On All Fronts #4: Letters, threats, and blood

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 players finding a trapdoor in Nigel Aldain’s office, which lead to an underground cave with three chests, one of which was already open. We ended the session in between the opening of the two other chests, with the players finding elixirs allowing them to transform into elemental forms.

After separating the potions they found, the players open the other chest, and find three bags of coins, a signet ring, paper, ink, and quills, and two letters: one is written on vellum, and its broken seal is huge, and shaped like a horse’s hoof; the second is written on paper, and sealed with the signet found in the chest, which shows a stylized stars, with a small circle between each of its branches.

Click to make larger

The first note is addressed to Nigel, and exposes a bit of the situation with him. It is also quite agressive, openly threatening his children. The other is Nigel’s response to “Master Carne”, responding to their threats with his own. Then follows a brief overview of the results of his research, and the limits he’s been facing.

The PCs conclude that the entire Undead assault is probably Crane going from threat to action, but are far from certain. They also find it weird that the reply letter was not sent, but do not investigate further.

After reading the notes and discussing what they could mean, the PCs decide to leave the money in the chest: while they’re pretty confident about coming back and taking it, they can’t subtly carry around the many hundreds of coins.

In case you do not already use them, I will suggest that letters and notes are a GM’s best friend. Exposition is boring, but letters which offer exposition AND tension are quite useful. The threats makes the PCs pay attention, but also gives them an idea of who the NPCs are: all the PCs know about Carne is that they’re a violent badass, and that makes them interested.

The PCs start exploring the cave further: they find a very narrow tunnel sloping upward to a masonry wall, and a wider, downward tunnel leading to a wooden wall, held in place by grooves set in the rock on all sides.

Phaldrimi tests the wooden wall by knocking on it to confirm it leads to an open space, and then puts her ear to it: she can hear the sound of water falling on the other side.

After a bit of discussion, the players want to avoid crashing the wall open and water surging towards them: they therefore decide to share one of the water elemental elixirs to be able to pass through cracks in the wall, and, if the other side is water, to swim to safety.

As you know if you’ve played a TTRPG before, when I say “after a bit of discussion”, I mean “after 30 minutes of talking through stuff”. I only half listened, making sure they were understanding the situation correctly and answering their questions, so I can’t relate the entire thing, nor do I think it would be interesting anyway. However, this is for many players (including SL, who plays Phaldrimi, and probably others around the table) the most interesting part of the game, so I let them have fun with it.

The PCs pass through the crevaces of the wooden wall in semi-liquid form, and reform at the entrance of an enormous natural cavern. The first thing the players notice is the smell: not quite vinagry, not quite earthy…

Me: It smells like… you know, when you’ve had a headache for a while, and then at some point you go “hey, my head isn’t throbbing anymore”, and you don’t remember how long it’s been, but you know it used to hurt and it doesn’t anymore.

MG: That makes no sense.

Me: That is absolutely the right conclusion, but Braerann’s brain has concluded that that was what this smell was.

Water is falling from the ceiling in a constant flow, feeding into a basin that dominates the room. The pool is reflecting a starry night sky which isn’t there: even if the cavern was open, the stars and colours are all off.

There is a tunnel leading out to the left, and a finished stone platform, with a wooden door, on the far side of the room.

There are multiple creatures, all lying down and immobile: you can see a few skeletons and a zombie; near the water is Nigel, wearing a chain shirt and a scimitar by his side; finally, there are two weird creatures, half-fish, half-octopus, one lying on the stone, and one floating in the pool.

Here I used synesthesia to describe something as alien. Synesthesia is a disorder that leads your brain to associate stimulus of one sense to another: a friend of mine suffers from it, and associates every number with a taste, meaning when he reads the number 1, his brain acts as if he had a mouthful of honey, but the number 6 tastes like old cheese.

The first time he told me, I just couldn’t really comprehend it: I understood all of the words, but couldn’t add them up. Interestingly enough, another friend went “is that like how all B’s are always red?” and that’s when that friend learned that he too was synesthete.

That feeling of understanding all the parts, but not what they mean, is exactly what I want players to feel like when they interact with stuff from another plane, and I found this to be a perfect tool to do so. I assume that the way I portray it is wildly inaccurate from a medical standpoint, but in terms of storytelling, it does exactly what I need it to. Plus, the image you conjure nudges the players towards the tone of the scene: in this case, I did not want them to see the pool as a threat, and therefore set up a positive scene.

Also, the fish creatures, you might have identified from the picture as Aboleths, but they’re not actually Aboleths: I just needed something aquautic, alien-looking, and not too threatening. I took that picture of an Aboleth and modified it a bit.

