Saturday, January 22, 2011

Episode 8: You say you want a revolution

With the Inquisition at the door, the party is heading for the roof of their guesthouse when they receive an animal messenger from Caleb, one of the PCs who had missed the previous run and had as a result been left in the village harbor to mind the Fortuna while the rest of the group ventured into the Tendyran port city of Nemala. When the party failed to return by sunset Caleb- a voodoo priest- decided to consult the spirits and cast Augury to see if he should find and help his friends. I had given the player the option simply to have been with the party all along (a simple retcon aided by the fact that Caleb has a Ring of Invisibility), but he decided it would be more fun to play out his reunion.

So Caleb arrives in the city just in time to catch the tail end of the torch-wielding mob of Imperials and town guardsmen heading for the party's guesthouse. He sends a message detailing the situation outside, which prompts the group to split up when they take to the roof- two players will try and create a diversion, while the rest will head uphill towards the Temple of the Oracle, which will grant them sanctuary even from the local authorities. Nemala is a city of terraces and closely-packed rowhouses, so moving from rooftop to rooftop is relatively easy, save for the occasional gaps which must be jumped or otherwise negotiated.

The only hazard is that they are attempting to do this at night, and as quickly as possible, so for each terrace I roll 2d6, compare it to 7, and ask the players to make a DEX check at whatever my roll was over or under. Simple failure means tripping and taking 1d4 damage; failure by 4 or more on the ability check means falling through the roof itself into the top floor of the building below, taking 1d6 falling damage plus an additional 1d4 damage from crashing through the roof; a critical failure results in falling off the building entirely and landing on the street for 20' or more of falling damage. Moving from terrace level to terrace level presents a different challenge each time (they will need to make 3 level changes in order to reach the temple): the first change is an actual arch, the second has one 15' jump, and the third has two jumps, of 6' and 9' respectively.

The results are amusing, but not deadly enough to deter the party from sticking to the rooftops. Meanwhile, the diversionary party gets to witness first-hand what happens when you violate the laws of hospitality on the island of Tendyra, where the ancient gods known as the Nameless Ones are venerated at every hearth. For no sooner do the Imperial soldiers break down the front door of the guesthouse than they are assaulted by Evard's Black Tentacles, which cause most of them to run screaming in every which direction until they are able to regroup. So the diversionary party, no longer needed to create a diversion, decide to make their way down to the waterfront to meet up with Caleb when they are hailed by the bookseller- a Varonian merchant named Ovidio who has been laying low in a tavern basement ever since the Inquisition came looking for him.

Back to the main party, who gets as far as the third terrace before one of the players botches a jump and ends up on the pavement, alerting a couple of Inquisitors and several Imperial auxiliaries. A pitched battle ensues and the PCs narrowly avoid having their asses handed to them by two knights of the Inquisition, both of them fourth-level fighters clad in plate mail (right now the average party level is between 2 and 3)- since they are both wielding two-handed weapons I refer to them as Rexor and Thorgrim, after the big lugs in Conan the Barbarian. Fortunately however the party prevails, and are rejoined with their comrades, who show them a secret route back down to the safety of the waterfront. Had the party decided to follow through with its plan to go to the Temple the result would have been a standoff, and probably would have required another clever plan to escape, so this has likely turned out for the better.

The reunited party then deliberates as to how to proceed. Captain Kiin feels strongly about delivering his books, which are revealed to be political propaganda printed in Varo and destined for the rebellious city of Vrolens, where Imperial authorities have shut down bookstores and confiscated all printing facilities. Is Kiin some kind of anti-Imperial, Vrolentine sympathizer? Not in the least, but it sticks in his craw that the Empire with its blockade has managed to stifle trade in this region, making Heijin Kiin a Canalsider in the truest sense of the term. So a plan is concocted to rid the port city of its Imperial presence- Kiin and his first mate Mr. Hu will sneak over to the galley and attempt to free the two hundred-odd rowing slaves, while the rest of the group will divert as much Imperial attention as possible away from the waterfront with a coordinated series of diversions.

I give the players a good ten or fifteen minutes to come up with some ideas for their "Project Mayhem," which each decent idea decreasing the contingent of troops on board the galley when the Captain goes all Spartacus on the Korumani. To my surprise they come up with three solid ideas: 1. Float a rumor that the contraband books are arriving after sunset via the city gate, 2. Stage a commando raid on the Inquisition's headquarters in the city, and 3. Have Caleb run around the city invisible shouting anti-Imperial slogans to appeal to the locals in the street, as regardless of whatever deals their leaders have struck with the Inquisitors Tendyrans are proudly of their neutrality and clearly resent having Raynar boots on their soil. This is good enough that I rule the ship will have but a minimal contingent of auxiliaries and its captain when Kiin and Mr. Hu come to free the galley slaves.

The rest, as they say, is history. The plan goes spectacularly for the PCs and much fun is had by all, and by the end of the session the Imperial galley has been sunk, the slaves freed, and the remaining Korumani put to flight, making the port of Nemala safe for Varonian commerce once more. The players are particularly pleased with themselves for coming up with and executing their strategy, and although at times the resistance I offered them as DM threatened to upset their hopes and fears I made sure to tread that fine line between antagonism and action. The real crux of this balance came down to the final combat of the evening, which took place between Mr. Hu and the captain of the galley, who was a Raynar knight like the other Inquisitors, and a real badass to boot. I made a point of introducing him into the fray, a big red-bearded brute who started his round of combat by running through one of his own mean for attempting to flee the burning ship. This was meant to be a real Boss Battle, pure and simple, and I was looking forward to thrashing Mr. Hu to within a hit point of his life when he announced his player's intentions:

"This guy's in plate mail, right?"

"That's right," I tell him. "Bronze plate, because that would look even cooler by firelight."

"OK," the player says. "I'm going to use my Tumbling skill to put myself in the best position to trip the Captain and push him overboard."

"Wait. What?"

Mr. Hu rolls a 1 on his Tumbling check- a critical success. Although I've decided that the Raynar Captain is by no means a fool, I have to acknowledge the player's lucky dice here, and rule that an opposed Strength check will decide whether my level Boss will quite literally sink or swim.

Full disclosure: I really wanted this fight to happen, so I could have fudged my roll and ensured that the Captain remained on his feet. But I didn't. One of the hardest lessons to learn as a Dungeon Master is that despite the fact that you are the creator of your world and its final authority on all matters earthly and cosmic, the story you're helping tell is not yours and yours alone. Epic battles are always fun, but what I allowed to transpire instead was arguably even better, because I allowed player ingenuity and lucky dice carry the day... every DM worth his salt should.

"So what happens?" the player asks, fully expecting Mr. Hu to fail, especially after he saw the look on my face when he first announced his intentions.

I look up from my dice and sigh. "You send the Captain flying headlong into the harbor, where he lands with an undignified 'ploop' and sinks like a stone."

"Really?" The table has fallen silent. Perhaps this is my idea of a joke?

"You did it. He's gone. Still sinking as we speak."


"Look, dude, are you searching for loot or what?"

There was more to the run- much more, but some of that will no doubt come into play during the next episode, when the players finally get to the Isle of Dread... I mean Ryzien. Seriously, though, the island only looks like the Isle of Dread- okay, exactly like the Isle of Dread, but I'm sure there's nothing to be worried about.

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