Something odd happened in my tabletop campaign last weekend. In an eight-hour session, there were two fights, one of which resolved inconclusively (no one lost hit points or suffered debilitating conditions on either side) and one of which was over before the single NPC’s first turn (having egregiously lost initiative). Even so, the tension was cranked up to 11 and I had at least one player say it was the best session of the campaign to date.
The PCs involved in this adventure have been working on collecting magic items that they can use to perform a necromantic ritual and re-bind the spectres, shadows, and wraiths that one of them released (out of a sense of altruism). In prior adventures, they discovered what they needed to do and collected two of the three items; the adventure of this session was finding the last item, the Theurgist’s stole. At the beginning of their previous session, they learned that its last known location was in the city of Grand Terrace – the capital of a neighboring, and decidedly unfriendly, domain. In fact, the prince of Tyrema (the PCs’ home domain) is widely rumored to be looking for a casus belli against Grand Terrace.
- Alekkvi, a beruch necromancer. She’s the one expected to cast the ritual that this whole story hinges upon.
- Esteban, a human rogue with the Criminal/Spy background. He owes the Nightwalker, an entity of the Ghostlands, a debt that he has been putting off.
- Lanth, a veytikka fighter with the Enforcer background; she’s basically a cop, but with very shaky jurisdictional rules. She has a famous magical rapier, called Lady Sapphire’s Sword.
- Vizzik, a veytikka ranger. His subrace of veytikka gives him a tie to the Dark, which means that he sometimes hears whispers of secret things when he is underground.
- Vorcrech, a veytikka cleric of Life with the Urchin background.
In Session 33, the PCs settled on this task, got the names of some contacts in the area (one from their mercenary company, one from Esteban’s handler) and traveled from Chardecum to Grand Terrace, through Shale Pass – a trip that took a fortnight. Along the way one night, a flock of thousands of ravens settled around their camp, and one of them began speaking with Esteban telepathically. After some discussion, he disappointed the ravens and declined to trade away an eye, but reaffirmed his intention to start looking for the Nightwalker’s fingerbones aaaany day now. To hold him to this promise, two of the ravens stayed with him – one on his shoulder and one on his saddlehorn.
In Shale Pass, the PCs changed their Tyreman silver maravedis for Gallmontese silver livres. The moneychangers took ten percent, which no one liked too much; several of the characters are quite cash-poor, and this didn’t help. (To be clear, it was the characters rather than the players complaining; the players accepted this ruthless money sink with grace.)
Which brings us to Session 36. What about 34 and 35? I talked about 34 here, and 35 was another adventure with mostly the same roster. Chronologically, those characters are now about two weeks behind the team that went to Grand Terrace. Do you remember how Gygax wrote, in the 1e DMG, in all capital letters, “YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT.”? (The passive voice is used by Gygax owing to the fact that the rules appertaining to meritorious writing were not known by him, and because fuck you, that’s why.)
…right, well, the point is that I do track campaign time, because there’s a better-than-fair chance that when this group gets back to Chardecum, the other PCs will be cleaving their way through large-scale civil unrest. So that’s fun!
In Grand Terrace, they take rooms at an inn and get in touch with their contacts. Alekkvi heads off to a library to do some off-camera research, since her player was not available for the session. The last known bearer of the Theurgist’s Stole was Brother Roderigo of Verlais, and he’s currently in the wind; rumor suggests that he signed on with some people who hoped to explore the halls beneath the Abbey of the Immortal Saint, which is very illegal.
Some Aurikesh history: the Abbey of the Immortal Saint was constructed to venerate Kovichir, the Immortal Emperor, who ruled the human and kagandi homeland of Sestomera for 1,500 years, and then abdicated, dividing his empire between his four heirs. He left the continent of Sestomera completely and faded into legend. When clergy from Sestomera arrived in Balioth, they established the Abbey, claiming to have found signs that Kovichir had been there. In later years, the Abbey came to be de-consecrated and used as a ducal palace; generations of Grand Dukes remodeled and expanded the surface structures.
The PCs have several options for places to go for more information, ranging from Appealing But Possibly Unhelpful to Actually I’d Rather Just Stab These Guys. The PCs go to the Place de la Batteur to gather more information, and wind up forking some of their precious silver over to a tea-shop merchant for more definite information. Roderigo definitely went into the Abbey, and is either still down there, or got arrested by the Grand Duke and thrown in prison. The Grand Duke is known to jail people in secret, but all executions are public spectacles, and Roderigo has not met such a fate.
