CRB is a repository of all the creative things that float through my mind about the RPG Pathfinder. Two major features are random character generation and building characters based on the god they worship. Anything that seems like it adds to the creative aspects of the game will pop up from time to time, including location descriptions, adventure ideas and even short stories. CRB won't just be my own creativity, it will open the floor to anyone who has an idea sparked by what I present to you.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Another Fine Mess - Notes On a Session of Shattered Star

All too often we like to talk about what GMs or players do wrong. On reddit, on facebook, on tumblr, it’s just easier to complain than it is to praise. I’m lucky that I have a great group of players so I never feel the need to run out and talk about how they make me pull my hair out. On the flipside my players don’t run out and yell about how I’m out to get them.

We had a particularly good session this past weekend. My players left the game all laughing and thanking me for the good game, but even with the overall enjoyment of the session, there were some moments that were a little less than satisfying.

From here I’m going to be talking about a few encounters in Shattered Star, two of which are optional and one that’s part of the adventure. In case you’ve read this far and haven’t gotten the hint: There will be Shattered Star SPOILERS after this paragraph.

Let’s talk a little bit about my players. My players have captured or negotiated with a good 70% to 80% of the “bad guys” in this campaign. They have captured and incarcerated, redeemed, or made deals with most of the sentient creatures they have come across. They do not kill for the sake of killing and have been compensated with a number of story rewards for these deeds.

In the previous game the players were hunting for a group of Korvosan spies called the “house guests. Through some diplomatic interaction with various background NPCs and connections the players made in earlier sessions, they managed to track down the spies’ hideout. They stealthily raided the first floor and captured all but one of the agents who escaped. 

At the beginning of this session they used their abilities and sense magic, revealing great evil and two minds upstairs. The spies’ Korvosan background combined with a crudely painted pentagram in the downstairs foyer left little doubt that the evil upstairs was likely devilish in nature, and the group was determined to find and dispatch its source.

To start with, the dwarf scouted up top without opening any doors. He saw nothing in the halls and one open room. The rest of the party then went upstairs and tried to move in silence. The halfling scored a 5 on his stealth check and the paladin – a dex based, finesse half-elf – rolled a 1 for a total of five. This was a joy for me as it gave me ample opportunity for the bad guys to prepare.

The first part of the encounter really caught the players off guard, leaving them all impressed and somewhat bemused that they had fallen for my ruse. The bad guy was an evil cleric with the trickery and evil domains, and she used her power to both create a copy of herself (copycat which works like mirror image) and disguise herself as well-liked NPC that the players had dealings with in the first book. When they broke into the room all they saw was this cleric standing over their friend.

We should take a moment here to appreciate Finesse Paladins with low strength scores who, due to role playing reasons, felt compelled to try (and fail) to kick open doors nevertheless. The extra round of preparation combined with the forewarning of which direction the PCs are coming from sure can help the bad guys get extra ready. If it makes the group laugh, all the better!

The paladin moved into the room on his turn and immediately took the bait, making a beeline for the Mirror Image. As he struck the Mirror Image it immediately vanished, as they are want to do, leaving the players both confused and distracted. Unfortunately for them, the Bone Demon that had earlier been summoned by the evil cleric was waiting for just such a distraction. It teleported into the hall behind the PCs, turning their confusion into panic (fear aura for the win)! 

Compelled to aid his helpless friend, the cleric immediately moved into the room and untied her. He then joined the others as they all turned their attention to the devil, and now that the evil cleric was unobserved behind them, she used her channel energy to really give the players the what for. This was the moment when my PC kicked themselves for not figuring out the mirror image, but congratulated me on a well thought out trap. The friendly NPC was later found tied up in the house, and my players now know that I added to the encounter because I thought it made the module/adventure more personal.

