Previously on Mummy’s Mask….
Having vanquished the Cult of the Forgotten Pharaoh, and resurrected his last victim, the adventurers have decided to travel to Alkenstar in the Mana Wastes, hoping to find another workshop belonging to the ancient genius and engineer Chissisek. To do so, they spend some of the massive wealth (my players are frugal and tend to horde gold) to charter a ship, making use of Reza’s pirate contacts. And what good DM doesn’t want to have a battle on the high seas? So, I had decided to send a rival group of pirates after their ship. The previous session ended with the lookout spotting a pirate ship closing on them.
I spent the time between sessions planning the battle and crewing the ship. For the nefarious captain, I found a mini I’d been wanting to use for a while of a Mind-Flayer with an eyepatch. An Illithid Pirate! What could be more awesome! He was a one-shot, so I tweaked the standard stats a bit and moved on. Then I got a phone call. One of my players had a couple friends who would like to come and play with us just the once. That meant my players just went from five to seven! I began reworking the encounter. More pirates were just out of the question; running dozens of NPCs is just too much, even if I make them one-hit minions. I needed something to up the power of the encounter without making it harder to run. So, I did the obvious thing. I added in a sea monster.
For my sea monster I took the stats of a hydra and tweaked it to be more aquatic. Now I’m ready.
The battle begins with my players launching a volley of high-level spells against the enemy ship: Ice Storm, Sun Beam, Disintegrate, Control Water (whirlpool) and Shatter in a matter of seconds. The pirate ship makes it through, but just. Then the players spot the captain and a shudder runs through the experienced D&D players while the others wonder what new danger this is. I’m delighted. Battle ensues, and the players are mopping the floor with the pirates while the Artificer and the Mind Flayer trade spells, gunfire, and psychic blasts. Then, both ships tremble as if bumped. Suddenly the five-headed Hydra rises from the water. Terror rocks the party as it makes its five attacks, eating several pirates and badly injuring the party Monk. It’s going to be a magnificent, fun, dangerous encounter that I think the party will just scrape through without dying. Then the bard speaks.
“I need the Hydra to make a Wisdom saving throw. I’m casting Polymorph.”
Guess what? Hydra’s aren’t great at Wisdom saving throws. One second later, my glorious hydra (whose mini I spent hours on) is a sea bass. I’ll admit to being a little dejected, but the players are rolling with laughter. The last pirates are subdued and the captain makes one last telepathic threat to the artificer about how delicious her brain will be and plane shifts out.
The adventurers set about looting the sinking pirate vessel and using magic to force the water out of it while they work to plug the holes with a mix of magic and know-how. Part way through the Polymorph wears off. The Hydra immediately reappears. It’s time to get my revenge. We roll initiative. The Bard wins…. And my Hydra is once again a sea bass. This time the adventurers manage to capture the sea bass with some great rolls, contain it in a crate and set it adrift so it can’t follow them until they are well away.
The players are having fun and I’m consoling myself, but then something interesting happens. The party had taken a couple pirates captive and discovered they were thralls of the mind-flayer captain. The captives were tied up on the deck while the cleric tried to figure out how to disenthrall them. I had given the captain a magical item allowing him to see through the eyes of his thralls (The eyepatch of seeing, get it?), and the party noticed the way the eyes of the thralls followed them. This gets the shiver I’m looking for, but rather than blindfold them, Reza the Bard decides to parade the stolen treasures from the captain’s quarters in front of the thralls, taunting the mind flayer. Suddenly this mind flayer isn’t a nameless one-shot enemy. He’s a nemesis. A nemesis and a villain are different in my vcoab. Villains are the great threat the party must face (Thanos, Sauron, Emperor Palpatine). A nemesis is a personl enemy (the Joker, Boba Fett) who has it in for the party or one of its members. Adventurers battle villains to save the world, their friends, and for various other altruistic reasons. They battle a nemesis because if they don’t, he’ll come for them and they’ll never be safe. It’s personal. There is a connection. In my opinion, a good campaign will have both villains and nemeses, and of course sometimes they become one and the same.
- Stronger enemies are usually better than more enemies: Combat can drag under the best of circumstances, so using a stronger enemy (especially one with lots of attacks) to stand in for numbers makes the fight easier to run, and also more interesting because of diverse threats.
- As your players advance in level, be prepared for crazy abilities, and roll with it: I would be lying if I said I didn’t think about fudging the Hydra’s wisdom save the second time. I really wanted that fight, and I had a really cool mini and set-up for it, but that would have been unjust. The adventurers won by good use of abilities and saving spells slots for the right moment. Also, the players really loved the absurdity of it. Fun was had, and that’s really all it’s about.
- Powerful characters will make powerful enemies: As Bilbo Baggins said, “Never laugh at live dragons.” My player characters taunted a Mind Flayer. That has consequences. Not you-return-home-to-find-everyone-you-love-murdered consequences, but consequences. Mind Flayers are notoriously vain, and they are schemers. As a DM, you should be on the look out for opportunities for a nemesis. I have typically found that my players have been at least as satisfied with the eventual defeat of a minor lieutenant who had been a thorn in their side long enough to become a nemesis as they have been with the defeat of the true villain of the story.
- If you attack your party with a ship, they will find a way to commandeer it, every time: Just FYI…
So, my Hydra is a bass, but I’ve got a very nice consolation prize. The adventurers have made a nemesis, and now I get to plot his revenge, and I think very few D&D monsters have the capacity to plot revenge like a Mind Flayer. I’ve got his current scheme, which is to get the adventurers arrested when they return to Alkenstar from their foray to Chissisek’s workshop (he’s used scrying to learn their plans), but only after he steals back his ship (they left it with a crew to earn some money for them) and sends a message in blood.