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Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Chaos Ships in the Nine Hells

We played some more of my version of Descent into Avernus on Sunday. When I was putting the session together, I had this feeling I knew how far we would get. My outline involved three things:
  1. Wrapping up things in Mordenkainen's tower.
  2. Riding through the Nine Hells, being attacked by the Queen of Chaos.
  3. Exploring the Bleeding Citadel.
That plan assumes the group doesn't decide to do something completely different, which you always have to be ready for. Having read Descent makes that a bit easy. There's a whole book full of stuff to use if the group decides to drive in a random direction, or if they seek out some random thing that was mentioned three sessions ago.


I've been doing better at giving the group space lately - just letting them roleplay and dictate the pace. With a 2-hour session, I'm always a little wary and watching the clock. I want to make sure stuff happens.

That said, I've found that it doesn't feel like D&D if you forcibly march the group from one thing to the next. They need time to inhabit their characters, take in the scenery, and explore the group dynamic.

I had a feeling that they'd spend that time in Mordenkainen's tower roleplaying. What's fun about that is that I, the DM, have absolutely no idea what will happen. The players are completely unpredictable.

So I made it even more fun for myself by putting goofy stuff in Mordenkainen's tower. He's got guest rooms, each themed after once of his favorite planes. Which one would each hero pick? Would they take different rooms, or would they share one?

Magic Hot Tubs

Each of these rooms have a magic item created by the Mordenkainen from the original, somewhat blasphemous Castle Greyhawk parody adventure: A hot tub of relaxation. What are the command words for this magic hot tub? "Hot" and "Not Hot."

So we started and boom they were off and running, picking their themed rooms, checking out the hot tub, and deciding which NPCs slept where. One of the biggest surprises was how Winthrop, the party's shadar kai dude, shared a room with "Twinthrop" (Winthrop had grown a second head which was severed and attached to a suit of magic wind armor). Winthrop has this magic tattoo kit he got like 40 sessions ago, and ave his "brother" a cool face tattoo.

The group also debated the fate of Strahd, who had been traveling with them until last session, when Mordenkainen hit him with a banishment spell. Strahd is obsessed with one member of the party named Seraphine, because the soul of his beloved Tatyana merged with hers.

It's so amusing to me to listen to them talk about Strahd, because nobody can quite decide if he is Seraphine's boyfriend or what. Seraphine actually got in an argument with Mordenkainen about how Strahd can be a help and isn't necessarily going to ruin their quest for the rod of seven parts.

If you read my old Planescape session stuff, you know that I had made the two heroes of that campaign into living embodiments of the laws of the multiverse. There are three of these laws, and in that game, I left the identity of the third a secret.

In this Dungeon Academy campaign, it has been revealed that Lilia, the gnome warlock, is actually Center of All, the embodiment of that third rule. What that exactly means, she's not sure. If she dies, what does that mean for the multiverse? She is literally the center of the multiverse. What happens if that goes away? Is the multiverse unmoored? Does it collapse in on itself? Do planes start to shift in position?

So! Yes, just spending time in Mordenkainen's tower ate up a good portion of the session. It was all worthwhile and, to me, did not drag.

The Hell Chase

The group got into their van/war machine, put on their seatbelts, and rode toward the Bleeding Citadel, with their 15 abyssal chickens chasing behind them.

I want to make sure I solidify the threat of the Queen of Chaos, who is trying to get the rod of seven parts so she can free Miska the Wolf-Spider. Most of the time, the group has been in a place that is beyond her reach. Their spelljammer is protected by Umbra, the goddess of good. "Powers" like herself can not enter Sigil.

But now, the group is in the Nine Hells! The Queen can get at them! In the boxed set, it describes how the Queen can warp the land just by fixing her gaze on it. So, I had the Queen's face appear in the clouds. The land all around the van turned into a tentacle-scape.

From the clouds came a bat-shaped chaos ship! You might remember that I wrote a guide to chaos ships a few years ago in this blog. This blog is, if nothing else, a repository for all my DM prep, and boy did that thing come in handy.

My first thought was to say that the sibriex that is loyal to the Queen made the chaos ship, but when I went through my guide, I realized that making a chaos ship is very involved so I thought up a bit more to the story which has yet to be revealed.