Lanth visits the local Iron Temple, where she speaks to the Sergeant. She is troubled over the prospect of violating the law of the land, even in pursuit of the greater good (saving Chardecum from the undead). The Sergeant points out that if she wanted to choose the Law over what is right, she should have been a Sovereign Knight. Lanth is none too sure whether the Iron Temple warriors here are more loyal to the Temple or the Grand Duke, since some of them serve the Grand Duke directly.
At this point in the session, things are going along okay, but still a little slow. There’s a moment in the session in which the tension jumps to full throttle, and stays there. It’s coming up next.
It’s getting late in the day, and they have some time to kill while they wait for Esteban’s contact Josephina to return with information on Roderigo. They realize they’re being followed, so Esteban gets lost in the crowd so he can get a better look at them: gendarmes. Well, that’s bad. They duck into a merchant’s stall and do a little shopping; Lanth (one of the only party members with a healthy coin-purse) negotiates for the curiosities that the purveyor offers, paying a total of 320 livres:
- a bottle of oddly viscous wine, that seems to have a key floating in it when viewed at the right angle
- a journal of several sea voyages, with some pages missing
- an urn of ashes, which the merchant claims are the ashes of a king
- a banner from a pirate ship – in fact, from Lanth’s fencing-master’s ship
I would like to thank Dragon Magazine issue 240 for the first item, and page 160-161 of the Player’s Handbook for the other three.
As they leave the stall, the gendarmes enter, and moments later they hear raised voices. This is the exact moment in which the session’s tension kicked in. Maybe I could have hurried it along – we were several hours in by this point – but better late than never, and it was a long session anyway. The PCs turn back to intervene. Lanth and Vizzik enter the stall, while Esteban and Vorcrech take note of a man with an unnerving, dead-eyed stare watching them in the crowd.
Veytikka in Aurikesh are distinctly second-class citizens. They eat carrion and do creepy things like talk to ghosts, so some humans, kagandi, and beruch think that makes it okay to mistreat them. Why it would ever be a good idea to anger someone with claws and an extraordinary ability to destroy evidence of misdeeds is an open question, but here we are with three veytikka and a human who can’t hide his foreign accent…
The gendarmes are tuning up the merchant, demanding information from him, when Lanth and Vizzik enter. A staredown ensues – one that Lanth wins by a mile. Vizzik and his longbow (decorated with tokens of several kills) don’t have to do anything.
Outside, Vorcrech creates a diversion, stumbling into someone as if pushed, so that Esteban can disappear from view again and come up behind the man watching them. Vorcrech, never a master of Deception, rolls a 1 – which I interpret as “failing with flying colors.” His fakery is obvious, and he stumbles forward into a toweringly tall human. The first fight of the session ensues: an accidental street brawl in which the PCs risk being mobbed. Vorcrech tries to mollify the man and spends all of his actions Dodging, while Esteban rolls just about as high as it is possible to roll on Stealth, and sneaks up on someone who obviously has surveillance training. Vizzik emerges from the merchant’s tent in time to break up Vorcrech’s fight before anyone gets hurt.
Esteban talks to the man, and receives a stern warning to be out of Grand Terrace by nightfall of the next day – he claims to know that the PCs are Tyreman spies, and ignores all protestations to the contrary. Now with a new set of worries, the PCs return to the inn to regroup. Esteban sneaks out to lean on their Company contact for supplies, in case they need to break into the Grand Duke’s prison or sneak into the underground levels of the Abbey. The contact gives him rations, a lantern, rope, and a heavy iron coffer containing:
- one jar of odd black ink, with a needle
- one scroll of bless
- two alchemical refinement wires (in concept, these are potions of magic weapon – you wrap the wire around your weapon, and it gains magic weapon for one hour)
- three healing potions
She explains that she plans to send the bill for these goods back to the Company (which may or may not garnish the party’s pay to cover the cost, but with healing potions as the cheap items of the lot at 500 silver, they don’t want to waste anything).
The next day, the man they presume to be a captain of the gendarmes is taking breakfast in the common room of their inn when they come downstairs. Not one of your more subtle reminders.
