Used to, when I was running a game and we'd all assembled, I announced in some fashion "Okay, everyone shut up, its time to play." This typically did not work very well. Then it "occurred" to me that the players sitting around the table actually enjoy talking to each other, catching up, and so forth. So I adopted a much more relaxed policy, where I show up, anticipate 30 minutes or so of chit chat, and will run the game when the players look to me expectantly.
Well apparently I was not paying enough attention, because shortly after we were all assembled, someone inquired if I was planning to run a game today. So we did some gaming!
The players had decided that they wanted to have a chat with Athurn, who was running around, apparently doing nefarious things on behalf of the Lathiens. They shadowed him for a few days, looking for an opportunity to strike.
Quick aside: When running a game, this is an excellent spot to get totally stuck in. Secret information: I have no idea what Athurn does every day. He's the henchman of a probably bad guy. I do not have a copy of his schedule. I've never been a henchman, so I'm not sure what kind of things that he'd be up to all day. This is the part where a responsible DM throws the players a bone, and crafts something to meet what they're looking for. "Uhm.. he goes to some places, and talks to some people. He meets with, um, a guy, at a, um, tavern..." blah blah blah. Remember that your players don't actually care what this dude is doing, or where he's going. Its easy to forget that all they want is a handy place to ambush him. So, they soon learned that he was planning a trip in the next day or two out of town to Moore's Creek.
"Aha!" Said my players. We discussed what their characters knew about the road between here and Moore's Creek, and they talked about how to ambush their quarry, and how many men he would have with him. They considered delaying Athurn somehow, hoping he'd get a late start, and be on the road at night, but we talked about how there are a few villages along the road, and that there are places for travelers to bunk up for the night.
Finally they settled on a simple and straight forward "ambush along the road" plan. They left ahead of Athurn, and found a farmstead not far from the road that was abandoned during the winter. They setup and waited, some of them hiding in a copse of trees, a few in a barn, and a couple behind the farmhouse. Traffic was light but steady along the road. Eventually they spied a group of men on horseback coming their way, headed to Moore's Creek. It was not until the horsemen were almost even with the characters that they realized that it was Athurn and his party. Complicating matters slightly, were a pair of young farmers on the road a short distance away, and a covered wagon and escorts, just a short distance the opposite direction. So they'd have an audience.
As the riders were even with the party, Devlin (John's warlord) ran out from behind the farmhouse and got the riders attention. Athurn recognized him, and charged after him. There was some brief shouted dialogue along the lines of,
"You tried poisoned us, you bastard!"
"I won't leave you alive this time around."
Athurn and his riders charged after them, into the clutches of the ambush.
Let me get mechanical, then I'll be narrative. Scroll down a few if you're not interested in the D&D mechanics, or if you're one of my players and don't want to "ruin the magic" or something.
This was a hard encounter. I'd toyed with a couple of ways to run a fight with Athurn. Since I'd come to the session without any clear idea about how the party would go about the confrontation, I'd tried to give myself a few options. I considered having them confront him in a tavern/inn setting, where they'd have to face his men in the main room, or get around them, and then him and one or two guys in a back room somewhere. Setup that way, he'd be a "solo" opponent - basically just meaning that he'd be a reasonable challenge for the group. I'd also given myself an option of a fight with Athurn and his men, with Athurn as an "elite" opponent.. elite just being a tougher sort of mob. I'd noticed recently that the party seemed to be making pretty short work of the encounters that they'd come across. The encounters seemed to be leaning on the easy side of things.
Per D&D math, a party of seven 3rd level characters should get an XP budget of 1050 for an exactly even ("normal") encounter. The budget goes up to about 1200 and is still normal. Between about 1400 and 2100, its "hard". This fight was about 1900 xp. There was Athurn, who was an elite soldier, so he had a lot of hit points, really good AC, good "to hit", and a few nice special attacks. With him were two lurkers- guys who were able to move around the combat and strike for a goodly amount of damage. Two controller type of guys, men with long bull whips, which I totally made up and am a little proud of- they could strike up to three squares away, and move people around a little, and knock them prone. Then there was a brute type, who had high hit points, low ac, low "to hit", but laid out large amounts of damage when he did manage to land a blow. Finally, he had five soldier types, who's job is to be somewhat hard to hit, lay out consistent damage, and tie up the melee guys in the party. This seemed to me to be a very well balanced party of bad guys. They had most all the bases covered.
