Last week, Shamus put up a link on his blog about the end of my campaign (which was originally his). In the resulting discussion I told Shamus I'd discuss how things turned out differently between our respective campaigns. He thought other people would be curious as well, so I decided I'd turn it into a blog post.
Major Warning: This post won't make much sense if you're not familiar with Shamus's campaign, so I'd recommend reading his stuff before you read my own, or at least read them side-by-side. This post is largely about the differences between our campaigns, so it'll reference his material heavily without going into a lot of specific details. The only place you'll see heavy details are when I find them amusing or when my campaign included material not written by Shamus. Also beware: This post is a behemoth.
This isn't technically part of Shamus' campaign, but I'd never been DM before and I thought a little intro mission was needed so we could get comfortable with the system. This was a pretty silly cliche intro, but the characters had no backstory so I had to come up with something. They answered some ad on a bulletin board looking for mercenaries. The overworked city guard needed an escaped criminal picked up, dead or alive. I should point out that their proof that they killed the right guy was to cut off his hand with his distinctive ring still on it. Bleh. Anyhow, it was a pretty simple investigation followed by some easy battles. Well, relatively easy. The elven cleric almost died at the hands of a barbarian. Most amusing part? The party snuck around a hide out, then spent an hour discussing how to ambush the gangsters within. The fighter got bored and walked over to the door and tried to bash it in. "Tried" is the operative term here. So much for the element of suprise, eh?
The Trip to Mar Tesaro
I tried to stay true to Shamus's material on this part, which was a mistake. There was an entire scene of role playing while the characters took a ship over to the island the game would be set on. I was a new GM. Shamus probably had a nice environment set up for his ship with great chances of interaction. Mine played out more or less like a static movie. "Okay guys, now here's another thing happening that will turn out the same whatever you choose to say or do." I tried to make it interactive, I really did. Retrospect tells me a lot about what I did wrong. In the end, they were ship-wrecked at Mar Tesaro. I wanted to follow the normal rules for swimming and drowning and so forth, but I realized that was going to wipe out my guys very fast. Nobody had ranks in swim, and I think they'd have died before they abandoned any of their gear. They ended up getting to keep everything and still end up washing ashore on the beach. The players were happy, but I think it could have turned out better.
The Adventure Hook
So, why were my guys on a ship in the first place? Their initial mission was supposed to be a "test." The king sent them after that criminal because he needed adventurers to accompany one of his special forces operatives on a journey. The journey? There really was no journey, but that wasn't important, since they were getting shipwrecked anyhow. The character was a Blade Lord, a fighter-type character who might seem suspiciously familiar.
After they'd shipwrecked the only people who seemed to have survived were the party and a sailor named Beck. If you don't know Shamus's story, Beck had a pregnant girlfriend on another island and he wanted to get back to her. Beck was supposed to act as the fill-in; since there was no rogue in the party, they needed someone who could pick locks and do other skillful things. He was almost worthless in combat, but he had levels in an NPC class. That happens.
The party ends up finding the sword that belonged to their special forces guide, Oltean, indicating that he'd survived. For some reason, it looks like he started heading south without his sword. The party decided to go chasing after him with his sword. (This takes the place of Endo the monk, who had was the one to head south in Shamus's game.)
This portion of the adventure wasn't terribly different from Shamus's version. The party rolls into town, finds that their mark has fled south, and get a side-quest to filch some stuff out of the blacksmith's house, currently occupied by enemy soldiers. Again, no rogue meant they had to come up with a creative way to get rid of the soldiers guarding the front door. The bard summoned a celestial owl, which lead the soldiers on a wild goose chase through the woods. The party then went down to get stuff out of the basement, but I still ended up making the same mistake Shamus did: No light source for the party, so the dwarf should have been the only one who could see. Oops.
Shamus originally intended that quest as a way of restocking his guys, since they lost a bunch of stuff in the shipwreck. My guys didn't lose a thing, so they took it as a chance to load up on stuff. The funny thing was, the quest was to liberate some stuff for the resistance to utilize; weapons, armor, supplies, etc. The blacksmith told them if they pulled it off, they could grab a few things out of the supplies. My guys couldn't use most of it, but they wanted to take ALL of it. I had to talk them out of it. I also provided them the same magic horn that Shamus gave to his players. I gave it very minimal stats, based on what Shamus wrote of it. This would teach me some lessons in how to properly balance a magical item later on.