Esteban’s other contact Josephina confirms that Roderigo is not in a secret cell, so he must have never left the lower levels of the Abbey. Josephina agrees to help them sneak into the Abbey by paying off lots of servants, but she feels certain this will risk her cover in the city to the point that she’ll have to leave. The group gathers their things, informs Alekkvi in that convenient off-camera kind of way, and follows Josephina toward the Abbey.
While she goes on ahead to grease palms, the four hang back in an alleyway. Spotting a pair of gendarmes trudging up the hill toward them, they have less than half a minute to take cover. The alley offers precious little, but Vizzik recently learned jump, so he casts it twice, and he and Vorcrech take cover behind a chimney. Lanth takes cover on the ground, as deep into the alleyway as she can go, while Esteban relies on his parkour-style acrobatics to reach the roof as well. Their successes are sufficient to completely conceal them from the less-than-attentive gendarmes.
I expected the PCs would do everything in their power to avoid an encounter at this critical time, and I was right. It’s one of the through-line lessons of this session: once PCs start committing effort to avoiding a fight, there’s a sense of unresolved tension that just winds up tighter and tighter every successive time they come close to being in a fight. Once you’re in that cycle, an actual fight releases more tension than it generates – so let the PCs wind themselves up by giving them ways to maintain secrecy or avoid combat.
Josephina returns and leads the PCs to the servants’ entrance, past several winking-and-nodding guards and servants, into the kitchen. From there, she heads back down to the city to pack her things and get the hell out of Dodge. The PCs find stairs downward to a floor of storerooms, and beneath a stack of crates they find a trapdoor. They briefly discuss how to either keep it open or keep it shut, once they’re inside, and since they can’t decide which, they do neither. Lanth draws her sword, which glows like a torch of blue fire, and they descend.
In the first chamber off to the left of the passage, they find a mail-clad body with a completely pulverized head. Investigation, for this team, includes both tracking his passage and speaking to his ghost, because veytikka. Between the two, they discover that this man came down here with Roderigo, but the group got separated in some mists. Shortly after, he was run down and killed by a massive creature with four legs and two arms, perhaps made of stone.
After taking everything of any worth that he had, they move on. The passage splits, and they examine the right-hand way, discovering a small chamber followed by a suspicious-looking narrow corridor. Esteban examines it and concludes that the flagstones of the corridor are pressure plates. Vizzik notes that one person has passed this way before them. When Esteban disables one of the pressure plates, the group hears an odd ticking noise, followed by a small creature – apparently an animated statue – appearing at the edge of the light cast by Lanth’s sword. It takes a long look at the group before it walks across the pressure plates, to no effect, and gets to work on fixing the disabled plate. The four stand and watch.
They decide that there must be a way to disable the pressure plates safely from this side, and start looking for something that would do that. Out in the main passage, they find a stone that they can lift away to reveal a pattern of finger-holes, three rows of five, with no indication as to what to do. They reason that an incorrect code is probably at least as bad as doing nothing at all, and they all confess to being uncommonly attached to their fingers. Vizzik, a Moriscethi veytikka, listens to the whispers of the Dark, and learns the finger-pattern. At the same time, the other three feel a change in the air pressure, as if the air itself is heavy, constricting. When Vizzik uses the panel, they hear wires snap on the other side of the wall and under the floor.
Having disarmed the traps, they follow the corridor to another chamber, where the small stone servitor has opened an identical panel, removed the finger-hole panel from the wall with a technique they don’t see, and is grumbling obscurely about the repairs process. They shrug and keep going… and find another dead body.
This one is a woman, dressed in scholarly (or perhaps occult) robes, bearing an iron rod that commonly signifies warlock. She has apparently bled to death from wounds inflicted by the trapped corridor. The veytikka talk to her ghost, but to their considerable surprise she is hungry, terribly hungry, and what’s worse, she can do something about it. Veytikka don’t usually see that kind of functionality in the ghosts they help to pass on. This was the second fight of the session: the ghost (not a Monster Manual ghost, in this case) manifested as a specter.
My players, God bless them, know that they don’t know what a specter might be able to do. Approximately one person in the party (statistical margin of error: +/-1) has any idea what a Monster Manual specter can do, and they know that I might change things up. Though worried about its attack, Vorcrech readies an action to push it on to the Ghostlands, while Esteban, Lanth, and Vizzik try to ace her before she gets to act. They succeed.
