The Alexandrian

Posts tagged ‘tales from the table’

Yesterday I posted a scenario for Numenera called “The Last Precept of the Seventh Mask“. The scenario features multiple religious sects fighting for control of the body of the Seventh Mask (a religious leader denoted by the strange, mask-like biotech growth which extrudes from their face). The basic idea is that the PCs will approach the camp of one of these sects, get hired to protect them on their journey to the aldeia of Embered Peaks, and then be forced to deal with the other factions in an orgy of violence and collusion and zealotry.

But when I ran the scenario? That’s not what happened.


The Narthex - Numenera

The PCs in this campaign have been traveling around inside the Narthex. You don’t need to know much about the Narthex except that it’s bigger on the inside than the outside and that it teleports semi-randomly around the landscape of the Ninth World. (If you want to basically think of it as a TARDIS that doesn’t travel through time and can’t leave the planet its currently on, you wouldn’t be too far wrong. Except this particular TARDIS is populated by a group of religious zealots that the PCs have inadvertently ended up being in charge of. But I digress.)

For this particular scenario the Narthex was going to appear at a location they couldn’t predict. It was important, therefore, for the local resident expert to look at the starscape above their arrival point to figure out where they had ended up. When they emerged from the Narthex, they found themselves inside a giant cavern with walls covered in ancient runes that glowed with a faint silver light. The starscript writing described the Narthex as a holy relic, but whoever had worshiped the Narthex here was long dead and gone.

As they emerged from the cavern, however, to gaze up at the stars above, they saw the lights of a camp further down the side of the mountain.


The camp itself was tucked out of sight behind some tall outcroppings of rock, but they could hear the distant sounds of the people who were resting down there.

The idea here should be pretty obvious: I expected them to go down to the camp. There they would meet the Bensal kokutai and Fassare would ask for their help in guarding the body of the Seventh Mask on its journey to Embered Peaks.

But that’s not what happened.

Instead, they decided to simply keep quiet, take their star readings, and retreat back to the Narthex.

So I checked my notes. What would happen next?

Well, a pack of six ravage bears was supposed to attack the Bensal kokutai encampment that night. So they did. The PCs heard the roar of the ravage bears (and identified them) as they rushed the camp.

Once again, the intention should be obvious: I expected the PCs to rush down to help the unknown campers. They could drive off the ravage bears and–


The PCs had suffered a previous encounter with a pair of ravage bears and their bodies still bore the scars to prove it. Six of them? No, thank you. They rolled up their star charts and ran back to the Narthex with the screams of the ravage bears’ victims echoing in their ears.


The next morning the PCs came back out of the Narthex and went down to investigate the camp. The ravage bears had… well, ravaged it. Tents were shredded. Dismembered limbs and half-devoured bodies were strewn about. It was clear that several more bodies had been dragged away from the site.

The only incongruous element was the bier of the Seventh Mask, which I decided had been left undisturbed by the ravage bears. Two of the PCs — Laevra and Sheera — were incredibly creeped out by this and the biotech, mask-like growth on the corpse’s face didn’t help matters much. While Laevra, the nano, examined the mask, another PC — Phyros, a clever jack who employs magnetism — decided it would be funny to program his morphable mask to look exactly like the biotech extrusion. Laevra and Sheera, for their part, were largely unamused.

Laevra eventually concluded that there was still living activity within the biotech of the mask. The group fell into a debate about whether or not they should cut it off the corpse: Laevra had curiosity on her side. Phyros, for all of his monkeying about with the morphable mask, was legitimately concerned that it might be infectious or dangerous.

While this debate continued, I decided to have a group of Caral kokutai show up on their flying platform. Since the Caral kokutai had been stalking the Bensal kokutai, this made sense. I also thought it might offer me an opportunity to re-hook the scenario: The Caral were just as interested in transporting the Seventh Mask to Embered Peaks. Like the Bensal kokutai, the Caral kokutai would also be concerned by the other factions in the area and could easily ask the PCs for help.

Of course, that’s not what happened.


Remember that Phyros had made his morphable mask look just like the Seventh Mask?


As the energy platform of the Caral kokutai swept down into the grotto, their initial hostility towards finding the PCs standing in the midst of the carnage melted away into confusion as Phyros presented himself as the Eighth Mask. This story wasn’t completely plausible: Generally speaking, the Eighth Mask — as a reincarnation of the Seventh Mask — should have been no more than a babe. But with an extremely glib tongue, Phyros managed to sow enough confusion to convince the Caral kokutai scouts they should bring their leader, Moora, to him. (It helped that he was able to spin the gory deaths of the Bensal kokutai as being some sort of “righteous fury” directed upon heathen unbelievers.) Then, with a major effect on a final persuasion role, he convinced them that there were secret rites he needed to perform with the body of the Seventh Mask in secret. That meant that all of the Caral kokutai left, planning to return shortly with Moora.