Breakshore was also the first chance for the party to interact with the game world. We were three sessions in at this point, and here was my first problem: The guys weren't interacting with my world. Yes, they were hitting up locations in the village, but the NPCs? I had to goad them into asking questions. My guys approached the NPCs like this: "Hey, we're looking for a guy, have you seen him? Oh, he went south, thanks. Hey, can you give me anything to help me out?" It was a little more drawn out than that, but that question came up a lot during the campaign.
My next problem was the elven cleric. This character worshipped the elven god, but these were mainly human lands; there were originally no temples for the elves anywhere. As soon as we entered the town, the cleric says, "I go to the Corellon temple." Um . . . uh oh. I tried to solve this problem with a reference to the island's history.
In Shamus's story, the original inhabitants of the island were a group of peaceful, rustic elves. They were killed by a group of dwarves for the riches of the mountain. This invoked a curse from the spirit of the mountain on all who would mine its bounty. What I came up with was a follow-up curse on the elves because of the evil of the dwarves. When great dwarven leaders die, their ashes are sometimes imbued into weapons to give them great power. When the original dwarven king died, his ashes were turned into a weapon, which resulted in a curse on the elves who were killed. Their spirits would restlessly remain in the land, and future elves who tried to dwell on the island would lose their normal carefree spirits.
Well, this subplot seemed like a good idea, but I didn't do a very good job weaving it in.
In Shamus's original campaign, the party could either head southeast over the plains to Jolana Village or head southwest through the forest to Woodhurst. In both his campaign and my own, the players opted to head across the not-so-fruited plains. This played out exactly as it did in Shamus's campaign, which was largely due to the awesome map and dungeon notes Shamus posted about this leg of the journey. I threw a few more traps in on the way to the dungeon, but otherwise it was almost identical. Thanks, Shamus!
The Weather Hills
Shamus's party skipped right over this part. His cleric was high enough in level to cast a spell for walking on water, so they just crossed the river. My guys weren't high enough at that point, so they had to work their way through the goblin infested hills. This was a pretty good "dungeon."
I had the hills set up as a natural maze. There was a natural path, filled with thick undergrowth, running between the various hills. The party could cross over the hills, but it wouldn't get them through any faster, and they'd be exposed to attack from the goblins. The party didn't have a map, but they generally knew they needed to head southeast. At each intersection, I rolled randomly for the traps they'd encounter on a table I made. A failed spot check resulted in a trap that triggered, and the goblins would spring out and attack.
They only got attacked once, but this turned out pretty good all the same. The party fighter ended up in a pit, which made it a pretty interesting fight, as he'd have torn right through the goblins.
There was one other trap that rather failed. I found a template for trapped weapons, which deal damage to the wielder when they swing it the first time, so I had the goblins leave a trapped greatsword sitting in the middle of the plain. Of course, the party fighter scooped it up, but he had no intention of using it. He was a dwarf; his waraxe was his only weapon! I figured he'd do something with it at some point. Even if he only sold it, the shopkeeper would get injured checking it out. Except . . . he "sold" it without telling me when he got to the next town. Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
This part, too, turned out very similarly to Shamus's campaign. A membership to the mage's guild from a wizard they killed led the party bard to try to impersonate him to get discounts on new gear. This lead to an arrest attempt on the party. I felt bad for railroading at this point, but I wasn't given much choice. The bard tried for a good 15 minutes, real time, to talk his way out of arrest. This was in spite of the repeated statements by the guards of, "Surrender or my 20 soldiers will attack." At one point, I should have had the soldiers just attack them and carry their battered bodies in front of the town magistrate, but I hadn't statted them out. Oh well.
The rest turned out similarly. The dungeon housing Mordan was pretty fun to build. Rather than have them search for traps and kill monsters, I searched out some logic/maze puzzles from the web and built them into the dungeon. The party had a rough time figuring them out, but they made it through and liked them quite a bit. There was a maze where you could only turn right or left at each intersection and a Theseus and the Minotaur maze. There was a third, but I can't recall it now and my notes are nowhere to be found.
The freeing of Mordan almost was a disaster, though. Shamus's guys freed him, then ran like the dickens. My guys released him, then sat in his chamber and argued about it for a long time. Even after I had their NPC run away, screaming in terror, they still sat and argued. It almost resulted in an in-character fight, as one of the players tried to introduce some background to his character. (A family killed by a lich in the past . . . do adventurers ever come from a normal, non-traumatic background?)
