Saturday, November 13, 2010

Evil PCs 2: Electric Boogaloo

My gaming group has had to put our regular Thursday game on an every-other-week schedule because one of our players has a work conflict. When we sat down and decided what we wanted to run in his absence, there was an almost unanimous vote for a continuation of the evil PCs game. I acquiesced, even allowing them to step out of the confines of Basic D&D into Pathfinder since everyone seems more comfortable working in that ruleset. Characters were made, some just lightly reconceptualized and others completely new and made from scratch. I made it clear to the players that I wanted their evil deeds to be entertaining and meaningful - not just exercises in debauchery.

To that end, I had them each give me a "1x3" - a concept for an ally, an enemy, and a neutral NPC - and then asked them, in private, the most evil thing their characters have done. (This will become important later; I'll explain further in the next blog post.) James, a player and fellow GM, was also invaluable in helping me to conceptualize the base of operations for this campaign: an as-yet-undeveloped part of my world where the sinister grey elves (the Numenil) build huge cities that stretch miles into the planet's crust.

James and Mat are both playing Numenil elves (a NE sorcerer named Vid and a LE assassin named Algalon, respectively), so I wanted them to feel like the capital city of the grey elves, Numethril, really was their home. It still needs a lot of fleshing out, but we at least have starting ideas and a few basic locations nailed down - many of which I was able to use to showcase their NPC concepts.

Our other regular, Evan, has opted to run a CE human antipaladin and disciple of Orcus named Edgar. I also picked up a fourth player, Elliott, from the Try-It-Out session I did the prior week for RTR; his character, Bellius, is a LE tiefling cleric of the archdevil Belial.

Vid and Algalon's motivation for venturing outside of Numethril was easy to accommodate: they were both killers-for-hire working for hit contractors inside the city. Edgar began the tale in a stronghold on a nearby island, attending the court of his master, a skull lord named Osric who commanded him to travel north across the sea to the ice continent of Ondur and seek out the resting place of his old enemy, the moondragon Ostyax. Osric commanded Edgar to kill the dragon if he yet lived and clear the stronghold for Osric's undead troops to establish a beachhead in Ondur. To find a ship that could brave the waters, though, Edgar would need to travel to Numethril and book a charter.

(Elliott was going to show up late but I figured it would be easy to work Bellius into the story whenever he got there. The timing of his arrival was most fortuitous for me, but rather terrible for him - but more on that later.)

In building encounters for this session, I wanted to try some things I hadn't run before, most of which were just at or below their level in terms of difficulty. I knew I'd be using angels, archons, and eladrin heavily in this game, and I wanted to familiarize myself with how they played compared to a demon or devil, so the bulk of my main dungeon was populated by low-level celestials - justice archons and bralani eladrin. I had also picked out a planetar angel to serve as the primary guardian of the moondragon's resting place, but switched it out at the last minute because I was afraid it might be too tough for them (they started at level 10, and the planetar is a CR 16 creature). I also had two mini-encounters I wanted to use leading up to the dungeon: a nasty little gem I picked up from Kobold Quarterly called The Cottage That Moves, and a brutal skirmish with a pack of chaitrakhan, arctic felines with icy protective coatings and a poisonous tail stinger that slows their prey.

To bait them in, I informed Vid and Algalon through their NPC contacts that a 20,000 gp mark had been placed on the head of a human wizard from the south named Radford Andros, who had been spotted inside Numethril a few days prior and was rumored to be heading north to Ondur. (A rival assassin who competes with Algalon has also taken the contract, so Mat's PC is determined to outshine his colleague.) Edgar bluffed his way into the city (which is normally closed to outsiders without an invitation) and chartered passage on the same boat as the other two. Once they made landfall on the Ondurian coastline, a blizzard kicked up, hampering their travel and visibility - but luckily they had all specifically purchased ice cleats and endure elements potions, so they weren't too bad off. A trail of human-sized bootprints in the snow, accompanied by fresh blood, led them to a beautiful little cabin nestled in the snow. Chopped firewood lined the exterior of the house, and inside the smell of roasting boar meat tickled at the bellies of the cold and hungry travelers. A man and his son were at work moving firewood into the cabin; through the windows they could see a woman, a girl, and a much younger boy tending a wood stove and preparing dinner.

Having experienced this group's treatment of innocent bystanders in the last session, I knew the rustic scene would bait them into the house. Sure enough, Vid dropped a dust of twilight spell onto the cottage, sending the family into panic. The villains slaughtered the family to a one (though the little boy rolled a critical hit with his toy wooden sword on Edgar when the antipaladin grabbed him, leaving the evil knight with a nasty scar running from the right corner of his mouth all the way to his ear). Vid and Algalon removed the feet from each body (one of Vid's NPC contacts, the sinister owner of a magic shop in Numethril, needed to fill a large order for a special client and was offering good money for them) while Edgar prepared the corpses for a ritual dedication to Orcus. Algalon worked feverishly to cover up the evidence, and set a bear trap just outside the door as a safeguard - a note found on the father suggested that this was the first of a number of pioneers and more settlers were on their way.