Mechanically, the fight went pretty well for the players, but it was certainly not easy, and I'd definitely call it a challenge. The fighter and the paladin tied up with the soldiers, the thief and the ranger ended up stuck near the edge of the battle fighting a couple of the soldiers, Athurn charged in and handed a massive hit to John's warlord, and then tied up with the warlord and the cleric, and later the thief. The sneaky blade types rolled terribly, and didn't get to do as much in the fight as I'd hoped, but they harassed the defenders and the wizard. The whip guys kept up the pressure on folks by constantly sending the fighter to the dirt, and hassling the other good guys. The fight was pretty spread out. The good guys very loosely surrounded the bad guys, before everyone tied up. So there was not really a line of scrimmage or anything. The players seemed just a little surprised when the bad guys did not start to drop quickly, perhaps expecting a few minions to be mixed in. John's warlord took a brief dirt nap when he tried to move around some of the bad guys and got totally clobbered, and Jason's fighter took a pretty beating. Nearly everyone, I think, took a number of hits. It was a good, and tough fight. And I'll try to run more like it in the future.
Also, although the bad guys were mounted, I made a decision to have the horses in the fight play no more role than adding two to the riders movement. Mounted combat rules in 4e are really light, but I didn't even want to bother with the few that there were. I'll try to incorporate them next time around that we fight mounted folks, but the horses were mostly just fluff in this fight.
I did run into one small glitch, but it was primarily my fault. At the tail end of the fight, when only two bad guys remained standing - the fight was effectively over. A few times in the past, I've called the fight, and wrapped up. I see it as a waste of time, sometimes, to continue to run turn by turn when its really just mopping up. This time, one of the bad guys tried to get away on horseback. I said something along the lines of,
"Okay guys, this last fellow spurs his horse to a gallop, and is trying to get away. Let's make this a skill challenge, and have you guys try to catch him."
To which, a few of the players inquired as to why they could not just used their ranged weaponry to bring him down. I let one or two take their hits on him, and again said something along the lines of "Alright, so he's riding away, lets talk about what you can do to catch him." Still some folks wanted to shoot him out of the saddle. Admittedly, I got a little exasperated at this point and was a little snappish. I think that I was simply not communicating in an effective enough manner. I should have gone with "Guys, shooting someone out of a saddle as they flee is boring and sucks. I'm trying something a little new and different, to liven things up. How about if we see if you can catch him."
So, we did move on, and managed to do our little impromptu skill challenge to catch the guy. I told them that they needed.. I think 6 successes to win the challenge. Skill challenges are still kinda new territory for me, and I'm playing a little bit loose with their interpretation. Jerry's cleric used Insight to get a lead on which way the fellow was headed and such, yelling for his associates to head the guy off. The other players used athletics or acrobatics to leap onto other riderless horses and charge off after him. They caught him.
After the fight, they went and spoke to the wagon guards who were regarding them warily. Our warlord clarified that they had been dispatched to seek out and destroy blood cultists, and that these men... well, had it coming. The wagon guards assured them that they weren't cultists, and everyone went about their business. The party looted the dead, and had spared Athurn, dropping him but not killing him. They then set about interrogating him. Again, I wanted to use a skill challenge for it, as I've always hated "one-roll intimidate for lots of information" checks. This was a check that required 8 successes before they had 3 failures. The party used good cop/bad cop tactics, some of them rolling intimidate checks, some bluff or diplomacy checks, and at one point, if I recall, the wizard even pitched in with a magical effect, using his arcana skill (or this might have been during the chase, I forget which challenge it was a part of). Again, they beat it, and Athurn started spilling his info.
Athurn had no idea about any blood lord or blood cult. He'd been in charge of kidnapping the farm family on the other side of the Shadow Deep, but he had not seen them since he delivered them to the Lathien compound, to Osric and Wayen, more specifically. He figured that Wayen was dabbling in slavery. Athurn said that he was on his way to Moore's Creek to pick up a package from a criminal fellow named Velder. (Why do I only have five or six character named people and places?) The party wanted to talk Athurn into betraying the Lathiens, letting the good guys pose as his entourage, and going back to the Lathien compound. They even offered Athurn his life for the deal. Athurn told them that his life wasn't worth it - that none of the civilized territory around was far enough away from the Lathiens for them to not have him found. He said that if he helped them, he'd be accepting death, or life in exile into the wilderness, which is a slow death. His argument was convincing enough, and our Raven Queen devotee sent him on to meet her mistress.