At this point, things started to diverge from Shamus's campaign a bit. The party, running from the now free Lich King, fled south, all the way to a village named Tal Podere. Here is where the party started falling prey to attacks by Mordan's undead monsters. Shamus never said what the stats were for these monsters, as he custom made them. In the beginning, I just put a ghast out there and called it a gravewalker. Later on, I started upgrading them because the party was just tearing through them too quickly. Bigger claws, better armor and stats, and eventually a size increase made them pretty formidable.
This is also where the party finally regrouped with Oltean, the soldier they'd been chasing after since they landed on the island. It seemed like the players expected him to rise up and take control of the situation after the Queen's mind-control helmet was removed (If you're lost, I told you to read Shamus's stuff first!). He had no idea what was going on, so the players were left to decide where to go from here.
At this point, I should point out that I decided I'd have a little fun statting out Oltean's character. If you read the basics of the character at his website, you'd see that Shamus and Co. came up with a custom character class with a custom weapon. I thought it would be fun to try this thing out and see how it played. I chose to give him the 'vorpal' ability on his sword, just as a wild card. This will come back to haunt me.
I also started passing notes to the cleric when they slept. As the cleric held the lich's phylactery, she was having nightmares where the lich was trying to invade her mind or scare her into returning the phylactery. I used them to either induce paranoia or foreshadow coming events, but everything was colored with half-truths. I didn't find out until the campaign was over, but apparently we were a hair's width from the cleric attacking the rest of the party. I guess it worked.
After rescuing Oltean, we had a player absence, and a lack of a desire to skip a week, so I ended up with a great side quest. The cleric stayed behind in Tal Podere to take care of Oltean and learn some new spells while the bard, the fighter, and the NPC headed east to Sar Diga.
The players in Shamus's game never touched Sar Diga, so it was something of an empty space on the map I could work with. I had to figure out what kind of set-up would make sense for this place. There was a ferry that ran exclusively to it. It was a coastal city. I decided that it was a port town, though shut down because of the war, and a very wealthy one at that. It was going to be a center of black market trade on the island, but it never came up.
The party was lured out there by a call for musicians in the city. With the closing of the port, business was hurting in Sar Diga. The magistrate had decided that he would have a large party, with the dual goals of cheering up the local business leaders and hopefully getting some of the illicit business connections moving (again, this part didn't come up). The bard agreed to play at the party, and money was even provided for the rest of the party to attend. It was bizarre, though; the guys acted as though the party was going to be attended by ninjas out to get them. The party was to be held in the ballroom of a fancy hotel in the city. It even had a skylight and fire escapes, they were that wealthy. During the bard's intermission, a buxom blonde approached him and slipped him a note with a room number (coincidentally right next to the room they were staying in) on it. How could he pass it up?
After the party, the bard went up there to "meet her." Of course she was scantily clad, but before any shenanigans could go down, there was a pounding on the door. Into the room bursts a group of soldiers and the town magistrate, who just happened to be married to the buxom blonde. Oops. The bard, in a burst of inspiration, dives out the window onto the fire escape and torches the curtains on his way out, delaying any pursuit. He calls over for his comrades to join him, and they realize that the ladders leading to the ground for them were all destroyed. Up to the roof they went! There, they saw movement in the ballroom again, through the skylight. They went and saw the same blonde talking to some guy. It turns out he was the magistrate's assistant, and they were trying to get the magistrate killed so the assistant could take power. They figured the players would do the job when her husband busted in on the midnight rendezvous. Of course the players had to leap through the skylight to confront her. I totally intended for it to happen. I didn't intend for the fighter to fall flat on his face and nearly kill himself when he did it, but it was pretty amusing all the same.
Bard: Ah ha!
Beck: How dare you?!
That fight was a challenge, but they still won. The woman went to jail, the assistant died, and the players were now owed a big favor from a city leader. They returned to Tal Podere for the cleric feeling pretty pleased with themselves.
By this time, Beck had racked up quite a bit of gold. The players were sharing the loot with him, and he wasn't spending anything so he could take care of his pregnant girlfriend when he made it home. On the way out to Sar Diga, the players (jokingly, I hope) talked about ambushing Beck and stealing all of his gold. It was a little unnerving, to say the least.
The Mine Riots
I included this part of Shamus's quest the first time the players entered the mining town (Della Minera). My players were not as clever as Shamus's; they decided to just kill all the gravewalkers in the mine and return for the reward. Afterwards, they realized that all the slaves were going back to work. They tried to then bargain for the slaves' freedom, but there was no way it was going to happen in that town, and they lost interest after they left.
