For me, players like it best when I run downtime stuff and advance all of the mini-stories with the NPCs.
I am right now running a big war. In theory, the group should be camped with the devil army, marching across the dusty, bleak realm of Thanatos for weeks at a time.
In the past, I would have done that. The group wouldn’t have seen their NPC friends. In past campaigns, every single time I cut the group off from that stuff, the game turned into a slog. It was almost like the players were showing up, filling time until they got back to what they really wanted to do.
Now, even if it doesn’t make sense, I make sure to let them go back every single session.
What has worked for me when laying out a session is to do one big action scene/scenario, some little scenes, and then plenty of time for the group to go to the city of Sigil and check in on all of their friends, businesses and homes. That formula works!
Find Your Formula: I would think every DM will find a different formula. It all depends on what your strengths are. It’s hard, but when you think about your sessions, objectively decide what the group liked best. Not what you liked best, not what you want to do, but what got the best reaction. What were the things that the players talked about. When did they light up? That’s the stuff you should focus on. Throw everything else in the garbage!
It’s painful. When you come up with a campaign, you envision the big moments and the twists that will blow the group’s mind, but a lot of times they don’t grab onto the things you expect them to. If you try to fight that, forcing your vision and your tempo on them, it just doesn’t work.
Once you identify what the group responds to and what generates fun/hilarity/excitement for your group, build on that. Try to avoid making everything negative. For example, a bad guy army is rampaging across the land. Every development shouldn’t be: “They took this town”, “They enslaved these people”, etc. There should be a variety of things, good and bad. Last Session, I talked to the players about their characters for the new campaign.
I'm going to wait until Xanathar's Guide to Everything comes out, so they can use the options in that book if they want to.
(Jessie) Bidam - Platinum-Scaled Dragonborn Fighter
(George) Theran - Elf Wizard
Last time, assassin devils killed all of the groups employees at their main festhall. The group immediately went about bringing their dead NPC buddies to temples and paid to have them raised. The group spent almost all of their remaining money on this.
Some of the NPCs did not want to be raised – they’re ready to move on. This was a way for me to dump NPCs that had becoming boring.
The group hired some new employees, which allowed me to cook up some new goofballs to throw into the mix. A ninja, a librarian, a dude named Kyle Docker, and a mysterious sparkling women with a big pile of treasure. She drinks a lot. The group was quite suspicious of her but didn’t figure out her deal.
Devil Scam: The group learned that somebody admitted to hiring the assassin devils. He’s a bearded devil named Jimmy Neverlearner. The group’s ally, the succubus Red Shroud, dug up dirt on him. It tTurns out that Jimmy has made a career out of taking the blame for crimes he didn’t commit.
The group visited Jimmy in jail and I got to bust out my stupid line I couldn’t wait to use. A guard shook his head when he looked at Jimmy’s rap sheet, and he said: “You’re just never going to learn, are you, Jimmy Neverlearner?”
I should point that prior to this, I had the group make perception checks as they wandered the streets of Sigil. They kept failing. Over and over. Red Shroud was tailing them, having taken the form of a bauriar (a goat/centaur). Finally she just approached them and dumped the info on them, which the group found very funny.
The group figured that their enemy, Vordiklot Krapple, had paid off Jimmy to take the fall. The group decided to go get their friend, Drokkarn the pit fiend, to deal with this. Drokkarn outranks Vordiklot and can get him in big trouble. I was pleasantly surprised, as that’s what I had in mind and they came to that conclusion all on their own.
Fiend's Embrace: They went to hell and saw that Drokkarn was off in a cave by himself. He was talking. The group listened. Drokkarn was answering a sending spell to Iggwilv, pledging his loyalty. When the group found Drokkarn, he was a magic cloak named the Fiend’s Embrace. He pent a long time on Iggwilv’s shoulders, and he was in love with her.