So what were the “secret rites” that Phyros needed to perform?

Well, as it turned out, they entailed grabbing the body of the Seventh Mask and hightailing it back to the Narthex.

Entering the Narthex, it should be noted, means taking a liftshaft (i.e., elevator) down into a vast, extradimensional space. Exiting the liftshaft, you enter the Nave: A seemingly bottomless (and topless) shaft crisscrossed with gantries and catwalks.

As soon as the PCs reached the Nave in this particular case, they hauled the Seventh Mask’s corpse out of the lift, sliced the mask off its face (revealing a featureless face of fresh, baby-like flesh), pocketed the mask, and then dumped the corpse over the railing into the abyssal darkness below while resolving not to leave the Narthex again until it had jumped to a new location.


The best part? This is the third time that Phyros has ended up falsely presenting himself as a religious icon or deity. He’s not even doing it on purpose!

There are probably a lot of GMs who would look at this sequence of events as a failure of some sort. The PCs “wrecked the scenario”. My preparation was “ruined”.

But if you take a moment to look at how I actually prepped this scenario, you’ll note that I was never actually wedded to a particular outcome. Instead, as I described in Don’t Prep Plots, I created a kit with a number of tools:

  • The starscript cavern
  • The kokutai culture and their religious beliefs
  • The corpse of the Seventh Mask
  • The Bensal, Caral, and Gatha kokutai
  • The chirogs
  • The ravage bears
  • The map of the local area

And while I would have liked to have gotten the Gatha kokutai and the chirogs involved, the reality is that most of those tools got used. Virtually none of them got used the way that I had expected, but the scenes that actually played out were really entertaining and insightful and memorable largely because they were unexpected. The table was filled with laughter and there were also some really meaningful questions asked about who they had become as individuals when they ran and left the Bensal to their fate.

Now, if I had invested a lot of time into carefully preparing schedules of ambushes for the road from the Bensal camp to Embered Peaks? Then I would have wasted a lot of time and had a lot of prep “ruined” by what happened. So I’m glad that I emphasized smart prep and trusted my instincts at the table to handle the rest.

There are quite a few older D&D modules that feature various creatures with gemstones or gold coins or magical items lodged in their gizzards. I was never a big fan of the idea: First, it seemed weird. Second, it seemed improbable that any of my players would actually hack open one of these creatures and find the treasure. Third, if they ever did find one of these treasures it would only prompt them to go around systematically gutting every corpse they created.

Admittedly, the “kill ’em and loot ’em” mentality has never been particularly heroic. But advancing that into the territory of butchering your enemies in the hope that something valuable might be squeezed out of their intestines just seems to take things to a new level of tastelessness.

But this is the tale of how, after twenty years of gaming, I ended up putting a gemstone in a gizzard.

And it’s not my fault.



Catherine D. posted a very insightful comment in response to my playtesting essays that, indirectly, got me thinking again about the radically different experience I have with combat in 3rd Edition compared to some of the descriptions I hear from others online.

For example, I hear that 3rd Edition combat is static, with characters just standing around and beating on each other — but, at my gaming table, there’s lots of movement and maneuvering. Battles will frequently flow from one room into another.

Catherine also noted that, for her, combat tends to only last a few rounds. In my experience, there’s actually a great deal of variety depending on the style of encounter I’m using. (And this is a subject I may touch on in a later post.) But long battles — often lasting twenty or more rounds — are not unusual in my games.

Similarly, I’ll frequently hear people talking online about how long it takes to resolve a round of combat in 3rd Edition. This isn’t my experience, either. Certainly the longer combats (twenty rounds or more) will take a good chunk of time to play through, but the encounters that only last three or four rounds? Mere minutes of table time.

So, to give some sense of what combat is like in my campaigns, I’ve decided to post an excerpt from the journal for my current campaign. I selected this particular example in response to the following quote from Catherine’s comment:

If the fights all have to be about the same length, they are longer and more engaging. 3.5 said your actions in combat were role-playing, but 4.0 seems to actually mean it. Making fights last long enough to evolve and tell stories was mostly done by fiat and trickery in 3.5; in 4.0, in-combat character choices and battlefield evolution seem to be the default.