The Big City
The players finally made their way to Fol Thron, the capitol of the southern part of the island. Unlike Shamus, I did end up including the encounter with the war criminal in the gibbet. My players not only freed the guy (to the protests of the bard), but gave him a horse to leave on as well. They were pretty steamed when the Queen told them about his crimes. They kept talking about tracking him down; I really should have turned that into another quest.
Fol Thron didn't have many differences from Shamus's group, with the exception of how I got them in to meet the crooked General. When they were in Tal Podere earlier, the party stopped an attack by gravewalkers during the night. After the long discussion with the city council about the whole affair, the party asked the town magistrate for a letter requesting audience with the Queen. He provided it, but couldn't guarantee that it would do anything for them.
When the players were ready to run out of the city without even trying to see the Queen, thinking she was in league with Mordan, or perhaps would try to kill them to steal the orb, I had Beck swipe the letter while they were doing other things. Beck ended up going through all of the bureaucratic shenanigans (behind the scenes, of course), but he brought them before General Tarvin.
Which was a mistake on my part. When that fight finally took place, our fighter blew his horn at the enemies, just as Shamus's players did. The difference was that the fighter then killed Tarvin in the next round. The wizard never cast a single spell. You'd be surprised how many of my fights turned out this way.
Taking down Noreeno
The Queen sends them on the same quest to kill Noreeno, with the party getting to the halfling village a day or so ahead of Noreeno. At first, the party seemed pretty content to ambush Noreeno on the road into town, which was fine by me; it would mean that they'd actually have a challenging fight with a wizard.
However, that changed when the party started squabbling over tactics. You see, the fighter wanted to dig a hole in the middle of the road and wait in it for Noreeno to come by, then leap out and slay him in one crazy blow. When I asked how he intended to get out of the hole, he said he'd dig stairs into it. When I told him that such a project would require quite a few hours of work, and probably some sort of Crafting skill check, he gave up on the plan in favor of just waiting in the brush by the road side.
The party didn't end up attacking Noreeno out in the wilderness; with his entourage of soldiers and other spell casters, they decided to try to ambush him in the village hotel. Which was a total disaster.
First, we had an extra player with us. This guy wanted to play a rogue, but couldn't commit to our regular sessions. He only showed up this one time. He ended up playing Oltean, but tried to play Oltean as a rogue. Oltean was a fighter in heavy armor. It wasn't good. I ignored certain things just to let him have some fun, but the strategies employed by the other players made that difficult.
This guy had Oltean climb up on the roof of the hotel, waiting for a signal to swing into a window and attack. Meanwhile, the players snuck up to the floor where Noreeno and crew were staying. The cleric cast Silence on the fighter, who was now a walking zone of absolute quiet. He then proceeded to walk into every hotel room unchallenged and slaughter everything within as it slept. Meanwhile, Oltean waited on the roof for a signal that never came.
I even tried to get one parting shot off at the players, including a letter in Noreeno's belongings that looked like a message for the Queen, but in reality was Explosive Runes for anyone who killed him enroute. They didn't fall for it, sadly.
In an amusing twist, the party had decided that they needed to bury Noreeno in his entirety, not just his ring. I had them attacked by gravewalkers while they did it, which resulted in a chase where they fled from dozens of the things back across the river to Fol Thron. Probably a pretty heavy dose of railroading, but I think if I'd left them to their own devices they wouldn't have known what to do next.
The players ended up heading to the southermost cities on the island in search of the lost Prince Garrett; first to Telwin Port, then to Washport. They wanted to find the Magus Archives, but didn't really know why apart from "possible clues" that it could provide. My players, just like Shamus's, simply paid bail for the guy and left town. The bard ordered a fancy, undead killing bow before leaving, expecting it to be delivered to Washport in a week.
In Washport, the players encountered a mob-like group of anti-adventurers who had shut down the town's magic industry, hoarding it for themselves. They made their rounds each day, collecting "protection" payments from every shopkeeper, but wouldn't allow anyone to sell anything remotely magical (scrolls, potions, etc.). This would become the most frustrating part of the adventure for me.
My players tried to confront them in the crowded market streets as they first rolled into town, but the mob played it ignorant and cool and just walked away from them. They went to a tavern that night, and a halfling fighter from the group was in there. He was quite drunk, and decided to start flapping his mouth off at the party when he saw them. "You guys think you're *hic* heroes, do ya! Ha! We own this town. Just try to touch us, just try it!" At that point, in the middle of a crowded tavern, the fighter and the cleric pull out their weapons and attack the unarmed halfling.
