, and they both took a very passive role.
Phaldrimi got into it though. I felt bad for the player, but I could feel that I was losing the rest of the room. We had also started late because of technical issues, and I didn’t want the entire first session to be one of the PCs talking without anyone else being involved, so I cut her off early. I’m not happy about it, but early in a campaign I felt like hooking everyone was more important.
Also, describing it as a party, but having 8 only guests, is a bit of a stretch. I wanted to keep the number of NPCs manageable, but in retrospect, it’s… kinda weird.
Suddenly, the door on the northern wall breaks down: the guard on the left is torn down by two shambling corpses, tearing down his flesh, while the one on the right gets a spear through the neck.
Coming through that door are a small troop of undead: a handful of animated skeletons in age old armour; a few zombies, busy feasting on that guard; a demonic-looking skeleton, shard of bone growing all over its body; and finally, their leader, wearing black plate armour and a tattered cloak, wielding a stone-tipped spear covered in chains, a thin layer of flesh and hair over its horned skull.
It seems annoyed at the party they’ve just interrupted: “Ugh, take care of these, find it, and bring it back to the urn,” it commands as it leaves.
Between the PCs, the guards, and the other fighting guests, the undead are defeated without further casualties, but Pendleton, the organizer of the soiree, is seriously wounded when the Boneshard skeleton throws one of its overgrown spikes into his leg.
So while I’m not happy about the timing of it, I feel like this interruption worked really well. The PCs reacted with surprise to this change of event, but they all turned on their hero mode. Yvarge even improvised that he hadn’t brought a weapon, and so intimidated one of the guards into giving him theirs. Overall, it led to great moments. It was an easy encounter, but the goal was not to challenge as much as to give everyone a little bit of experience with 13th Age rules: of course, the d20 stuff, but the skeletons are mooks, and zombies in 13th Age go down to 0hp if they receive a critical hit: “Headshot”, it’s called, and I love the flavour of it.
So in case that wasn’t clear, the two guards who got taken down on the undead’s entrance, that was handled 100% narratively: no die roll, and it probably respects none of the rules. It just made for an awesome entrance, a complete change of pace. Also, letting the Graveknight walk away was so it could be used later rather in the first encounter, of course. If I had made it participate in the fight against the PCs, they probably would have found it unfair that I take it away before they can kill it, but since it all happened in the “cutscene”, no one batted an eye, no one went “can I shoot it before it leaves?”
The Graveknight is a completely invented monster. I wanted an undead that was intelligent enough to be the leader of this troop, but also not too high level, and those… are hard to come by. Making the stat block took less than 5 minutes (because I reskinned an existing monster, more on that later), but finding a picture that was right took… a long time.
The Boneshard skeleton is my version of the skeleton archer. I’ve always found skeleton archers really dumb, for some reason. It might just be me, but bows have always looked to require more coordination and intelligence than I imagine mindless creatures having. Therefore, I changed it to this aberration, a skeleton that is clearly not human, growing ever more monstrous. The name is straight out of 4E D&D, but otherwise it is a standard Skeleton Archer, with a little nasty special: on a ranged attack hit, if its natural roll is higher than the target’s Dexterity score, the target is stuck (save ends). Narratively, the shard of bone sticks to the floor or wall.
I really like the 13th Age mechanism of “If Natural roll > X”, but like it even more when it’s compared to an ability score rather than an arbitrary number. A lot of 3rd party creators use this, and I’ve stolen it for a lot of things. It’s elegant, it makes the ability scores matter, it makes characters vulnerable to different things… it rules.
While most NPCs react to the injured host, to the lost guards, and to the surprise of what just happened, two -the dwarf and gnome- are nowhere to be found, having fled the scene.
Braeran finds Medrash more nervous than he usually is: they have already run into a group of skeletons during their time together in labour camps, and he barely reacted. He does not, however, address it.
While Mrs. Blackrose goes to tend to her son’s injury, Mr. Blackrose hastily goes for his office. Yvarge tries to follow him, to question why he’d leave his son bleeding out on the floor to go do paperwork, but Nigel will have none of it: “You are a welcome guest, but I will not let you keep me from moving around freely in my own home.” When Nigel tries to enter the office, Yvarge follows him, physically keeping him from closing the door. Nigel gives up, pretends to get bandages (fooling no one), and goes back to the common room, locking his office door.
After a few minutes of panic, of wondering what had just happened, Arodenn, the oldest child and captain of the guard, gasps: “Mykellia! My sister is alone in her bedroom!”
She picks up her sword, and runs out the room. The PCs quickly follow her, go up a flight of stairs to get to a large common area. A door is ajar, leading to a child’s bedroom, showing clear signs of struggle, furniture turned upside down, a chair broken down.
The scene is too much for her, and Arodenn falls to her knees, crying.
After the combat encounter, I expected the PCs to try and find the Graveknight, to see if other undead were roaming around the hall. I hoped they’d try and ask what “find it” could refer to, or even “return to the urn”. Nothing.
To be clear, I take 100% of the blame:. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s private property; maybe they’re too awkward together for anyone to take the lead; maybe they just thought it was all over. I think maybe I just made enough stuff happen in this room that it suggested that was the place to be, but not enough for anything to come of it? Medrash being nervous, Nigel trying to excuse himself, the guests who had fled… It was probably too much for them to feel like it was okay to leave? I was hoping to foreshadow stuff happening later by making some of the NPCs look suspicious, but foreshadowing only works if the PCs can’t handle it right now.