Because I have had exactly the opposite experience: In 4th Edition, due to the dissociated nature of the combat mechanics, roleplaying took a backseat to the mechanical manipulation of the game rules. In 3rd Edition, however, I will frequently have roleplaying-intense encounters like the one below.

So this is an example of a lengthy, roleplaying-intensive encounter. Tomorrow I might post an example of a highly mobile combat.


While exploring a cyclopean subterranean complex, the party has stumbled into a large complex of caves inhabited by a clan of goblins. Having befriended the goblins, they discover that the clan is currently besieged by the “oozed ones” — goblins of the clan who have been infected by some sort of parasite which takes control of their brains and slowly turns them into ooze-like creatures.

With several goblin allies, including a goblin warrrior by the name of Itarek, they have journeyed deep into the “caverns of the ooze”…


Mini-Adventure 1: The Complex of ZombiesAs part of the Ptolus campaign I’ve been running, my players have recently been running through Mini-Adventure 1: The Complex of Zombies. Basically the entire complex has become part of Ghul’s Labyrinth (specifically, it’s where the tunnels leading from the “Trouble With Goblins” adventure from the Ptolus sourcebook end up). As part of this I replaced the large iron door in area 10 of the complex with a door of blue steel and then put the password for opening the door safely on the other side (essentially creating a dead-end for the adventure).

But, because I like to be prepared, I did make a decision regarding what the password would be. In my notes for the dungeon I wrote:

PASSWORD: Athvor Krassek (the name of the head researcher, although there’s no way to know that)

LOCATION OF THE PASSWORD: The password is located in the relief work on the other side of the door. The goblins know it (which is how they accessed the compound).

I figured there was an outside chance that the goblins might get captured and, therefore, be available for interrogation. Since the goblins must know the password (since they came from the other side of the door), there was a chance (however slim) that the PCs might get the password out of them.

I didn’t think that particularly likely, though.

What I didn’t anticipate, however, was the unlikely synergy that would develop between area 11C and a particularly clever player. In the adventure, this area is described like this:

Stasis Box (C): There is a chest in this room with a false botoom (Search check, DC 16, to find). Inside the false bottom there are two items:

First, a packet of badly baded love letters written by a woman named Athaya and addressed to a man named Oliss.

Second, a small and perfectly preserved box of cherry wood with a mosaic design of inlaid jade. This is, in fact, a stasis box (see sidebar). Inside the stasis box there is a manuscript entitled Observations of Alchemical Reductions and the Deductions Thereof by Master Alchemist Tirnet Kal. A Craft (alchemy) or Knowledge (arcana) (DC 22) reveals that this was once a well-known alchemical text, but that the last copy of it was thought lost several centuries ago. The book would be worth 3,000 gp to the proper collector.

So the PCs encounter the blue steel door and they make a few Knowledge (local) checks to determine the properties of the door — including the need for a password in order for the door to open. They shout out a couple of likely possibilities, and then one of the players says:

“I start reading the love letters out loud in front of the door.”

… son of a bitch.

I didn’t really want them to get past that door. So I figured that: (a) These letters might not even have been written when Athvor Krassek was the administrator here. (b) Even if they were, it’s quite possible that neither member of the couple would have mentioned their boss by name in their love letters.

I didn’t want to ignore the fact that this was a pretty nifty idea. But I did assign it a ridiculously low chance of happening, picked up the percentile dice, and rolled…

… 01.

So after 4d20 minutes of reading (which turned out to be about 22 minutes), the door of blue steel swung open.

I would never intentionally design an adventure with the expectation that the PCs would take a bundle of love letters from location A and use them to open a locked door at location B. But watching that kind of unexpected success materialize out of seemingly thin air is the reason I love roleplaying games: There is a magical creativity which only happens when people get together.

I have a simple rule of thumb: If you’re designing a mystery for your PCs to solve, you should include at least three clues for every conclusion you want them to reach. More often than not they’ll miss the first clue and misinterpret the second, but the third will do the trick. (And sometimes they’ll spontaneously jump to a conclusion without even being given a clue, which is always a pleasant surprise.) If you further design the adventure so that they can complete it even if they don’t reach every single conclusion that you want them to, then your adventure is probably robust enough to withstand actual play design.

This design methodology not only sidesteps the common problem (where the PCs miss or misinterpret some vital clue), but it also leads to a more robust scenario: All those clues give you a much firmer and deeper understanding of what’s happening, making it much easier to improvise on your feet if the PCs suddenly go haring off in a random direction.

