On All Fronts #3: CLEAR!

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 the party taking Yllara down, and interrogating Medrash about what was happening. Last time, I talked about how I wasn’t very happy with what the PCs found on her, so we had a bit of a retcon, which I blamed on them “not fighting her where I had first placed her in my notes”. Haha, as if my notes were that organized!

In addition to the rope of stone, potion, papers, and coinage, Eliel finds two large and expensive necklaces in the bag: one made of a gold chain with inset emeralds, and another made of platinum links, with a large rose-shaped pendant made of black opals. “She won’t miss ’em, I’m sure”, Eliel comments as she pockets them.

Eliel also spots, on the halfling’s finger, a green band topped with a white gem. Especially weird is that the ring seems to be made of organic matter, rather than minerals, and even the golden flourishes move as actual vines.

The retcon was very well received, most probably because it 100% played in their favour. You might notice that this item does a LOT more than regular 13th Age items: that’s kind of my signature thing. I like to be more stingy on magic items, but give them a bigger punch. Especially with a group of 4 martial characters, with very few special tricks, I made it a point to give them something that could be used in combat to get more options.

I also fluff magic items as having been created by a specific Icon, and I always like to identify which one has: eventually, I’ll have stuff key off of it. The Untamed One is my version of the High Druid, but is a villainous figure who believes civilization should be wiped so nature can take back its dominion.

After having identified the ring, Braerann spits on it: “This is a ring, plant stuff, AND spell casting? Take it away from me!”

Yvarge is more interested in it, loving the idea of extra options in combat, until he realizes that both the spell and the resistance key off of the user’s Wisdom.

Eliel leaves the ring to Phaldrimi: “My bow is better than the vines, and I probably won’t ever get staggered”.

Phaldrimi puts on the ring, just as they hear sounds of combat coming up from the staircase, but also steps: someone is coming up, and the group gets in position.

It’s a zombie, carrying the unconscious body of the Dwarf who was a guest at the party. As it comes into view, the PCs start pounding on it, but can’t take him out before he lands a nasty hit on Braerann.

After the zombie hits the ground, the PCs make sure the Dwarf is still alive, and then go down the stairs, following the cacophony from the main floor.

They get the entrance hall of the estate to find an enormous, hulking zombie, eleven feet tall, with two of the monstrous skeletons riding its back.

A wall has been torn down, staff members have been torn apart by skeletons, and guards are trying to defend the house from the undead. Arodenn is keeping two skeletons away from her injured brother and young sister as best she can, but is about to be overrun.

The PCs spring into action. While his mates deal with the skeletons who threaten the NPCs, Braerann, still wounded from his encounter on the floor above, charges the hulking zombie. Even as a dwarf, even after years in prison, the stench of rot overtakes him, and he feels like life is draining away from him. The hulking corpse clobbers him twice, sends him flying towards a wall: Braerann chugs the healing potion he took from Eliel’s bag, gets back on his feet, and runs back into combat.

After a round or two to deal with the mook skeletons, the party focuses fire on the zombie, and Eliel scores a critical hit on it, thanks to her experience fighting undead (which she crits on 18+, thanks to rangers’ Favored Enemy). The arrow sticks itself straight through one of its eyes, through its brain, and takes the hulk down in one quick swoosh.

The two glass cannons who were on its back are, all of a sudden, surrounded by a melee-focused party: it’s not looking too good for them. However, the PCs can see the zombie twitching: maybe this isn’t as done as they wanted.

The Boneshards use their spears and deal some pretty nasty injuries to the PCs. Then, the giant’s remaining eye opens again, and it starts swinging wildly, killing a guard, and almost taking Phaldrimi down with him. As the giant tries to get back up, Phaldrimi takes one quick swing of her flail: yet another crit, and the zombie is no more.

The Boneshards try to flee, but the party won’t let them, and they are quickly defeated.

So my goal with this encounter was to (1) allow the players to feel like they saved people, and (2) let them feel badass when they crit and take down this giant monster (which has been heavily foreshadowed with the regular zombies). In that way, both were achieved.

