In a recent session of my Aurikesh campaign, the PCs followed up on a previous investigation into a theater that had some kind of connection with an Abomination - my setting's term for the Great Old Ones. I think that the players had a very good time, and I know I did, so I want to talk a bit about what I did, including the plans I had coming into the session and pieces that I improvised as I went.
If you played in this session, there are some minor spoilers, particularly about what "matters" and what doesn't - but it would be a mistake to draw conclusions on this basis going forward.
The story of how this session came to be has everything in the world to do with the pseudo-West-Marches format of Aurikesh. That means that there are a lot of players, many of whom have two or more characters: fourteen currently-active players, out of twenty-six who have ever been active, and twenty-one active characters, out of a total roster of forty-four. I can say with a whole lot of confidence that low-level D&D stands up astoundingly well to any sort of party composition - like the session with three rogues out of seven characters, or the session with four fighters. Making the players adapt to an unusual set of strengths and weaknesses is fantastic and I recommend it.
Also, the campaign runs in a combination of face-to-face and online play. Some players only play one way or the other; out-of-state players mostly only play online, though this session was an exception.
In Session 35: Orbs and Masks, a team of four PCs took a contract to investigate a missing shipment of theatrical masks. It didn't take long to determine that things were not okay, and they wound up teaming up with several members of a rival mercenary corps to defend the (enchanted) masks from a group of nothics and other creepy eyeball monsters (not beholders, but inspired by 2e beholderkin abominations), and then destroy the masks. They knew that the group who hired them was still operating in the city and would probably do something else terrible, but there are enough threats in the campaign that this one got put on a back burner.
So it sat there, safe as houses, for the next twenty sessions.
In Session 55: The Prince's Players, a completely different team of three PCs were talking to the Commandant - the officer who sets them up with paying work - and looked back over the list of things to follow up on. This is what they picked, so they started asking the Commandant a bunch of questions. The Commandant hemmed and hawed, finally admitting that he couldn't remember anything about it at all. They decided that guided meditation could work out his damaged memory. There was a skill challenge; it resulted in a brain bug.
If you're a Dust to Dust player, maybe you're thinking right now that I have some kind of unhealthy obsession with brain bugs. As a game-runner I abhor the implication that my games are a haven for brain bugs. It is well known that I have the problem relatively under control, and that it is the RAF Eclipse who now suffer the largest casualties in that area.
Anyway, they proceeded to discover that the Commandant had investigated the theatrical company, found something, and had his memory messed with by a brain bug. They went to the theater themselves, encountered Weird Shit, and determined that the problem was a lot more serious than the three of them were prepared to tackle. Apparently, this theatrical troupe has been putting on a dangerous play called Aquiline Transcendent (and totally not The King in Yellow) every night, and using magic and brain bugs to hide their presence from the authorities.
I expected that they would want more players for their next attempt, but I am not super comfortable with online groups of five players, and any more than that is definitely too many. Also, I'm not yet comfortable enough with Roll20 to think of it as the preferred medium for a combat-heavy session. I talked to the one out-of-state player in the group from Session 55 and figured out a date that he was willing to drive to Atlanta. It turned out that four other players could make the date that we settled on, so the roster was:
Aconito, a human Open Hand monk, 4th level
Gamble, a veytikka Raven Totem (a rename of Eagle) barbarian, 4th level
A little while back, I talked about the fact that I prep treasure even when I do almost nothing else for a session. That was the case here as well; as it happens I really enjoy the rapid-fire brainstorming of writing this kind of treasure list.
3d12 Tyreman silver maravedis
Gold-rimmed monocle (worth 60 silver)
Lightly used frock coat, 3 gold reals in the pocket
Scroll of protection from celestials
Hand-painted (tarot) playing cards (worth 50 silver)
Potion of healing (2d4 + 2 + hit die)
Alchemical wire (casts magic weapon when used)
250 silver maravedis
200 copper centimos
Two doses of ulishau root poison (this is an Aurikesh thing that is useful for Hailith)
If you are a sorcerer, drive it into your hand. You choose how much damage you take, in increments of 1d6. For each die of damage you take, regain 1 sorcery point. This destroys the nail.