The classic adventure Death in Freeport doesn’t quite honor this design principle: When running the adventure out of the box there are a couple of choke points where PCs might find themselves facing a brick wall if they turn the wrong way or make the wrong assumption. But way back in 2000, when I first ran this adventure, I buffed it up with a few additional clues and alternate investigation methods. And I not only ran it with great success in 2000, but I ran it again in 2002 to launch a fairly successful mini-campaign, and then I ran it again in 2003 as a one-shot. It was pretty much foolproof.

Then, in 2004, I discovered that I had never known true foolishness.

This is the story of the worst experience I have ever had as a DM. I had gathered together a gaming group with the intention of playtesting a mega-adventure that, sadly, was never published. In order to lead the group into this adventure (which started at 6th level), I decided to go with some tried-and-true material: The original Freeport trilogy that I had run to such great success before. After five or six sessions of material I was completely confident about, I would have a firm baseline for judging the success of the original material in the mega-adventure.

Instead, the campaign lasted only three sessions and never got beyond Death in Freeport.

I say it lasted “only” three sessions, but the reality is that these sessions were grueling and painful affairs. It was not just that the party ineptly blew off, ignored, or blatantly misinterpreted even the simplest of clues — it was the inept bungling of their every attempt to carry through on a good intention and the utter incompetence of their exploits. A quickie adventure that generally takes about four hours to complete dragged out for more than twenty hours of gameplay, by the end of which I, as the DM, was struggling to find any way of bringing the scenario to a close.

Here are a few of the more memorable and (in retrospect and from a safe distance) hilarious exploits:

1. They were given a “To Do” list that the priest had apparently made the day before he disappeared. On the list there was a specific person mentioned. They tracked this person down and discovered he was a ship’s captain. They proceeded to concoct an elaborate scheme in which they would pretend to have a cargo they needed to ship and then offer it to the captain’s closest competitor! The competitor accepted the cargo. When this failed to elicit a response, they sat down with the captain and said, “Hey! We just gave your competitor some business! Whaddya think of that?”

The captain said, “He’s a liar and a cheat and a swindle, but who you choose to do business with is your own affair.”

They concluded from this that the captain had never heard of the priest they were looking for. (You’ll notice that they never actually asked the captain whether he knew anything about the priest. They never even mentioned the priest.) Then they spent about an hour of game time acquiring the cargo they had pretended to have so that they could actually give it to the competitor and pay him to ship it. (Why? I never found out.)

2. Assassins were sent to kill them. They killed the assassins and discovered a note on one of their bodies describing where and when they were to meet the person that had hired them. The party went to this location several hours before the meeting was scheduled to happen and discovered it was a tavern. They stayed there for about half an hour and then left… still several hours before the meeting was scheduled. The next morning they went back, broke into the tavern, and tried to kill the bartender.

3. After missing or blowing off several other clues, one of them finally managed to get himself killed. So a replacement PC was brought in, and I seized the opportunity to give this new PC a “clue” which basically consisted of him saying: “Hey, I know the guy who’s behind this. We should follow him and find out where their hideout is.”

So they follow this guy for a couple of minutes… and then one of them steps out of hiding and stabs him to death.

4. So the bad guys kidnap another priest, and this time I connive to have one of the PCs see it happen. (I’m getting desperate at this point.) The PC follows the kidnappers for several blocks and then… shoots at them with his crossbow. He’s outnumbered 6-to-1 and, after getting hit once, announces that he “only had 1 hp left” and is now dead.

This same group also had another memorable moment: At one point the party’s wizard was hit by a silver dart which had a note wrapped around it, “You die at midnight.” The party concluded, rightly, that this was a threat! So they head back to the inn where they were staying and resolve to all stay awake in the common room so that they can’t be surprised…

… all of them except the wizard, that is, who instead specifically gets his familiar drunk enough that it’s unconscious and then goes upstairs and falls asleep himself.

Oddly enough, when the rest of the group came in the next morning, they found the wizard dead with a knife sticking out of his throat.

And that’s basically what happened to the campaign, too. It was a mercy killing, really. The PC who had gotten himself killed by launching a “cunning” ambush with only 1 hp left to his name was revived inside the bad guy’s secret hideout while he was being prepared for a ritual sacrifice. With a little prompting he managed to escape, putting him in the perfect position to grab the rest of the party and lead them back to the secret hideout! This would start the straight-out dungeon crawl portion of the adventure, which would presumably negate much of their bumbling ineptitude!

… only that’s not what he did. Instead he fetched the city guard, who moved in and secured the hideout. This was almost certainly the most competent thing any of them had done in the course of the entire adventure, but it also assured that the PCs never actually managed to accomplish anything at all.

It may have ended with a whimper instead of a bang. But at least it ended.



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