On All Fronts #2: The Halfling

If you’re only here for the narrative, look for the boxed text. My GM introspection is sprinkled between those.

We had finished the previous session with Eliel saving a halfling from an undead-infested library. As I discussed in the post for the first session, that halfling is a thief, who saw the reception as an opportunity to sneak in and steal stuff. A lot of my planning went on establishing who Yllara (I’m tired of writing “the halfling”) was, what her priorities were, and therefore, how she’d interact with the PCs. I didn’t prepare a scene, because I didn’t know how the players would react to her, but by knowing her, I felt comfortable ad libbing the scene.

“So… who is that?”, asks Yvarge, pointing at the shady looking halfling Eliel just helped out.

The situation is tense, and no one wants to speak first. Everyone has their hands on their weapons, but no one is drawing.

It was Phaldrimi who broke the ice: “You don’t look like staff, nor like a guard, and you weren’t at the reception. You also don’t look undead. We won’t ask again: who are you?”

After looking at the other four, the halfling asks: “You don’t look like guards either, yet you’re armed to the teeth.”

The PCs look at each other. “Trying to help. Saw some people in need.”

“Alright then, if you’re into doing the right thing, I might use your help. We think the Blackrose have paid a heraldic society to forge evidence of a noble bloodline linking back to the first Queen. I was sent here to find those documents, using the reception as a distraction. Then, undead showed up, and the plan had to change. I was aiming to abort, but with your help, maybe we can salvage this mission.”

The PCs were listening, but uncertain about how to react to this news. After some back-and-forth that didn’t seem to advance the discussion, the halfling gave them an ultimatum:

“Listen, every minute wasted here might mean a lost life. I’m opening this door, and you can follow me in, or let me be, but I won’t let you get in my way.”

And with that, she opens the door and charges in.

So Yllara’s entire spiel is true, but it does hide some important truths: it was worded in a way that made it seem like she’s with some sort of law enforcement agency, when in reality, she works for a mob family, looking to score something they can blackmail the Blackrose over. Interestingly, the PCs never asked who she was working with –even though, of course, she would have lied about that.

Again, the players are not yet used to playing together, nor to the online platform, and so did not take initiative yet. I hadn’t planned for Yllara to insinuate that she represented the law, but based on the way the players presented themselves, it made a lot of sense for her to tag along and let them clear the undead from her path.

I had thought she’d open the door, and if they didn’t want to help, she’d just get out of there and leave them with the undead. However, rogue-type means she rolled super high on initiative, and had to commit. Doesn’t matter anyway, because they did follow!

As she opens the door and tumbles in the room, the party notices that it’s more than a handful of zombies: some skeletons are also roaming the room, and a Boneshard skeleton is also searching the room for something.

With Yllara on their side, they take control of the battlefield and use the bookshelves to their advantage. Eliel fires her bow through the shelves to take the Boneshard skeleton out of the fight, but not before it nails Phaldrimi with one of its bone spears, through the shoulder and in the shelf behind her.

At one point, Phaldrimi lands a blow strong enough to take out two skeletons.

SL: “But I’m only in melee with one, does it still work?”

Me: “It does! Tell me, how do you kill a skeleton that’s 15 feet away with your flail?”

SL: “Well, my first blow destroys the one in front of me, and as its skull is falling down, I kick it right through the one at the back!”

Braerann, blocked out of melee and without Eliel’s mastery of archery, decides to knock one of the bookshelves on the zombies piling up on the other side: however, by the time he succeeds, the zombies have already fallen to Yvarge and Yllara’s blows.

This battle was, once again, easier than I would have liked, but it still had some highlights. I had balanced the encounter for the party to be alone, and Yllara on their side made it a bit of a cake walk.

That being said, the geometry of the room made it such that there were two melee fronts:

Which is interesting, because of the party’s heavy melee focus. By not having just one bottleneck, it allowed both Yvarge and Phaldrimi to share the tank roles.

When Eliel wanted to shoot the Boneshard through the bookshelf, I had imagined them having a solid back between the two rows. However, I thought the idea of shooting through the shelves was cool, so I dropped the idea, and asked her to shoot at disadvantage: basically, it was like the enemies had cover. Of course, it didn’t stop her from destroying her target, because she can’t roll under a 17.

I feel bad from MG. He handily dealt with the Zombie that was behind the lines, and then wanted to knock the bookshelf down. I didn’t want to give them a cheap way to pull multiple attacks per round, so I told him “sure, next round”, and by then, the enemies were dealt with. I’m not sure how I should have handled it differently: maybe just fudge their hit points so they were still standing then? Maybe the two attack thing is not as big a deal as I thought it was.

Overall, despite being an easy fight, it was a pretty cool one with some pretty memorable moments.