If you are not a sorcerer, drive it into the base of a dead sorcerer’s skull to restore them to life for 24 hours. You can voice-control them during this time, as per dominate person. At the end of this time, the sorcerer may become free, die again, or become an undead creature.
While clear, it grants a +2 bonus to Int, Wis, Cha saving throws, and succeeding a saving throw against the charmed or frightened conditions heals you for 2d4 damage.
While mixed, it grants +2 bonus to Wisdom saving throws, and you reduce the stunned condition to incapacitated or 2d6 psychic damage, your choice.
While fully purple, it inflicts a -2 penalty to Wisdom saving throws, and once you become charmed or frightened, you must pass two saving throws on separate (not necessarily consecutive) rounds to end the effect.
The Perilous Eye shifts phase when you inflict psychic damage on an enemy. It has a 50% chance to go to each of the other two phases. This feature is going to get retuned.
Shard of Dzaal (wondrous item, requires attunement)
While silent, when you take psychic damage, you may spend your reaction to become immune to further psychic damage until the beginning of your next turn.
While murmuring, when you take psychic damage, the Shard of Dzaal gains one charge. It may hold up to 9 charges. Spend 3 charges to impose vulnerability to psychic damage on a target within 15 feet.
While screaming, when you take psychic damage, you either choose one ally within 60 feet to suffer the same damage, or you must take double damage from the effect.
The Shard of Dzaal shifts phase when you suffer radiant damage. It has a 50% chance to go to each of the other two phases. This feature is going to get retuned.
Skyguard Stone (wondrous item, requires attunement)
While glowing, spend your reaction to gain resistance to all damage until the beginning of your next turn, and then change phase (50% chance of either phase)
While glimmering faintly, spend your reaction to cast shield. When shield ends, change phase.
While lightless, the Skyguard Stone calls to your enemies. The enemy nearest to you may spend its reaction to move up to its speed toward you and make a melee attack. At the beginning of your next turn, change phase.
Beyond this list, I had a guiding principle that any DM who sets an encounter in a theater without some kind of play taking place on stage is leaving money on the table. Also, I knew that this was actually about a conflict between two different Abominations, vying for influence over the troupe, and the one currently in ascendancy was all about eyeball-monsters and magical orbs. I figured out their ultimate aim, even though that matters barely at all for this adventure. I decided that the theater's layout would be loosely based on Elizabethan playhouses, so I looked up floorplans of some of those. I didn't bring a copy with me to the session, but I more or less had the image in mind.
Session 57: The Great Old One Opera
They started by informing the Reeve of their plans. The Reeve emphasized the importance of not burning down the city or even just the Trade Ward. In this, I seriously disappointed at least one of the players. Possibly all five.
On the way to the theater, they noticed that four people in dark red robes were following them - the vestments of Flame Chanters, a priestly sect that they have really come to hate. Still, they take a wait-and-see stance, and it turns out that the Flame Chanters want to let bygones be bygones, and hire the group for a side job. Their high priest has been kidnapped, they believe he is in the theater, and he's attuned to a magic item that makes it overwhelmingly bad for him to be in the hands of cultists. The party agreed to search for him and attempt a rescue.
This related to a portion of the Abomination's plan that did not come out in-play. That happens sometimes. As it is, the PCs have a potential contact inside the Flame Chanters.
At the theater, they broke down a barred door and began poking around. They recalled from their previous investigation that the theater was enchanted to mask itself as entirely normal and abandoned, an illusion they concentrated on disbelieving. As it was, only two of them could see that the thing in the corner was not a table draped in cloth, but an insect the size of a table (using umber hulk stats, but ignoring its tunneling ability as irrelevant to the situation).
The characters who could see it properly directed the others' attacks (resulting in disadvantage, as if fighting blind), but as soon as they could perceive it properly, they averted their eyes because of its confusion powers. As a result, it put a lot more hurt on them than one might expect from a solitaire CR 5, and every injury mattered in a team with little magical healing.
