(This Behind the Screen covers Session Summary #2)
We left off the first issue with the end of our first session of the campaign–a nice kick-off into the content to come, with the players deep in the Crypt of the Everflame. It’s worth mentioning that the length of the sessions has been pretty hefty throughout Let Sleeping Tsars Lie: the group gets together somewhere between 2 and 4 o’clock in the afternoon and typically plays through 11 P.M. to 1 A.M. depending on how deep into the thick of things we get. Needless to say, we cover a lot of content!
Reconvening, the Crypt of the Everflame’s lower level has a small side chamber with a magical fountain just off of the entry area; this fountain provides a spot of healing and stat damage recovery, originally intended to help mitigate the punishment the shadow upstairs was originally set to dole out. Having this ‘checkpoint’ for healing is a nice way to keep a party moving, but after their run through the gauntlet upstairs and their fight with the brine zombies and frogs, the party spent their second night of rest just the same.
In the broad quest to incorporate interesting third-party supplements, I used this magic fountain room as an opportunity to introduce some advanced herbalism. Brother Vang’s player had given me a gift of several neat products over the holidays at the time, and among them was a collection of Louis Porter Jr. Design‘s ‘dozen’ supplements from which I had been perusing for more content.
Among the goodies therein, specifically, there were entries in Two Dozen Discoveries: Plants that would reward survival skill usage (which Meryk, Emma and Anselme all were big on) and provide another avenue they might mitigate and manage unexpected problems creatively. I added a patch of Tulsum mushrooms growing in the fountain room as a cursory introduction to the new herbalism options–these mushrooms, if imbibed quickly enough after receiving stat drain–accommodates converting a portion into damage instead.
If you’re unfamiliar with the mechanics, stat drain is significantly harder to restore than stat damage, especially at lower levels; utilizing the mushrooms also doubles natural ability score recovery for 48 hours–which at the end of the day further serves the general goal of keeping a large party on the move in exchange for resources. Since the Tulsum was also particularly handy, my aim was to use it as an enticing opening to the rest of the product as it was incorporated–with the added bonus of being able to reward multiple players at the table keen on utilizing their character skills with more utility.
Back on track, the party was rested, mostly recovered and raring to go; though the full party clocks at seven players, beginning earlier in the day typically meant a smaller contingent of the party was actually present–so session two began with Brother Vang, Emma, Anselme and Zantric forging a path into the zombie room. As mentioned in the first Behind the Screen, this room was originally pretty cramped and composed of a few plague zombies–but now opened up and with a heavier opposition, the four of them had more of a fight cut out for them.
This is one of the cases where I’d pieced together an encounter with the full compliment of seven in mind but ended up with a different party composition–something which still crops up even through current sessions. Early in the campaign, I had aimed to keep pretty tight tabs on how experience was being meted out in order to make sure that the conversion of all three modules in the Price of Immortality presented a consistent challenge.
Generally speaking when the head count changes from expectations with encounters designed for a large party, you’re still usually pretty safe in that the challenge won’t spike too dramatically; the smaller contingent of the group will take more damage and expend more resources individually, but the range of CR provides a good amount of wiggle room.
Realistically, the main real advantage on the player’s side of the screen when they are at their full number comes down to action economy again–being able to do more each round in between critters, creatures and cretins in initiative–and thus eliminating threats more quickly. As a general rule, when an enemy is supposed to have staying power or serve as a single adversary against a party larger than four, I’ll max out their hit points.
Since the arrival of folks for our sessions was apt to be staggered with some frequency, I began approaching the prep for sessions after the second with the express aim of a smaller party–to some degree, ‘filler’ encounters or role-playing bouts. Whenever the former, I’d try to make them exercises in the unusual with quirky templates and unexpected abilities to keep folks on their toes.
Now, despite the more numerous zombies the party of four was rolling through them pretty easily–on top of that, Pandora and Cassandra arrived midway through the fight and began to help with mop-up, making things go more easily still. Since the party was still in good fighting shape and the new arrivals were stepping in with only a zombie or two left, I decided to segue the giant black widow fight immediately with a dramatic entrance through the doors–chaining it right into the initiative sequence and getting a table of shouts in the process.
Six versus one, the juju zombie black widow spider was not a terribly major threat–but it did serve as a very ‘scary’ adversary. Spooking the party a bit helped to get Pandora and Cassandra both sharply into the action and all six players coordinating with gusto after the comparatively calm slog the zombies had been. Plus, there’s something to be said about an enemy with a crazy moniker: Giant Black Widow Juju Zombie Spider. Fun!
