“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” -Robert Burns
The rasping voice startled Rapha, but the ranger did not hesitate for a moment longer. Once more, he looked over his shoulder to confirm his allies’ positions. Lo-Kag, fulfilling his role as guardian, led the party, with his lighter-shield held high. The sorcerer Alycstair followed behind with the tattooed Azai beside. A torch floated above Azai’s hand, held aloft by the psion’s telekinetic powers.
Judging their distance with experienced quickness, Rapha knew his allies’ light would not reveal him. Silently, he slipped into the storehouse, his felt footpads muffling his steps. Being an elf, his eyes were especially sharp. Even the faintest hint of light allowed him to see, and after climbing a nearby crate, what he saw was a ragged woman standing in the center of the storeroom. She smelled of fecal matter and spoiled meat.
“I can smell you . . . ” she repeated, sniffing the air around her, “and I’ll find you eventually.”
Rapha nocked an arrow onto his bow. “Well, I can see you,” he thought to himself. He released the arrow. His hands moved in a blur, releasing a second projectile in the blink of an eye. The arrows sunk deep into the woman’s chest. Blood spilled all around her, sinking into the drain on which she stood. Briefly, she transformed into a mass of rats, but could not hold the form. The arrows fell from her body during the transformation, but her condition remained grave.
“Wait!” She gurgled, nearly unable to speak with the blood spilling from her mouth. “Please, spare me and my babies!”
Last night’s session gave credence to a saying I encountered many times while hunting for advice on DM-ing: no plan survives first contact with the players. I had originally meant for the underground storehouse to be a full-fledged combat encounter with pleading at the end if Torog Toroga (the
King Queen that Crawls) was not killed in combat. There were more rats underneath the grates, and they could move invisibly while using them. The idea was to get the players and I acquainted with line-of-sight and stealth mechanics. Rapha had other plans: 2 hits, 2 max damage rolls, plus 2 bonus damage from the power he used. Total damage: 32. Toroga’s remaing HP: 4. She couldn’t beg for her life and the lives of her rats any faster.
STRIKE OR SPARE?
“They are not marked by Asmodeus,” Lo-Kag declared, nodding towards Toroga and her rodent children. “They are nature’s creatures.” Lo-Kag moved to position himself between Toroga and his fellow Godsworn. Toroga, meanwhile, had gathered her rats around her like a cloak of whiskers and hair, and awaited the party’s response anxiously.
“They’re vile.” Azai agreed, “Who knows what diseases they could be carrying?” as Rapha walked back to the fastened grate in the corridor where he had heard squeaking.
“You want to give this food to rats instead of people? Look at them.” Rapha peered into the grate. A large rat clawed at it, trying to open it. “They’re nothing but vermin.” Rapha nocked an arrow and aimed at the rat in the grate.
“Brutus!” Toroga cried, reaching out towards the rat. Before the ranger could loose his arrow, Alycstair seized Rapha’s shoulder, and turned him to meet his sorcerer’s gaze. His piercing yellow eyes spoke of pain, rage, and threat.
”It would be best not to judge books by their covers,” Alycstair advised firmly. “Or rats by their hair?” Azai offered. Rapha ignored Azai, but nevertheless lowered his bow, heeding the sorcerer who stopped him. Alycstair turned to address Toroga: ”You can’t stay here.”
“Where can we go? My immortality has long since left me, and Asmodeus would have us killed for leaving his side. Without shelter, my children and I are sure to be dead within a month.” She gathered more of the rats in her embrace.
“Perhaps we can make a deal,” Azai said, as he stepped forward. “Will you aid us against Asmodeus?”
“I would rip that pig’s throat out myself,” Torogo answered immediately, “should the opportunity present itself.” She bared her buck teeth, like a rat.
“As you say. Hide here as you will.” Azai raised his hands, and a small stone lifted off the ground. “But should you betray us as well . . . ” He closed his fist and punched the air behind the stone, pulverizing it into a fine powder. ” . . . your life and the lives of your rats are forfeit.” The other Godsworn nodded their grim agreement.
