February 25th, 2012
|09:21 am - Exile Empire - The Siege of Zantashk III|
February has shaped up as Gaming Month here at Casa del Artbroken, almost to the point where it's exhausting.
Ah, who am I kidding, I love it.
There was a long-delayed session of Tribulation earlier in the month (and I'll post a write-up soon for everyone that's been gagging to see what's happening there), a session of Hero's Banner with mousebane that we have to come back to, and the promise of actually getting to play 4th ed D&D in (checks watch) about 4 hours from now.
But last Sunday it was back to Exile Empire, which saw our tense siege drama culminate in chaos, sacrifice and sarcasm. Everything went off the rails. And it was great.
Details behind the cut.
Tensions mount as Spark, Kaddick and Rufus face off against Duuth Velderan (and his cronies) on the one hand and Venna and Garrett of the Red Nails (and their henchmen) on the other, with Ballast out of action and the gnolls about to return.
The adventurers argue with Duuth as to who is responsible for riling up the gnolls, and while under pressure Duuth says that the Red Nails stole something from the drow that has made them press the attack. Tempers fray even further as Rufus and Kaddick attempt to intimidate Duuth into standing down and explaining everything. Finally he snaps and attacks them, as do his thugs. The Red Nails stay out of it, quietly signalling to their henchmen to recover something from upstairs, but are soon drawn into the fracas, choosing to help the adventurers against the reeve. As the battle progresses, Rufus snaps Ballast from his reverie, and the warrior immediately attempts to attack Venna, who runs outside to revive the incapacitated Pike for protection.
Eventually Ballast stands down and a terrified Duuth surrenders. He admits that he set the gnolls up to be attacked by the drow after one of their hyenas uncovered his secret alchemical lab where he and his cronies make the illegal drug dreamlily. The gnolls were sent to sell slaves – Malik and a number of inconvenient villagers and prospectors – to the dark elves while the Red Nails robbed their temple, framing the gnolls for the crime; they were meant to destroy each other but the plan backfired. Garrett admits that they took an item – a massive stone engraved with giant runes and sigils – from the drow as part of a ‘job’, but didn’t expect to be stranded and under siege as a result.
The gnolls arrive at the end of the confession; their leader, Blacktooth, demands the heroes surrender themselves to pay for the Liondrake’s Roar’s betrayal of their pack to the drow. Kaddick successfully convinces Blacktooth that Duuth alone was responsible for sending them to their deaths. The gnolls agree to pull back and return to Stormreach, but demand Duuth be surrendered to them for justice; when he is handed over, a pack of hyenas maul him to death.
But the danger is not past; the drow are still arrayed in force, and as the gnolls withdraw a dark elf matriarch appears at the back of the hall, demanding the return of their sacred relic, which holds the souls of generations of drow warriors. The adventurers turn to the Red Nails, and Garrett agrees to give the stone back. That still isn’t enough, though, and the matriarch demands further compensation for their losses; knowing the outsiders represent powerful forces, she demands they leave but return with weapons and reinforcement to help the drow – the Vulkoori – defeat their chief enemies, the Firebinders. Kaddick again agrees, only to be told that as assurance, he must leave one of his party behind as an ambassador – or a hostage. With that, drow warriors carry the stone outside, where a giant scorpion claw bursts from the earth to drag it under, and they fade into the night.
Come the morning, the adventurers signal the House Tharashk ship to come to shore to collect them, the Red Nails, the gnolls and the surviving townsfolk. The drow emerge from the jungle to return their slaves, including (at last) the missing Marik’aashta and send a trio of their brave to accompany the adventurers. And when it comes time to leave someone behind, Ballast volunteers for reasons of his own, watching his erstwhile companions leave on the overloaded ship back to Stormreach.
At about the midpoint of this session I was just throwing papers in the air and saying 'way-hey'!. Which is a little odd, but it seemed appropriate at the time. I just abandoned any plan I had for things and let the players' actions shape things and trigger my responses - which frankly is how gaming should be 95% of the time. While things didn't always work out cleanly or dramatically appropriately, they felt a lot more organic and player-driven than some of the previous sessions (at least from my POV) and that made this much more enjoyable.
The other thing that made this more organic was barrington stepping in to play the Red Nails. That was invaluable, not just because it spared me having to make rolls for NPC-on-NPC action, but because he made different decisions and actions than I would have made, which again put me in a primarily reactive role, which was best for the session.
I had final combat encounters roughed out for both the gnolls and drow, but I didn't really want to draw out the session with another fight scene, so I framed those as roleplaying conflicts and had faith that the players would follow suit. They probably would have won any fight - all of these encounters were just level 3 fights, designed to drain resources rather than overwhelmingly defeat the PCs - but most of the characters were running low on hp and daily powers and looking for different options. Which was very much the purpose of the exercise, of course.
The encounter with the drow at the end was a bit clumsy, and might have been more satisfying if the players had gone to them to parley after calming the gnolls. But hey, I wanted to keep the momentum going, so I rolled with it. The part about needing allies and keeping one of the PCs as a hostage was completely improvised, to the point where I didn't know I was going to say it until after I'd said it. That could have really disrupted things, but instead fengshuiguy surprised all of us by putting Ballast forward. That floored me, but it's perfectly in character and it negates the issue of the growing divide between him and the other PCs. K. has a new character waiting in the wings, and we can bring Ballast back in whenever the focus moves back to the drow.
In retrospect, then, this wasn't just a fun set of sessions, but a major campaign milestone. The PCs closed off one plotline by recovering Marik, which in turn will inform/change a couple of other plots; we have a whole new plot area to explore with the drow; we have the Red Nails as new NPCs, along with one of the drow for me to develop later; and we have a new PC. The stage has really been set for progression and to start developing one of the existing plotlines in more depth, which I'm already planning.
The first stage? EVERYTHING MUST EXPLODE.
LOVED the session: your willingness to roll with things, and how you thought on your feet in particular.
And I second an appreciation of barringon
's playing of the nefarious Red Nails.