They began to hear a male voice singing, from somewhere upstairs, and decided that they needed to go straight for the heart of whatever was going on rather than clearing out the storage and dressing-rooms. There was a danger that they were leaving enemies behind them, but the singer made them believe that the enemy's plan was immediately in the offing.
The PCs entered this area through the stairs to the right of the stage. Everything drawn in blue is part of the balcony.
They climbed the stairs and emerged onto the floor of the theater, next to the stage. The room seemed empty, but they still heard the singer. There were three strange orbs - one clear, one cloudy, one glowing - up on the balcony rail.
They ascended to the balcony on the right, because it was the closest. Gamble investigated the orb and found that he could not strike it from its pedestal with his polearm. Instead, a tendril of purple appeared in the stone. Hailith tried to shatter it, and the purple faded but it was otherwise unharmed. Perplexed, Gamble turned his blade on the pedestal itself. That's when everything changed and the illusion dropped away. Just a few feet away, they saw a red-robed figure and two monstrosities that had a humanoid body, but no head - just a massive eyeball (these were nothics with 33% more hit points). There were also two figures on stage on several people seated - perfectly still and expressionless - watching them in the back row.
On the stage, one man sang to another, apparently telling a story about a usurper who would be overcome through forbidden lore and a compact with one from beyond the veil of stars. That seemed... bad. More people filed into the theater through its three main entrances and sat, silent and motionless.
Combat instantly erupted on the balcony. Things went fairly well against the nothics, but when the priest stood up and faced Gamble, things got distressing. He had no face, just two glowing purple eyes that seemed to hang in nothingness and a tongue that lashed out of an unseen mouth. Ten feet out of an unseen mouth. Believe me, I had a lot of fun describing this in luxurious detail. In the meantime, Talorc peppered the singer with spells, barely seeming to make a dent; at one point they had to resist the song's power (they all succeeded).
Warwick and Gamble cleaved the priest in twain, his top half falling away from his bottom half. That's when things got really bad. The upper half kept up its attack, striking at them with its tongue and magic, while the lower half was revealed to be spiny tentacles that tried to restrict Warwick and injure Gamble. I had even more fun describing this part; there was a real air of oh fuck oh fuck get it off me (but I'm pretty sure I didn't blow past any of the players' personal boundaries; everyone seemed to be enjoying the awfulness). Eventually they slew these two halves as well, and cracked the gem-like eyes under Warwick's booted heel.
Aconito engaged the suit of armor directly, since Talorc was working on the singer. The suit of armor opened up and tried to encase him. He did not care for that. The singer finally made some psychic attacks against Aconito, but he shook them off and they finished the battle. Warwick also used his one healing word power per day, which he gets from being a Junior Commandant.
Back on the balcony, they examined the Perilous Orb as part of taking a short rest. (They wouldn't have known that it was okay to take a short rest at this point, except that I told them directly, breaking the Great Wall of Secrecy for the sake of their fun in what would be a still more punishing battle to come.) They also learned the name and nature of the other two orbs. Two players succeeded Arcana rolls, and I described the feeling of the knowledge being externally introduced into their thoughts.
This led to one of the most personally satisfying parts of the session for me - I had made the items appealing enough, even with the certain knowledge that they were cursed and there were other catches that they didn't know about, that the players gave some sincere thought to attuning them. This is a really tough balance to strike, but apparently 2/3rds really good and 1/3rd "very bad but not quite devastating" is that point.
After their short rest - and they were now low on Hit Dice and spells all around - they decided that they could try the next phase of the action, investigating a second orb. There was some discussion of packing it in, but it was clear that the threat of the theater would advance greatly if they left for a long rest.
They activated the Skyguard Stone, on the opposite side of the theater. This time, two much smaller eye-headed creatures (standard nothics, I think) appeared, and two huge, jagged crystalline growths flowed out of the orb, to the left and right.
Two crystalline growths, a large nothic, and a small nothic
On the stage, a single figure appeared, reading from a tome. By the point the audience was completely full; the players guessed that it was a timer of some kind, but they weren't otherwise sure what it signified. At this point in the session, neither was I, but I knew that it would come to me when I needed it. (It did.)
