Saturday, March 19, 2016

Beware the Smiling Dungeon Master

Last weekend we played the third session of my new 3.5 campaign and I feel like this session will stick in my memory as one of the best I have ever run… in part because of everything that went wrong. It may sound malicious, but the dice were often not with the PC's throughout the day, yet it felt like the ensuing calamities were directly responsible for some of the session's best moments.

The session revolved around an infiltration/assault on a cultist and undead-infested jungle ruin and things got off to a rocky start. After much deliberation, the players decided that they would make their entry by tying a rope around the catfolk druid and having her jump across a collapsed bridge to the ruin proper.

Of course, she badly missed the not unreasonable jump check and plummeted 20 feet into a piranha-infested stream. The rest of the group then proceeded to fail their first several attempts to extract her. The paladin attempted to charge to her aid down a brush covered embankment before a critical fail sent him sprawling face first down to the water's edge. Then, the rest of the group hauling on the rope all tanked their strength checks leaving the druid surrounded by a piranha swarm until, finally, an NPC gnomish fighter who was with them got a good enough roll to haul the dripping cat person just above the water's surface with a couple piranha dangling from her tail. The following rolls went better, and they managed to extract the druid with only minor injuries from the initial fall.

And so went the rest of the session. Bungled attempts at sneaky infiltration lead to premature encounters with the ruin's denizens, falls, smacks upside the head, etc. Near the end of the day, repeated failures at DC 10 balance checks (roll 10 or better on a d20) lead to the collapse of a rickety causeway, an NPC with a sprained ankle and the crash drew the attention of baddies from several parts of the complex.

Yet whenever the dice turned against the players, they seemed to turn back in their favor just when they needed it. The group managed to lure a ghoul into the waiting grasp of an assassin vine. The humiliated druid sent a cultist thug up like a human torch. The paladin cleaved through a cultist and into the high priest bringing him to the brink of death. But the back and forth and constant comedy of errors had the players requesting that I add Yakkity Sax into the soundtrack for the game.

I applaud my group's willingness to press on despite periodic failures. Ultimately they managed to push into the ruined complex just about the perfect distance. They ended with a bit of a cliffhanger when the high priest fled alone into the depths of an underground complex leaving the group with a choice to follow immediately or to regroup and recover their strength.

The capriciousness of the dice last weekend created just about the perfect level of back and forth drama. From my perspective the session felt like it presented just the perfect amount of challenge for the group. It felt good, like a hard workout, or reading through a climactic battle in a book. At the end of the day I felt exhausted but exhilerated at the same time, and the things that stuck most in my brain were those moments when things appeared most dire for my players just before they escaped by the skin of their teeth... or the bitey monsters' teeth.

On a completely different subject, I used last week's game as an opportunity to convert one of Dyson Logos's excellent dungeon maps into a 3D set. Unfortunately, I did not have enough Dwarven Forge tiles to build the whole complex, but I was able to create the main structure leaving just the outbuildings to render in two dimensions on the battle mat.

The battle mat at the end of the day.

Based on this map from Dyson Logos

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