As the last undead falls, Yllara does not waste time: she starts looking through the private study for the document, describing it to the party. While Phaldrimi sits down on a couch to bandage her wounds, Yvarge goes to the side of his fellow halfling. Braerann sees a door at the back of that room, but it won’t budge.

MG: I’ll put my shoulder through it. *Rolls* Oof. Nope I don’t.

Me: Actually, you give it a few strong bursts, and you can see the door starting to come apart. However, Yllara looks at you and shushes you with the power of a hundred librarians.

As Braerann realizes his mistake, Arodenn, oldest Blackrose child and captain of the estate’s guards, runs into the room: “WHAT ARE YOU DOING? WHY ARE YOU BREAKING DOWN MY HOUSE?”

Braerann, surprised by the attention he’s getting, says he heard noises from beyond the door, was only trying to be helpful. As Arodenn knocks, they can hear there’s someone on the other side, barricaded where they thought it would be safe. When Arodenn identifies herself, the librarian starts taking away his barricade.

This is just textbook “failing forward”: players wanted to access that side room, and the roll shouldn’t say “no, do something else”, just “sure, but”. I probably should have pointed it out to the players: when you’re used to D&D’s “yes or no” skill rolls, this might just have seemed like DM fiat?

Yllara approaches Yvarge and asks him to follow him back into the other room: “I thought you were guests here. She said “my house”. Are you all Blackrose?”

“No we’re not, but she is. We just helped her find her sister.”

“Don’t you think maybe it’s a bad idea to look for what we’re looking for while she’s right next to you?”

“Well…”

As Yvarge tries to think through this new information, Yllara shakes her head, and plunges her poison-covered daggers in Yvarge’s chest. Taken aback, he’s not quick enough to catch up to her, and by the time he gets back to the common room, there’s no trace of her.

The librarian gets out of his room and jumps into Arodenn’s arms, crying about how scared he was, how he saw the skeletons get in and just locked himself in the workshop, thought he would die, and Arodenn patiently listens to him and tries to comfort him.

Then, Yvarge staggers in, two fresh wounds on his chest: “So, I don’t think she was completely honest with us…”

Again, that was me roleplaying Yllara. She did not want to end up cornered, and neither did I. I couldn’t see the PCs discussing with both her and Arodenn without something going down between the two, so might as well make it happen on her terms. In a way, it was the consequence of Braerann’s botched roll. There was probably something Yvarge could have said to get her to stay, but he didn’t.

I’m pretty happy about the way I handled her attack: her attack was the surprise round, meaning we then had to roll initiative. It basically was a roll off between her and Yvarge, and either way I would have been okay with it. Too often, chases in situations like these end up very boring, but by limiting it to a single die, it both followed the rules, and, more importantly, was dramatic.

Yvarge briefly tells the party about what just happened. The reactions go from shock to anger: Braerann, in particular, is very angry at her. They decide to fill Arodenn in: this halfling is looking for proof that the Blackrose’s noble bloodline was forged.

Arodenn’s face changes when they mention the document. She calmly asks the librarian to go meet the rest of the people downstairs, and to please close the door behind him. As soon as that’s done, she replies:

“What are you insinuating? That my family is without honour? That we’d break the law to lie about our ancestry? The Blackrose are one of the most powerful families in the kingdoms, and that title of nobility changes NOTHING.”

“We’re not trying to insinuate anything,” Phaldrimi interrupts her. “We’re saying she is. Whether that document is forged or genuine, there’s a thief running around your house: maybe we should do something with that?”

Arodenn takes a deep breath to calm herself: “You’re right. We have to deal with her, and there is still this infestation of shambling corpses. Mother will know what to do… Will you help us?”

Phaldrimi nods, and the party follows Arodenn and Mykellia to the reception hall, where they encounter a surprising scene: while they left a room filled with guests, they come back to Hamaria, the Blackrose matriarch, yelling at her son, who’s lying on the ground because of his injured leg:

“I TOLD YOU THIS WAS A BAD IDEA PEMBLETON! YOU LET CRIMINALS IN MY HOUSE! CRIMINALS! AND THESE UNGRAVED CORPSES, DID YOU INVITE THEM TOO?”

The sight of her two daughters, safe and sound, calms her down some, and the four have an emotional reunion. The PCs, however, quickly realize that Nigel, the father, has disappeared. Remembering his earlier attempt, Yvarge tries to open up the door to the office: locked.

“He bailed as soon as you got out of this room,” Hamaria says. “I married a coward. Maybe that’s why my son INVITES DANGEROUS FOLKS TO ROAM THE HALLS OF-“

Yvarge cuts her off: “Are you talking about the thief? How do you already know about her?”

“Her? Thief? What thief?”

Phaldrimi debriefs her about their encounter with Yllara, and the forged document comes up: “LIES! WHAT KIND OF DISHONOUR ARE YOU TRYING TO BRING UPON MY FAMILY?”

