Theme Parks, Sandboxes, and a Night Without Combat
By Philip Ledbetter
These posts are an homage to the incomparable Chris Perkins. Throughout the lifespan of D&D’s 4th edition, Mr. Perkins wrote a series of articles called the Dungeon Master Experience, in which he doled out wisdom based on his many years of DMing by sharing experiences from his tables. As a new DM and player, I found them to be extremely helpful. Once The Geek Pantheon started expanding into blog posts, I decided to try my hand at something similar. To here we go. I’m currently involved in several games, both as a player and a DM. I won’t bore you with the details here. Tonight I’ll be drawing from a recently resumed game using 5th edition and Paizo’s Mummy’s Mask adventure path.
Previously on Mummy’s Mask…
The Forgotten Pharaoh lies dead! Well, sort of. Actually Hakotep I has been dead for six millennia, and the person the PCs just killed was an innocent cleric of Nethys whose only crime was not reading the seal of a canopic jar carefully enough while on an archaeological dig. For the past month she’s been possessed by a fragment of Hakotep’s soul and has led a cult dedicated to restoring the long dead pharaoh to life. In thwarting those plans, the PCs have killed her.
So, the villain has been thwarted, the bad guys defeated. What now? If you’re my players, then their characters scatter to the winds and immerse themselves if extensive downtime activities. Elarion the half-elf monk departs for the monastery of Tar Kuata to gain some peace and self-reflection. Tess, the human artificer dives into research in the recently rediscovered extra-planar workshop of a long dead engineer named Chisisek. Sabine, the human paladin of the Raven Queen, departs for her home in the north to take up her now-dead father’s mantel as Marshal of the Dead. Rezza, the half-elf bard/paladin, takes up residence in a hermitage to study the ways of Horus, and Ali, the elf cleric of Sarenrae, ponders what to do with the corpse of recently-possessed archaeologist.
The campaign up to now has been something of a theme park ride. The PCs have known there was a looming danger. They’ve been thrust into situations where the adventure came to them, or asked by powerful NPCs to go on missions. All of this has had the goal of destroying the Cult of the Forgotten Pharaoh. But know they’ve done it. The rails are at an end, and it’s time to enter the sandbox.
Along the way the players have picked up hooks or dropped character details that I’ve turned into plot hooks. Elarion was once owned by a wizard named Elar and has a tattoo of the unholy symbol of the demon lord Lamashtu on his neck. Tess has discovered the locations of other magical workshops built long ago by Chisisek. Rezza owes a debt to the nefarious Aspis Consortium. Now that the obvious threat is past, it’s time to give full control to the players and let them decide where to go. As of last night’s game, it looks like the workshop’s hold the most interest, though Ali is lobbying hard for tracking down demon-cultists and slavers. The search for the worshops looks like it will move us from the Egypt-themed Osirion to the Steampunk wastelands around Alkenstart. It’s a pretty hard shift of tone and theme, but it’s clear to me that the players mostly want a break from dire threats and evil cults.
Speaking of last night. Ali made the unilateral decision to cast raise dead on the dead archaeologist. She wakes up confused, with bits of the Pharaoh’s memory still floating around. Worse, her right arm has rotted to a zombie-like state, and was not restored by the spell. This is the introduction of Nouf, a new PC run by Sabine’s player (Sabine is going on hiatus, or perhaps retirement, we’ll see). Nouf panics and Ali seems perplexed by the failure of the one spell to solve all problems. She tries cure wounds. I roll a percentage dice and suddenly everyone but Nouf is turned invisible. The spell wears off and Ali tries Greater Restoration. I roll again and Nouf turn’s blue. Remove Curse, and Nouf grows a third eye. Remove Curse directly into the necrotic arm, and Nouf inadvertently casts magic missile at a 5th level. Nouf panics and makes a run for it. Ali casts hold person and Nouf begins to fly. Ali casts Protection from Evil and a planar rift opens out of which steps a Unicorn, whose name we soon learn is Bree.
Eventually we learn that Nouf is a Wild Magic Sorcerer. She was a Cleric, but has lost her connection to Nethys, but has retained the Sorcerous powers of Hakotep, though in an admittedly unstable form. Once things calm down, Ali and Tess work together to craft a magical gauntlet that both prevents the spread of the necrotic tissue, and helps stabilize Nouf’s magic a bit.
Next on Ali’s agenda is getting the band back together, so we’re off to Tar Kuata to bring Elarion out of seclusion. The remainder of the night is spent roleplaying the encounter with Elarion and the other monks and convincing Elarion to leave the monastery and set off for the Mana Wastes. This is not too hard. Elarion’s player reasons that no one has ever come back for him before.
- Sandbox and Railroad aren’t mutually exclusive. Most campaigns do – and I’d say should- include both. Sometimes the openness of the sandbox is freeing to players, sometimes it gives them decision fatigue. Sometimes the headlong rush of the Railroad/Theme Park Ride is a blast, sometimes it feels like the DM is the only one actually playing, while everyone else just rolls dice. My best results have come from mixing the two. Run a few Theme Park adventures, but then let the players decide what to do with the information they’ve gained or the changes the adventures wrought in their players. The Sandbox gives the PCs room to breathe develop. Maybe the direction the players go will lead to the start of the next theme park ride, or maybe we’ll spend a few months exploring a ruined city. I don’t know, but it’ll be fun to find out.
- Don’t rush the players. I like combat. I enjoy the challenge of creating combat encounters that are interesting and challenging and not just a hit point grind. I like for a session to have at least one action scene. Last night didn’t – I had one planned, but we didn’t get there – but it will certainly be one of the more memorable sessions of the campaign. The players and I were helpless with laughter as I rolled again and again on the Wild Magic table, and Elarion’s player got to more deeply explore his character’s motivations. There wasn’t any combat, and there was very little dice-rolling, but it was an outstanding night of gaming for all of us. I was tempted to just summarize the resurrection of Nouf, but then we’d have missed some of the most hilarious chaos of our game.
- A mid-campaign introduction takes thought and planning. I wasn’t ready for Sabine to retire, but her player was getting tired of the Paladin and felt Sabine’s story had culminated. She was ready to try something new. This is where my stable of fun NPCs could come in handy. She and I sat down and talked through some characters the players were already acquainted with, but none of them appealed. Then I learned that Ali planned to resurrect Nouf. I pitched it, and the player snapped it up immediately. She settled on a Wild Magic sorcerer to fit the unstable nature of her grasp on things and even chose spells based on the biblical Ten Plagues of Egypt to show the origin of her magic in the Pharaoh. I built in the necrotic arm to give Nouf a problem that required the aid of the PCs. This gave her a reason to trust them and a chance to get to know them enough to be willing to adventure with her. I also quickly severed Nouf’s support structure from her old life. She’s not a Cleric anymore so she has no place in the church. To the Arcana-obsessed church of Nethys, Nouf is more an academic curiosity of specimen than a friend anymore. This gave her no way to just stay home. She’s got to go somewhere, and the PCs have shown a willingness to help her, even if they did kill her first.
The PCs are off to the Mana Wastes. There are several routes to take, and while I think I know which is most likely, I’ve learned never to assume with my players. That means I’ll need to have something ready for whichever route they take. So I’m going to need to build some travel encounters.