So now the group has realized she’s trying to use that to her advantage. Drokkarn’s plan is to betray the devils and become a demon lord. Iggwilv obviously can help with that. The group isn’t sure if they can trust him or not.
The heroes brought Drokkarn to Sigil, and he beat up Vordiklot and let group beat on the corruption devil as well. He ordered Vordiklot to go back to hell and never to return. Vordiklot, trembling, agreed to do so. Vordiklot paid the group off to leave him alone. He gave them a big pile of soul larvae, and a bag of holding.
Groups love bags of holding! Always! Now, each hero in this game has one.
The soul larvae are planar currency. Demon lords can eat them to gain power. Eating enough soul larvae can bring a demon to demon lord status.
Basically, I was handing them the option to power up a demon lord if they wanted to. They have a lot of options. They didn’t decide what to do until the end of the session.
Downtime: We did a bunch of other stuff in town:
Skyshrine: A simulacrum of Iggwilv was waiting here for the group. She was done messing around. She wanted Theran’s Talisman of the sphere. Theran was extraordinarily cocky, telling her he would kick her ass again if she didn’t watch herself. The last time they fought, Iggwilv used low level spells against him. She held back! She is ridiculously powerful and I think she could kill him very easily. One Melf’s minute meteors spell from her took him down.
At that point, Theran’s loyal ally the succubus nurse burst into the room with a pile of Graz’zt’s babies. One baby lunged at Iggwilv, and Iggwilv got a look at it. It looked like Graz’zt and Lamashtu. Iggwilv realized that Graz’zt was having relations with Lamashtu and she had a temper tantrum.
Graz’zt and Iggwilv have a very dysfunctional relationship. Technically, she’s his prisoner. But she immediately became jealous and left to go get revenge. So Theran was spared a sorcerous duel.
The kuo-toa wanted to bring some nephrotics to his goddess. Jessie thought for a minute, and agreed to sell some. The kuo toa bought 6 and went on his merry way.
I think Blibdoolpoolp is funny and this seemed like an opportunity to work her in and see what happens.
Burningwater: The heroes went to the 9th layer of the abyss, hoe of heir buddy, Bazuuma, demon lord of positive energy. Their new friend, Korb, the three-headed demon spider, has been doing research on the wells of darkness. It’s an abyssal layer that many entities are imprisoned on. I’m building up plans to have the group go there down the line.
Destroying a Layer of the Abyss
With all that done, it was time to get down to business. The archdevil ruler of the 1st layer of hell was ready to pull off her scheme. She was going to try to pull a layer of Abyss into hell.
- Cast a planar breach spell to connect Avernus (1st layer of hell) to Onstrakkar’s Nest (The abyssal realm that Lamashtu once owned, but the devils had overtaken).
- The heroes would bring massive hooked chains through the breach and hook them to the abyssal layer.
- Thousands of devils would pull on the chains and try to drag the entire abyssal layer into hell.
The group met a few high-ranking devils involved:
- Armaros, Resolver of Enchantments: He makes magic items. Normally Asmodeus doesn’t let people talk to him, but in this case it’s OK. He made these giant magic chains.
- Mordukhavar: The two-headed dragon, son of Tiamat and a pit fiend. He’s a general of hell.
- General Goreletch: I wanted to use the pathfinder version of Moloch, so I changed his name. The group thought he was awesome. That's because he is awesome! He can make a 90-foot tall tower rise out of the ground whenever he wants.
They have a hallucinatory aura. The group had to make saving throws. Bidam failed. He saw Lamashtu herself rise up out of the ground and freaked out.
Theran realized it was an illusion and within a few rounds, the group was able to shake it off.
I ran this like a normal combat. For the first time EVER, Bidam got a critical with his sword of sharpness and rolled a 19 on the follow-up, meaning he beheaded the yaenit in one shot.
The heroes took down the demons and Bidam implanted his hook. One down, one to go.
