Saturday, January 21, 2012

I Use My Rituals to Bypass Your Encounters, Sir!

***This post contains spoilers for the Scales of War Adventure Path. You have been warned.***

My gaming group is getting SO CLOSE to the end of epic tier in our Scales of War game. I decided to impose a very Fourthcore style time limit on my players since they have a bit of a time crunch. I told them that they have two more gaming sessions to bring down the shielding ward and give an army access to the city, a second ward blocking out reinforcements would be broken and the armies of good would be caught between two armies at once. I dropped that on my party and watching their eyes bulge was priceless.

Image from the Adventure, Test of Fire by WOTC
So this past week (Friday night) they fought their way a secret dungeon delve and discovered a portal that led them to the fabled City of Brass in the elemental chaos. There they were seeking to free the occupied city, which had been taken captive by the draconic forces of Tiamat allied with a Drow kingdom (I pulled that one in on my own to tie in a player's backstory). So they enter through a portal into an abandoned primordial temple in a wrecked district of the city and are trying to find the rebel forces. As they worked their way through the city, they encountered some of the occupied rebel forces and were brought into an expectant council to negotiate a temporary alliance.

While planning out their approach of the palace, they realized they were going to have a hard time sneaking through the heavily patrolled streets. I was also aware of this. I had 5 different combat encounters planned out for all the trouble they could potentially get in to in the city! As they were planning their approach (especially wary of the time limit) the wizard piped in, "What about my Linked Portal ritual? We couldn't teleport in naturally, but now that we are inside?"

I hadn't thought of that. So the Efreet rebel leader got their mages to whip up a circle and given the coordinates they whisked themselves across the city. I couldn't let them get all the way to the palace, so I made up an anti-teleport field within the palace level of the city (which kinda makes sense for security reasons) and I had the teleport drop them into a temple......full of drow.......who had converted the temple to Lolth. I thought, "YES, this will get them!" And immediately the drow in my party drops into immediate bluff mode and makes like she is a returning commander with prisoners to be interrogated. She rolls a 20(!) on her bluff check with a stupid high modifier and next thing you know the whole party is making fake torture sounds in the back room while the "Commandant" interrogates her newest acquisitions. They then all quaffed potions of invisibility and ducked out the door while the wizard cast a mass fly spell on their invisible forms.

So an invisible flying party of adventurers blasts their ways past three of my planned encounters. Then as they are approaching the final wall leading to the palace of the city, they notice (gasp! passive perception) that there is a shimmering field glowing in a bubble over the wall. One good arcana check later and my anti-magic shell is revealed. So now I've got them! They have to go through that glorious gate with fifteen foot tall dragon-spawn warriors standing next to it. Then the wizard mentions, "What about my Passwall ritual? I could make a tunnel through the wall!" So they flew down to a partially abandoned building next to the wall and the wizard blasted a magical hole through the wall. On top of that, the wizard cast Seeming on the party (since she was feeling super fancy at this point) and they all appeared like Drow as they walked right in to main bulwark of the Charcoal Palace in the City of Brass. Another two combats bypassed.

At this point, my jaw just dropped and all I could do was smile. I had been beaten at my own game at every corner (not that I was adversarial in any way, oh no!). I was so impressed with my players' creative thinking on a level they had never tried before that demonstrated their true mastery of the game. 28 levels in and they have made this game their own. This is what makes Epic Tier truly epic. Once characters gain a complete understanding of how the game functions and how to manage the story and really become adventurers of merit that are worth becoming heroes of legend and song.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Primordial Threats and Ancient Curses, or Why Epic Tier CAN Be Awesome

*This post contains spoilers to the Scales of War Adventure Path. You have been warned.*

So the current quest thread the party is following is seeking out a magic artifact (MacGuffin if I've ever heard of one), but to do so they have to travel to the Astral Domain of three of the good gods: Pelor, Ioun and Erathis. The artifact is sealed behind a series of locks set by the three gods in accordance with an evil fourth party, the Arch-Devil Asmodeus. In order to unveil the final seal (actually the seal set by Asmodeus), they must first disrupt the seals of each of the other three gods. The party worked their way from stronghold to stronghold, defeating the guardians of gods who the party greatly respects and even robbing them to an extent. The issues that arose while they did this just got worse and worse as more and more of the servants of gods who are generally good start to come after them. They manage to hide, but every time the party breaks a seal they not only piss off a god they bring down a specific curse set into the binding magic of that lock. This was not included in the original adventure and was something that I wanted to make work as a little incentive to give the party pause as they continued down a track with some pretty dire consequences.

