The Calm Before the Storm and other Stories


The lesson learned from my most recent session of my ongoing DnD/Pathfinder campaign, Fallen Heroes, is that not every great idea works well right out of the box.

In this session, entitled “There and Back Again” players set out to return to the Fortress, with the intent to stop their previous target for rescuing, Kehlvin the protector, from whatever his apparently nefarious plans are now.  Approaching right up the main path seemed like a bad idea to the players, and the dwarf’s ship from the previous session had been damaged beyond quick repair.  So they headed north to some caves in hopes to find a back entrance to the castle.

In their travels they noticed an oppressive silence.  No birds.  No insects.  Not even wind.  Nothing attacked them during their entire trek across open fields.

Players stopped by the Temple of  Nalain on their way, a temple known to some of them as having recently been occupied (Someone lost track of their backstory and character knowledge at this point, or the whole “having recently been occupied” thing would have come out bigger.  Certain players had seen this temple occupied and in good condition only days ago, but when they arrived there now it seemed to have been abandoned and unkept for months and months.)

Inside, players found no dead bodies, but a few individuals frozen like statues in the prayer rooms.  They also found a healthy stack of magic items left on the Altar to Nalain, and equipped themselves for the rest of the journey.

Once again the quietness was noticeble.  They arrived at the caves quickly with the use of a magic carpet found at the temple. Inside the caves, more quiet… and lots of goblin corpses.  Perhaps a little metagaming here as some of the players instantly started trying to chop up corpses to prevent undead from rising, fortunately no zombie goblins this time around.

After travelling through the caves, players arrived at a door, with a warning about three tests – courage, humility, selflessness – to find 3 keys – and a fourth test, wisdom, to pass safely out of the maze.

Inside the maze players wandered, eventually encountering the 3 tests.  After a split, some of the players found an extra room, labelled “Truth” on the door.

In the Selflessness test, players had to cross a long, treacherous balance beam with a seemingly infinite drop below.  How was this testing selflessness?  Well, about halfway across, the room rumbled, toppling several players off.  Each player had to perform some element of self-sacrifice.  Galixo, who had initially tried to avoid crossing, was the first to head out onto the beam and try to help Henrick, who was hanging by his hands.  His act saved both himself and Henrick – as they both fell completely off the ledge, they landed safely on the floor several minutes into the future.  Seebo and Atticus both yelled to Sax-zuk to go on ahead, an act that saved themselves as they fell off the beam.  Saz-xuk however panicked and huddled in the corner.  Not wanting to completely stall the game, she simply took damage from failling to pass the test, and the key was revealed as the others reappeared.

In Courage, players had to enter a room with an enormous, fearful monster.  Each player entered one at a time, and those who stayed saw that person run in and get swallowed easily by the monster.  Those who ran in, however, found themselves in an empty room.  The exit door however was closed until all players were in, and there the key was revealed.

In Humility, players were presented with a puzzle to solve.  This puzzle, however, was in actuality insolvable, and the real test was whether or not the players could admit that they did not have the ability to solve the puzzle.  This puzzle took the longest to figure out for them.

In the chamber of Truth, which only Galixo, Saz-xuk and Henrick entered, they found a table laded with dusty old flasks and jars, and a crystal ball that was by contrast clean and bright.  Inside the crystal ball they saw a perfect representation of the landscape of the Village of Teodar and the surrounding area – the area of the world where they all are.

The test of Wisdom was simply a pedestal where the 3 keys had to be placed in correct order based on the number of sides in the shape of the key face.  Also there was a Stone Golem guarding the room and players had to solve this puzzle under pressure and some tough combat.

Now, some thoughts

Looking back, I’d have to say this was probably the roughest session.  While the 1st just took literally too much time, this session just lasted too long.   Because of the nature of the maze – the traps on various squares and in certain areas – I decided to keep players on Initiative the whole time in order to keep some semblance of turn order and make sure no one snuck past any traps they shouldn’t have.  Unfortunately, this did not work so good.  It mostly resulted in the incredible slowing-down of the first few corridors of the maze.

Waiting for their turn felt somewhat arbitrary to the players.  Also being on a turn-based initiative encouraged the players not to discuss their actions or interact very much with their characters.  In previous sessions, players and characters discussed their options, planned, and tried to get each other to do things.  In this session, after a few rounds of intiative, each player was essentially acting on his or her own.  There was no semblance of organization.   With limited movement no one wanted to waste their turn stopping and asking the others what they thought was a wise action.  Unfortunately, this set the precedent for the rest of the night and slowed things down further.