So I lit a fire under their butt. If you’re not going anywhere, choo choo, the train is coming to the station.
As their guide seems unavailable, Braeran and Yvarge take it upon themselves to explore the surroundings: they take a corridor, and find a balcony overseeing a laughably oversized ballroom: on the level below, three guards and three members of the staff are having a heated discussion, but are too far away for the PCs to learn more.
During that time, Eliel opens a different door, and finds the library. Between the bookshelves, she sees zombies, roaming aimlessly, but she can also hear sounds of shuffling from deeper in the L-shaped room. Phaldrimi urges her to close the door and wait for the others, but Eliel spots, hidden behind one of the shelves, in a corner, a halfling, in leather armour, a dagger in each hand, hiding from the undead.
Ignoring Phaldrimi’s plea, Eliel decides to go save the halfling, and climbs atop the bookshelf without grabbing the zombie’s attention –thanks to some really, really high die rolls.
First, I love when players split the party. Eliel’s player, who has not played TTRPGs before, does not know the old adage about not doing it, and I’m so happy about that: being able to go back and forth like this makes for such an interesting pacing.
Second, I have to explain how I prep adventures: after trying a lot of different methods, I now prep both a map and a list of potential scenes and encounters, but don’t key those encounters to specific locations. Sometimes, I even switch the map around: like Schrödinger’s cat, until the door is open, the room beyond is both the library, the kitchen, and the secret altar to Asmodeus, and none of these things. Based on pacing, time, and rule of cool, I then decide what’s in a room as late in the process as I can get away with.
In this case, I had planned a scene where the PCs would walk into a thief, who had taken the reception as an opportunity for robbing the mansion, and I had planned a scene where the PCs would find innocent people trapped in an undead-filled room, but I had meant them to be separate. When Eliel opened the door, I described the undead, and then saw the time: we didn’t have time for another combat encounter, so whatever was in the room would have to wait until next session. I also didn’t want a repeat of the fight we had had a bit earlier, just more basic enemies in a different room. That’s when I decided to make this the “people trapped behind undead” scene: it would make the encounter feel different, but also make for a great cliffhanger.
However, I wanted the other two to find Mykellia before the end of the session: I wanted them to have a “win” on this first session, a plot hook they had closed, however small. Two back-to-back “save people” scenes weren’t as interesting. That’s why I merged it with the halfling scene.
Elsewhere, Braeran and Yvarge find the guest section of the mansion, and start opening doors, looking for people.
Me: “Which one of you opens this specific door?”
KJ (Yvarge’s player): “Braeran!”
MG: *chuckles* sure
Me: “Does… *die rolls* 12 hit your AC?”
MG: “Of course not, this is dwarven made armour, not some of that cheap stuff humans make! AC of 12?” *snorts derisively*
As Braeran opens one of the doors, he dodges a rapier, grabs the attacker by the wrist, and right before his fighting reflexes kick in, realizes he’s about to tackle a 10 year old half-elven girl.
“LET ME GO! MY MOTHER WILL HAVE YOU HUNG!”
KJ: “Oh, guess we found the last rich kid!”
Clearly shaken by the undead invading her home, Mykellia Blackrose lets go of the highborn attitude very quickly: “Is my sister okay?”, she asks the dwarf.
“Yes, don’t worry. We’ll take you back to her.”
This scene was just fun. I’m pretty happy with the way it went, with giving the players a feel good, hero moment on their first session. It did feel a bit rushed, I should have let the interaction run a little bit longer, made her more memorable, make them savour the moment more. It’s the kind of stuff I love as a player, but when I GM, it often feels too awkward: what if players don’t like it? What if they think me playing a 10 year old girl is creepy?
First session, don’t be too hard on yourself.
In the library, Eliel has crawled to the edge, where she sees the halfling, ready to pounce.
SC: Can I get her to look at me without making noise?
Me: How could you do that?
SC: I don’t know… I’ll drop something on her head. Something small enough not to hurt her. A coin!
Me: I mean… sure. You can definitely drop a coin on her head, but doing so without making noise would be pretty damn hard.
SC: Natural 20, +10, so that’s… 30.
Me: *blink blink* So the halfling looks up at you…
Eliel offers the halfling her hand, helps her climb to the top of the shelf, and they climb down on the other side. As soon as her feet touch the floor, the halfling’s hands go back to her daggers. She doesn’t draw them, but she’s ready for action.
As Braeran and Yvarge get back to the common area, Phaldrimi closes the library’s door quietly, just in time to block the sound of the two half-elven sisters who run into each other’s arms.
“So… who is that?”, asks Yvarge, pointing at the shady looking halfling Eliel just helped out.
That was pretty cool. Realistic? No, definitely not. Awesome? FOR SURE.
And that’s what I mean when I say 13th Age focuses on exactly the kind of games I like to run: moments like these. It’s not realistic, but it’s believable enough to break immersion, and cinematic enough to be interesting.
Overall, I think this session was a C+. It worked, there were a few cool moments and everyone was happy with it and looking forward to the next one. That being said, I’m not super happy with myself: a lot of missed opportunities, a lot of decisions I wish I had done differently. Nothing game breaking, nothing with long term impacts, just wish it had started more smoothly.
Afterwards, KJ commented in private that I looked really nervous. Of the four players, he’s the one I’ve known for the longest. I think between the rust and technical difficulties, I felt out of control and unprepared.
Over time, I’ll get back into my rhythm.