Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Session 10 - A Sudden Twist of Fate

Saturday, April 14, 2007, from 4:00 PM to 9:30 PM

We invited two new players to join our game.

One shows up today: Stephanie, one of the teachers of the local school (like all the other players of the game). I prepared a character using what I knew of our group's composition: we had a rogue, a sorcerer and a monk. The two D&D archetypes missing to have an iconic party are the Cleric/Healer and the Fighter/tank. I did not want to create a Cleric since Beket would multiclass as one and because the Cleric basically is a support role I think is unfit for people who want to discover the game (unless they are the sole character in the game, that is).

Stephanie inspecting her character sheet.

I want the character to be simple and use straightforward mechanics allowing her to quickly grasp the basics of the game. Further options, spells and rules can be discovered as the game unfolds. To start playing, nothing beats a character with a focus on action: the character does one thing well that has a chance to meaningfully impact the flow of the game, and that's it.

I chose to go with a female warlock named Iliana. The Warlock can be found in the D&D supplement Complete Arcane, published by Wizards of the Coast. It is an excellent character class for newbies since it encourages an active role in combats, thanks to its Eldritch Blast ability. It also has Invocations, which are supernatural abilities always "on", basically. No need to keep track of them all the time. You can just relax and enjoy the game. You can shoot stuff and have fun. Exactly what Stephanie needs.

Some relevant information about the character:

- Iliana, female human witch. She is a Runebearer who doesn't know anything about the marks she bears since she was born. After being rejected from her community, she ended up in Ptolus, trying to make it as one of the numerous adventurers flooding its streets. She was recently mugged by some alchemists. She tries to find out what they want from her and ultimately joins the PCs in their investigation and adventures.
Warlock Level 4.
Feats: Point Blank Shot, Precise Shot, Weapon Focus (ranged spells), Rapid Shot.

Prior to the game, we also level-up all the players' characters. I prepared everything in advance by writing down all the necessary modifications to the character sheets in my campaign notebook. This allows us to not waste time shuffling through rulebooks to check that modifier or this hit die.

We have an early supper with tacos, salads, home-made bread and sushi. We are all well sated and end up resuming our game around 6:00 PM.

Session 10 - A Sudden Twist of Fate

Still the 24th of Rain

Beket Per Aau-Nu, Heinrietta Nagel and Simone Ahrenameer just defeated a Yuan-Ti and her abyssal minions within the Lodge, the adventuring resort for the wealthy indirectly owned by the Balacazar crime family.

It turns out, as Malkeen Balacazar pointed out to them two weeks prior to their visit, that the Lodge was under new management for some time: some doppelgangers allied with the alchemists who originally tortured them had infiltrated the resort, but the monstrous staff (playing the monsters in the fake dungeons the costumers of the lodge explore during their stay) found out just before the girls came in the picture. Now, the monsters control most of the area and don't seem too keen on discussing things over with our heroes. They have to fight their way through the complex to be able to track the alchemists back to their secret lair, wherever that may be.

After looting the orcs, gnolls and Yuan-Ti on the lower level of the Lodge, the girls are about to climb up the stairs to the upper level when the air suddenly shimmers and bends before them. Patches of color sparkle around and agglomerate to form a smooth and featureless body. It grows, and takes on more details to become a young woman standing tall before them, thin, with dark brown hair, brown eyes and pale skin. She is wearing a long blue coat, leather boots and banded mail. She carries some adventuring gear including backpack, rope and all. She does mean business.

The girls recognize the new comer: she is a runebearer, and was mugged by some people a few days earlier. Zavere had learned about this somehow and had her brought to Castle Shard to rest and recover. She remained unconscious during our heroes' stay there.

She explains that she awoke soon after the girls left for the Black Ladder. She is a new adventurer to Ptolus and doesn't know why she was mugged in the first place. The Lord and Lady of Castle Shard roughly explained the situation to her, but they didn't waste time: they thought it was best for her to join Beket, Hennie and Simone in their quest for answers.

