Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Play Report: The Fountain of the Earth

My monthly D&D group got together over the weekend to game. We had a fairly fun session, but the enjoyment was lessened a bit due to a spate of untimely deaths. Three deaths in one night is a lot by my standards, and I can't say that I enjoyed them.

The PCs at the beginning of the game were Gordred (a human ranger 6), Elrohir (an elf fighter 3/wizard 2), Qwan (a human fighter 5), and Kael (a dwarf barbarian 5). Needless to say, this is a party with a heavy focus on melee combat. It's a deficiency that I feel like I have to design around, because the game isn't at its best when the party has no access to healing magic. I had a fix for it that I'll talk about below, but it didn't stop characters from dying anyway!

The game started where we had left off last time, with the PCs accusing their nemesis Elmyr of attacking them in a ruined temple and making off with a valuable golden statue. Elmyr is the best hunter in the PCs' home base, and he's got a lot of influence. Corwyn, Bastion's leader, was reluctant to go along with the plan, which was to make Elmyr enter a zone of truth spell cast by the town's cleric. We role-played this out for a while, until I had Elmyr agree to the terms, on one condition: Gordred had to enter the zone after Elmyr was done, and answer some questions. Elmyr also wanted to wander off alone for an hour (and I had something shifty planned that I can't talk about in case my players are reading) but the guys were smart enough to keep an eye on him. Next time...

Zone of truth is a pretty handy spell. I pulled it out to good effect in one of my rare forays as a player, and it's one of the few non-combat spells that my players have remembered. The saving throw is its one weak point, and I was relieved to discover that the caster doesn't detect when victims make their saving throws, because it is an area effect. There is one point where Third Edition has made my life easier, for sure!

Elmyr made it through his trial with ease, denying every accusation the PCs hurled at him. Did he make his saving throw? Was he telling the truth or not? Needless to say, I won't be revealing that here! Gordred's time in the zone was also without incident - he made the saving throw and was able to deny poisoning Elmyr. So, a potential major turning point for the campaign was avoided. Things could have gotten downright ugly in Bastion if results had been different, but that's the biggest strength that RPGs have got compared to other game forms - genuine consequences.

I have to say, it was fun to start the game with genuinely important NPC interaction. Very few of the NPCs in this campaign have had an effect on the actions of the PCs, apart from sending them on quests and such. We usually begin things in Bastion, and most of the time that involves talking to NPCs, but this was more fun because of the potential for things to come to a head. The PCs really wanted to catch Elmyr, and he really wanted to catch them as well. It's great when an NPC elicits that reaction, and I've only ever had one that was more hated (but Henri DuBont is a tale for another time).

The next part of the game was the more traditional quest structure. As the trial finished up, the local druid Arrek arrived back at Bastion, weak from a savage disease. He had left the town weeks ago, seeking some aid in the forest against the army of orcs that was approaching. Now he was back, telling the PCs that they had to cleanse the Fountain of the Earth to gain the forest's aid.

There's a bit of backstory here. The Fountain of the Earth was the only thing keeping the forest clinging to life without the sun (see my previous Play Report for the low-down). Centuries ago during the War of Nightfall, a great demon known as the Ravager of Souls was defeated by the elves of the forest, and fell back to be impaled on the fountain. The demon still lives on in agony, its blood running with the fountain and polluting the land. So, of course, the PCs have got to fix everything to get the forest on their side.

At this point I had the druid give the PCs a wand of cure light wounds. The last session saw the PCs running from the dungeon back home to heal, like a pack of sissies. It really annoyed me, so I thought I'd provide them with some healing ability of their own. I'm soft, really. Funnily enough, I think it might have contributed to some of the deaths. The guys got a bit confident with some healing at the ready, and probably rushed into some situations they otherwise might not have.

Following a map provided by the druid, the PCs ventured off to his grove. They encountered some elves there, bloodthirsty worshippers of the Ravager, and the first battle of the night got underway. The elves were pushovers, despite me giving them a form of true strike - their first attack in any combat had a +20 to the attack roll, guaranteeing them a hit unless they fumbled. They weren't the problem, though, as they only had 8 hit points each. It was the evil Blink Dogs. I gave the bastards 2d6 worth of Sneak Attack, and it was brutal. A Blink Dog's opponent is always flat-footed, so it was 3d6 on every hit (until we remembered that some of the guys had Uncanny Dodge!). Qwan was dropped below 0 at least twice, and it may even have been a third time - the poor guy kept getting healed, then knocked out again. The elves were killed pretty quickly, but only two of the Blink Dogs died - the other two escaped, and would come back to haunt the party later on.

After a quick search the PCs discovered some notes telling them that they needed a magic emerald held by the elves to cleanse the fountain. Two groups of elves were indicated on the map, but some convenient bloodstains obscured the pertinent clues. The guys worked out that one of the clues said 'Evil Beware', and interpreted this to mean that evil should beware. I had meant it the other way around (beware of evil), and it never even occurred to me that there was another interpretation! So they headed off in this direction, which was a big mistake.

