The Alexandrian

Posts tagged ‘in the shadow of the spire’


Session 8A: Waking in Chains

In which unfortunate bargains are made in caverns deep beneath the city, and our intrepid heroes learn not to look a gift mobster in the mouth…

This session begins with the PCs waking up in chains after a disastrous battle.

There are several ways I could have handled this particular moment:

  • I could have had all the characters wake up simultaneously.
  • I could have arbitrarily chosen the order in which they would wake up.
  • I could use some sort of mechanical resolution to determine how they would wake up.
  • I could have had one of the character(s) get woken up by the bad guys.
  • I could have the character(s) wake up by themselves.

Seems like a relatively simple crux — and I don’t want to suggest that I spent a lot of time staring at my navel on this one — but the ways in which you resolve moments like this can have a surprisingly large impact as the consequences of that moment ripple out.

FettersFirst things first: I felt it was more interesting for the PCs wake up on their own. Why? Well, if they wake up on their own they have an opportunity to take actions (or choose not to take actions) which would no longer be available to them once the bad guys engaged with them. Conversely, anything interesting that might happen from the point where the bad guys wake them up would probably end up happening even if they did wake up first.

When in doubt, go for the option with a larger number of potentially interesting outcomes. (Particularly if you’re not giving anything up to do it.)

Beyond that, I decided to turn to fictional cleromancy: I made a mechanical ruling and let it determine the order in which the PCs would wake up. (In this case, margin of success on a Listen check with a relatively low DC. As the characters woke up, they were then allowed to make Bluff checks to keep the bad guys from realizing they were awake.)

Couldn’t I — as the GM — have made a better decision myself?

Different, certainly. But better? Probably not. If I had arbitrarily decided for myself, I’d probably have chosen Tee to wake up first (since she would be the best positioned to stealthily slip her bonds). That would have potentially given a big, splashy scene. But when the cleromancy selected Dominic, the scene instead gave a quiet opportunity to spotlight a character who often just “went along with the group”. And although the choice to patiently wait and see what would happen might seem like a “non-choice”, it was actually very revealing of Dominic’s personal character (both to the table as a whole and, I think, to Dominic’s player).

Which is why I encourage GMs to trust the fictional cleromancy.

It’s important, of course, to properly set the stakes for any mechanical resolution and to make sure that you (and the rest of the table) will be satisfied with the possible outcomes. There’s no reason to let the mechanics drive you into a wall.

But, in my experience, games are much, much better when you set them free and see where they’ll take you. They’ll surprise and amaze you and create moments you never could have imagined happening in a thousand years.

You can see a couple other examples of this general sort of thing in the current campaign journal. First, resolving Agnarr’s Sense Motive check to notice that his friends had been brainwashed on a graduated scale led to his hilarious attempt to conspire with Elestra.

Second, in the back half of this session, Agnarr attempts to locate a stray dog to make his own… and abysmally fails his Animal Handling check. (Resulting in me describing him giving the dog iron rations, which the dog did not like at all.)

Why not just Default to Yes and let him have the dog? Gut instinct more than anything else. Getting the dog seemed important to the character, and I felt it would be more appreciated if it had to be worked for. It paid off: Failing to attract stray dogs became a running joke for several sessions, and when Agnarr finally did find his dog, the moment was more meaningful for the path that had been walked to get there.

All of this is an art, not a science.


Something else to note in this session, particularly in the wake of the near-TPK in the previous session, is how the group adjusted their tactics for underwater fights. Most notably, they made a point of making sure that they stuck together even when disparate results on Swim checks would have driven them apart. And you can see the payoff as they mopped up a whole sequence of combat encounters.

They learned from their mistakes and they learned from their failure.

There’s a branch of GMing philosophy which is basically terrified of the PCs failing at something. And I don’t just mean avoiding TPKs: They can never lose any fight. Every quest must be a success. No clue can ever be missed. No mystery can ever remain unsolved. No personal goal can be frustrated.

There are a couple of major problems with this philosophy.

First, you are eliminating a huge swath of the human experience (and drama!) from your games. Go watch a movie. Read a book. Reflect on how often the main characters are thwarted; suffer setbacks; get stymied. Look at how those failures are used to raise the stakes, drive the story forward, and frame new scenes — scenes that can’t exist if failure isn’t an option.

Second, when you never allow someone to make a mistake, they never learn that they’re doing something wrong.

If you spend any amount of time in RPG discussion groups, you’ll perennially come across GMs complaining that, for example, their players always rush headlong into every fight even when they’re clearly outnumbered and outgunned.

Do you ever let them lose those fights?

Of course not!