I love running vehicle chases in D&D. I wanted this to be like the crazy chase levels in Half-Life 2, where you're in the dune buggy and the freaky alien gunship is dropping mines on you and opening fire as you are careening around swampy land littered with tunnels.

I had the chaos ship driven by one of the queen's agent, a solamith (my favorite D&D monster) named Barzhim Rangoth.

What followed was a pretty epic battle with Seraphine driving the van, avoiding mines and tentacles, while the heroes fired harpoons from their war machines at the massive chaos ship. Winthrop was clever and used magic to pull the solamith out of the chaos ship. He ended up floating safely down and landing on the roof of the van.

The chaos ship, a sentient thing, took control of itself and continued the assault. Demons onboard fired lightning ballistas at the group. Winthrop and Twinthrop suddenly took to the air and flew onto the chaos ship!

That's about where we had to stop.

I had this feeling that's as far as we'd get, and I was right for once.

We're rolling along real nicely in this campaign, and we'll be done soon. I've got everything all prepared, and all I have to do is sit back and roll with what the players choose to do.

I have warned them that in the final fight, anything goes. The last piece is in Pandemonium - I'm using the final level right out of the 2e Rod of Seven Parts boxed set. That's a general rule of mine. I might pull punches in a lot of fights, but in the final battle, if you die, you die. If there's no risk, what's the point?

Monday, November 4, 2019

Using the Tower of Urm

I ran a couple of games over the weekend, both went OK. This was one of those times where I felt a little run down, so I let the players "carry the burden" of making the game entertaining, if that makes sense. This almost always leads to a good session, yet I still find it difficult to find just the right balance between being too railroad-y and letting the players run amok.

The Patterns of a Long Term Campaign

We are barreling toward the end of the Hell's Rebels adventure path. This is always the best time in a  campaign, in my opinion - when the end is in sight, you've totally got a handle on everything's that's coming, and now your primary concern is pacing.

As a DM, you've already gone through the "launch" of the game, where the initial enthusiasm propels the group forward. Then, usually somewhere around session 6-10, that enthusiasm wears thin and you need to re-calibrate and quickly find the things that interest the players to keep the game from becoming a slog.

Some time after that, you get into a rhythm and you just roll on and on. Once the players get used to the routine of playing at the same time over the course of months and not only do they want to play, they expect to play, at that point, you're just holding back your own dungeon mastering demons and making sure you don't kill your own campaign through bad habits or losing perspective on what it's like to be a player.

Hell's Rebels

We are deep into book 5 of 6. The group has taken a side trip into the Feywild in a homebrewed thing I whipped up, because my group likes the city of Vyre and it was an opportunity to work in Fio's backstory.

So as the session approached, I realized I had to actually come up with a bunch of Feywild stuff for the session. I still don't really have a handle on Feywild lore, so I dug up material from the products I am somewhat familiar with:

Dungeon 166 has a high level Feywild adventure in it for the 4e Scales of War adventure path. Running Scales was one of the best things I've ever done as a DM, and I am always going back to it to use stuff. This Feywild adventure was actually not especially essential to the main story, but it  has an NPC that I love: The Sky Shaper, a sun with a face on it that will give you information if you flatter it or do cool acrobatic tricks.

Heroes of the Feywild is a 4e sourcebook that has tons of lore and information on the Feywild. I used this mostly just for general ideas, the spark to get things moving.

Then, when I really need ideas, I go to the Dungeon Dozen index and after about 15 minutes I have tons of building blocks to work with.

The heroes made their way into a forest, looking for a captured NPC who is one of Vyre's 5 rulers. They had these goofy encounters:
  • A leprechaun illusionist tried to steal colors off of the heroes to make a custom rainbow to impress his Feywild superiors. 
  • A bunch of snobby talking cats drank from a small milk lake that issued whispers relating to the dark past of some of the heroes.
  • A treant had grabbed a stork who was carrying a baby and fell asleep. This was specifically a way to show Essie how her fey baby would arrive.
Then we got to the main event. I had found some awesome fey-themed maps from this person right here.