The players start exploring the cave. First, Braerann checks Nigel. The elf is dead, a gaping wound in his chest, the flesh around it rotten, the telltale sign of necrotic energy. However, they find a blood-covered note in his hand: a message of love for his children, and a… less positive one for his wife.

Arodenn, Pendleton, Mykellia,

Please remember that I love you. I always have, and I always will, dead or alive. I just would have liked you to see the world the way I did when I was your age, before the humans tore down the forests, pierced the mountains and chained the sea.

I'm sorry I have to use you this way. If it makes you feel better to think that I love you, you can have that. I hope you understand that I used your fortune for a far better cause than you would have-

As much as they disliked Hammaria in the interactions they had with her, this letter broke the PCs’ hearts, and there was a long discussion about whether they’d show it to her. In the end, they decided to tear the paper in half, and play it by ear later on.

After making sure everyone else was dead, the PCs started investigating the water. While everybody avoided touching it, Braerann decided to bottle some up, and, in doing so, let some of the water touch his skin. When he did, he had a vision of a ball of light being torn into 4 smaller orbs, one for each element, and for a brief moment, he froze and felt a deep, overwhelming sadness.

Yvarge wanted to know if that vision was unique to Braerann, and touched the water as well: he had a similar experience, but rather than a ball of light, it was the Koru Behemoth his tribe was living on that he saw torn apart and become 4 orbs.

Eliel and Phaldrimi decided not to touch the water: whatever it was, the didn’t want any part of it. They decided to go investigate the door on the far side: it was barred from their side, and once open, it led out into a long tunnel, too long for them to see. Braerann came to investigate with them: as a former smuggler, he knows a thing or two about secret tunnels.

While they’re looking at the tunnel, Yvarge is still playing around with the sky-water. After a few minutes, the rest of the party hear a deafening BOOM, and see a flash of light: when they turn around, the basin is now clear water, and Yvarge is standing on the shore, soaking wet, his right eye looking like a multi-faceted mirror.

So… I love making PCs weird. I love the Goblins comics, where a barbarian is slowly turning into a demon, a goblin has a golem-ish arm, or the villain is somehow half-tree. Or to give players blessings/titles, and accompanying special abilities, when they achieve something major. I LOVE these things, and I was talking with KJ (who plays Yvarge) about those just the week before that game. When he saw the vision-giving water, he put two-and-two together. A few private messages and we were off to the races.

Now I would have been 100% okay to have the players avoid the water completely, and that’s important. I did not tell KJ “hey, please do X”, nor did I force the issue, but I left this there and they made something happen. I also don’t know 100% where this thread is going. I told KJ he’d discover its impacts over time, but I am working with him to see where the line is, and make sure I don’t go against what he wants for his character: I think it would be disrespectful to force his character somewhere without his OK.

After a few minutes of questioning Yvarge about what happened –and he blacked out, remembering water coming up his leg, but nothing after that–, the PCs hear from far away the rumble of thunder, followed by piercing screams of agony. Looking around, they realize that both the slain zombie and Nigel’s corpse are… gone. Oops.

Without time to spare, they find a trail of Nigel’s blood and follow it into the estate’s basement proper (after having found a door blasted open), and there are the two corpses, dragging themselves across the floor towards a staircase. When the PCs try to talk to Nigel, the only think they get back is a snarl. Braerann unceremoniously smashes his skull in, and Phaldrimi does the same with the zombie.

Yet, the screams continue, coming from upstairs. Climbing the stairs towards the top floor, where the rest of the NPCs were locked up in the vault, the screams get louder and louder, and the PCs can hear a strong wind, as if air was pulled up to that floor. The smell of rot is also getting stronger and stronger as they the steps.

When they get to the top floor, the scene is quite different from when they left it. The vacuum and screams are coming from the shrine: the room seems to be emitting thick shadows, covering that side of the corridor in darkness.

Standing in front of the darkness is the Grave Knight they had met earlier. On the other side are four skeletons carrying the unconscious dwarf they had saved earlier, and, next to them, a deformed, feral version of the halfling rogue they had defeated earlier.

I had a bit too much fun on Photoshop over that week. I wanted to make sure that the players recognized Yllara from her token, but also could tell right away that she was now undead, and not that she was an ally of theirs from the beginning.

It worked VERY well.

As the party gets in view of the undead, the Grave Knight raises his stone-tipped spear and points it towards Phaldrimi: she feels this oppressive force, this dark fate. On the large stone tip, Phaldrimi’s full name appears, as if instantly engraved. Under it are two numbers: her birthyear, and the current year.

