The Alexandrian


Session 8B: Meeting Tor

During Session 8, the party had its first interactions with two very influential citizens of Ptolus: Malkeen Balacazar of the Balacazar crime family and Lord Zavere of Castle Shard.

At this point in time, the PCs were either 2nd or 3rd level (depending on whether or not they had earned XP in the prelude sessions). Malkeen was 14th level. Zavere was 20th level. Obviously, in terms of puissance, the PCs were completely dwarfed. If they’d decided to pick a fight with either one of them, they’d most likely have been crushed like bugs almost instantaneously.

“Don’t antagonize someone who has a fang-faced, void-mouthed guy to order around.” – Elestra

This, of course, was entirely intentional. In a zero-to-hero game like D&D, I think it’s really important for the PCs to have interactions with the very powerful. It gives them something to aspire to and is also integral to establishing that the world they inhabit is a large and complex place with concerns which extend beyond their daily lives. Doraedian is another prominent example of this, as are any number of denizens of the common room at the Ghostly Minstrel.

In some ways, this is kind of the inverse of Revisiting Encounter Design: Just as you want to increase the dynamic range of your encounters by designing them with a wide variety of creatures of varied powers, you also want to make the dynamic range of your entire campaign as broad as possible.

Agnarr cracked a sunrod and observed that they were now doing the same job (retrieving the girl) for three different employers: Zavere, Linech, and the man with the star-tattoo.

Ptolus - Malkeen BalacazarThis high level of power is not, of course, a necessary quality for a patron. (During these same sessions, Linech is an example of a patron on par with the PCs’ power level.) It’s obviously not a requirement for every villain. But these characters allow you to open doors that would otherwise remain closed.

On the other hand, this liberty must be carefully balanced against the inherent threat of the disparity in power: The ability to squash the PCs like a bug is not only problematic because they might actually end up getting squashed; it’s also problematic because it can make the players feel helpless, manipulated, and coerced. (That can be okay some of the time, but in most campaign it becomes a major problem if the players feel that they’ve become completely de-protagonized or that the GM is railroading them.)

The precise way you accomplish this balancing act is always pretty heavily dependent on the specific circumstances of the campaign. But there are a few general principles you can keep in mind:

Balance the Interests of the Powerful: Counter-intuitively, you can often reduce the PCs’ sense of powerlessness by including even more powerful people. These powerful factions can be used to checkmate each other. You can see an example of this with Malkeen Balacazar and Lord Zavere: The PCs were being sent up against a really powerful crime family, but they were doing so at the best of a very powerful patron. If things got dicey, they should be able to fall back on their powerful ally to provide protection.

Keep the Distance: You can have the powerful get involved with the PCs’ lives without them constantly invading the PCs’ personal space. Lord Zavere, for example, reached out to them through the intermediary of Mand Scheben. Malkeen Balacazar, on the other hand, was not actually supposed to directly interact with them: At the first sign of trouble, he was supposed to clear out under the mistaken belief that someone was bringing the hammer down and he would be in person jeopardy. (Allowing the PCs to perhaps glimpse him during his retreat.) The campaign obviously went a different way than that, of course.

“Tee! I was just writing you a letter!” He crumpled the paper and shoved it to the side.

You can usually tell that you’ve been successful in striking the right balance, however, when you discover that you can’t keep the powerful at arm’s length because the PCs are actively seeking them out. You can see evidence of that in this week’s campaign journal with the “crumpled letter” gag: I hadn’t actually anticipated that Tee would actively seek out Mand Scheben or Doraedian that morning, so I’d actually prepped letters that they were supposed to have delivered later that day. (I literally crumpled up the props and tossed them aside.)

Making the PCs Vital: If powerful individuals are taking an interest in the PCs, it means that the PCs have something to offer them. Crank that dial up. Make the PCs vital to the interests of one or (preferably) more of the powerful. This not only serves as a layer of protection (“I can’t kill you, I need you!”), it also, by definition, prevents the PCs from feeling powerless or irrelevant: Their choices matter. What they do matters.

The importance of this last point, in my opinion, cannot be over-emphasized. The reason to bring the powerful into the PCs’ sphere isn’t so that the PCs can goggle at the amazing antics of the powerful. It’s so that the PCs can get tangled up in their affairs.

And as the PCs seek to untangle themselves, over time they will slowly discover that they have become the powerful and the affairs are, in fact, their own.

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One Response to “Ptolus: Running the Campaign – High Level Intimidations and Intimations”

  1. Dan Dare says:

    In my D&D 5e open table games 1st level characters have encountered the young Blue Dragon Auros. Generally these turn into meetings where the players attempt to deceive Auros or negotiate with him and do his bidding.

    At one point some 4th level players were hidden in a mist when an older black dragon was flying by. Some of them called to it in a very commanding way. It turned them into goo. Of the survivors it intimidated a character who had a set of bag pipes and took them.

    Why? Because in an early session a bard with bagpipes tricked Auros into destroying a manor house that did not have the treasure Auros was expecting, but was instead the home of a witch. Since then Auros has let it be known far and wide that he will have revenge on the bard with the bagpipes. Bagpipe playing became something of an underground act of rebellion. The black dragon wanted to tell Auros he had found the bard and would help AUros out if Auros did him a favour first.


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