“What about food?” She asked.
“Follow nature’s circle,” Lo-Kag answered. “Surely there will be plenty of scraps to forage and insects to hunt on this farm.”
“Yes, perhaps we can survive that way.” Toroga considered the possibility for a few more seconds. “Very well then, we have a deal.”
I had hoped Toroga would survive for the negotiations, and I meticulously planned the possible options and consequences. Though I will not reveal the specifics here BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING (just kidding, I am big brother), I can still tell you about some of my methods. I write up a short 1-2 page document for every environment (shop, keep, etc.) and encounter (ambush, storehouse, etc.). This time, I also created what I call a “watershed” document. Whatever decision the players make at a “watershed” moment, they should feel its effects later. This type of document details the most obvious possible choices the players can make and the consequences of those choices. Unfortunately, not every possibility can be accounted for, and the DM will eventually have to improvise. While the above novelization of the discussion is quite embellished, it is a good summation of each character’s stance on the issue. As the players debated (both in and out of character), I was beside myself with glee. Any DM who has made correct predictions HOLLA can empathize. The players made their decision and I noted it in my “watershed” document. After some rat loyalty tests involving some guards and refugees and informing the farmers, the players started to head back to the keep to report on the day’s events.
“IF ONLY, IF ONLY” THE DUNGEON MASTER SIGHED
The doors to the Prepared Outfitters general store burst open. Gus and Eva, the Halfling couple who owned the store, rushed outside with a limp boy in their arms.
“Please! Our son needs help!” The panic in their voices was clearly evident to the whole party. Rapha examined him and found a large bite wound on the sixteen-year-old’s back. He stabilized him as best he could with his survival knowledge. Lo-Kag recognized the wound as a spider bite. The boy also held a small piece of paper with numbers around a square drawn on it.
Lo-Kag took the note and suggested that his companions try to get anti-venom from the apothecary while he searched the basement where the teenager was found.
The apothecary, called Alyssa’s Alchemical Agents, was still in the same dismal shape that the Godsworn remembered: it smelled as if the demons of the Nine Hells had vomited within. They kicked the door open, awakening the Eladrin woman from her sleep-like trance. They demanded that Alyssa help the boy. Initially resistant, she paused as the boy’s mother pleaded with her.
“Please! Don’t let him die!” Eva could barely support herself. She kept one hand on her husband. Alyssa froze. She recalled making very similar pleas hundreds of times before for nights on end. Those damned gods or whatever powers-that-be did not care, did not answer her pleas, but she would answer Eva’s. With one quick, determined sweep of her arms, she cleared a table full of stinking, spoiling reagents. For a moment, the smell intensified almost unbearably, but everyone stood their ground for the boy’s sake.
“Lay him here,” she commanded. Rapha complied. She diagnosed him with trained eyes. “He requires anti-venom,” she announced, “or he will die within the day.”
“You have none?” Rapha asked.
“No. My stock is spoiled.” She answered without looking. “You’ll need to get fresh spider venom, preferably from the spider that bit him.”
Knowing that the hourglass ran thin, Alycstair, Azai, and Rapha bolted out of the store and joined Lo-Kag in the basement who had found a page from the teenager’s journal. A journal entry mentioned a secret tunnel in the basement. Together, they realized that the notes corresponded to torches on the walls and pulled each one in the correct sequence. The center of the basement fell away, revealing a dark tunnel.
Ah, Alyssa, how I should’ve planned you better. Alyssa lost her daughters recently overseas in the Second Godswar. At the beginning of the adventure, she was a bitch bitter and refused to cooperate with anyone. I planned for the next encounter’s setup to snap her out of this. I should have picked up on the players’ frustration from last session. When she refused to help the players, she stuck in their minds and they wanted to fix it somehow. What I planned was for the boy to just snap her out of it. I had set up a challenge (unconsciously) for the players to overcome, but instead of implementing that challenge, I cheated the players out of a satisfying victory Nice Job Breaking it Hero. I realized my mistake when the players started talking about ways they might persuade her to help. Unfortunately, I couldn’t think of a way to create a challenge without it feeling contrived. I went ahead and narrated what happened. Hopefully my embellishment here can make up for it.
