A few weeks ago, I ran a session of D&D in my Aurikesh campaign that everyone at the table really enjoyed, and I wanted to write about what made that particular session and storyline work, what minor things I could have done better, and so on. To do that, though, I have to summarize another two-session adventure from July of 2014. For privacy, such as it is, I'll be referring to players by their character names, and I'll clarify when one player has two or more characters.
Session 25: Mending Fencers
Because of the way I run Aurikesh, with a larger player roster than could ever play together, I sometimes get into situations where one session ends in the middle of an adventure, but the next session picks up with a different group of players. I don't have a universal solution to this problem, but I do sometimes have tricks up my sleeve. Session 24 ended with the party (Alekkvi, Esteban, Lanth, Syrell, and Vizzik) debating whether or not to attack an excessively large group of sahuagin and giant crabs. Alekkvi and Vizzik weren't able to make it to Session 25, but Vorcrech and Rafa were; Esteban's and Syrell's players don't really have alternate characters to fall back on.
I decided on a flashback session. Session 24 had started with several months passing since the last adventure, so I had some timeline to play with, and I thought it relatively unlikely that I would run into irreconcilable timeline paradox. If we "discovered" that someone had had to be raised from the dead, well, that wouldn't break anything, per se. Calculated risk, anyway. Also, I didn't give a rat's ass if someone was suddenly higher level when we returned to the adventure of Session 24 - because some of the characters were first level, I regarded that as a feature that would let them have more fun. The main thing I had to do was make absolutely sure that Esteban, Lanth, and Syrell were in Chardecum (the central game location) by two weeks later, so that they could join the party for the adventure of Session 24.
Got all that? Good.
I'm on record as liking what I call Personal Mechanical Plot, but I don't get a lot of chances to run it. Lanth (a rapier-and-claw Dex fighter) was right on the cusp of 4th level and didn't have hard-and-fast plans for her Ability Score Increase/Feat slot, so I decided that the fencing-masters currently available in the mercenary company that the PCs work for were not able to instruct her further - but the officer that gives the PCs missions knew who the best fencing-master in town was, and suggested that the PCs hire her away from her current employer, the Barrigo family (wealthy, mid-ranking nobility).
The PCs start investigating, and discover that the fencing-master is getting blackmailed into keeping her job because she has a piratical past, and she needs the PCs to steal the evidence of her past from Lord Barrigo. While they're there, they should make a point of stealing her old navigational charts, because they're worth a fortune to the right buyer. The Barrigo family has a lot of hired muscle that interferes with the PCs' investigation, but Session 25 goes by without a fight - just a lot of information that was challenging to gather (lots of skill checks, especially social skill checks) and a lot of planning by the PCs.
Session 26 was missing Esteban's player, so I handled that character as an NPC. As the only rogue in the team, he would be very important to their plan to infiltrate the Barrigo family compound. The rest of the team was Lanth (veytikka fighter), Syrell (kagandi alchemist), Rafa (human outlander), and Vorcrech (veytikka cleric). They sneak into the house, only to discover that there is an assassin already at work there - they catch the barest glimpse of her, and find that she has already retired a target.
I'm calling for pretty regular Group Stealth checks, which means that half of the party (which I generously rounded down) has to succeed their checks to count as everyone succeeding. Let's face it, there's no other way in the world that some of these characters get to go on the sneaky-sneaky adventure at all, and even with Group Stealth they still had some close calls.
Lanth winds up alone fighting, and later chasing, the assassin in one part of the house, while Syrell, Rafa, and Vorcrech go after the evidence and the navigational charts. Esteban has also gotten separated from the group, conveniently for me. In a study that was, of course, the most distant possible point in the whole building from where they entered, the PCs picked up the evidence and navigational charts, and were heading for the exit (thankfully nearby).
Lanth's fight with the assassin, and the assassin breaking through a window to escape, has caused enough commotion that Lord Barrigo emerges from his bedchambers, facing away from the PCs in the darkened hallway. Now Rafa is an outlander on the Adept Path of Flame and Blood, and the infernal powers whisper in his ear to take aim and fire at the vulnerable Lord Barrigo. The player is free to ignore this urging... but he doesn't, and his musket blows a hole in Lord Barrigo. (In a situation like this, I am comfortable playing fast and loose with the hit point rules. Don't judge me.) Syrell and Vorcrech freak out; Rafa runs for the stairs. Vorcrech casts a quick healing word, and he and Syrell head for the stairs also. In the confusion, they make their way back to where they came in, now that the whole house's attention is drawn elsewhere, and escape into a back alley with Esteban.
At this point, I had an extended sidebar with Rafa's player. He's not normally the kind of player to screw over the team, but this was his second session with the character (his first having been the one immediately prior), and he felt like making the costly choice that one doesn't normally make with a character, because it makes the character unplayable. He already had another character that he cared about just as much, who had a few more adventures under his belt.