The other spot they were told to go to was by the “placental river”. It just so happened to be right by the front door of a demon-part place that I’d been trying to get the group to go to for about 5 sessions. They started laughing. This place lets you sew demon parts onto your body.
I ran a second combat, but I did it in a 4e “skill challenge combat” way to save time. They roll initiative, they tell me what they do, we make a roll to see how it goes. So basically, every round, A yaenit with a weird body part stitched on came out of the building and attacked. The parts:
- A demonic scorpion tail
- Huge, demonic muscle arms
- Other lewd things.
We’ll sew that on him next time. They know a guy who makes golems, this is right up his alley.
The group had implanted the hooks. The devils started to pull. The abyssal layer reacted violently, rippling. Tendrils and mouths opened up. One dragged Bidam inside the layer. Theran was able to grab Bidam and pull him out. They ran, dodging tendrils, and emerged through the breach into hell.
The layer came spilling in, merging with the ground under their feet. A massive section of the realm split open as it came through the portal. Out of it spilled hundreds of demons – nascent demon lords!
I had established a while back that some abyssal layers devour demons who try to take control of a layer and fail. They are trapped inside the interior organs of that layer and suffer.
Now, they were all free! Unique nascent demon lords tore into the devil army, who were completely unprepared for this.
I used a bunch of creatures from the Teratic Tome for this.
A nascent demon lord named Ahriman attacked the heroes. He has this trident that is linked to a good god, but is covered in this demonic crust that has corrupted it.
As the group fought him, other nascent demon lords would interject somehow for a round and then get into it with the other devils fighting all around the heroes. The other nascent demon lords:
- Eremite: A woman with golden tentacle arms
- Vomitorian: He has three mouths, barfs up yellow demons.
- Querist: A creature with rotting flesh that exudes fear.
- The Seamstress: A demon woman who wears patches of skin of other creatures. She has the weird ability to fit into tiny spaces.
As the devils mopped up and the abyssal ground solidified and was tamed by law, the group looked through the planar breach. Theran saw something in the void. Mist was coalescing – ground was forming. A new layer was growing!
The devils didn’t notice. Armaros waved his hand and canceled the breach.
So.. I asked the group what the wanted to do, here. They had a pile of soul larvae and they knew of a new abyssal layer that absolutely nobody else was aware of. What’s more, because Theran had seen it, he could get there via magic.
They could hand this place over to a demon lord. They could also hand over their soul larvae and empower a demon lord. I listed their options for them:
- Queen Ulandine: The queen of harpies, consort of Pazuzu. She had asked the group to get her some soul larvae. The group could make her a demon lord AND give her her own layer.
- Xanthopsia, Queen of Obscenity: A while back the group met this nascent demon lord who is trapped inside of Graz'zt’s triple realm. Theran knows her truename. The group could summon her, make her a demon lord and give her her own realm. She’s make a tower in the shape of a middle figure. Jessie loves this NPC, so I knew this was a major possibility.
- Bazuuma, Demon Lord of Positive Energy: Bidam’s wife! With the soul larvae, she’d gain the power to age their dragon children into adults and she could create oculus demons, who are from the 3e demonweb pits adventure and fit her perfectly (Bazuuma has 20 eyes).
- Pazuzu: The heroes could suck up to this vulture demon lord, who has helped them recently.
- Graz’zt: Give him a 4th layer!
In some official books, it is said that only Graz’zt rules more than one layer, but other books contradict this. In my game, Graz’zt, Pazuzu and Lamashtu each rule more than one layer. I think Juiblex has two or three, also. Now we can add Bazuuma to the list.
So.. next time. Bazuuma will age her kids, form her layer, and Theran will get a scorpion tails stitched right on the tramp stamp region above his butt.
The group will also go back to Thanatos and visit the Valley of the crypt things, where they need to shut down the portal to Baphomet’s maze. They don’t know it, but lurking in that valley is a charnel god of Orcus – a statue containing a shard of the essence of the demon prince of undeath.
Should be awesome!!