It takes Arodenn’s intervention to calm her mother: they did just save Mykellia, and offer to help.

“No, I was not talking about that thief. The Dragonborn that my STUPID SON INVITED TO MY HOUSE, he let himself into my house. I tried to stop him, but there were no guards with us. That’s when my son said I shouldn’t do anything stupid, because that lizardbrain is ALL MOBBED UP? IN MY HOUSE?”

Braerann brings up the ticking clock to calm Hamaria: you can always get back to that once we stop the criminals and undead that are roaming your home?

Hamaria accepts the PC’s help. They have to convince Mykellia to stay here with her siblings, because she doesn’t see how her being 10 years old means she can’t help catch career criminals. They ask the matriarch where the thief could be if she was looking for those documents: maybe the dragonborn is here for the same reason?

When they got back to the reception hall, there were three goals I wanted to establish: first, that Nigel had left his son and wife during a home invasion; second, I wanted to bring up a decision point between going after Yllara and the undead; third, I wanted them to interact with Hamaria. Therefore, I decided that all of the guests were gone: Kass, Pendleton’ co-host, and Smokes, the dwarven engineer, had both fled when the undead first came in; Medrash the dragonborn had gone to try and help Yllara, who was sent here by his gang; Deka, the merchant who Medrash was protecting, had also left, although I don’t know why yet: that’s okay, I’ll figure it out before next session.

The party follow Hamaria to the third floor: the papers are in her personal office. As she gets to that floor, she stops, goes back down a few steps: “The door to my office is open, and this is the only key,” she says as she shows them the key she wears around her neck.

The party approach the room in question, and Braerann kicks the door open(this time, he does it in one quick blow), and they find Yllara and Medrash, searching frantically through Hamaria’s office.

Medrash: “Braerann, my man!”

Braerann: “We’ll talk after I kill that halfling *expletive*”

Yllara doesn’t take kindly to that threat, and charges Braerann, daggers out. Eliel fires at the halfling, but, for the first time since they got in the manor, misses wildly.

MG (who plays Braerann): I don’t want to block the doorway, can I push the halfling away some?

Me: Well she weighs about 75 pounds, and you have a strength of 18, which is around the level of peak Louis Cyr. Where do you want her to be?

As Braerann gets out of the way, Medrash peppers the party with a fiery breath, but Phaldrimi and Yvarge’s attacks quickly force him to drop his weapon and surrender.

Meanwhile, Braerann has pushed Yllara to the corner of the room. She drops a smoke bomb, dazing the dwarf, and tries to make a run for it. Yvarge intercepts her just as she was about to leave, and she finds herself surrounded again.

After taking multiple blows, she drops another smoke bomb, disengages from the three melee fighters, and tries to run for the stairs.

Me: Eliel, we play turn-by-turn, but in-world, this all happens somewhat simultaneously. You can take your shot on her, but after your turn she’ll be down the stairs. She has 9 hp left.

Eliel takes a shot, and caught Yllara just as she was jumping over the ramp, just strong enough to take her down.

SC: I rolled an even number, so I can take a second shot, right?

Me: Yup, want to make sure she’s dead?

SC: Nope, I’m shooting that dragonborn in the knee, so he can’t be an adventurer like us.

Another really interesting, if somewhat easy, combat. I wanted to offer the PCs a shot at facing Yllara, because the players, mainly Braerann’s, wouldn’t stop talking about what they’d do when they caught her. I’m not sure why they started hating her so much, but I won’t say know to emotional reactions!

I realized just as the battle began, while rolling initiative, that I hadn’t statted out Medrash: oops! However, 13th Age to the rescue: I took the baseline stats for a 1st level opponent. On his first turn, I looked up the Dragonborn’s breath weapon ability: it was a lot weaker than I wanted it to be, so I ad libbed that it would hit 1d3 of the PCs (like actual Dragons). It worked pretty well, especially given that his existence as an opponent lasted a round and a half.

Regarding letting Eliel take that last shot: it’s not according to Hoyle, but I feel like it makes sense, and it was more dramatic that way. I like breaking the rules in the players’ favour early in the campaign: they don’t complain when it swings their way, but they also understand that I will put story ahead of rules.

Finally, I also told her how many hit points Yllara had left. That was done extremely on purpose. Not only did it let them know she could go down on one hit (instant stakes!), it also switched when the reveal happened. If I hadn’t, she would have rolled, told me how much, and then people would have held their breath until I said whether it was enough or not. Now, I told her, and people held their breath until the dice were rolled. They cheered on her action, not on my reaction.

Alright, now that’s enough tapping myself on the back: one thing I really dropped the ball on was describing the undead presence. I should have made them hear screams in the distance as they were climbing the steps; maybe a corpse, a trail of blood, a stack of bones somewhere? Or even better: while they were jumping Yllara and Medrash, I should have had a zombie come out and grab Hamaria. As it is, they kind of forgot about the undead, and that goes against the goal.