Confronting Rafa over the totally unnecessary murder of Lord Barrigo, he backs away slowly, suddenly darting for an alleyway, where he disappears in a sulfurous cloud... with the navigational logs. This sealed the deal of Rafa leaving the party and becoming an NPC. From then on out, Syrell, Vorcrech, and Lanth (but especially Syrell) had a searing hate-on for Rafa; Esteban would have too, but the impact of the betrayal got lost in having to tell the player the story after the fact. Over the next several sessions, Syrell kept an eye out for Rafa whenever possible, and Syrell's player told me that while she didn't want her goals to derail the story, the character wanted to bring Rafa to justice more than anything.
Which brings me to Session 34 (in real-world time, seven and a half months later; in-game, about five weeks later). By coincidence, the players available for this adventure are Syrell, Warwick (played by Rafa's player; Warwick is honorable and zealously devoted to the good of the mercenary company), Hailith (played by Lanth's player), and Ernst (played by Vorcrech's player). The characters of Lanth and Vorcrech were unavailable, as they were off on an adventure that took place in a different country and somewhat later in the timeline. Several significant adventures have taken place in that time, but Syrell has missed a few of the more recent sessions, so I wanted the session to appeal to her goals where possible. I wasn't actually thinking about how everyone who cares about Rafa's storyline was present - that was just a happy coincidence.
The characters have been hearing for awhile now about a new mercenary company that has opened up shop in Chardecum, so it's only natural that a rivalry should emerge. The quest-giving officer assigns them to investigate the new company, called the Grand Escuderos (that is, the Grand Squires). He also mentions that there have been a series of "inexplicable" murders that have the nobility in a panic, so they have been hiring thugs to protect their interests, which means there are bands of bravos in the streets. The PCs make plans for a few different angles of investigation, and head out into the city. It's mid-morning.
As they pass from the High Ward into the Trade Ward, they hear cries for help from an alleyway, and see a group of armed and armored people in the Barrigo livery standing around kicking the crap out of someone. Disinclined to let this pass, the PCs intervene, and a fair bit of swordplay and gunfire ensues. These thugs aren't any match for the PCs, and several are felled before the last of them gets the bright idea of running for it. Syrell heals the person they were, ah, tuning up, who turns out to be a veytikka. The Reeve's constabulary arrives just at that moment, and it briefly looks like there will be real trouble for attacking people in the livery of a noble house. The constables (correctly) recognize Warwick as Sir Warwick of the Palomante family, however, a worthier lineage than Barrigo. They ask him a few polite questions (utterly ignoring the other three, and the battered veytikka) before wishing him a good day.
The veytikka reveals that the thugs were demanding information about someone named "Lanth." It's normal for veytikka to get some amount of harassment, but open attacks during daylight hours are another matter. The PCs spend a good while discussing the implications of this, enough that I declare that they have completed a short rest. Also, because 1st level isn't all that much fun, especially when two other party members are 3rd and 4th level, Hailith and Ernst receive an advance on their XP for the session and reach 2nd level. (Sorcerers without sorcery points are like a broken pencil.) I waffled about doing this at the time, but in hindsight it was definitely the right decision.
Some further information-gathering by Syrell revealed that the Grand Escuderos (remember them? This is a story about Alice the Grand Escuderos) have a lot of money, and they're throwing it around, especially in the city's guild-affiliated alchemical shops. The source of this wealth is something of a mystery, though, as the Prince has greatly increased the yearly taxes on mercenary companies in preparation for a war, and the PCs' company is feeling the pinch.
Finally the PCs decide that there's nothing for it but to make some face-to-face contacts with the Grand Escuderos at the public house they are known to frequent, called Greyfriars. Because of his high status and tendency to display the Company's insignia as his blazon, Warwick expects to be immediately recognized, while Syrell, Hailith, and Ernst plan to go in as Interested Potential Recruits. Everyone in the pub has to surrender their weapons at the door, as one might expect in a city with two adventuring companies.
Warwick tries to listen to the conversation of the two fellows just down the bar from him, without looking like he's doing so. He's flying casual. Syrell and Hailith have a rather nice conversation with a paladin and a spellcaster of some kind, asking questions about the Grand Escuderos and so on. They're getting a soft-sell recruitment, but it's gradually getting weirder as the paladin puts a distressing amount of emphasis on Purging Every Manner Of Sin From Chardecum Forthwith. Ernst, meanwhile, is sitting with them at the table, but pursuing a completely separate goal: he is trying to terrify the bejeezus out of the spellcaster, with a creepy level of calm, a stare that bores straight through you, and finally a few lightning-fast tricks with his starlock pistol (he's a tailor and we established that skillfully concealing weapons is his deal).
Eventually, Warwick decides to collect his hardware and get going. A silhouette fills the doorway, and Syrell's head snaps around as she hears Rafa's voice. He's backed up by two others, and levels his musket at Warwick. Somehow, Warwick survives the critical hit, enhanced with Shadow Power, that results, but it isn't pretty. A fight ensues, in which it becomes clear that Rafa is a person of some rank within the Grand Escuderos, and the PCs are surrounded with (mostly unarmed) enemies. Everyone in the building is running for their weapons, and Rafa can take shots at his leisure because of the chaos.
