WALK THE PLANK
Captain Bronzebeard, the pirate captain, struggled against his bonds, but no amount of squirming seemed to loosen the rope that fastened him to the ship’s mast. The party and the crew that captured him had just finished stripping his ship clean. Rapha was the last one to jump off the pirate ship and back onto the Westgate one. Smoke–-real smoke this time–billowed from the pirate ship as fire engulfed it. It sank to the depths, lost to Procan’s locker.
“Those filthy land lubbers,” thought Captain Bronzebeard, “They’ll pay…”
Azai, Lo-Kag, and Rapha gathered around their captive. Alycstair had gone below decks in a sour mood after the others had stopped him from throwing the captive overboard. Captain Bronzebeard looked each of them in the eyes.
“So what is it ye want with me?” said Bronzebeard.
“Tell us everything you know about Pirate Isle.” Rapha answered.
“And ye let me go, is that it?” Bronzebeard narrowed his eyes. Rapha nodded.
Bronzebeard told them the general details of Pirate Isle. The port was “every free man’s dream.” Drink and pleasure to go around for all. He also mentioned a gnome further North of town that seemed to be experimenting with “somethin’ loud and . . . boomy.” There was also the “strange scholarly fellow” that lived further inland. His manor was constantly protected with some kind of magical barrier.
“That’s my end of the bargain,” Bronzebeard said as he finished the picture. “Now let me go.”
“We will,” Rapha said. He began walking towards the trapdoor leading below decks. “Just not yet,” he explained. Azai and Lo-Kag nodded in agreement as they headed below decks.
In case you hadn’t noticed, Captain Bronzebeard is the pirate captain that the party captured last time. As I began planning this week’s session, I thought I might use him as a major player in Pirate Isle’s events, but decided against that idea. I demoted him to a “pocket npc.” If he survives, I can use him somewhere else (keep him in my “pocket”). If he dies, he dies. Maybe his death will mean something or maybe it won’t.
That’s the case for all of us by the way. Sorry, I’ll stop being a Negative Ned. Besides, who would want to be Ned? He doesn’t know how to play the game of thrones.
FRIEND OR FOE
Alycstair was awakened by loud stomping noises approaching the door to the cargo hold. He had been sleeping there during the whole voyage, away from the others. It wasn’t comfortable, but that suit him just fine. The door burst open as Lo-Kag thundered inside.
“Why did you throw him overboard?” Lo-Kag shoved Alycstair into the cargo hold’s wall. The scowl on Lo-Kag’s face reminded Alycstair of a knot in a tree.
Last night, Alycstair had thrown Captain Bronzebeard overboard. Rapha had noticed and followed Alycstair above decks, but ultimately didn’t stop him.
“He deserved it,” Alycstair answered. “Like you will too if you don’t let go of me.” His voice was steady and his piercing gaze was fixed on Lo-Kag’s eyes.
“It’s fine, Lo-Kag. I think we got everything we were going to get out of that pirate anyway,” said Rapha.
“He probably would’ve betrayed us as soon as he had the opportunity,” Azai added. Alycstair and Lo-Kag ignored their teammates and continued their argument.
Lo-Kag and Alycstair were almost at each other’s throats at this point. Alycstair would try to intimidate Lo-Kag while Lo-Kag wanted to beat Alycstair into pulp. The problem with PvP (Player versus Player) in D&D is that the session would be set aside so these two characters alone could settle a grudge match. It frustrates the other two players if the others do fight, and it frustrates the two pvp-ers if they don’t fight. I pulled out my last resort: I told them no. They had to settle for their characters giving each other the stink-eye. Perhaps the two could have it out at some point, but the group would all need to be agreed on it.
Now that I think about it however, I don’t have any trouble seeing Azai and Rapha placing gentlemanly wagers while sipping tea.
A RIDDLE WRAPPED IN A MYSTERY INSIDE AN ENIGMA
After a few more minutes of walking, the manor’s roof began to peek out from behind a hill.
Something was wrong. Alycstair detected no magical barrier and the door was blast inward. Without a word, the party rushed inside.
The manor was large and brightly lit with chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. Books, trophies, and artifacts seemed to line the walls. They also seemed to litter the floor alongside many singe marks. The back half of the manor was raised. After climbing the stairs, the party found the broken, bloody body of an elderly half-elf. As the party began inspecting the body, they heard a ruffling sound from a nearby closet. Rapha readied an arrow while Azai pulled the door open with his powers. From within, a young man tumbled out onto the floor.
“Please don’t hurt me! I’ll give you whatever you want!” He curled up on the floor and covered his head.
I’d rather not write about the puzzle in “novel mode” because I’m lazy I think it would be too long winded for one post. So just come along bear with me while I wrap up the scene.
The players, of course don’t trust this guy any further than they could throw him (which might be pretty far actually). Lo-Kag guards him while the others search the manor for clues.
They find strange hexagonal indentations and a hole carved into the table, a hexagonal crystal with symbols on each face, and a note with the same symbols written in a line.
The solution was to place a sunrod into the hole and the hexagonal crystal into each indentation to spell out the code on the note. The symbols would show up on a wall, flash green, and the wall would descend into the floor to reveal a spiral staircase leading into the hidden room below. Yes, I somehow forgot the meaning of “hex” when I was making this puzzle and I am deeply ashamed.