GBWJZS’ poison didn’t take, in the end–and realistically that’s the only real threat the big thing has for a party of six; still, the players had fun rallying together to surround and beat back the big thing and once it died they sent it toppling into the reflecting pool for a bit of cinematic flair. Pandora saw to collecting venom from the thing’s corpse–using one of the 101 New Skill Uses. Practical!
When the big spider was dead and the party was making their way ahead, I had a bit of flavor descriptive of the crevasse the thing had emerged from in the ceiling. For whatever reason, Anselme became fixated on exploring this gap in the ceiling to find what might be inside; he went out of his way to tie a torch to a pole and foist it up into the webbing. While prepping for the session, I hadn’t originally planned for this nor placed anything inside–but after the focus, I wanted to provide something for the trouble taken–so the dessicated bandit with the fancy boots was introduced on the fly.
Onward and deeper the party went from here, entering into a room which I essentially left unchanged from the original Crypt of the Everflame; the statues and bridge here are a -really- obvious trap, so it’s no surprise that the party took measures to make sure they didn’t fall for it (don’t hit me, there’s forty foot pits!) On that note, a forty foot drop is potentially pretty brutal for a party that does trip this trap up for whatever reason–24 potential damage from the drop (4d6) if the shifting statues manage to totally roll over a character–but what struck me as a bit quirky is that if the statues don’t send someone into the pit they essentially don’t do anything of consequence (pushing the character back across the bridge isn’t really a particularly big deal.) Honestly, I couldn’t think of anything in particular to tweak on this one, so it stayed.
Alright–final boss time! Down into the tail end of the crypt the gang arrived for the big finale, battle with Asar the skeletal champion and former adventuring pal of Ekat Kassen. I wanted Asar to be a solid challenge, but with seven people we’d again have the usual pitfall–he’d get overrun on action economy. So, to kick things off I had Asar pack a posse for the updated fight which came out to 6 skeletons (two of which were skeletal archers) and two ghouls, the intention again being to tie up half the party while folks stepped up to tangle with Asar himself.
Asar did not change much from his original stat block despite the large party–he’s a skeletal champion with two fighter levels and packs a solid AC (20) which he can beef up with Combat Expertise if need be; with the added combatants to the mix, realistically he’d only directly be dealing with three or four members of the party–which is what he’d originally be up against. Asar got pumped up to max HP (39 -> 59) and then I handed him Mitra’s Blade from Legendary I: Legendary Blades, which turned him from two-handing a longsword to toting a falchion.
Now, two things about the weapon change and item placement should be noted. First, its presence here was meant to be an early scaling weapon drop for the party and Asar seemed a perfect candidate to provide such. My goal by the end of the Crypt was, again, for everyone to get something which would grow along with their character as we trekked further into the campaign. Second, going from a longsword to a falchion would mean Asar would pack a meaner punch–and since he only gets a single swing each round, against seven PCs this would make a significant difference (the alternative being to take him up another two levels for BAB +6/+1).
A falchion hit with power attack would drop most anyone in the party, but with three divine casters + channel positive energy available, I was not worried about a fatality barring one exception: a critical hit could easily floor a character and send them to death’s door. Since we’re utilizing the critical hit deck, there’s the chance of not eating a big damage multiplier–but the threat was there, nevertheless. That said, I didn’t necessarily expect Pandora to be in the lead–let alone so -far- in the lead–when the encounter went down with Asar.
At the table, Pandora got laid out in a single swing by Asar and the battle was on; mayhem broke out rather quickly as Anselme also booked ahead of the party in order to help Pandora. This in and of itself wouldn’t have been an issue–but for some reason both Zantric and Emma ended up hunkering down on the staircase fighting the skeletons that came trotting out rather than moving to go after Asar. Oops! Cassandra took one of the two ghouls out with a critical hit which, thanks to the crit deck, was pretty entertaining–she sent the thing to another plane with jokes around the table that she’d fight it again in fifteen levels when it came for revenge.
After the rocky start, the fight otherwise went fairly smoothly; Asar was hard to hit, hit very hard in turn and his escort ate up a lot of actions and a lot of attention as desired. There were a few hit point scares around the table, but Brother Vang’s player was very on the ball with making sure nobody died and slowly but surely as Asar’s ensemble got whittled down more and more characters began to gang up on him and soon enough they’d dispatched their first big boss encounter and were pretty pleased!