The halfling escaped and then gathered his cohorts (five in total). The leader of the group challenged the party to a one-on-one duel; if their champion could handle the mob's champion, they'd leave town and never bother Washport again. If not, then the players had to shut up and get out themselves. The dwarven fighter of the party decided on a duel with the dwarven barbarian in the mob.
Here is where I regretted not being more careful with the magic items I'd given the party. After the barbarian had the fighter on the ropes, the player pulled out that magic horn I'd given him and started blowing on it. Over and over and over. He did this, healing himself up in between blows with potions, while the barbarian just sat there stunned. I was flabbergasted at this tactic; so much so that I let the player get away with taking far too many actions each round. After healing back to full health, he knocked the barbarian out, and the cleric told him to finish the job. The mob was just going to knock them out, it wasn't going to kill them. I ended up having the rest of the mob attack. This went badly, too.
I had one of the mobsters statted out as a werebear, exactly as seen in the Monster Manual. Nobody had silver weapons; I figured this fight would be extremely challenging for them. This was not to be. Remember that vorpal sword I'd given the party NPC? Yeah, first blow out of the gate, he chops the head off of the werebear. The fight ended soon thereafter.
The entire thing was frustrating for me because, in giving my players all these goodies, I was making it impossible to challenge them appropriately. They were waltzing through all of my encounters. Lessons learned, I supposed, and after that fight I retooled that magic horn to be much less game-breaking.
Heading for the Mountains
As the players headed out to the Magus Archives and Mount Khelberg, I had a surprise for them. In the wilderness, they were ambushed by a red dragon. This was supposed to be a challenging fight for them, as the monster would blow fire at them, then hide while waiting for his breath weapon to be ready again.
Sadly, this wasn't meant to be, either. At one point, the dwarven fighter dropped his magic axe and grabbed a bow. With it sitting there, gleaming on the ground, the dragon couldn't resist and flew over to pick it up. Guess what? Their NPC with the vorpal sword walks over and chops the thing's head off before it can fly away. What was supposed to be their most challenging fight was the shortest one to that point in the campaign.
I was crushed, but this taught me quite a few lessons: Don't get attached to your encounters, don't give your players overwhelmingly powerful magic items, don't be surprised when things go awry, allow your players to do cool things, etc.
Anyhow, the players eventually made it to the Magus Archives. Once again, I have to thank Shamus for his descriptive details in these things. Inside, Shamus placed a statue that was clearly trapped by the mages for anyone who would break in later. So, I described a few trinkets on there, knowing what horrors they would unleash on the player greedy enough to take them. The party fighter, knowing the cleric could simply prepare "Remove Curse," grabbed all five cursed items on the statue. As amusing as these things were, it rather dulled their effect that it was just a bit of a laugh for them, rather than something to be feared and avoided.
Freeing Fiore, and on to The End
The players freed Fiore, just as Shamus's did, though I think I railroaded them into tossing Mordan's phylactery into the box. I'm not very good and giving subtle clues, and the players aren't good at taking them. I didn't want the campaign to drag on the way Shamus theorized it could have had this solution not been taken, and I don't think the players did either. It turned out to be for the best.
The explosion of the mountain was also the culmination of the cursed axe sidequest. When a lava channel opened up in the Chasm of the Dead, the elven cleric tossed the axe in , LoTR style, and the curse was lifted. Bonus XP all around!
From this point onward, the campaign played out almost exactly as Shamus's did. The dwarves attacked while the players were in the wilderness, but they completely demolished Telwin Port. Without Beck there to rally the defenses (he stuck with the party the entire game), the city just wasn't able to survive. The party met with the dwarves and convinced them to join with the Queen to defeat Mordan. They then helped the Queen's men defend the bridge for a night.
Actually, that deserves some mention, because it was a very fun battle. I gave Beck the ability to man a catapult the way Shamus did, which worked out to be a good use for him. Each of the players were also given control of three low-level grunts with a sword and a bow; this would give them options, since the cleric tended to just sit in the back and buff/heal, while the bard tended to just sit in the back and buff. This also saved them from being overwhelmed by the large number of gravewalkers I threw at the party. I only used two waves, but it was an exciting battle all the same.
The party then went north and killed Mordan. The only major change here was in the "rescuing party," the army that kept Mordan occupied in the north. In Shamus's game, it was a powerful NPC from a previous campaign. Since my players didn't have that past to call upon, I had Oltean's people finally show up to rescue him. There was some post-adventure awkwardness to work out with this solution, but it settled things enough for me.
That's about everything I can recall from the entire affair. Questions and comments are welcome, as I'm betting there are details I left out. Looking at the size of the post, though, I doubt it.