The smaller nothics wouldn't have been too bad, but they exploited the crystalline growths to refract their eye-beams and strike in an area, rather than being single-target. The crystalline growths initially didn't move, but grew larger... and larger... and then started moving. They were, functionally, gelatinous cubes, but dealing piercing damage with their Engulf attacks rather than acid. And they really, really wanted to get all up in Warwick's business. (He failed several Dex saves to avoid getting Engulfed, but always passed the Strength save to break out, so never took the really punishing damage.)
Matters on the floor of the theater took a drastic turn. The figure reading from the book? Yeah, he warped space so that two audience members translocated into one another, forming the ever-charming phrase "meat slurry." He did it again the round after that. Once Gamble started attacking him, he spared the barbarian a few eldritch blasts, which is fairly worrying if you're already wounded and not a Bear totem. The warping of space was a summoning, though it wasn't as horrible as it could have been. A massive eyeball monster appeared in the place of the meat slurry.
I ad-hoc statted this utterly horrifying clusterfuck on legs, though I kind of wish I had just up-statted a chuul. Anyway, its most important stat (Multiattack) was lifted from the chuul, since I had faced two in Louis's Reborn game, about 26 hours earlier, and found them to be a great fight. I also gave it a huge pile of hit points (200), otherwise forgettable defenses (13 AC, +2 on Con saves, otherwise +0 or +1), and a leap attack that caused a knockdown effect in an area.
As it slowly waded through the crowd toward the PCs, it grabbed up audience members with its pincers and absorbed them. It turns out that this is what the audience members were for all along. Trail mix.
Hailith realized that she could regain that shatter that she had dropped on the Perilous Eye by accepting attunement with it. In what may or may not prove to be an advisable move, she did. It put a real dent in the crystalline mounds, at least.
Gamble and Aconito were close enough to getting horribly eaten by the monster that they didn't try to slug it out, but used hit-and-run attacks while Hailith and Talorc hurled spells at it. At another point, it also used its leap attack to try to knock Talorc prone and tear him to pieces, but Talorc kept his feet and Disengaged.
With its huge pile of hit points and the fumes left in the PCs' tank, this slugfest could have easily become tedious, but at least from my perspective it remained utterly tense the whole way through. At no point did it feel like a foregone conclusion, and even a tiny number of dice rolls going against the party would have made a huge difference. As it was, they won the battle with all five party members conscious. They examined the third orb, and since it was very late, I decided that there was no way a third part of this fight would be interesting - they were able to claim it and walk. Well, once they searched the rest of the theater for filthy lucre, anyway. (They got the rest of the treasure list, a huge haul for an incredibly difficult series of fights.)
Overall, I got the impression that the PCs were having a great time. It was fairly straight-up pulp horror, including the part where you pulp the horrifying thing (in this case, the missing high priest). I would have liked more room for interaction, but some of that sneaked in through quasi-communication with the orbs, and otherwise... well, they knew what they were getting into, and most things that want to talk really just need to die faster.
White minis shown come from Reaper Bones I or II. Gray minis shown come from MYTH.
Something Good, Something Bad, Something to Improve
The best thing I did for this session was to not sweat statting in any way, and just focus on parsing horrific monster actions in rules terms. This is a good general rule, though it works better for some things than others, and if I had had formal stats, I might have included a few more neat tricks.
The session's weak point is that it would have been nice to get through more encounters in an 8+ hour session. Realistically, this was a five-encounter session - two conversations and three fights. A puzzle would have been good, especially if I had come up with something the PCs had to solve to beat the monster at the end. (To be fair, the orbs were quasi-puzzles in their own right.) I don't actually think the players felt that the session was slow-moving, or worried about the smallish number of encounters.
The phase-shift rules for the Perilous Eye and the Shard of Dzaal need work, because while I don't want something that will come up every round, I do want something that could happen a few times a session. It's fairly easy for some classes or builds to never in their whole career deal psychic damage, for example, and there aren't many enemies slinging radiant (right now). The Skyguard Stone feels a lot closer to being right, but might trigger too often.