Well… I’ve spotted your problem.

Here the group had a problem with underwater combat. They suffered horrendous consequences. And then they fixed the problem.

This is a general theme you’ll see throughout these campaign journals: Not only characters (and their players) refining their strategic and tactical choices, but also figuring how to approach problems from new angles and with alternative solutions when their first options don’t work.

Failure is, in my experience, the root of creativity.


Ptolus - In the Shadow of the Spire



October 7th, 2007
The 24th Day of Amseyl in the 790th Year of the Seyrunian Dynasty

Dominic woke to the cold taste of iron on his wrists. His hands had been chained above his head. He could hear people moving around him – the sounds echoed oddly. There was cold stone under him and against his back. He could feel that his wounds had been bound, but there was little strength in his limbs and it seemed as if every muscle and bone ached.

Dominic surreptitiously opened his eyes and looked around, trying not to attract attention to the fact that he had woken up. He saw that his companions had been chained up next to him (although it seemed as if Ranthir remained free). They were all in a damp cave of some sort, half of which appeared to be an underground lake. One of the serpentine creatures was just coming out of the Ptolus - Malkeen Balacazarwater, hauling a wooden crate to join a stack of similar crates. Several human workers were breaking the crates open and inspected small packages inside. He also saw a large adrak (a lizardman) with its back criss-crossed with scars and dozens of bells tied to him in a variety of ways. There were also several exits from the room: Two by way of water, a dry tunnel in one direction, and an iron door set into the wall in the other.

A man and woman were standing nearby, perhaps ten or fifteen feet away. The man was wearing robes of blue and white, with a hood that loosely covered his brown hair. He had handsome features made all the more striking by the star-burst tattoo emblazoned over his right eye. He was saying: “I didn’t want to interfere with it. When I looked at what it was doing… Well, the black tendrils were beautifully woven. I wasn’t sure what it was doing, so I left it and came back up to meet you. I thought for sure that you’d have some insight into it, Gattara. You have such a gift for such things.”

The obese woman next to him giggled, trying too hard to be attractive. “Flattery will win you everything.” She wore make-up an inch deep and gaudy Ptolus - Gattara Vladaamjewelry galore. Intricate curls of thick, red hair fell down across a bloated face of mascara and blush.

The man spoke again: “Hmm… But now she seems to have escaped. Which rather complicates things.”

The woman answered: “I’m sure it’s nothing that can’t be overcome.”

Agnarr groggily awoke just in time to hear the last of this exchange. Like Dominic he did his best to feign sleep, and it seemed to succeed (although Dominic realized his friend had awakened as well).

It made little difference, though, because the man said: “Na’haras, wake them up.”


Interlude: Visions on the Edge of the Void

In which lost memories return as the party lingers on the edge of oblivion…

Snape's Flashback

As I mentioned in the last installment of Running the Campaign, the near-TPK in Session 7 led to the lengthy break which resulted in the campaign’s Retcon.

When the campaign started back up, I decided to kick things off with the visions described in this installment of the campaign journal. If I recall correctly, I e-mailed these visions to the players a few days before the session to gin up anticipation. I also printed out individual copies so that the players could review them at the beginning of the session, with the joint-but-separate cliffhanger at the end of each vision leading directly to the first moment of Session 8.

In addition to simply getting people excited about playing again, I also wanted to make an experience which had ended up being unexpectedly traumatic and significant to the group in the real world an equally significant milestone for the characters, and I hoped that these visions would help drive home how close to real and meaningful death the PCs had come.

The actual visions themselves, however, were not created for this particular moment. They had been designed before the campaign ever began.


The campaign began with the PCs experiencing a period of “lost time”. I took extra efforts to make sure that the players really felt this missing gap in their lives, because the things which had happened to them during that time were really significant.

The next step was to make sure that this missing time continued to be significant to them throughout the campaign, so that it wouldn’t just fade into “something that happened awhile back and isn’t really significant any more”. One way of doing this, as I’ve described previously, was to create a meta-scenario featuring a mix of investigating the past and also consequences from the past coming back into the oblivious lives of the PCs.

The other way I decided to keep the “lost time” as a pervasive factor throughout the campaign was through the use of flashback visions: Glimpses that the PCs would have into their lost memories. These visions were carefully excerpted from the “secret history” I had prepared regarding the period of lost time, and would hopefully also tie-in with the various meta-scenarios revolving around that lost time. (The idea was to create synergy between multiple tracks running persistently throughout and behind the other adventures of the PCs.)