With the battle done we had a story segment with Ekat Kassen’s ghost emerging as in the original Crypt of the Everflame–albeit here I used it as an opportunity to begin sowing further seeds for the Slumbering Tsar Saga content much further down the line. It was a nice opportunity for roleplay which Brother Vang’s player took to particularly strongly–and as part of his parting package of magic goodies, I’d tweaked the lot to include the Crusader’s Shield from Legendary IV: Legendary Shields more or less custom picked for Brother Vang.
A few more items were found about the room; one of the ghouls had been wearing Toolik’s Eagle Eyes which went to Meryk and Pandora picked up Aleowine’s Brooch, both of which came from Legendary III: Legendary Items. You’re probably noting a trend here–the whole series is quite good though! What -really- surprised me, however, and serves to mark one of the biggest unexpected shifts for me throughout the campaign to come: both Zantric and Emma turned down taking Mitra’s Blade entirely.
I was boggled, frankly; neither had feat investments going for existing weapons yet, it was still low level and a falchion is a very solid two-hander. Of all the people in the party, unexpectedly Pandora ended up taking the legendary blade–and it was enough that it prompted her player to take their third character level as fighter instead of rogue. I certainly hadn’t anticipated that! Still, it ended up providing a very interesting change in Pandora’s tonal direction (one which really begins to shine as we get deeper into the campaign!)
So the segue went off well–the party was on the lead in pursuing the church of Razmir and it would serve to hook them into the second part of the Price of Immortality trilogy: Masks of the Living God. With this secured, the gang was set to wrap up in the crypt and head back to Kassen–but here there was another caveat: as written, even a party of four player characters don’t quite hit the intended experience from module to module in the trilogy.
Ideally I wanted to keep the party ‘on level’ at their head count throughout the trilogy, since my aim was to scale up the existing encounters rather than adding additional ones since ideally this would keep the challenge level going strong without necessarily prolonging the pacing during the meat of the modules. Further, the goal was to send them off into Slumbering Tsar at seventh level by the time all was said and done–so in short, it was important to start shoring up some added encounters between the modules.
Since the gang was still low-level, one of the things I wanted to do was to keep the variety of encounters and challenges going strong and to make the mundane ‘early adventuring career’ loot more interesting. To this end, I dug into several more third party supplements that were keen to keep the mix up and also introduced a chase sequence on the trip back to Kassen.
Pathfinder has a pretty neat mechanic for chases as well as a GameMastery deck dedicated to such; there’s also several third party sets of ‘cards’ available, but if you’re up to putting some elbow grease in you can also scope out the rules from the GameMastery Guide to build a chase yourself.
I knew going into the campaign that I wanted to use the mechanic at least once, but one of my main problems with the printed Chase Deck is that it is only really viable to use at fairly low character levels; once you get past third or fourth level or so, the challenges presented on the cards are no longer particularly effective hurdles and characters will have numerous means to circumvent a given chase (such as being able to fly via magic or wildshape, cast dimension door, pass any acrobatics or CMD check without rolling, etc.)
Once the party was on the road back to Kassen I busted out the ‘Surrounded’ encounter from Forgotten Encounters: Forest from Purple Duck Games to kick things off. I liked this encounter for a few reasons, such as Krenshars being entertaining foes that don’t often get to see play (which is a nice angle to the Forgotten Encounters series by the by–they feature many ‘misfit toy’ monsters given a good run!) but primarily Hackel Kest was a shoe-in–the jinxed mischievous halfling who riled the Krenshars up in the first place.
Hackel Kest was perfect for prompting a chase sequence once the encounter was finished, his jinxing and personality could suit perfectly to rile the party and I figured he’d go for nabbing the lit lantern carrying the Everflame during the fight itself. To spice up the encounter, I added the Laughing Beast template from Rite Publishing’s 101 Not So Simple Monster Templates–which is an awesome book I highly recommend for any GM looking to add to their toolbox. Coincidentally, the ‘laughing beast’ example in the book is a Krenshar as well.
When it hit the table, the encounter started off very well save for a minor snag: the party immediately went out of their way to seize Hackel and attempt to detain him, which boded poorly for him initiating any hijinks for a chase sequence. Once the combat kicked off, however, Hackel was luckily able to wriggle free when the players went to engage the Krenshars–and mixing up the fear effect they could provoke coupled with the hideous laughter effect the laughing beasts could pull off, the battle was nicely challenging without being particularly dangerous.