An intense melee ensues: stuck between the Grave knight on one end, and the skeletons and Yllara on the other, the PCs have to handle two fronts. Using the staircase to funnel the skeletons, Braerann tries to hold the pressure away from Eliel, but they don’t have much room. The ranger is focusing fire on Yllara: “I killed her once, why does she think she’ll get out this time?”

On the other side, the Grave Knight fires off a cone of necrotic energy on the group, and engages both Yvarge and Phaldrimi. Quickly, they need to take rounds off to Rally and recover some health points. As soon as she can, Phaldrimi drinks the Elixir of Stone, hardening her skin and limiting the Grave Knight’s mobility as the floor starts to meld with his boots.

While Braerann is holding off the skeletons, the former halfling spits black sludge towards the dwarf who hates her from the bottom of his heart.

Me: So 19 hits, and you get a mouthful of this dark, foul mucus which burns your face and part of your beard. That deals 8 necrotic damage. Now, is… 11 higher than your Dexterity?

MG: I have 12!

Me: So the muck does NOT get in your mouth.

Entire table: EWWWWWW!

As time advances, the screams from the shrine are getting louder, and the shadows are getting thicker. Skeletons are starting to come out, and Yvarge gets free from the Grave Knight to engage them. After a few rounds of being saved by the Elixir, Phaldrimi’s defenses are finally pierced as the spear draws blood: despite a glancing blow, that intense feeling she was feeling turns to pain as her name is erased from the spear’s tip.

After a few rounds of status quo, the Ghoul is tired of getting hit with arrows: she jumps over the railings of the stairs, and gets in melee with Eliel, slashing at her with its claws. Braerann manages to finish off the skeletons by pushing the last one down the stairs, and rams into it, separating the two. Eliel manages to get loose, and despite very close quarters, takes a shot towards Yllara, killing her once again.

Putting all of her faith and energy in a powerful blow, Phaldrimi’s flail connects with the Grave Knight’s skull: staggered, the undead stares at her, bares its fangs, and yells. As it raises its left hand, and closes it, one of the skeletons engaged with Yvarge crumbles to dust, and a dark cloud of energy leaves it to merge with the Knight, giving it a second wind.

As the shadows get even deeper, the skeletons’ swords become bathed in shadows, and with every cut, Yvarge can feel the burn of his skin’s decay, corroded by the energy of death. While he manages to do short work of them, he is hanging by a thread.

Braerann and Eliel having handled the dead on their front, they go and help Phaldrimi: together, the three of them manage to defeat the Grave Knight. The Paladin’s flail connects one last time, turning its armour and body to ash, leaving only its shield and spear, and a dark orb of negative energy floating, starting to fly towards the shrine.

Before he can think about intercepting it, Yvarge’s mirror eye emits a quick ray of rainbow energy that hits the orb, which instantly dissipates. Confused, but postponing questions, the PCs delve into the shadows, only to see the shrine, walls covered in red sinew, air filled with ash, and the urn they had seen earlier floating in the air, emitting an enormous gateway to a barren wasteland, hands fighting each other to get a grasp on the edge and pull themselves out.

The portal, nearly reaching the ceiling, is getting smaller and smaller by the second. Yvarge, afraid those hands might be the Blackrose or their guests, tries to pull them out, only to be clawed at as the portal closes, the screams and wind end, the shadows, ash, and sinew dissipate, and the urn crashes back to the ground.

I have to say that this is probably the coolest combat encounter I’ve ever had in any TTRPG. It was tense, got serious very quickly, had a lot of awesome moments, a lot of emotions. It was SO. Great.

Digging into the encounter design a bit, I think a few things worked towards making it so awesome:

  • The party being stuck between two fronts: I definitely would not recommend it to every group, but having 3 melee fighters in one group really made this setup shine.
  • Ghoul-Yllara and Phaldrimi’s name on the spear made it personal: Both led to strong emotional reactions, and made the PCs care about what would happen.
  • Cool effects on the monsters’ side: Yllara’s spit and the Grave Knight’s second wind by killing an ally were strong moments, not because of the mechanical impacts (the first didn’t trigger, the second healed the boss for a measly 7 hit points), but because of the imagery.
  • But also for the PCs: Braerann was 1 point of damage short of finishing off the skeletons, so I offered him a Strength check to push the last one down the stairs; Eliel had her second kill shot on Yllara, as she just manage to wrestle free from her claws; Phaldrimi’s multiple Smite Evils meant she was dishing out absurd amounts of damage, and SL was giddy when she dealt the final blow; finally, Yvarge’s laser eye was unexpected and came at a dramatic moment.