Hailith, completely surrounded by opponents, accepts their offer that she and they will all retake their seats and stay out of the fight at the door. Ernst darts past the press and heads to the Leaping Stag, the public-house three blocks away where the PCs' mercenary company does their drinking. Syrell struggles to get to Rafa and hurls alchemy at him, while Warwick is surrounded but proves to be completely untouchable, as he spends all of his actions Dodging, and he's decked out with splint mail and shield. All the while, he's screaming (here I'm paraphrasing), "Bloody murder!" in the city streets.
Rafa retreats before Syrell's advance, loading and firing his musket whenever he can, but neither character can land a telling blow on the other. Rafa flees down a side-street and into a building; once inside, an imp ambushes Syrell, though even striking from invisibility, its attack does not land. In her searing rage, she is untouchable, but she gradually decides that pursuing Rafa wherever he's going in the bowels of this building is a suicide mission. She breaks off the chase and goes outside, only to find that NPC members of her Company have tracked her here. They promise to explore the building and report back.
Once the PCs' buddies show up, the fight abruptly ends, and moments later (conveniently too late to be useful) the constabulary arrives. Warwick is clapped in irons by people who don't recognize him, and everyone is frog-marched down to the Reeve's hall, where an impromptu "trial" takes place. It's really just the PCs and their Company screaming at the Grand Escuderos; the controlling councils of both sides are called in to answer for their people, and nothing is really settled except that the PCs were in Greyfriars to make trouble, and trouble found them.
That's about where the session ended; the whole thing took seven-ish hours, including time for Ernst and Hailith to create their new characters, and for Syrell to complete four weeks of downtime actions. (Like I said, she'd missed a few sessions.) The first really notable thing for me was the smiles all around the table - things hadn't gone their way, but everyone was entertained, and that's what I care about.
If you've made it this far in the article, congratulations! You are assuredly a person of distinction and many virtues. Now for the actual postmortem. Things that definitely went right:
The session was nothing like what I had loosely planned; most of them aren't. Nevertheless, my planning wasn't wasted, because I had given some thought to what the salient NPCs were like. What's right about this is that the PCs received a problem and drove most of the action from there. The action scenes in themselves weren't things the PCs chose, but they were logical outgrowths of things I had established for myself.
By coincidence I had the right players for the action at stake, even if three of them were playing different characters. This meant the players were invested, despite their characters not having a personal connection; their characters covered for it by caring about the Company's honor, which had been slighted.
It also helped that Syrell had told the story of Rafa's betrayal to the other characters in some detail, so they had time to feel out their own reactions to what he had done, separate from their reactions as their other characters.
With help from the PCs and their Backgrounds, I hit the right notes of tension, with social tension in the injustice of only a noble's word mattering in the first major encounter and the deception of the conversation at the public house, and then the tension of Syrell's all-consuming hatred for Rafa. The PCs' dawning realization of Rafa's role in the Grand Escuderos was great.
My dice were either very hot or very cold, but I scored some big crits that ratcheted up tension in the fights.
The players, the dice, and the situation combined to give me good chances to say Yes to the players' ideas and embrace their concepts - especially significant for Ernst, as that player has always cared deeply about presenting a clearly-defined character with maximum potential for cinematic action. (It's one of the traits that makes him such a joy to game with - he just wants his concept to be upheld, and he doesn't push that beyond the unstated social contract.)
The conversations were often dense with minor details about the setting that keyed off of things the players already knew, or introduced new things that they found interesting. This isn't exactly 4000-level DMing, but even so, the effect at the table when it works is great.
In the balance, I am exceptionally happy with how the session went, but there are things I think I could have done better.
I should have shifted into some kind of Chase Scene rules when Syrell was trying to run Rafa down. Miserable dice rolls on both sides and having the same movement speed made a sequence that could have been totally awesome turn out not to have many interesting decision points.
More broadly, the fight scene in Greyfriars could have used more prep and consideration. The PCs didn't seem to care, but I felt like it was missing some things. (By contrast, one of the best fights I ever ran in 4e was a bar fight that replaced everyone's powers with bar-fight-appropriate moves.)
I was tired enough by the time they got to the Reeve's hall that some parts of that scene were more fizzle than bang.
Hailith's sorcerer is a Royal Sorcerer, and there are some flaws in my implementation that didn't interfere with her fun this time, but I noticed during the session that they'll eventually be an issue.
There are probably other things I would have thought of if I'd had time to write this immediately after I ran it, but oh well. The lessons that I would encourage other DMs to take away from this are:
The more personal the wrong that the villain does to the PC, the better. Stealing a treasure of unknown but apparently large value will do.
Frequency of combat, even in Dungeons & Dragons, is not the most important thing. The most important thing is conflict and making each player feel like they can contribute (after the fact, have contributed) to resolving it.
When you want to introduce a new thread to the plot, it probably has some coattails for any old threads you have lying around and want to bring back.
My players are the best. Even the ones who weren't in this session. Sorry, you can't have them. (Unless they want to play in your group also. Then it's fine.)