About this time, Elliott showed up. I worked his tiefling cleric, Bellius, into the session by explaining that he had just been officially inducted into the greater circles of the cult of Belial and was being escorted through the Nine Hells to a portal in Cania that would take him to the Ondurian cold wastes. Once he arrived, the representative of his patron charged him with finding a stronghold of angels to the immediate north and destroying them. Bellius examined the stronghold and deduced that the power of the angels within was too great for him to stand alone against them. He had already found the cabin - uninhabited, before the arrival of the murdered settlers - and was returning to it to plan his next move. When he arrived, he saw a dissipating cloud of darkness (the remnants of Vid's spell) rapidly vanishing overhead, and heard the cruel laughter of men inside. Of course, he cast a few protective spells on himself and went in to investigate - walking right into the bear trap at the front door and taking considerable damage.

The PCs hashed out their differences, realized they were more or less on the same side and headed the same way, and decided to join forces. Their perception rolls revealed nothing about the true nature of the house, and they decided to rest soon thereafter.

At midnight, the mimics launched their attack. This was probably the most challenging encounter in the entire session. There's nothing like watching a house and its furniture try to eat a party alive while they're sleeping. Seriously.

They killed the mimics, and would have suffered crushing damage and suffocation from the oversized mimic that made up the cottage had Vid not paralyzed it with a ghoul touch spell, holding the dead mimic in place long enough for them to escape out into the cold and spend the night in their bedrolls being pelted by a blizzard, their only company the stench of the fresh corpses buried nearby. (Bellius suggested pulling a Luke Skywalker and sleeping inside the still-warm remains of the giant mimic; Algalon refused, saying the thing smelled bad enough on the outside.)

The next day, Bellius was able to point them in the direction of the burial cairn, and Algalon and Vid surmised that their quarry might be heading to the same location as their pious friends, so they ventured forth together. Just south of the burial cairn, they were jumped by a pack of five chaitrakhans. This fight took some time, and the ice cats are pretty tough for being CR 4 monsters; I will definitely be using them again. Bellius, not wanting to waste a good resource, animated one of the beasts as a skeleton. It has proved to be a formidable minion.

Inside the cairn complex, the fighting was quick and brutal. The PCs spotted the first trap, a spiked pit guarded by a pair of justice archons, and triggered the second, a summoning circle that brought forth two bralani eladrin. Bellius dimensional anchored one of the bralani during the fight, and Edgar dragged the dying angel outside, sacrificing her to Orcus before they continued onward. A celestial chimera with the head of a lion, ram, and gold dragon guarded the next chamber in the cairn, but it only lasted three rounds of combat.

The right passageway leading deeper into the cairn emanated a large aura of good, and was sealed with a cold iron door covered in inscriptions written in multiple languages. They decided to forgo that direction for the time being, walking into another trap area - a corridor of crumbled archways shrouded in magical darkness and filled with giant spiders. Beyond the spiders was a pool and a large statue placed behind a pile of treasure; the statue was flanked by a pair of tombs. Bellius ordered his skeletal minions into the room (he had animated the eladrin that Edgar sacrificed), disturbing the water mephits in the pool. The undead chaitrakhan quickly dispatched the tiny elementals, and the PCs entered the tomb. When Edgar moved to disturb the treasure pile, the statue sprang into life, and a huge dwarf wearing leather armor and wielding a wicked-looking greatsword attacked them. The tombs burst open, and two deathless warriors (decapitated, oddly enough) rose to aid the dwarf. This fight was disappointingly short; I had used canned stats for the dwarf from Paizo's GameMastery Guide but should have upgraded the armor selection to make him hold against the PCs a little longer.

Self Critique and Analysis

The roleplaying in this session was great. I feel that I did a pretty good job of working in everyone's NPCs except for Elliott's, but I intend to resolve that next time. The characters felt at home, but I want to get them to help me build a city they'll enjoy RPing in. I may have each of them contribute two ideas for locations to include in Numethril so that when they return to the city they'll have plenty of places to go and people to interact with.

I made the encounters in the burial cairn way too easy. I should have picked more difficult traps and monsters to guard the tomb and buffed the guardians up a bit more. The mimics gave the party more trouble than anything else they fought (EL 11, and the chaitrakhans were EL 9, compared to an average EL of 8 in the cairn).

On the other hand, I may have lulled them into a false sense of security that I can exploit later. I was originally worried that the planetar was too tough of an encounter for them, but now I'm not so sure. And there's always the matter of Radford Andros - the wizard is sure to be on the scene somewhere causing trouble. Plus, Ostyax may still be quite alive and well - and very angry that a group of blackguards have dared to slay his heavenly guardians and disturb his promised slumber. There's one more nasty trap they haven't run into yet, too.

This dungeon was intended to be a short one, but I'm now thinking about plugging in another level from a canned module to expand it - restocking it with more appropriately difficult encounters, and forcing them to slug it out a while longer. This gives me more time to build future material and lets them test the limits of their resources. I have an idea of how to grind them down more and humble them a bit... but more on that later.

Share your thoughts, as always. I love hearing other people's ideas on fun encounters to build and interesting plot points to develop.