While solving the puzzle, the players ran into some trouble connecting the hole to the use of a sunrod. In hindsight, I could have used sunlight from the window to help convey the idea, but hindsight is a bitch. I also feel like I once again robbed the players of a bit of accomplishment. After they realized that the note was a combination, and the sunrod, table, and crystal could be used together to enter that combination, I simply narrated that they input it correctly. Again, in hindsight. See? What did I say? I think it would have been more satisfying for them if I had resisted the impulse to save time.
Inside the hidden room, Azai, Alycstair, and Rapha found a large safe with the name “Tink” written on it and a glass-frame-sealed niche in the wall with magical equipment inside. After examining the safe for a few minutes, they determined that they would be unable to get it open with their skills.
Rapha carefully used his glass cutter to get through to the treasure. Along with the equipment, they found a small chest with a note and a journal inside. The note read:
They returned to the main level to share their discoveries with Lo-Kag who stayed with the boy. Lo-Kag claimed that they were stealing. Before the finer points of debate could begin, four figures burst into the room.
A red-scaled Dragonborn with a sword, a buckler, and a very nice hat stood at the entrance. Next to him was a blond-haired, blue-eyed Halfling with a pair of daggers in his hands. Further back stood a blond-haired Human who carried his greataxe with surprising ease. The last to enter was a Dwarf with a hammer in one hand, a shield in the other, and liquor on his breath.
“Well now, what do we have here, gents?” the Dragonborn said. His companions around him chuckled.
“Who are you?” asked Lo-Kag.
“Cap’n Partinosus at yer service,” he answered. “We are but humble pirates here to take what we can. Now if ye be so kind as to leave yer valuables with us, ye can go quietly.” Partinosus unsheathed his sword and his crew followed suit.
“Wait,” said Rapha. “We know secrets about this place. If you don’t kill us, we’ll tell you.”
“I’m not in the business of secrets, nor do I intend to be,” Captain Partinosus replied. He pointed his sword at the group. “Now can ya cooperate or can ya not? Honestly I’d prefer ye didn’t. People are easier to search when they’re dead.”
“Indeed they are,” answered Alycstair. He kicked the old man’s body down the stairs at the pirates. In their moment of shock, Alycstair unleashed a chaotic bolt of energy from his hands.
My tongue was firmly in cheek as I created these NPC’s. Each one’s appearance is based on a character from the last D&D campaign we played, and their names are slightly modified (eg. “Patrinosus” to “Partinosus”, “Halfstep” to “Half-foot”). I came up with the idea and latched onto it. When you’re motivated, you can type a metric ton of useless crap planning documents.
The thing is, I had already taught my players that not every hostile situation meant they would have to kill their way out. When I make a significant NPC, I list Incentives and Objections. I got this idea from reading The Angry DM’s articles which are great for DM advice or game advice in general (I should really review them). An Incentive is a reason for the NPC to cooperate with the players. An Objection is the opposite. In this case, the pirates’ Incentive was greed and players could appeal to that greed to attempt to avoid combat.
Rapha did this by tempting them with the offer of secret knowledge about the manor that might lead to treasure, but he failed his Diplomacy check and the pirates didn’t accept the offer. This was unfortunate for the players, but I breathed a sigh of relief when it failed.
I had not really considered what would happen if they didn’t fight the pirates. Something would need to happen instead of the combat encounter to challenge the players, but I didn’t have any good ideas for what. I would’ve been back on the 90% improv train.
Combat proceeded much as I had planned. I wanted to ramp the difficulty up from what the players had experienced before, but I didn’t want to make it too life-threatening. I decided that each pirate would attempt to retreat if they were bloodied, and if two of them left or were incapacitated, the two remaining pirates would leave too. This effectively halved their HP, but they made up for it in their offensive capabilities. Each of them could bloody Azai, Rapha, or Alycstair with one good hit, except for Half-foot who could do it in two.
I was also quite pleased with how the players used the environment. The dungeon mapping process may be painstaking, but it’s worth it for the options it provides players. Rapha wall-jumped up on top of the bookshelves for a clear line of sight to all targets. Azai used his powers to put chairs between himself and his opponent’s attacks. Alycstair, seemingly cornered, jumped off of a balcony to escape his opponent, using his magic amulet’s powers to cushion the landing.
The combat encounter was not without its flaws, however. I have a rule of thumb (also adopted from The Angry DM) that a player can only do the same thing three times in a row before becoming bored. After Rapha reached his perch on top of the bookshelves, he didn’t have any reason to get off of it. The rest of the encounter was spent shooting arrow after arrow from his perch. I could hear the energy leaving his voice as he announced his actions. Alycstair, likewise, had a lot of trouble hitting the pirates. Sure his luck was pretty crappy, but he sure didn’t have much else to try in the offense department.
The session ran a little late and ended right after the pirates escaped. The kid had also escaped during the fight, even though he had taken a headbutt from Lo-Kag. With their latest encounter under their belt, the team advanced to level 3!
Are you a DM who has conquered hazardous PvP situations before? How do you deal with combat encounter boredom? Have you ever met scurvy scallywags on the open seas before? Let us know in the comments!