Hackel broke off during the fight, spend a conspicuous turn or two next to Zerra the NPC (since she was carrying the lantern) and just as the party ran off the remaining Krenshar, off the halfing went into the treeline and Zerra announced he’d absconded with the lantern. The chase was on! I busted out the cards and gathered everyone around and we set about putting it to practice.
Something to keep in mind when you’re constructing a chase sequence is that you ought to take into consideration what everyone’s character is actually capable of; this should be pretty straightforward, but if you aren’t careful it is possible to present challenges in which neither avenue of progression is achievable by a given character. Individuals with especially high Acrobatics bonuses are generally going to fly through the obstacles in a chase sequence, so I suggest inserting a few hurdles along the way which don’t call for Acrobatics; similarly, try to present DCs which can be reached reasonably–in the end, you want a chase to go quickly and smoothly so that the pacing keeps it short and sweet.
I used the chase sequence to segue into the second encounter that I’d set out on the way back to Kassen, ‘A Fate Worse Than Death’ out of Raging Swan Press‘ Random Woodland Encounters II. Tonally this was a sharp shift from the humor in Kest and his pursuit; generally I like to try and alternate with segments of levity between heavier material when folks are afield. This encounter served several purposes again: it presented an interesting fight, elements to keep everyone in the party occupied and it offered another segue to join material together (as well as a ticking clock–returning the children to Kassen is a time-sensitive objective.)
With the larger party I opted for the supplement’s suggestion to up the ante, adding another Vargouille and the advanced creature template to the fiendish melancholic ooze swarm. Really though it was the combo of critters in this encounter that I really liked: the ooze is a -really- cool enemy that has fantastic and frightening synergy with the Vargouilles–while the fiendish flying heads can be an absolute menace if players aren’t careful. In play, the party got split up considerably between their assailants and several PCs ended up contracting the Vargouille disease–which racked up the tension quite a bit!
Now, the Vargouille disease is pretty rough if picked up at low levels–and the aim here wasn’t to punish the PCs or to bankrupt them of all the cash they’d only just acquired; at the end of the day, the intent was a challenge, a scare and a tense race against time. The disease is suppressed by sunlight, so ‘conveniently’ there was a countdown to sundown at odds with the time it would take to ride to Kassen. The infected PCs saddled up, stowed the kids and double-timed it for town–spooked that once the sun set their heads would go flying off into the night.
In the end, the gang was spooked, the scare was effective, and once they’d made it to town they discovered the parents of the children were wealthy merchants on the move (which they are, in the original encounter)–and thus, offered to cover the cost of removing the disease as part of their thanks for services rendered by the party in protecting their kids. The party regrouped in town, there was much relief and we had a nice opportunity for a length of roleplaying as the stage was further set to proceed towards Masks of the Living God.
We were nearing the end of the night by now at the table, but there was one last encounter slated for the day; since the trip to Tamran would be made on a river barge, I wanted to present interesting fights which played off of it and the river itself. On the evening prior to the group setting out I put a terrible storm into play–in part for a bit of foreboding ominousness before their journey, but also to set the stage for the last fight up ahead.
‘Shattered Bridge’ out of the first Random Woodland Encounters supplement (which is also available for free as a preview from the product if you’d like to check it out) was the ticket. The ghost of the conjurer Valentin offered a chance to warm up and duke it out with a spellcaster–while his repertoire was not an especially brutal or lethal one, again, for their level.
In play, Valentin proved challenging (and a bit frustrating for the players who could not engage him at range)–but once he’d set out a summon on the table, the grounded characters were more satisfied, and eventually Valentin came down to play as well. The environment proved fun to work with and as an added bonus there was some very fine roleplay once the fight had concluded, as the party set about recovering Valentin’s remains that they might put his spirit to rest. Brother Vang’s player really shone through here in particular–as we progress further into the campaign, we’ll take a look at how characters developed both on and off the sheet as well.
Our second session concluded thusly, sights were set on kicking off Masks of the Living God in our third; we’ll wrap up this rather lengthy issue of Behind the Screen here, but next time we’ll take a look at the whole of the second module (since we managed to complete it in one go!) as well as dissect further staging for the Slumbering Tsar Saga and cover aids for encouraging roleplay at the table.
Once again, I hope you’ve enjoyed taking a peek with me Behind the Screen–and if you have any questions, comments or feedback I’d love to hear them! Until next time, have a great game!