At this point a couple of other players arrived - Quinlan (a halfling rogue 2/fighter 2) and Heidi (a dwarf cleric 4). I decided that these guys had been hanging with the druid before he was driven from the area, so I gave Quinlan the clue that the elves the party were heading for were bad news. The player decided not to tell anyone else, because he was itching for a battle to start off his game. They can't say I didn't give them fair warning!

The elven 'village' was nothing more than a massive tree with a lot of earthen mounds around it. The lake beyond featured an island with a green glow, and from that island could be heard screaming - the fountain, and the Ravager. They waltzed into town, little realising that it was fully inhabited (to be honest, I probably should have shown a few more signs of life). One failed Move Silently check, and the elves were alerted.

The elves burst from the mounds, eight of them to begin with, and a few more popped up with each round. I'd written this encounter to contain some 40 elves or so, thinking that the PCs would retreat as the numbers started increasing. I should have known better - I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times that I've seen D&D players retreat. I stopped adding guys at about 15, and that was plenty - especially when the two escaped Blink Dogs returned to the fray.

First Qwan went down to a Blink Dog. He got healed up, then he got knocked down again - all the way dead this time. I wasn't too phased by this one - the player (Dean) has a habit of losing characters, and this guy was only a couple of sessions old.

The second character to die was Quinlan, whittled away by elven archer fire (true striking on the first round, remember), and finally succumbing to those damned Blink Dogs again. This was a real shame, because the player (Aaron) had only arrived about an hour before that, for his first session in months. This character had a monumental Armor Class at lower levels, and this was the first time he'd been knocked below 0 hit points.

The other guys polished off the elves and the dogs, but it was in the balance for a while there. I probably would have had them captured if everyone was knocked out, but they managed to win through, and healed up courtesy of the wand of cure light wounds. It had started with 50 charges, and now it had 15 remaining.

The remaining party members explored the top of the tree, and there they met Min-Mordath, king of the elves and thrall of the Ravager. I learned an important lesson here - it doesn't matter what level a wizard is, he's going down to a party if he fights them alone. My original plan was to give this guy fire shield, but after decimating the party in the battle before I relented. I shouldn't have, because they wiped him out in two rounds. I was just itching to have him knock a character from the top of the tree with his ram's-horn staff, too...

That staff turned out to be housing the emerald the guys needed, so they hopped on a nearby boat and headed for the green-glowing island. Sure enough, there was the Ravager of Souls, impaled on the fountain and screaming in pain. There was a cave the PCs had to run into, avoiding the Ravager's devastating attacks. At this point I relented some more - I'd planned for there to be three entrances, and for the party to have to run from one to the other a few times. Instead I dispensed with three potentially tough encounters, as well as the possibility of more attacks from the Ravager, and proceeded to the end-game.

The PCs reached the heart of the Fountain, and the emerald started telling Elrohir to use his will to control its flow. He did so, requiring three consecutive DC 20 Will saves to increase it to the point where the Ravager would be destroyed. At that point four elven clerics crawled out of holes in the ground for the climactic encounter. I didn't think they'd be so tough, and to be honest I'd planned for there to be more of them. But with a depleted party, I stuck with one for each character. It was enough, because Kael and Gordred got hit with hold person spells early on. Gordred got stabbed in the throat with a poisoned dagger, and that was it for him - he failed the Fortitude save for the coup de grace.

This death hurt, I have to say. The character had been there from the beginning, and was probably my favourite one of the campaign. He'd certainly been the driving force behind Elmyr becoming a major villain, and now I'm certain that NPC won't have anywhere near the effect that he had before. I hate killing good long-term characters, and unfortunately I've set this area of the campaign up so that raise dead isn't available.

With half the party out, and Elrohir rolling really badly on his Will saves, I fudged it so he'd only need to make a single Will save. It took him a good five or six rounds to get it, and all four of the clerics were still up and about. But he succeeded eventually, the Ravager was destroyed, and the clerics died with their master.

The game was fun, and a good change of pace. I'd been running mostly dungeoncrawls for the last few sessions, so I sent the PCs into the forest for a change of pace. The difference was noticeable, and I need to stop relying on dungeons so much. They're easy to design and run, but the game gets stale with too many.

The next game is going to interesting. There will be a few new characters, and that always shifts the dynamic around. I'm hoping for a few more spellcasters, but I doubt that will happen - I seem to have attracted a group of melee-fiends. I must remember to have the NPCs react differently to them - sometimes it's easy to forget that a player isn't using the same guy. The game continuity will suffer a little, because I was planning on having the guys take a major hand in fighting the orcs once they arrive. They'll still do that I guess, but they might have to earn Bastion's trust a little before getting any authority. What I have to keep telling myself is not to go easy on them just because I killed a few characters. It's tempting to offer them a cakewalk, but I'll try not to. A D&D game without challenge is pretty pointless, really.

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