A single creature appeared and got killed before its initiative turn… but every roll was tense and the players were sweating. I love them for letting themselves feel the tension, rather than deciding to be too-cool-for-school – as I’ve talked about before, that’s super tempting in games.
They found a chamber full of expensive-looking tomes and equipment – Antikythera mechanisms, all kinds of crazy stuff. They load it up into bags and crates and place it by the exit, visions of lucre dancing in their heads.
They find their way to another intersection; the left passage should lead back toward the entrance, and probably holds the mist that separated the other party. The right-hand passage opens into a chamber with a massive stone statue, with four legs and two arms. Esteban, as the designated traps-victim, goes first.
Though he is a master of stealth, the statue-creature spots him. Burning eyes flare to life and the head turns toward him. Beams of blue fire shoot out of the eyes and strike him (an improbable failed Dex save). Instead of beginning a career as a tidy pile of ashes, Esteban hears a voice in his head, demanding to know why he is here and what he plans to take. After a few exchanges of thought, the statue demands that they take nothing but the Theurgist’s stole, things that the previous adventuring team brought in with them, and something called the home stone. Esteban makes this promise, with a few unkind comments on the side for telepathic contact and vows extracted by force.
As each of the other three party members enters the room, the beams from the creature’s eyes strike them as well. It asks Lanth if the domain is under threat. In an uncharacteristic move, she equivocates for a moment, and a tremor runs through the whole Abbey. She has a epiphany: she could potentially end Gallmontese resistance before a war with Tyrema even begins, by instructing this creature that the domain is indeed under threat from the Grand Duke. Yet her strict dedication to justice wins out, and she finally says that the domain is under no threat.
Of Vizzik, it asks, “What does the Dark require of me?” Vizzik replies, “Safe passage.” The sense of constriction and weight on the other three intensifies.
It asks Vorcrech, “Have the Gods made their will known?” and “Who is the angel of the Abbey?” As Vorcrech is being played by someone other than his normal player (just to get us through the adventure), the player has a lot of uncertainty in answering; I explain that these questions would be equally enigmatic to Vorcrech’s usual player. He insists that he enacts the will of the Gods in coming here.
They pass into the next room. It has a light of its own, unlike the rest of these halls; it is twilight, and trees grow from the soil here, forming a grove. In the center of the grove stands a simple stone altar. A crown and a spherical stone rest upon the altar. Another body, apparently dead, lies against one of the trees – and what can only be the Theurgist’s stole is clearly visible upon it. This was Roderigo of Verlais. Esteban takes the Stole and picks up the stone.
When he does so, five more figures appear outside the grove: pale, slender, beautiful, and radiating menace. In the course of conversation, they explain that the crown once belonged to Kovichir, and they believe it is time for a new Immortal Emperor. They seem willing to insist upon this point – but the group is pretty sure the domain sentinel will murder them if they try to take the crown out of the Abbey. One of these fey creatures also reveals that Roderigo is not dead, just slumbering forever, as a punishment for whatever he came here to do – presumably a necromantic rite of some kind, since he bothered to bring the Stole with him.
A very uncomfortable conversation follows. The PCs don’t know that they can take these fey, and they’re pretty sure that even trying will defile the grove and bring down the domain sentinel’s wrath. The fey won’t let them leave without some kind of agreement. Agreeing to what the fey want seems like it will bring down the aforementioned wrath. Esteban in particular refuses to enter into any new bargain with fey or any other immortal being; his ongoing problems with the Nightwalker are enough, thanks. Vorcrech’s current player, for obvious reasons, doesn’t want to agree to anything that will bind the character in the long term, and since I agree that would be poor form, he’s off the hook for this one. Which leaves Lanth and Vizzik. In a way, Lanth put one over on them, by promising to come back with a worthy monarch once she finds one. On the other hand, she’s utterly sincere in that promise. So… probably a good solution. With that, they take the Stole, the home stone, and the gear they otherwise stripped off of the dead fighter and warlock. They leave behind the boxes of research equipment.
The home stone, they learn, can be activated to teleport the user and some number of other people (number unknown) from anywhere to Kovichir’s grove, and then back to whence they came. They also spot – and decline to explore – a staircase leading downward. Without further ado, they hasten out of the Abbey and out of the city, staying just ahead of the gendarmes long enough to lose their interest and return safely to Tyrema.