Hennie Nagel wants to confirm Iliana's story before she can trust anything she says. Watching over the stairs leading up to the second level of the Lodge, she uses her thoughtstone and contacts Zavere directly. She concentrates on the gem and soon hears the Lord's voice in her mind. It just takes a few seconds to confirm Iliana's tale. All seems well and good.

When the conversation is over all the girls hear a deep voice resound upstairs: "Dinner is almost ready, boys!"

Iliana decides to sneak upstairs and check out what it is all about. She soon finds herself in a vestibule of sorts. Two doors are in front of her, leading to the customers living quarters. On her left, a book case concealing a secret door was recently swung open. She decides to sneak past the secret door. Just beyond, she finds the corpse of a richly dressed woman in an advanced state of decomposition. On the other side of the secret door, marks of nails and blood. This poor creature had been sequestered here until she died alone in the dark.

Iliana is now standing at the edge of a vast underground cave connected to the Lodge via the secret door she just walked past. At about 60 feet beyond the corner opening on the cave itself, she notices the flickering flame of a brasero. Shadows slowly slither on the natural stone wall facing her; there is some movement down there.

She hides in the shadows and peaks around the corner. She spots an ogre armed with a gigantic cleaver knife. He is about to slaughter some furry animal standing on a huge wooden platform. Nearby, another furry beast lies dead, covered with what looks like large chunks of ice. The ogre is humming a song as he tests the edge of his knife with his bare fingers. He lifts the blade above his large head and suddenly hacks at the beast standing there. A huge grin deforms his face. He does not seem to have noticed her hiding nearby.

A good cook cuts his meat by himself, wouldn't you say?

Iliana decides to retreat. She goes back to the other girls and relays what she just witnessed to them. The group discusses it over for a few seconds and climbs back up the stairs. When they all reach the second floor, they decide to go for the doors leading to the customers' living quarters.

Once there, they realized they have just interrupted another Yuan-Ti and two ogres who were chatting while waiting for their evening meal!

The Yuan-Ti leaps into an adjacent room away from the girls' sight. One ogre decides to run through a guest room while his partner kicks the dining table to project it at the heroes' faces!

As the ogre runs to meet with the intruders, gunshots and bolts of eldritch energy burst left and right. Simone turns around the obstacle through lateral corridors but finds herself face to face with the first ogre who went through the guest room! She quickly shoots an arrow. It fends through the air and pierces the ogre's eye. The hulking monster shakes his head violently before charging. He then hits her with all the might he fosters from the pain and hatred he feels at this precise moment. The blow lands on Simone's bare jaw...

... and sends her flying through the door frame! She crashes on a table at the other side of the dining room. She is unconscious. The ogre's blow crushed half of her face under its impact. The girls fight on. Beket notices Simone's body starts shaking uncontrollably. She runs to her and inspects her wounds. The shakes stop. There is a moment of doubt that is soon cleared up: the body lays there, lifeless. At peace.

Simone is dead.

The rest of the girls' fight becomes a blur. When everything is over, they all stand among the corpses of their former adversaries. Not that any of this matters anymore: Beket kneels beside Simone's corpse. Iliana is just a few steps behind, not knowing how to react. Hennie stands straight, her thoughts quickling racing through her head.

She picks up her thoughtstone and says a name aloud: "Zavere..."

The Lord of Castle Shard connects his thoughts to hers. She explains the situation and as soon as everything is clear to him, the Lord does not waste time. He just tells them to wait and be patient. Silence follows the initial shock and indeed they wait.

Seconds turn into minutes, and minutes into hours. Or so it seems.

Another shimmering wave grows in the air. Patches of color. Another teleportation. A smaller individual appears before them: Hamrick, the bold halfling the girls have been meeting on and on since they escaped from Zalathar's lair. The halfling carries a pair of silver bracers in his hands. He walks directly to Simone's corpse and puts the bracers on her forearms. He stands aside and waits.

Nothing happens at first. Beket, Hennie and Iliana feel like they're waiting for a miracle to occur.

A fine phosphorescent outline surrounds Simone's body. Then, Simone gets up. She looks around and meets her friends' looks of surprise. She smiles at them. She notices there is some sadness in their eyes. She looks around, notices Hamrick but cannot say another word: her own body is still lying there, on the floor.