The group decided to head on to Moore's Creek and meet with Velder. They'd pose as Athurn, the warlord donned his armor, and they came up with a scheme to pass him off as Athurn, despite that he did not resemble him at all. As they made their way to Moore's Creek, I felt certain that surprises abounded.
They made it into the city and went to the meeting place, the name of which I cannot recall at the moment. The party decided that they'd go inside, find the darkest corner available to put Devlin/Athurn, and the wizards was prestidigitating to help mask his not-likeness-to-Athurn. They sat down and scanned the place, looking for "someone else that's looking for someone". The place was busy, crowded with a fairly nefarious and wicked crowd. No one was carrying a sign that said "Athurn". After a few moments, they stopped a serving person and asked if she knew Velder. She sized up the party, took the offered gold, and pointed out a man in a blue jacket seated at the other end of the hall, near the fireplace. Andrew's thief, Nate, headed that way.
He sat down at the table beside Velder and said "Okay, we're here for the package."
Velder blinked at him, and asked him who he was.
Nate responded that he was here with Athurn.
Velder wanted to know where Athurn was, and when Nate pointed out "Athurn" in the corner, Velder waved him over. Nate responded that Athurn was very ill, and not at all able to carry on even a conversation, and that Nate would be acting in his stead. A few dice rolls for randomness later, Velder agree'd and told Nate that he would have the package available in a few hours, at 3AM at the Eastern Gate.
The party left to lay low and stay out of trouble for a few hours, while Nate stayed behind to keep an eye on Velder. After a bit of time, Velder and a few men left and made their way across town. Nate shadowed them until they turned down an alley beside some militiamen that Velder spoke to. Nate used his knowledge of Moore's Creek to circle around a couple of buildings and enter the alley another way, but by the time he got there, Velder was nowhere in sight. There were a couple of men standing at an open door in the alley, and some sleeping vagrants, but no one else in sight. Nate considered going in, and then they all considered gathering and going in, apparently to shake down Velder or have a conversation or confrontation with him, but it was decided instead to wait for the 3AM meeting.
They headed to the Eastern Gate shortly before 3. As they approached in the dark streets, they could see a group of people gathered at the gate. About ten militia men with long spears, as well as a group of about a dozen people, seemingly with Velder amongst them.
The party hesitated, smelling a trap. Eventually, Nate (Andrew) went forward. They noticed also that some of the dozen people, perhaps five of them, seemed to wear chains. The party realized that they were to be slave couriers. Nate spoke with Velder, but Nate was very aggressive toward him, yelling and pointing in his face. One of the militiamen poked Nate with a spear and told him to back off. Nate brandished his sword, and immediately everyone was moving.. the militia began to circle him, while the half dozen men with Velder moved to shield him. The rest of the party was entering into the courtyard before the gate now as well. Just as Devlin/"Athurn" was reigning in Nate, Velder tried to calm the situation by declaring that it was certainly a misunderstanding. He asked "Athurn" to come have a word with him to the side, and that he was sure that everything could be cleared up. The whole party, and particularly "Athurn" looked anxious. He walked off just a little ways with Velder.
Velder said to him that he was uncertain of what his scam was, or what his interests were, but that he (Velder) didn't really care. He was happy to proceed as normal, but that the price had increased, for his troubles. "Athurn" nodded his head, and paid 100 gold to Velder. Velder turned and told his men and the militia that everyone was fine, there were no problems, and that they would transfer the package and be done. The slaves were handed off to the party, the gate opened, and they began to leave, when Velder called out to them that he'd forgotten something. Everyone looked anxious again for a moment, and Velder said that there was another package that they were supposed to get along their journey back to Drugen. Near Balidonen's Last Stand, they were to make a pick up on a hillock. He bade them safe travels, and the gate rattled shut behind them.
This was a good session, I thought. I very much enjoyed the combat encounter, and I believe t he players did too. It felt very satisfying in the sense that it was challenging and dynamic.
The session itself went very well overall. The party's dealing with Athurn went well by my perspective, as did the meeting with Velder and the package pickup.
Next week: More surprises, I think.