The triggers for these flashbacks were intentionally designed flexibly. (And most flashbacks had multiple triggers.) They generally weren’t things like, “During Adventure #5 when X happens, the PCs receive this vision.” Instead it was, “If something kind of like this happens, it’ll probably cause the PC to flashback to this moment.”

I also never hesitated to use a flashback — or create a new flashback! — if something that felt dramatically appropriate happened which I hadn’t anticipated. By and large, that’s what happened here: There were some flashbacks that had “near death” as a trigger; others that felt thematically appropriate. (I was also trying to strengthen the relationship Elestra and Dominic had before the lost time, since I had identified that this had not really been as deeply invested in by the players as the Agnarr-Tee relationship had been because the Elestra-Dominic prelude didn’t actually happen at the game table. It still didn’t really take. Things that happen at the game table are just more “real” than things that are only written down in character backgrounds.)

You’ll also note that the flashback visions are static. I’ve talked in the past about using playable flashbacks, but in this case I didn’t want the players to feel authorship of them or the ownership which would come with it. I wanted them to be alienated from these experiences; for these experiences to feel as if they had “happened to somebody else” even while they knew that it was, in fact, something that had happened to them.

This would not remain invariably true as the campaign progressed, although there were some unique twists which accompanied their first opportunities to “live” these memories. That, however, is a tale for another time.


There is darkness… And then you find yourself standing in a long hall of stone. Ten black-scaled reptilians stand guard upon another reptilian in robes who shouts, “Behold Serrek Tarn, the Acolyte of the Master! He who shall be your doom!”

Agnarr is beside you. He scoffs. “Only an acolyte? Hah!”

There is a shattering flash of prismed light, and when your vision clears the reptilians lie dead and Agnarr is laughing. You walk down the hall together and throw open the door at its end.

You’ve seen this before. You know what to expect: A room of gold and a door of ebony…

… but that’s not what you see. The door opens onto a large chamber. The ceiling is several dozen feet above you and the entire room is choked full of bramblous growth reaching to a height at least twice your own. Before you a path seems to have been hacked out of the dead or dying brambles. You step forward onto the path…

… and wake in chains.


There is darkness… and out of the darkness a chamber filled with shadows emerges. There are others around you. Your companions? You can’t tell. Their faces are veiled by the shadows and seemed blurred besides.

Before you, however, is the sarcophagus of a dwarven thane – his cold and stony features etched in profile atop it. On a narrow ledge before the sarcophagus lies a gleaming greatsword. Your hand reaches out, you grasp the blade. It fits your hands perfectly. You raise it aloft and a glorious shout erupts from your throat, “FOR THE GLORY!”

The blade bursts into blinding flame, the light spreads and fills the room…

… and you wake in chains.


Snowy Mountains

There is darkness… and then slowly, horrifically, the darkness fills with an unnamed dread. Your eyes are sightless and your ears hear no sound, and yet the certainty of horror ebbs into your very soul.

And then, suddenly, there is a light – impossibly bright; impossibly warm; impossibly soothing. The darkness is banished before it. And the light grows and grows and grows… And then it’s gone, but the darkness it leaves behind is merely the lack of light, not a manifested malevolence.

You open your eyes, and find yourself lying in a bank of snow upon the edge of a mountain. You can see for miles in every direction. The snow is chilling you, but there is a burning warmth in your left hand, which seems to be clenched about an object. Looking down and opening your hand, you find a mithril snake – the silver snake of Vehthyl; the serpent doubled. It seems to smolder, but is cooling rapidly.

You turn and see Dominic lying, much like yourself, in the snow. He, too, is holding the doubled serpent of Vehthyl. He looks up at you, and you see that his eyes are two glowing orbs of silver…

You wake in chains.


There is darkness… and then slowly, horrifically, the darkness fills with an unnamed dread. Your eyes are sightless and your ears hear no sound, and yet the certainty of horror ebbs into your very soul.

And then, suddenly, there is a light – impossibly bright; impossibly warm; impossibly soothing. The darkness is banished before it. And the light grows and grows and grows… And then it’s gone, but the darkness it leaves behind is merely the lack of light, not a manifested malevolence.

You open your eyes, and find yourself lying in a bank of snow upon the edge of a mountain. You can see for miles in every direction. The snow is chilling you, but there is a burning warmth in your left hand, which seems to be clenched about an object. Looking down and opening your hand, you find a mithril snake – the silver snake of Vehthyl; the serpent doubled. It seems to smolder, but is cooling rapidly.

You turn and see Elestra lying, much like yourself, in the snow. She, too, is holding the doubled serpent of Vehthyl. She looks up at you, and you see that her eyes are two glowing orbs of silver…

You wake in chains.



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.


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.


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.



Recent Posts

Recent Comments