She looks at her hands. They are translucent.

"A ghost," says Hamrick. "That's what you are. For now."

The girls decide to retreat. Just as they step in the vestibule the ogre "cook" Iliana spied on earlier emerges from the secret door leading to the cave beyond. Another fight ensues. Simone soon finds out she can actually touch her friends physically but cannot reach other people or items. She distracts the ogre's attention enough for her friends to take care of him.

When the cook finally lies dead, the girls take a decision: it is time for them to back off, go back to the surface and make arrangements to bring Simone back to the world of the living.

When the girls emerge from the basement of the Black Ladder an hour later, no customer, no member of the staff dares to intervene. The somber and decided looks on their faces, their clothings torn apart and the various wounds they have suffered thus far clearly show they won't put up with complaints right now.

Dusk is upon them as they reach the streets of Ptolus. They catch a carriage cab and indicate their next destination to its driver: St. Valien's Cathedral, the largest of the nine churches dedicated to Lothian's cult in the city.

The magnificence of the building with its elaborate sculptures, evocative iconography, colored stained glass all around isn't sufficient to divert the girls' thoughts away from their grave purpose. Their steps echoing down the Cathedral's nave, they walk firmly towards the altar. An acolyte steps forwards and greets them formally.

As soon as the adventurers start explaining why they came to St. Valien's, it soon becomes clear from the acolyte's dispassionate tone and careful choice of words that they are not welcome here. He tries to redirect them to St. Gustav's chapel, where the Church "attends to the need of the bold and the unwary who plunge and plunder the dungeon below for a living."

The discussion quickly heats up after the acolyte spots Simone and recognizes her for what she is. He mentions the Keepers of the Veil and how the "creature," as he immediately starts calling her, should be brought to the Necropolis under the Order's watch. Only the intervention of Sister Mara Von Witten, an adventurer devoted to the Church who just happens to catch bits and pieces of the argument stops the exchange before it becomes too vehement for everyone involved.

She gracefully yet firmly sends the acolyte on his way and excuses herself on his behalf.

The girls explain their situation to Sister Mara. She listens carefully. She corrects them whenever she thinks some factual details are wrongly interpreted, but she does so with respect and deference.

She tells the girls the Church can indeed help them bring back Simone from "beyond the veil", as she puts it. She explains that the Holy Rite of True Resurrection could be performed by the Archbishop Adlam Theobold. Unfortunately, His Grace would not be able to perform the Holy Rite before next Theoday (five days from now). The Church of course would "welcome" a donation as a "necessary" sign of Faith on their parts prior to performance of the Holy Rite. The girls do not object.

Sister Mara helps them with the details. The acolytes of the Church help carry Simone's body to the Guild of Morticians stationed not far from the cathedral. There, the body will lay safe while the girls carry on during the next few days.

Tiana wearing Simone's Silver Bracers

Dusk has long morphed into a dark, starless night when the girls finally reach the Ghostly Minstrel where they plan to rest for a while. They discuss all that happened to them with the other patrons of the tavern including luminaries such as Urlenius, Star of Navashtrom, Steron Vsool, Shiva Callister and the two well-known mavericks Daersidian Ringsire and Brusselt Airmol.

Together, they discover the nature of the bracers Simone's spirit is wearing: these, Daersidian points out, are some Bracers of the Silver Shroud. "These," he explains, "are artifacts of great magical value once forged by the Wizards-Priests of Ni-Gorth whose worship is now all but forgotten: they allow their wearer's soul to linger and stay among the living. The soul can then shift between the worlds, become as tangible as each of us or remain incorporeal, as the wearer's sees fit."

The girls are all worn-out. They decide to go to bed. Simone joins the Minstrel himself and talks with him through the night, learning from his own experience of death and spiritual states of being. Such a twist of fate. Much remains to be learned. Much to be discovered.

Just another day in Ptolus, citizens say...