As Yllara stumbles to the ground, inert, right in front of Hamaria Blackrose, Medrash falls to the ground, hit from Eliel’s arrow. He has very unkind words to say about that elf who shot him after he dropped his weapons.

While Eliel goes to make sure Yllara is down for good, Braerann starts questioning Medrash: “You should start talking quickly brother. We’re not in a patient mood.”

“I’ll talk to you, and to you alone,” Medrash spits out. “Especially not in front of her,” he adds, pointing to Eliel.

Braerann asks the others to leave, and closes the door. Phaldrimi goes to talk to Hammaria, while Yvarge wraps up some of his wounds.

Medrash tells Braerann that he was sent to the party only to escort Deka: she does business with his gang, and the protection is one of the perks. However, when his boss learned of this party, they decided to send Yllara to get the documents she mentioned: rumours say they’re forged, paid in gold to gain access to some circles. If they had proof of it, they could use the information as leverage, and having a family like the Blackrose in your back pocket is quite an asset.

When the undead showed up, Medrash was afraid Yllara would get caught in the crossfire: if she was killed by zombies and found, that would be a pretty tough blow to the gang.

Braerann asks his old cellmate who that gang is, and he flashes a scar on his forearm in the shape of an hourglass: clearly his gang’s symbol, but Braerann doesn’t recognize it.

He also asks the Dragonborn whether he’d get in trouble because the job failed, which Medrash doubts: he was asked to cause a scene during the party, so the guards would be busy escorting him out, but if the plan failed, that was on Yllara, not him.

“However, if you leave me here with the Blackrose, they’ll hang me.”

“You don’t have to worry about that, friend. That beer they served downstairs was some of that rich people piss water: I wouldn’t let you die on such a low note.”

This was an interesting scene. Again, I had no idea any of this would happen, so I had to ad lib a lot of it. I had only very basic notes on Medrash, and outside of his links to Yllara and Braerann, I knew very little about him. I hadn’t even named his gang, so when Braerann asked, I described the scar, and I was happy that he rolled so poorly when he asked whether he recognized it: now I can take some time to flesh them out a bit.

I really like scenes where PCs can dig into their backstories, but often, the others become disinterested quickly. By tying it to the story at hand, it allowed the other players to learn about Braerann, without taking away from the narrative at hand. It was pretty neat.

It also gives the player a contact they can reach out to further down the line when they need help, which is really important to the games I like to run.

During that time, Phaldrimi takes Hamaria to the side to explain to her that the office was being ransacked, but that they secured it, and that they’ll let her go in as soon as they are done questioning the surviving member of that group. Mostly, he needed her to get away from Yllara’s body while Eliel went through the halfling’s bag.

In addition to some coinage and a small potion, she finds a rune-covered rope, which seems to have been weaved out of mineral material: clearly, this is a magical item. It takes them a bit of time to recognize it as a Rope of Stone, which can turn to stone or back with a command word: great for both climbing and tying up prisoners.

This part I’m less happy about. I’ve said before that I prep pieces of my games, whether situations, combat encounters, or loot, but only key them to locations during the game. Well, in this case, after defeating Yllara, and after 2 full sessions, I felt like they deserved a magic item, something cooler than a rope, but I had… nothing.

First, I felt stupid about not having thought of that before: whatever magic item she had, she would have used during the fight! But also, when I got to the list of magic items I had prepped, there was nothing that would make sense for her to have: no dagger, no light armour, nothing thief-appropriate. I looked through the rulebook quickly, and didn’t find anything to my liking.

I ended up retconning this and sending the players an email saying I had mixed up my notes and she’d have more, so now I have to prep something for her to have, even if she ended up not using it: oh well.

As the PCs let Hamaria go back into her office to see if the document in question is still there, they hear a rumble, and screams from down the stairs.

And that’s how we ended it. I like to finish on a cliffhanger, but this one was pretty undercooked: I just kind of froze up: I wanted to end on a question mark, and couldn’t think of anything else. I had four set piece battles planned, and only one (the one in the library) has happened, so I wanted to get to the next one quickly. Probably will end up using the retcon to flashback to before that 20 mins, and forget about those screams.


I feel a lot better about this session. The first 90% of it was pretty great, even though it wasn’t perfect and I felt like I dropped the ball of establishing the atmosphere, and keeping the roaming undead in the players’ mind. I usually leave myself notes of stuff like that on my GM screen, but with online play, I don’t use a GM screen: I’ll have to find an alternative.

The last 20 mins though, between the disappointing loot and boring cliffhanger, was pretty bad. Oh well, a bad 20 minutes over a 3h session is a pretty good average, especially considering how critical I was of the first session.

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