However, I’m really disappointed at the difficulty of the fight, although the fact that a crit drops it means the fight will be incredibly swingy: in the end, there was no point tracking its hit points. Also, I’ve been using a lot of NPC guards, and it’s made life easy on the PCs. They don’t deal that much damage, but when the monsters target them, those are hits the PCs are not getting.

Also, in retrospect, I wanted both the giant zombie fight, and a zombie bringing the Dwarf’s body upstairs. It would have been super easy to merge those two and have the hulking zombie come up with the dwarf, with his menagerie behind him. If I wanted to keep the NPCs, those could have come up first, pushed upstairs by the giant. It probably would have been cooler, and saved maybe 20 minutes?

With the enemies dealt with, the PCs go around and help the recently unconscious: Phaldrimi lays her hands on two, using her holy energy to close their wounds.

Yvarge goes to Arodenn, who is clearly in shock, and badly beaten: “You fought well. Take a breath. You’ll get used to it.” Brief, but what the Lady needed to hear.

After they start bandaging their own wounds, Arodenn finally approaches the PCs: “I have no idea what we should be doing. You definitely look like you’re better suited to handle this.”

Phaldrimi nods: “What is the most easily defendable room in this house?”, she asks the half-elf.

“The vault.”

“Well then take everyone who’s still breathing, and go lock yourselves in the vault. We’ll go around the house and make sure it’s safe, and then, we’ll let you know so you can get out.”

Arodenn nods, and starts giving orders to the guards around the room. She gives Phaldrimmi her keyring: “With this, you can get almost anywhere in the house: there’s a key that only my mother has. If those rooms are breached though, that means the door’s been torn down.”

After thinking for a beat, a tear comes to her eye: “I… When you get to my quarters, in the guard tower, you’ll find my grandfather’s shield. If he had known you, he’d want you to have it: take it, and use it to help those in need.”

She then takes Phaldrimmi aside, as others are helping the injured up the stairs: “One more thing. I love my father, and I can’t believe that he’d be in any way related to this, but… he’s been locked in his office for hours while his family and staff are getting slaughtered. Something’s going on with him. Could you make sure he’s okay?”

I always think that descriptions of these moments are my weak point as a GM. I rarely let myself get into these emotional states because of the awkwardness of the social setting, but in this case, I didn’t feel that block. I think it’s due to the remote nature of the game, probably?

As the survivors climb the stairs to get to the vault, the PCs uneventfully explore the mansion: the kitchen, with a feast ready to be served; the ridiculously sized ballroom; the large exhibit of arcane curios; the master bedroom, which had already been searched through, with a large jewelry box tossed to the side, and curiously missing two large pieces.

So while I can describe it as a single paragraph, this took probably over an hour. While some of the descriptions were interesting, it was never scenes: there was never any tension. I didn’t want to throw another pointless combat encounter at them, and I felt like I had already used up most of what I had prepped, except for two scenes: the “boss fight” with the Grave Knight, and them finding what’s going on with the father.

The latter had to happen in the basement. The fight with the Grave Knight, in retrospect, I should have used. I never found a room that was both (a) interesting for such a showdown, and (b) made sense for him to be in. If I’m being more honest, I also wanted it to happen after, as a conclusion to the adventure, but in the end it put a long slog in the middle of the session.

That being said, talking about it with players after, they didn’t get that feel at all. Oh well. I still think that I should have offered for the Guards to help with the sweep, and limit their actions to a single floor, maybe?

One interesting room the party encountered was the Shrine. On the third floor, this large room was dominated by two statues of former Blackrose Matriarchs, large tapestries, and brazeros which seemed to burn without making smoke. In front of each statue was a stone altar: on one was a porcelain urn, but the urn on the other one had been knocked to the ground, ashes spilling to the floor.

Phaldrimi, as a former religious hermit, tries to understand if this could be linked to the undead: she sees an obvious connection, but as far as she knows, an incinerated body can only be used to spawn incorporeal undead, and all of the undead they’ve encountered here have been corporeal.