That was the good part, but the encounter also had something that made some players feel ineffectual and left out; the bone devil’s fear aura. I was only using the monsters given in the prebuilt adventure and I assumed that they would be well balanced for my party. Fear effects are great for PC to pare down a battlefield but when used on PC they can sometimes be a problem. One thing players hate is not being a part of the action. If they’ve been debuffed, or outflanked that’s one thing. However, when a player can’t do anything for a good number of rounds they sometimes feel like they don’t even need to be there. Now, this shouldn’t stop you from using fear effects, but after inadvertently having them in two games in a row, well, I recommend using them sparingly.

Another thing I want to touch on is GM to player trust. Groups that have played together for an extended period have more than likely built up a mutual well of trust and respect. This is a group that I run on roll20., and, as it happens, I didn’t know any of them to start with. I had to build up a level of trust with the party in various ways, including rolling most rolls out in the open, freely discussing any major rule changes I wanted to make, and asking for input between game sessions to make sure that the players are having fun.

Now, the only way I pull off the illusion trick is if the players don’t know they have failed their will saves. To be clear, I don’t pull punches with my players. I’m not out to get them; they succeed on their own merit, not because I fudge for them and I certainly don’t fudge against them. There is an investment of over a year’s worth of trust in my fairness and openness. So I rolled their will saves for the illusion privately and they all failed, especially the dwarf who will read this and now know he rolled a one.

In the end the players triumphed, capturing the cleric due to a merciful enchant on the paladins bonded weapon and a critical hit with an Admonishing Ray from the cleric of Sarenrae. It was a hard won fight nonetheless, and you could hear the pure joy of having such a challenge, and success was all the sweeter because they did it on their own nonlethal terms. Of course the bone devil was not as lucky as the cleric and returned to its plane of existence with extreme prejudice.

This encounter started off the session giving the players a sense of accomplishment. It should be noted that the last two sessions were all RP with only one combat encounter at the end of each session. They’ll hit their stride with the dungeon crawling in the book later, but my players enjoy the RP sessions as much as the combat ones, so working in some extra RP now is a matter of balance.

After a bunch of RP in the middle of the game we got the actual adventure underway and it was up the river from Magnimar to Kaer Maga via hafling paddle boat. Along the way the players had their next encounter; a group of boggards and their giant dragonfly companion. Now this encounter was a lot of fun as well despite the fact that it was nowhere near as challenging as the beginning encounter. Sometimes heroes need to be heroes and that means rolling through a CR 4, four CR 2s and a CR 1.

The boggard encounter was not just nice because it was a chance for the heroes to flex their muscles but it also tied into one of the characters background. Although the players didn’t know the encounter would be there, I saw an opportunity to work in a piece of a player's back story and took it.. 

All I needed to do was add a little flavor to an otherwise fairly vanilla encounter, in this case by saying these boggards were members of a tribe that the witch player had dealt with in the recent past while negotiating a cessation of hostilities between a boggard tribe and a grippli tribe. I can’t say too much more without spoiling future RP sessions, but suffice it to say that this little extra touch helped to make an otherwise plain encounter much more “real”.

There was one combat highlight though. The giant dragonfly did a flyby grapple on the halfling and managed to scoop him up and ascend seventy feet above the river. It’s an ability I didn’t even realize the dragonfly had because, to be honest, I didn’t read the monster entry till we started the encounter. Surprisingly, the creative halfling player broke the grapple and used Ride to quick mount the dragonfly! When they players incapacitated the entire group of boggards it flew back to its master and the halfling dismounted as if he knew what he was doing the whole time. Except he didn’t actually have Handle Animal, so all he could do while mounted was hold on for dear life and pray he didn't fall off.

And with that encounter, not only did I leave the players on a high note of success, they all got their chance to show off. An important part of GMing is giving each player a chance to show their stuff. Another important part is learning from each sessions. My biggest lesson of course, the previously discussed fear effects.

So that is what one of my sessions looks like. Some things work, some things don’t, but as long as the players walk away from the table anticipating the next game, then I’m doing my job. But, enough about me, what about your sessions? What’s made your players want to come back for more? What’s left them feeling out in the cold? And how have you changed up what you do when you recognized a problem?

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