Whew! That was a doozy of an explanation. Now for some analysis. Things that went right:
- The key factor in making the session work was that the players consented to feeling tension, rather than laughing things off. It wasn’t a grim-faced slog of a session – we still laughed and joked around – but the players invested in the stakes and the threats. It helps that this is the penultimate step of something they’ve been working on for a good while now.
- Showing the dead bodies of previous adventurers is DMing Basics, but it’s one of the oldest tricks in the book because it works.
- I got to trot out a lot of setting lore, which makes me happy, and the players showed that they cared about it by discussing it at length – that is to say, adopting it and using it to generate their own entertainment. I may not be explaining this point well. I presented them with information, and they contextualized it on their own, using it to make what I saw as well-reasoned decisions.
- The players were focused on the game, and there were few long digressions of the kind that bring games to a halt – so we got through a lot of scenes. That feels good afterward.
- At least one player commented on feeling very competent at the things his character should be able to do well, and they’re only 4th level (Vorcrech, the cleric, was actually still 3rd). This varies from class to class, but fighters and rogues are two of the best for that.
- On the downside, rangers are some of the worst for it, because of the structure of Natural Explorer.
- I used just about every detail of prep that I worked out for this session, other than some of the shadier details of the Grand Terrace market.
- I worked in nods to personal details about characters from past sessions. This is not always easy for me to do on the fly. It’s why I wouldn’t be a good Fate GM: Aspects represent a lot of mental load in the course of keeping the narrative running. (It’s also why Inspiration doesn’t see a lot of use in my campaign.) Anyway, it worked tolerably well here.
- Having explored one dungeon level, the PCs might come back whenever they like. In the structure of my campaign, this promises to give them a fun fallback option when there isn’t something more pressing to do. Of course, “nothing more pressing to do” isn’t that common, so we’ll see what happens.
Things I could have done better:
- With more prep, I could have put more detail into the market stalls and the things they had for sale. I’m not sure I would have had the mental capacity to look much of anything up, since I was trying to maintain the flow of the scene, but if I had written it myself I might have been able to spout more off the top of my head.
- A map of Grand Terrace would have been a really nice addition. I often feel like cities lose their sense of solidity and place in my games, because I’m not working from a map to help me keep things consistent. It didn’t break anything not to have one, obviously, but adding one would have helped.
- I don’t go into sessions intending to be stingy with treasure, and the PCs did pick up some useful things here (one player still needs to send me the loot list, ahem). But, well, if treasure isn’t the primary reason for the adventure, I unconsciously default to situations with low treasure outlay.
The takeaway from this session that might be useful for other DMs:
- When a fight starts, the tension increases – but winning the fight leaves the tension lower than before the fight started in a lot of cases. Interrupting fights or having something happen to leave them unresolved is a great tool for ratcheting up the tension.
- Hunted by the gendarmerie is a great source of tension – all the better if the PCs are doing the right thing that looks like the wrong thing, putting them on the wrong side of the law. Pitting heroic characters against Lawful Neutral characters makes the PCs want to avoid fights because even a win is still a loss.
- Defile not the sacred grove! works too – and all the better if the burden to avoid a fight is only on the PC side.
- Do not start a war until we are good and ready does a lot of heavy lifting, when it comes to pressure not to get into trouble. This one requires the PCs to be working for someone (the “we”), rather than independent operatives, but if the PCs are high-status enough, they probably don’t want the hit to their reputations that starting a war would cause.
- I still wouldn’t want to use any combat-deterring technique all the time. It’s good to have times the PCs can cut loose and use the fantastically destructive abilities their class levels have granted them. But then, high tension sessions work best when there’s a contrast with other session moods.
- I think it made the PCs happy to hear about one threat up ahead in the dungeon, only to find a way around it before they even saw the threat for themselves (in this case, the mists). From a backstage view, they traded one skill challenge (probably a series of Wisdom saving throws, or maybe Insight checks) for another (Thieves’ Tools and the veytikka Lore of the Dark ability), but was still a great example of player agency. The unconfronted presence of the mists also came up several times as a potential problem, should they need to make a hasty escape.
- Low-combat sessions with lots and lots of skill rolls are good for everyone in 5e (that I’ve seen so far), and phenomenal for rogues. It’s good to have sessions like this, to remind players that building for damage output is, at best, a path to success in 33% of D&D.
I hope you’ve found this session recap and postmortem enjoyable, and if it’s given you a few ideas for your own game, so much the better!