SOMEWHERE BELOW THE DEKU TREE
The team felt a primal fear as their gazes locked with the giant spider’s. Asmodeus’ mark flashed red for a moment as the spider’s shriek filled the cave. They were prey.
Out of the darkness, numerous smaller spiders scurried across the cave floor, hungry for flesh. The huge spider jumped from the ceiling and tackled Azai, slamming him to the ground. Several of Azai’s ribs broke with an audible crack.
Lo-Kag charged over Azai’s prone form and slashed at the spider with his longsword. Earth rose from the ground as he attacked, encasing the Goliath in a hard layer of rocky armor.
Rapha and Alycstair shot at the smaller advancing spiders. Rapha seemed to have trouble hitting the tiny skittering targets. Alycstair’s chaotic bolts, however, proved unpredictably deadly. One bolt seemed to miss its target, but zigzagged backwards for a hit, splattering arachnid guts all over the cave floor. Another bolt disappeared mid-flight, only to reappear directly above the spider. Its impact sent small spider legs flying outwards in a circle as if they were rays from the sun.
Although every breath taken hurt, Azai struggled to his feet and aided his allies with the extermination. He used his telekinetic powers to throw the spiders into rocks and stalagmites. Their broken and torn bodies crumpled into a heap on the cave floor.
The large spider attempted to bite Lo-Kag, but his earthen armor proved too resilient. It backed away, sensing that the roles of hunter and prey may have been reversed. With many of the spiders gone, Rapha took a position in the center of the cave on a natural bridge. The bridge spanned a bottomless, dark chasm. He noticed that the bridge was already weak and might be breakable, but returned his attention to the large spider. With practiced aim, he loosed a single arrow that severed one of the spider’s legs cleanly from its thorax.
The spider shrieked in pain as blood poured from the wound. It kicked up a large plume of dust and leaped from its position. Although Alycstair and Lo-Kag were blinded by the dust, the spider could not escape Azai and Rapha’s notice so easily. However, for Rapha, his ranger skills paid him no comfort.
The spider had positioned itself directly above Rapha. Azai’s eyes glowed as he augmented his powers. The spider was pulled from the ceiling, colliding with smaller stalactites on the way. It collapsed in a heap at Lo-Kag’s feet.
Enraged, the spider gathered itself to leap across the chasm. Lo-Kag attempted to stop the spider using thorns summoned from the ground, but he was not fast enough.
The spider landed on the other side of the cavern. Azai was in pursuit. With a quick flourish of his hands, he pulled the spider’s legs back, causing it to slip and fall towards the pit. It tried to pull itself up, but slipped where it expected one of its legs to be–the leg that Rapha had dismembered earlier.
“Wait! We need its venom!” shouted Lo-Kag.
Rapha pulled out a rope from his pack and fashioned a quick, but skillful lasso. “We can use this!” He waved the rope in the air for all to see.
“You really think you can lasso that?” Alycstair challenged. Indeed, the spider’s legs would prove obstacles, and its precarious position on the edge of the pit would make things not at all simple.
“The rope is light enough for me to manipulate,” said Azai. “Trust me.”
Before they could implement their plan, however, two smaller spiders appeared from a nearby crack and charged Rapha. Fear lent him wings, or in this case reflexes. He danced around the spiders’ bites awkwardly, yet used the improvised movements to his advantage to get a clean shot into one of the assailants. Lo-Kag took the opportunity to finish off the other spider.
In the meantime, the large spider managed to crawl its way out of the pit and leaped at Rapha once again. Rapha dove out of the way just in time to avoid the spider. It landed on the middle of the bridge, which caused a crack to form across it.
Alycstair, who had worked his way around the pit, fired a bolt of ice at the spider. It exploded with enough force to knock the spider off the bridge. In desperation, the spider caught the side of the pit. Once again, it hung from the pit’s edge, but this time, on the opposite side.