Pelor's lock was the easiest. I wanted to capture the feeling of Pelor's curse on the vampiric races so the character who broke the lock unleashed Pelor's wrath and fell under this specific curse. I wanted it to be something that was pretty rough and gave homage to the vampires, but couldn't directly refer to the undeath issues behind vampirism. The vulnerability to radiant has become a real problem given the fact that this is the Astral Sea and pretty much everyone farts radiant damage. They are also in the domain of the sun god so it never goes to night here. It has made for an interesting complication as one of my players now has to explain how he is not a vampire, but he is just wrapped up like a mummy to keep the sun off of him because he is "sensitive."
After destroying the bell which housed Pelor's seal, they went after the secret library of Ioun to find her lock. Hers was sealed away in a vault hidden through a series of  portals (hidden away in book stores of course) and guarded by librarians. Librarians who study the arcane secrets that Ioun thinks should be locked away. So pretty beefy mages. After knocking all the librarians out, they broke the second seal and Ioun's blessings of knowledge were taken away from a character, who happened to be the same one who got hit with the first one! Penalties to skill checks seem like not such a big deal, but losing the encounter power and having it turn into a daily was pretty hard. It actually worked out well that he got this particular curse because the barbarian was the least likely to make a skill check anyway. CURSES! (pun intended)

Escaping Ioun's library (she had lots of alarms that went off when they broke in), the party made way to the most obvious and easy-to-get-to seal. The seal of Erathis was set into the very stones of the marketplace and the party all  lined up to wail on it as a group with a preset trigger to get them moving. This combat eventually evolved into two combats popping up on top of each other so it started to get REALLY crazy, but the party kept putting damage into the seal and once again the same character got stuck with the curse. This one really hurt because he is a melee striker and being in adjacent to the enemy is what he does so this made a big difference in the combats to come.

Finally after spending so much time in the Astral Sea and working their way through three different seals to uncover the artifact they need to defeat the dark Dragon Goddess, they come to the guardian of the artifact and bearer of the final seal that protects the Arrow of Fate. In the Scales of War adventure path, at this point, the party are supposed to defeat the titan Nakheten (who was once a primordial) and then claim the arrow from his chest plate. This is pretty interesting, but overall kinda blah. So to kick it up a notch, I started by giving two options for the party to attack. They could target the chest plate, which bore the seal, or they could go after the primordial who was depowered to merely titan status. Still a big challenge, but not nearly what he could be. If they went after the seal, the seal would break away revealing the Arrow, but he would immediately begin returning to full power and instead of a level 27 solo, he would power up to a level 35 solo who they had no hope of taking on. The only response would be retreat while the devastating monstrosity rampaged across a bastion in the heavens. If they went after the creature himself they could defeat him, but he had a great deal more hitpoints and it would take a much longer time. He still was able to grow to full power once they destroyed the seal, but that was after they left.

But that still leaves the last seal and this one from Asmodeus himself so it has to be a doozy. I decided to go with the concept of a deal with the devil and checking the fine print on this one. I didn't make a power card for the curse because it was more complicated than just that. Whoever broke the seal would essentially be signing a deal with Asmodeus and he would take possession of their soul. This manifested in a way that I had to think about between sessions and I had some major inspiration this time. Fortunately it wasn't the same character this time. The drow rogue shattered the seal on the primoridal and as she did red fluid seeped from the seal and ran up her blade and coursed over her body wrapping her in a fleshy cocoon and as she emerged she discovered that she had become a tiefling. That's right. I changed a character's race without them knowing what was coming. The terror was delicious. She freaked out. The best part was that after she took her first extended rest (and her first time sleeping since she was a drow!) she had a dream visitation from Asmodeus who basically explained what she had done and made her a deal that he would restore her if she would do something for him. It's always more complicated than it seems, but this is how Epic Tier D&D has been for me. Sometimes it involves breaking the way that things are "supposed" to be. In fact it usually does. :)