The enemies themselves were custom made: the Skeletons were standard skeleton mooks, but started adding 1d6 necrotic damage to their attacks once the Escalation die reached 3.

Yllara started as a standard Ghoul. First, I applied the Lunk modifier to lower her defenses but increase her hit points. Second, to follow the Rogue motif, I boosted her Initiative and kept her halfling disengaging abilities. Third, I gave her the Spit attack, which basically was equivalent to her Claws, but at range. Lastly, instead of triggering vulnerability on a natural even hit, I made it happen on a roll higher than the target’s Dexterity score.

The Grave Knight (stat block below) started as a Medium Black Dragon. Like Yllara, I made it Lunk and switched its natural roll triggers to key off of PC’s ability scores. I reflavored its acid breath to necrotic damage, and changed its acid resistance to the standard Undead traits. I also changed its damage from static to a roll: while I like static damage, I prefer rolling it for named enemies. I changed the Draconic grace to the Riposte: I thought it would be somewhat similar, probably giving it an extra 2 or 3 attacks over the course of the battle. The ranged attack and Marked for Death abilities come from his magical spear. The Devour ability is just there for flavour: knowing he’d use it on a Skeleton, it would only be a +7 hit point boost, and would take one of its allies out.

I had planned for Yllara to come back up DURING the fight, not before, but given how long they had spent downstairs, I decided that the effect that animated Nigel and the zombie below had also affected Yllara. I had also prepared an effect from the portal every round, with reinforcements and the terrain changing, but given how much trouble the PCs were having, I only used half: more mooks coming in on round 2, and extra damage starting on round 4.

After taking a minute to catch their breaths, the PCs hear commotion coming from the other side of the corridor: THE VAULT! The Blackrose, their staff and guests, were hidden in it with the dwarf!

They run there, to find the vault’s door torn off its hinges. While no one seems injured, everyone is frozen in fear, in shock.

“The screams… they stopped… Is it… over?”, Arodenn struggles to ask the PCs.

The party comforts everyone as well as they can. They inform the family of Nigel’s death, and give the children their half of the letter: they’ll keep the other half for themselves for now.

After emotional and uncomfortable discussions, the PCs circle back to get the Grave Knight’s spear, Arodenn’s shield, which she gifted them, and Nigel’s chest full of coins. They also find, affixed to the Grave Knight’s bone shield, a scroll case containing a letter:

Yes, the name on the scroll differs from the one in the stat block. I’m sure you’ve seen your boss call the new guy Matt instead of Mike, right?

We ended on them identifying the items and reading that last letter. Speaking of, here are the items:

Between the players getting interested in the letters, excited over the loot, the exploration of the cave, the emotional interactions, and the AMAZING combat encounter, this might be the best TTRPG session I’ve ever run, out of several hundreds.

The only thing that I’m disappointed in is that now… I’m not sure what to prep for the next session. I’m assuming the PCs will hang out at the Estate some more, probably talk to the guard? They might also go back to the nearby city to try and sell the jewelry they “retrieved”, and talk to other people. Or they could decide to investigate that secret tunnel, see where it leads.

Which is a tiny blip on an otherwise superb session.

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!

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?”


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:


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.

On All Fronts #1: The Party

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.

The Guest List

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.

Plus, you know, skeletons and zombies.

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.


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.

On All Fronts: Prologue

This is the first Campaign Diary for my 13th Age campaign On All Fronts. This will cover everything prior to the first session.

Quickly: 13th Age is a tabletop RPG based on the d20 system. I like to describe it as D&D, but better. Here is a Twitter thread about why it’s better. I also talk about Icons a lot: Icons are a 13th Age concept, and are the 13 movers-and-shakers in the campaign world.

Narrative will be boxed and italicized, the rest is my thoughts and self-assessment of my GMing.

After running 2-3 times a week in my 20s, I took an RPG hiatus when my first daughter was born, and then got into board games. Over the past 6 years, I’ve played about a dozen sessions of D&D, 13th Age, FATE, and Dragon Age RPG, but nothing serious. I recently got the itch again, and made the jump.

My main love is with GMing, and by reaching out to former players, it was pretty easy to assemble a roster of 4 (anonymized, even though it’s probably unnecessary, but just in case):

  • SL, an experienced D&D player since the early days of the hobby, and still plays weekly, but has never tried 13th Age before;
  • KJ, another experienced D&D player who still plays in a regular group, and who has a handful of sessions experience with 13th Age;
  • MG, who used to play D&D a long time ago, but hasn’t touched TTRPGs in over 10 years;
  • SC, who has never played TTRPGs, but has always wanted to.

