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February 7th, 2012

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08:56 pm - Exile Empire - The Siege of Zantashk II
Oh wait, I know what I can write about on LiveJournal: roleplaying!

Once again there's been a three-month gap between sessions of our D&D campaign, during which times players went overseas and came back and I got married. And yet, in the game, perhaps only five minutes passed by. There's something metatextually interesting in that, but let's gloss over it to talk about party infighting, attempted war crimes and more attempts to kill the PCs with scorpions and hyenas.

Details behind the cut.

Stranded in the village of Zantashk and besieged by gnolls and drow, the adventurers - Spark, Ballast, Kaddick and Rufus - scope out the inn/trading post in which they and the other survivors are taking shelter, while attempting to size up their erstwhile allies, village reeve Duuth Velderan and the adventurers known as the Red Nails. Ballast explores the inn's cellar to find a locked door and a strange chemical smell, while Kaddick starts asking the villagers and inn staff if they have seen his missing mentor Malik. A servant girl recalls seeing him with the gnolls that arrived a few weeks back, but not since the gnolls rounded up some of the villagers and local prospectors and took them into the jungle a couple of days ago.

Further investigation is sidelined by a sound in the inn's chimneys, followed by lithe drow, a lizard creature and a sackful of scorpions tumbling out into the cold fireplaces and immediately attacking. The heroes fight off the invaders on the ground floor while the Red Nails and their hirelings take care of a second force on the first floor. The drow are fanatical, screaming in the Giant tongue that they are prepared to die to rescue the souls of their tribe, which no-one in the team understands.

Wounded but undaunted by the fighting, the heroes regroup, and Ballast decides on a sick plan - to arrange the bodies of the dead drow and some broken furniture into a macabre 'tea party' that would demoralise the remaining drow forces. He convinces Garrett and Pike to help him in this; as soon as the three step outside, Kaddick and Spark slam Duuth into a wall and demand an explanation as for why the drow and gnolls are attacking. The terrified reeve tries to dissemble, but finally admits that the gnolls had 'got out of hand' and he was trying to get rid of them. Before he can say more, Venna and some of Duuth's henchmen demand that they let him go and explain themselves.

Meanwhile, outside, Ballast needles and pushes Garrett and Pike as they assemble the grim tablueax, until they are spotted and attacked by a small party of gnolls. The Nails attempt to leave Ballast outside to be killed, but he battles and defeats Pike as the gnolls mob the inn's door. Soon chaos erupts as those inside attempt to push the gnolls out, but Ballast brings up the rear to push them inside and force a confrontation. When Kaddick orders the wounded gnolls to surrender, as they are Liondrake's Roar troops, the gnolls become enraged; they draw back, but demand the heroes surrender themselves in ten minutes or be wiped out. To make matters worse, a furious Ballast then attacks Garrett, only to be incapacitated by Venna's magic.

Now tensions are high, confusion is rife, swords and bows are pointed at erstwhile enemies, and the threats outside grow ever closer...

Hell in a goddamn handbasket, that's where this session went. And I couldn't be happier.

I've tended to approach 4E in a fairly, hmm... story-mechanistic style. I have plots in mind, I come up with scenes ahead of time, shape them as encounters with appropriate opposition, then adjust the following scenes to reflect the outcomes. It's not railroading, but it's not leaving much to chance, and it's creating a plot that's largely compartmentalised.

For this part of the game, though, I've gone back to the way I usually run things in other systems; come up with a situation, put together some tools and concepts that could be used within it, arrange things to kick off with an imperative and then just see where it goes. This kind of situationist approach can be tricky in 4E because of balance issues, but tricky isn't the same thing as impossible. So with this siege story, I developed some encounter groups of critters and enemies, statted up some NPCs, brough them in on the fly and decided to just roll with what the players came up with.

What fengshuiguy came up with was Ballast's kinda-hilarious-kinda-fucked-up plan, which drew attention from both the gnolls and  the NPCs and their backup, but did so by splitting focus and sowing confusion. That led to various opposition going in different direction, lack of communication between PCs, lots of mixed signals and an endpoint to the session that arose organically and sets things up for a really tense, dangerous, character-focused climax next time. I couldn't have planned that, and it's much better than anything I could have done.

On the downside, breaking up my encounter groups meant losing some of the synergies and interlocking pieces that make for memorable 4E encounters, so the fight at the end, while chaotic, was a little bland in places. But hey, it's a small price to pay.

I'm also left wondering where things are going to go with Ballast and his relationship to the other PCs, and to the campaign in general, once they get back to Stormreach. Never pleasant or friendly, he's allied with the others out of circumstance and the promise of payment, but he really went off the reservation this session. I'm really intrigued to see how the others treat him after this, and how that will redefine the scope of the game. We shall see.

(3 comments | Leave a comment)


Date:February 7th, 2012 11:34 am (UTC)
Hrm... you raise an interesting point sir. I've always tried to balance being downright abrasive with being really damned good at my job, and I try to avoid damaging other people's fun. (although I know it's not the fun factor you're talking about here)

I'm now wondering if my interpretation of events was skewed, or if I triggered their response - although they're downright shifty given they were lying to us. I'm hoping that I just flushed out the inevitable, because that was kinda the plan.

Edit to add: if it ever does come to Ballast going his separate way, I do have a concept for a mechanically almost equivalent Tiefling Warlord, with a personality pretty much the opposite of his. :-)

Edited at 2012-02-07 11:36 am (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:February 7th, 2012 07:53 pm (UTC)
I don't think it's as bad as all that. As Damien said, Eberron is a morally complex setting, and I think Ballast's actions play well into that. And Ballast is incredibly entertaining, so I don't want to see him go anywhere.

It's more that I sometimes struggle to see why he hangs with the other PCs, and why they hang with him, and the escalation of events in the siege push that divide a little bit further. Which is good! I love me some intra-party conflict. But I think that we also need to find good reasons why they stay together as a unit, albeit a unit of people that go their own way most of the time.
[User Picture]
Date:February 7th, 2012 12:56 pm (UTC)
War crimes?! That was art, honey, Art!
Ballast's a machine of war, so I'm hardly surprised. And I enjoyed letting Spark go a bit off the beam -- sometimes, it's fun to dispense with "Good Cop, Bad Cop" and play "Bad Cop, Worse Cop". ;)

I'm enjoying the moral ambiguity some of our characters are getting into, and there's moral ambiguity coming in spades from some of the NPCs. Eberron is a setting made for that.
If I'm reading the situation right, the Reeve could be selling-out his own people as slaves, and has admitted to engineering a small war between two races to further his own ends / cover his own dubious deeds.

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