Tooth Fairies

I knew I wanted to use Pathfinder fey monsters that had appeared earlier in the Hell's Rebels Path. Tooth fairies! Basically, they are Pathfinder goblins with wings and pliers.

I had the NPC glued to a bridge above a chasm filled with teeth. I was using goblin stats for these monsters and checked kobold fight club to see how many goblins were a challenge for four level 11 heroes. the answer: 32 goblins!

I was a little concerned. Can a group fight 32 monsters? I gave it a try and Fio, a spellcaster, dropped 20 in one shot, so everything worked out fine.

I stuck a "tooth golem" in the pit to attack anyone who fell in, and as the battle commenced, 3 of the 4 heroes ended up in the pit, either through being shoved in or jumping down.

Then I had the tooth fairy monarch show up, and the whole thing worked out nicely. The heroes ultimately rescued the NPC and wiped out the tooth fairies.

The Tower of Urm

Last week, I wrote up a guide to Mordenkainen mostly because I knew that the Dungeon Academy group would be going to his tower in Descent into Avernus this week.

In Descent, the Tower of Urm encounter is way too short in my opinion. All they tell you is that Mordenkainen is in the tower, and that a bunch of yugoloths work for him. I have this natural aversion to using yugoloths in my games, so the whole thing didn't sit right.

If I was going to "fix" it or expand on it, I figured I could just use all of the published lore to do so.

The thing that I liked the most from all of the Mordenkainen lore that I found was the notes in the 2e Outer Planes Appendix discussing the Codex of Mordenkainen. In the codex, it is revealed that Mordenkainen went through a magical sleep ritual which allowed him to visit the Coils of Time, which have all sorts of information written on them about places and events.

I love the idea that Mordenkainen learned bits of information about the future on this visit, and that one thing he learned was that my Dungeon Academy group was actually going to assemble to rod of seven parts.

As a believer in "the Balance," Mordenkainen thinks that artifacts need to be locked away. This is actually specifically discussed in Mordenkainen's Magnificent Emporium. Artifacts are very hard to actually destroy, so it's better to just set them aside and let the knowledge of their existence fade away.

As my Mordenkainen started telling the group about how he thinks they need to give the assembled rod to the Wind Dukes, the group actually piped up and started talking about how it might be best to destroy it. They basically came to the same conclusion that Mordenkainen did with no prompting!

Mordenkainen was impressed. You may be aware that Mordenkainen has had some adventuring groups before - The Citadel of Eight and the Circle of Eight. My Mordenkainen is wondering if maybe these heroes might become a new Circle of Eight, or some new, similar organization of a different name. I think that would be pretty cool.

One other thing that happened in this session was that Mordenkainen cast banishment on Strahd von Zarovich, the legendary vampire. Strahd has been traveling with the group because the soul of his beloved, Tatyana, merged with the party cleric.

This led to an internal debate amongst the group - was this a good thing or a bad thing? Strahd was the cleric's "boyfriend," one player pointed out, and the whole group thought it was not cool to banish a boyfriend.

On the other hand.. he's evil. They noted that he's constantly tempted to drink their blood, and he's had it out for the party fighter since she called Strahd a "pu**y."

If you read Curse of Strahd, you know that Mordenkainen and Strahd are enemies and have fought before. I thought it would make sense for Mordenkainen to do this to the vampire. Additionally, having an evil vampire in the group could upset the group's own "Balance" in the eyes of Mordenkainen.

Mordenkainen gave the heroes a copy of his Magnificent Emporium. Basically, if they write down information on magic items in that book, it will appear in Mordenkainen's master copy. The group immediately pointed out that it was a "pokedex," which is something I never considered.

We're building up to the big final fight with Miska the Wolf-Spider, an ancient demon lord who has blood so toxic that if it gets on you, you must make a saving throw or die. Mordenkainen pointed out that this makes the party's archer crucial in the final battle, so he gave her three arrows of demon slaying and he enchanted her bracers, making them bracers of archery (+2 to hit and damage with bows!).

I'm sort of tempted to have the group visit the Coils of Time, but I think that is something that will require some thought and planning, not just a throwaway encounter. I might write it up at some point in the future. I think I should consult the old 2e Chronomancer sourcebook for inspiration, first.