The Alexandrian

IN THE SHADOW OF THE SPIRE

Session 7B: Blood in the Water

In which the dark abyss of the harbor claim many a valiant soul, leaving but one to stand vigilance upon disaster…

So what you have in this session of the campaign is basically a TPK. (Ranthir stayed in the boat, but other than that…)

What happened here is a sequence of strategic errors which are, I think, well summarized narratively in the journal, but which may be useful to break out more specifically:

  • The players ignored the shark on the surface, dismissing it as not being an active threat.
  • When the shark attacked, Tee and Elestra continued swimming down, leaving the rest of the party multiple rounds of movement behind them. (This problem was further exacerbated by poor Swim checks that caused characters to flounder instead of making progress.)
  • As the situation got bad, characters rushed forward one at a time (again, exacerbated by poor Swim checks) instead of regrouping.

The result was that instead of facing the encounter as a group, they basically fought the encounter as three sequential micro-groups.

TPK.

The Princess Bride - Grandfather

The campaign did not end here. I’m explaining because you look nervous.

Once the water was filled with blood, I called a short break. The group was in various states of shock. Things had gone from “pleasant romp” to “horrific” really, really fast. We all needed some time to recover, and that included me. I needed some time to think about what had happened and what was going to happen next.

In many similar circumstances, this would most likely have been the end of the campaign. Or, at least, the campaign in any recognizable form: With Ranthir still alive, it’s possible he might have been able to continue. Maybe called in some favors to bring his comrades back (albeit, with a huge debt weighing them down like a lodestone). Or, more likely, fallen in with a different troupe of delvers.

But there are plenty of TPKs where that’s all she wrote: You got killed by people who don’t care in a place where no one will ever look for you. (Assuming methods of resurrection exist in the milieu of the campaign at all.) Game over. What shall we do next week?

And, by and large, I’m okay with that. I think it’s important that encounters play out to their logical and non-handicapped conclusion because that’s what makes the moments where a group truly rallies and wins a day which had seem lost truly exciting. And the same is true on a large scale: Knowing that a campaign is not fated to end in success makes it more meaningful when a campaign does.

You value what you earn, not what you are given as charity.

In this particular case, however, there was another logical outcome: The sahuagin weren’t a random encounter. They were there for a purpose. And the people who had hired them for that purpose would logically be interested in who the PCs were and why they were there. I also realized, as you’ll see in the next journal entry, that the PCs would be immediately useful to them. In fact, once I stepped into their shoes and thought about what they would do with the situation that was being presented to them, there was only one logical thing they would do:

They’d dump some healing magic in the PCs, wake them up, and start the interrogation.

So… not a TPK.

This time.

CONSEQUENCES

The other great thing about letting things play out (instead of predetermining or forcing an outcome) is that the consequences you discover along the way are inevitably wonderful and unexpected and take you to amazing places you would otherwise have never discovered.

Although, unfortunately, that’s not always the case. This session had severe metagame consequences: Agnarr’s player felt strongly that I should have railroaded the encounter to prevent them getting overwhelmed and knocked out. He also hated the idea of his character being taken prisoner in general, and specifically felt there was no justification for the sahuagin taking prisoners.

He didn’t hang around to see how it played out. He quit the campaign.

Which threw things back into a bit of chaos for awhile, leading to a long break and the sequence of events which eventually resulted in the Big Retcon before we continued.

In the campaign itself, however, the consequences were much more interesting: They resulted in the PCs coming to the attention of (and becoming indebted to) the Balacazar crime family, with wide-ranging consequences that would continue to effect play more than half a decade later.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. You’ll just have to keep reading to see exactly how things turned out.

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7 Responses to “Ptolus: Running the Campaign – Thus Endeth the Campaign”

  1. Versalia says:

    Honestly, Agnarr’s player sounds a bit like the Player Who Won’t Bite. Someone who is that strongly opposed to being taken prisoner just because of the principle is someone who is not interested in giving you any kind of emotional collateral against them (and therefore certainly not interested in the possibility of failing on his own merits). That’s why he quit when he did and was so upset that you DIDN’T railroad the scenario; how can his fantasy of doing whatever he wants– successfully– when you don’t specifically set him up for success?

  2. Pete says:

    Its commendable that you stick behind your design philosophy and choices as a GM in the face of a player who outright quits because of them.

    I follow a similar philosophy to you of not railroading situations to a pre-drawn conclusion and trying to roll with the punches of the dice but but do struggle as I doubt myself a lot especially in the face of an agitated player who is angry with my choices. So it’s refreshing to see another GM sticking with with it and gives me a lot of encouragement.

  3. Pelle says:

    I haven’t followed this series of articles, but was the player aware that you let their actions have natural consequences? If not discussed in session zero etc he might assume that his character will always succeed no matter what they do.

    At the very least, it seems like they didn’t understand that their tactic was risky, and feel that they couldn’t have won regardless. If the players can see their error, or know the risks, they are more understanding of bad stuff. In an earlier entry I saw that there were concerns of railroading in a riot scene, related issues?

  4. Wyvern says:

    Tiny nitpick: a lodestone is a magnet. The kind of stone that weighs you down is a millstone.

  5. Maximilian D Wilson says:

    I must be missing something, because when I read the linked journal entry, I just get a bunch of paragraphs about going shopping around town, a burned ship, and some piled-up rat corpses. Nothing that looks like a TPK.

  6. Justin Alexander says:

    Looks like a busted link. Fixed.

  7. Sarainy says:

    I think it’s great that you let things naturally progress and looked past the initial shock factor of a TPK.

    In my limited experience, people who have played modern MMORPGs are much more likely to hate the idea of character death and feeling powerless vs. those who have not. Have you (or any readers) seen a similar correlation?

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