XP Breakdown

All characters are Level 4.
- Combat vs. Yuan-Ti and two Ogres - CR 6
- Combat vs. the Ogre "cook" - CR4
- Dealing with Simone's death - CR 4
XP per PC for Session 10: 1,200 (4 PCs).
Total XP earned (Beket and Simone): 9,475 XP.
Total XP earned (Hennie): 8,500 XP.
Total XP earned (Iliana): 7,200 XP.

The Dwarven Forge set-up for Session 10
DM's Notes

I don't think the death of player-characters has to be a problem in a tabletop RPG campaign. Actually, I think it can be just the opposite: an opportunity in disguise. You can bring about all sorts of dramatic moments or new plot elements when one of the PCs die. This is an important moment. A defining moment even, as far as the characters' emotions go. New perspectives can be exchanged. New information unveiled. New characters can be met, and many events triggered. A death doesn't "have to" matter in your campaign, but it certainly can, in a very productive way.

We may see some dramatic moments show up in the game sooner rather than later, since Simone's player does not actually want to be resurrected (she just finds the fact of playing a dead character really exciting).

The group already invested in the Holy Rite of St. Valien. What happens when Simone suddenly doesn't want to be back from the dead? What will the reaction of her comrades be? What about the Church and the Keepers of the Veil? What about the dark forces looming over Ptolus, such as the Fallen and Forsaken of the Necropolis? There are tons of possible developments, and I'm sure what will end up happening has not been foreseen. It's well and good. It's part of the reason I am the DM: if there weren't any surprises for me in the game, what would be the challenge, really?

Another issue I wanted to talk about is the thoughtstone. It is like a magical cell phone for Ptolusite characters. The stone Hennie uses during this game was given by Zavere to the group so they could keep in touch further on.

I do not want the item to become some sort of deus ex machina provider each time the players are in trouble. Hennie's player tried to use the stone on a few other occasions during the game, but didn't get any response from Zavere.

My rationale is that people like Rill and Zavere may have thoughtstones and provide them to the people they want to be able to contact, but that doesn't make them available all the time to pick up and chat whenever the PCs want. It's like people in real life: when they are attending meetings, doing some work around, or engaging social exchanges that forbids them from just "picking up the phone", they just don't. That'd be just rude to do otherwise, right? Same thing in Ptolus, particularly considering the people owning this stones usually are very well-known and influential citizens. They just don't have the time to chat endlessly over the "stone".

Overall, this was a good game session with some surprises for everyone.

Our new player, Stephanie, liked the game very much, and was pretty much hooked as soon as we started using the miniatures to simulate combats and movements. Something to remember for people I introduce to the game (and this is not the first time I witness it): people really love to have something concrete to play with. When miniatures are on the table, the game doesn't look as "weird" as it may have looked like otherwise: it's not abstract, it's not "too far out" - there's some tactic, some strategy going on, and a bit of acting to make the whole scene look more vivid and entertaining. That's all the newbies need to understand at first. Keep the drama for later. Keep the complex situations out of the way for the moment. There's always time to spice things up later on!


Alex Schroeder said...

When I started two new groups at the end of last year, I also noticed that players that have never played before actually preferred the use of miniatures. That surprised me because when I was young and learned the game, the use of miniatures was considered bad style.

Benoist said...

The use of miniatures has been considered "bad style" since Call of Cthulhu took over the market (in Europe, mostly) during the mid-80's. It was later emphasized by the rise of White Wolf and its World of Darkness. All these games emphasize the notion of "story" and "drama" in a RPG.

I think it always was a wrong approach to role-plaing games, because it cuts them from their roots and what many people out of the hobby would consider entertainment.

Sure, some would-be authors would want RPGs to be considered as some sort of collaborative writing, but truth is, it shouldn't be considered that way precisely because it makes it some sub-art instead of a full-fledged hobby with its own value and specificities. As much as I am opposed to a subordination of RPGs to wargames or now, computer games, I am opposed to their subordination to any sort of artistic ideal.

That isn't to say that RPGs can't represent some form of artistic expression for their users. It certainly is for me. But this has nothing to do with fiction writing, plays, or movie making, and God knows I'm fond of the first.