After the 1st puzzle, I jumped to “Loose initiative” which sped things up a lot and I should have done from the start.  Loose initiative is a term we’ve used when movement and location is important, and keeping a semblance of order is necessary, but its not the precise turn-based system of combat.  Essentially players can move in whatever order they choose, but actions happen one at a time.  Also, movement over extended distances without hindrance can happen much faster.  Still it allows for traps to be activated at the right time, and perception checks to be valid, and for the whole maze-thing to work out a lot better.

Unfortunately it was too late.  Players were out of sync, and communication just wasn’t happening.  The party split for some reason but no one was saying “This is a good idea” or “this is a bad idea” – people were just moving, as I had accidentally taught them to do.  Unfortunately this punished the players in that, that room of Truth gave a free +1 to an ability score.  I hadn’t expected the players to split up – normally they would not have, but they were trying to speed up the exploration of the dungeon.  Oh, and this also resulted in Atticus and Seebo trying to take on the Stone Golem all by themselves, before they had found all the keys.  A stone golem designed to be a tough fight for the whole party, essentially impossible for 2.

The communication thing also hurt the last puzzle – the Humility puzzle.  After a few minutes, several of the players gave up on the puzzle, and I believe they had figured out that that was the general idea.  Unfortunately the communication thing had already been broken, so instead of trying to convince the other players to give up, they just started wandering.  Only, this was the last puzzle so there weren’t too many places to go.  The players who’d figured it out had nothing to do while they waited for the others to give up.  I tried to throw in a suggestion that the “giving up” thing was the correct choice, but it still took a bit after that to finish up the puzzle.

A further conclusion on my part may or may not be general – or it may just be my poor puzzle design – but I think sometimes you have to do a little Metagaming.  Sure in an ideal world you’d never have to do that, but sometimes trying to stay in character can just halt the game’s progress.  The player controlling Atticus, while working on the Humility puzzle, was working on the presumption that Atticus would never give up.  This was indeed part of the character backstory, but then even after the rest of the players had given up on the puzzle, Atticus was still trying.  Not really a fault on the player’s part – he was just trying to play his character.  However, at that point it would have just been best to move the game forward.  Everyone else was doing nothing, just waiting for him.  That doesn’t seem very fun to me.  I try not to jump into player discussions on what to do next, but I was about ready to jump in and tell them to just give up so we could get on with the game.  Fortunately Atticus caved before that happened.  So, end result – was it in Atticus’ character to not give up?  Yeah, sure.  Would it have been better to just finish up the puzzle faster once the solution was figured out?  Almost definitely.

Fortunately we’re all learning, so I think my players will forgive me this session.  I’m a big fan of trying new things, and coming up with creative situations for the characters to deal with.  Unfortunately, this one just didn’t work out so great.

The takeaway here is, feel free to experiment with new ideas and new ways of playing.  It may be a good idea, though, to have some methods of pushing the game forward if players are stuck.  And sometimes metagaming is okay if it helps move the plot forward when things have ground to a halt.  After all, it’s not really about perfectly simulating a reality, it’s about having fun and telling a good story.

Thoughts?  Different ideas on how to overcome dud encounters?  Responses from my players?

Futurewolfie loves epic games, space, and epic games set in space. You'll find him rolling fistfuls of dice, reveling in thematic goodness, and giving Farmerlenny a hard time for liking boring stuff.

Discussion2 Comments

  1. Yeah… keeping the kids on initiative is a great way of establishing order, but if you only ever use initiative in combat then every time a party goes on initiative they treat it like combat. Which generally means “i’m going to do what I want on my turn and you do what you want on your turn” and little communication ends up occurring.

    Whenever I DM I inevitably end up changing stats on the fly. You just can’t ever make a puzzle or trap with “this is how the players will solve it” in mind. Its too narrow and constricting and forces your players to think like you or perish. If the puzzle is taking too long let them make Intelligence checks to get a hint. If an encounter is too rough then fudge the numbers. It’s all about the story. As the DM you are co-storyteller with your players. DM’s that try to make an adventure that runs like clockwork will very quickly have frustrated players and a broken clock.

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