Eliel looks into the other urn, opens it, and sticks her hand in it. “It’s filled with ash,” I tell her. “Well in Zelda there would be a bunch of cash in it.”

I really liked this scene. I thought the urn hint was too obvious, but it worked pretty well: they intuited it was related to the undead, but don’t really understand what it’s there for. They’ll see soon enough.

I should have pushed Phaldrimi to use her Icon dice –I use Whiffless Icon rolls rather than the standard rolls presented in the core books. We’re 3 sessions in and no one has used them yet, so it would have been a great introduction.

After leaving the shrine, the PCs go meet the family in the vault: “We need to go through your father’s office, and the guard tower. Aside from that, the place is secure,” Eliel assures them.

Braerann spots Medrash, the dragonborn goon, who’s been manacled and is under a guard’s constant attention. He orders them to uncuff him, and when Hamaria refuses, the dwarf is very clear: “Either you let him go, or your daughter takes care of the remaining invaders herself. She was doing such a good job before we showed up earlier.”

Hamaria is furious: not only is her authority undermined, but so is her daughter’s. “I think you’re overplaying a terrible hand. You don’t have much to offer on this one,” Braerann says as he stares down the guard, takes his halberd, and offers it to Medrash as he pulls him out of the vault.

As Braerann uncuffs his buddy and lets him go, Hamaria pulls Phaldrimi to the side: “Look, I… Whatever my husband is doing in that lab of his, I just want you to know I have nothing to do with it. I don’t think he’d delve into necromancy, but he is a secretive man. Whatever you find down there, it’s not Blackrose business: it’s all Nigel.”

The PCs go into Nigel’s office, which they find empty. It doesn’t take very long for them to spot a hidden trapdoor, which leads them to a natural cavern, where they find two natural-looking tunnels (one very narrow, and one corridor-width), and three wooden chests, one of which is open and empty.

Being adventurers in an RPG, the players take the time to open the chests: in the first, they find six large glass bottles, filled with various weird substances: two are filled with an aqua substance that ebbs and flows, as if it had its own tides; two more are hot to the touch, and contain a bright orange liquid; one contains a thick brown sludge, barely liquid enough to drink; the last contains cloudy liquid, so light that when they shake the bottle, the content seems barely affected by gravity.

After a bit of studying, the PCs identify the substances as elemental elixirs: each one is linked to an element, and gives whoever drinks it elemental powers for 5 minutes:

Elixir of Wave Shape (water) makes you swim like a fish and breathe underwater, squeeze through any cracks, and resist physical attacks;
Elixir of Cinder Body (fire) makes you resist fire, allows you to cast Burning Hands, and damage those who attack you in melee;
Elixir of Seismic Form (earth) allows you to pass through rock, become harder to hit in combat if you don’t move, and to cause enemies you hit in melee to be stuck to the ground;
Elixir of Celestial Transformation (air) makes you fly, and makes you very hard to hit with ranged weapons.

The party also recognizes that these potions are unheard of: they have never before heard of potions this powerful.

The PCs split the potions amongst themselves, and approached the other chest… Which they’ll open next week!

I asked the PCs if they wanted to end this week on more loot, or start the next on some loot, and the vote was 50/50, and so we rolled for it.

I really like the potions. I love one-time powerful items. Plus, in this case, they’re an important plot point.

One part I really would have liked to do a better job about was describing the potions. They saw potions, I saw the time and rushed to tell them what they did so I could hit a fun stopping point after the chests. However, just describing the potions and letting them figure out the elemental motif would probably have been more fun.

Overall, this was an okay session, a B: not a bad one, but maybe a bit forgettable. It was mostly a lot of missed opportunities, and if I’m being honest, it’s because I underprepared. I felt like I still had plenty of prep left over from the previous week, and it showed.

If I had gone through my prep, and analyzed it from the players’ new perspective, I would have thought about making the guards take some of the floors, or combining the two combat encounters, or where to put the Boss fight.

Either way, now that I’m prepped for next week, I’m SUPER PSYCHED for it: it’s going to ROCK, I’m fairly sure!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s