Friday, September 09, 2011

Freedom? - or - How My Party of 5th-Level PC's Killed King Kalak...

Chapter Two of our Dark Sun campaign was entitled "Freedom?", and encompassed the last two sessions of our twice monthly DnD game. This was a city adventure based loosely, as the name suggests, on the original module "DS1: Freedom". Very loosely.

Actually, our game had very little to do with that of the module.

I had spent what little prep time I was able to put aside reading through the module and thinking of how the events outlined in it could fit into our game. A common criticism of novel based modules such as this is that the PC's end up taking a back seat to the heroes of the book. I agreed that the climax of this one for the PCs--leading a slave revolt while Rikus & company kill Kalak--was less then satisfying. So I formed an idea of how the PCs could do that bit (more on that later), and thought I'd use the events of the rest of the module to get them into position for that confrontation. (Lesson learned: listen to the voice in my head that keeps telling me "this will never work").

That would mean the PC's would be spending most the chapter in the slave pens. Two big problems with that: story-wise two of them were actually members of the Templerate (one with direct ties to Tithian); and the PC's didn't really want to be slaves again. Neither of these were insurmountable, and I could have easily forced the issue as the first chapter of Freedom suggests (and provides encounters for), but that felt cheap and didn't allow the for the players ingenuity. So I ended up running both sessions nearly entirely on the fly.

This is something I felt unskilled and  under qualified to do.

I introduced this chapter by having one of the Templar players read the prologue to The Verdant Passage (not aloud), as his character, Alain, was witness to Kalak discovering the amulets in his Ziggurat and Tithian's subsequent promotion.  Tithian then tasked Alain and his "pets" (aka, the rest of the party) with finding the other two amulets before the Ziggurat's completion. He suggested they start in the slave pits, my (ultra lame) way of trying to get the party to go undercover as slaves in the pits.

Yeah, right, that's gonna happen.

Having two Templars in the party, they decided to throw around their weight to get the information they needed. The prologue gave them the lead to talk to Sadira, one of Tithian's prized slaves and thus off limits for actually killing. As my mind desperately raced to figure out what to do with the game, I set them onto a Final Fantasy-style "goto A, then B, then C" style 'quest'. This I am not proud of.

The PC's were finally allowed to meet with Sadira, who gave them the name of her contact in the Veiled Alliance who gave her the amulet. On their way to tracking down this person I threw in Sub-Plot B: political intrigue. The barely conceived notion was that the Templerate was divided into several factions which had been locked in sort of a cold war, but now one faction was turning violent on Tithian's, specifically targeting Alain. This provided the combat encounters for part one of chapter two, but fell on its face and got pushed to the back in part two when I couldn't figure out a good way to tie it to what the party was doing. This I am also not proud of. (Especially after the players put up a real good climactic fight at the end of part one to capture one of the 'bad guys'.)

I did, however, get the players the information that when the Ziggurat was finished, Kalak would use it to transform into a Dragon, and that the amulets were what the Veiled Alliance were counting on to stop him. The three amulets were needed, but now there were only two as Kalak destroyed the one which had already been located.

A Plan B was needed, giving the party direction for part two. I'm kind of proud of that.

When part two started, I only had two things in mind: Tembo & Kalak. No extended rest in-between. The first half was role-play heavy as the PC's tracked down a new contact in the Veiled Allience (the first one met a merciful demise) to get plan B. I think I did a much better job of letting the players tell the story here, stumbling a little with each new NPC I had to invent. (Lesson learned: spend more prep time on NPCs, less on nearly everything else).

It seemed to go well, even with the sub-plot being side-lined. I actually had a vague idea of what to do there, but it was dependent on at least one of the players who didn't make part one showing up. That didn't happen, so the PvP intrigue was tossed aside. However, I was very happy with the role-playing, and gave everyone the benefit of a milestone before the encounters started.

The players learned that Kalak could be stopped if they destroyed the focus located in his incubation chamber. I decided what that was about two seconds after an NPC gave them that information. This could not be done until after Kalak started his metamorphosis, a detail I don't think I articulated well, but we got past that.

The action started with the PCs in Tithian's observation box when (spoiler alert) Rikus threw the Heartwood Spear into Kalak, prematurely triggering the metomorphosis. The heroes of the book were then tied down fighting the king's guard, so the PC's needed to proceed to the incubation chamber to destroy the focus. If we had more time, I would have turned this into a skill challenge, but we were running short and I wanted to wrap up the chapter, so I hand-waved them to where they needed to be: face-to-face with Kalak's pet Tembo. Other then being a huge instead of a large (and thus having more hit points), I ran this creature straight out of the Dark Sun Creature Catalog. Its purpose in life was to soften the PC's up, which it did well. Of course the party took a short rest, but that ended when Kalak's transformation started draining healing surges from everyone.

Being a Sorcerer-King, Kalak was a 21 to 24 level threat. He was attempting to transform into a Dragon like Borys, the Dragon of Tyr, a 33 level creature. So how am I going to give a 5th level party a chance to kill him? The Heartwood Spear which Rikus threw earlier. I made the power of the spear pull Kalak down to a 7th level solo (in retrospect, I could've gone with a 9th level), and then I reskinned a red dragon from Monster Vault (though with a lot more hit points). This drained the spear of its power.

Also present was the focus, which was comprised of four obsidian globes: two glowing red and two glowing green. Each set got their own initiative. The globes attacked everyone in the room (as well as everyone in the arena, though the effects were much stronger in the incubation chamber). I made the red ones a Psionic blast, attacking Will and doing d12 damage each. The green ones were an energy suck, attacking Fortitude and eating one healing surge each (doing 1/2 HS value if none left--this ended up making the red ones much less impressive).

In the end, despite my not-so-secret desire to kill at least a couple PC's, I ended up only killing the druid's animal companion, but there was a lot of blood on the field and I don't think many healing surges were left. Tithian, Rikus & company showed up after the killing blow was delivered, allowing Tithian to claim Kalak's crown. He then gave Alain instructions to kill the other PC's and join him in court (making Alain an NPC, something I had discussed ahead of time with the player) before leaving with his comrades. Alain mis-interpreted the instructions as escorting the party out of Tyr, banishing them into the desert.

That's not exactly how we called it at the table, but it is how it played out in my head.

Going forward, I can tell Real Life is going to demand that I run games on-the-fly most the time, so I'm going to need to learn my lessons and use what little prep time I have more wisely. Chapter three has the PC's at 11th level, but I currently only have the last two epic encounters in mind. I've got just over a week to come up with at least a vague plan of how to get from here to there, and maybe prep an NPC or two.

Thus chapter two ended on a high-note, and looking around the table it looked like all the players enjoyed it. And that I am proud of.