With the coast clear, Rapha finally threw the lasso, and Azai raised his hands. Although the pain in his chest flared as he moved, Azai focused his will on the rope. Invisible hands untied the knot, looped the rope around the spider’s body, reformed the knot, and pulled it taut. Rapha brought the rope to Lo-Kag, and together, they held the spider as Azai administered the final telekinetic blow.
After some struggling, the party pulled the spider’s corpse up and out of the pit, retrieved its venom glands, and made their way back up into the Prepared Outfitters’ basement.
I had prepared this encounter to be somewhat difficult, although I still wasn’t sure how much the party could handle. I considered placing two of the Deathjump Spiders (the big ones) instead of one, but thought that might be too sadistic difficult. I decided to fill in the rest of the budget with hand-crafted spider minions. I think the minions proved too easy though. I gave them poison, but lowered their attack bonus. As a result, none of the spider minions’ attacks hit. I also modified the Level 4 Deathjump Spider. I felt that 20 AC would be just a bit too high, and knocked it down to 19 AC. It wasn’t a huge difference, but a few attacks would have missed if it weren’t 19. I kept the damage the same, but took poison off of the leap-attack (which I planned to use only on backliners since I knew Lo-Kag could handle debuffs). I also reduced its tremorsense (it can “see” like Toph of Avatar: the Last Airbender) from 5 squares to 3 in order to fit the cave’s size better and in case the players decided to try something different (it doesn’t have low-light vision). Speaking of the cave, I also placed a lot of environmental objects for player interaction that didn’t get much use. A lot of it was due to my own shortsightedness.
- The rough terrain (small stalagmites) was placed as a guide for large stalactites overhead that could be shot down onto the Deathjump Spider. The players were reluctant to use them however, because they were an unknown. Why shoot a stalactite when there’s a giant spider jumping at you?
- There were narrow cracks that the party members could squeeze into to avoid the Deathjump Spider’s attacks since it was too big to follow, but again, the cost was too high. The hiding spots were too far away, and getting there meant separating from the group or sacrificing an attack for a move action.
- There was also the breakable bridge which could be used as a trap for the spider in case the players just couldn’t hit it.
None of the above were used, though the bridge became a different challenge towards the end of the encounter. To be fair though, the players fought well and didn’t really need the help of the environment. Lo-Kag held the Deathjump Spider at bay while the rest took out the spider minions before they could get too close. Only four of the spider minions were able to attack, and they only got one attack each.
I had two spiders hide in one of the crevices, both to show that people could move into them, and to keep them handy for an ambush. I had an evil grin on my face when I released them.
While planning the encounter, I realized that tossing the spider down the pit would be an easy way to kill it, so I engineered a penalty: the Deathjump Spider’s venom would be needed for a guaranteed revival of Roy, the poisoned teenager. The smaller spiders’ venom would require a Heal check from Alyssa (or someone else).
The players took this challenge and ran with it. Instead of finishing off a very dangerous spider (it was capable of bloodying Azai and Alycstair with one leap-attack), they worked to save it from the pit. The bridge came into play here because breaking it while the spider was on it would mean that the venom would be lost.
This situation also backfired in a way. When the players realized that they might lose the spider’s venom, they began a lengthy discussion about their options. THIS IS COMBAT PEOPLE GET WITH THE PROGRAM It was getting late, so I had Azai roll a wisdom check, knowing that his wisdom is high. He passed my standard DC (difficulty check) of 15, so I told him that the rope was lighter than 20 pounds and he could manipulate it with one of his encounter powers by readying his action for when Rapha threw it. He did so and they eventually finished the task successfully.
Though it may just be because the wounds are fresh, I think the hardest part of DM-ing is letting go of your work. Just because a DM plans it, doesn’t mean that it’s going to happen. But if the players do badass things, you curse the shit out of those meddling kids need to let them have their win. Soon, we will have our revenge