After we agreed on the game and a schedule, I offered them four campaign options: either a “dungeon of the week” sort of affair, or one of three long-term themes. The idea is not to railroad them, but to decide what the focus of the game will be. Each narrative was also focused on one of the three pillars of TTRPGs (or, at least, the games I run): Combat/Action; Politics / Intrigue; Mystery / Exploration. Here are the suggestions I made:

  • The Fourteenth: Scholars, sages, wizards and priests all agree: the 13 Icons are as central to the balance of this world as the seasons or the cycle of water. What happens when a group of adventurer find a fourteenth icon? Is all of the existing research false, or is one of the established Icons an impostor? (Focus on Mystery / Exploration, secondary Politics / Intrigue)
  • Coup d’État: The Great Kingdom has many enemies, and only the Ivory King’s masterful diplomacy holds it together, with 7 of the 12 other Icons on his side. What happens when one of these allies wants to take over? (Focus on Politics / Intrigue, secondary Combat / Action)
  • On All Fronts: While the King has his hands full managing his allies’ loyalty, external threats are piling up. 4 Icons are threatening to tear down the Kingdom, and you’ll have to take the fight to them. (Focus on Combat / Action, secondary Politics / Intrigue).
  • Living Dungeons: All across Hadriel, there are reports of gates appearing, seemingly out of thin air, leading to dangerous complexes, filled with monsters and traps, but also treasures and glory. (Low story, light-hearted dungeon-crawling fun).

As you’ve read above, they decided to go with On All Fronts. I would have liked to run any 4 of them (if I’m being honest, mostly the first 3), but this thread is a very interesting one. I have quite a few ideas to represent these Fronts, using, for example, progress clocks like in Blades in the Dark and Dungeon World fronts.

First, I want to talk about the number 4: why 4 threats? Here’s my process:

  1. One threat makes it about attacking them, not defending the Kingdom. It’s also very straightforward, and will probably get repetitive.
  2. Two threats is suddenly more interesting. The PCs will probably have to alternate targets, and I can make the world seem like a living place because the Icon they won’t go after will make progress.
  3. With 3 threats, we add a few interesting aspects: the PCs can’t just alternate, they have to get intel about each faction’s progress to know which ones are the most urgent; they’ll probably need to get allies to handle some of the pressing needs, which will also allow them some choice about what they do and what they leave for others; it also means that the villains will make some progress at some point, without the PCs feeling powerless: there are just too many balls to juggle.

So why 4 then? 3 sounds pretty rad on its own! To be honest, it might have been a mistake. I was thinking about allies, and using allies to hit the enemy, and then had this idea: what if the PCs manage to infiltrate one of the villain’s advisors, and pushes two of the Icons into confrontation. I mean, they’re villains, and while their goals all threaten the Kingdom, they’re still quite incompatible. I thought that, with 4 villains, I could overwhelm the players early on, and when they either thought of that option, or where presented with it, they’d jump on it. We’ll see how that works…

Maybe you caught that in the description of the scenarios, but I have made my own “pantheon” of Icons, based on the ones presented in the core rulebook, but less generic. This is not a knock on the game’s design: I think like they’re meant to be that generic, exactly for this reason.

With that in mind, the four villainous Icons are:

  • The Wall Breaker, Queen of Giantkind, who wants to lead her people out of the frozen wastelands they’re stuck in;
  • The Untamed One, Wildness personified, who sees civilization as a threat to the natural order;
  • The Bone Weaver, former King and current ruler of the undead;
  • The Herald of Hunger, former protector of the Kingdom, corrupted by one of the Demons he slayed to serve dark masters.

With that information, the players created their characters:

  • Phaldrimi (SL), a Suntouched Paladin: A hermit who believes she is a divine agent, as she hears a constant voice, which she believes to be from a god or long lost Icon;
  • Eliel (SC), a Wood Elf Ranger: Daughter of a famed historian, she used to be a poet, but when her father passed, she instead became an Assassin;
  • Yvarge (KJ), a Halfling Barbarian: Born in a Koru tribe (communities established on the backs of gargantuan behemoths), he eventually became a gladiator;
  • Braeran (MG), a Dwarven Fighter: Adopted into a crime family, he had to do a brief stint in prison, and came out to find his old gang murdered.

What happens then? Tune in next week (probably tomorrow actually), on the next episode of JV’s Campaign Diary of On All Fronts!