The DM Experience 4: No Plan Survives Contact with the Enemy, I mean Players


Previously on Mummy’s Mask…

Ali died. Sarenrae offered her the chance to stay in Nirvana, and Ali said no, she had things to do. She returned in response to the call of a resurrection spell, but resurrection does not go unnoticed by the guardian of Death’s gates – the Raven Queen.

With Ali returned, the Party retreats to the desert hermitage of the Sphinx Teitsurah (an ally from a previous adventure). Their intention is to get away from populated areas before Drusiss strikes again, lest he once again use them to harm innocents.

Tess retreats to her extraplanar Workshop (She has one. I gave it to her. It’s my fault.) to do some work on her own and Rook’s guns. With Elarion and Nouf standing by, Ali decides she needs to do some divine recon, so she casts commune. For those of you not familiar, commune gives you an chance to ask three yes-or-no questions of a representative of your deity. Ali wants to know some things about Drusiss and hopes Sarenrae can give her some answers.

I play fast and loose with the rules on a regular basis, and in this moment, I have an idea that will have campaign-shaking consequences: since resurrection would draw the attention of the Raven Queen, might not one’s ability to control certain divine magics be affected by it? So I hold up a d20 and say “Evens or odds?” Ali’s player selects evens and I roll. It’s odds.

The room goes cold, and rather than the beam of light that usually heralds a representative of Sarenrae, frost covers the floor and the shadows coalesce on the statue of Horus before which Ali kneels. The shadows take the form of a large raven with cold blue eyes. The players are staring in nervous attention as the Raven hops toward Ali and croaks “Ask.” Ali settles her nerves, and asks.

  1. Is Drusiss on this plane? Yes.
  2. Is our friend Rezza dead? No.
  3. If we taunt Drusiss, will he come to us?

Now, commune offers an ‘unclear’ option, but what fun is that when you’re talking to the mistress of death and fate? I’m silent for a bit, thinking. Quoth the Raven, but no longer in a raven voice, instead in the voice of a woman, “What would you give to twist fate?”

Elarion decides this is weird, and backs out of the room. Nouf suggests offering her right arm (still necrotic and enclosed in a magical gauntlet). The Raven looks and says, “It’s not your arm.” That’s enough for Nouf, and she slips out as well. Ali (and her player) struggle for a while with the implications of this, but finally makes an offer: One act. The Raven Queen can ask one act of Ali, and she’ll do it, no questions asked. Before she has a chance to rethink it, the Raven takes the deal and departs.

The party doesn’t know what it cost, but Ali informs them that she knows Drusiss will come. They rest, partake of a Heroes Feast, and prepare. Meanwhile, I stand up, pull the map of Drusiss’ lair out from under the table map, and ceremoniously put it away, along with the army of minis I’d prepared for that thorough and involved encounter, because well, that’s not happening. Ali casts sending, and taunts Drusiss with a clever insult surrounding his ship and his mother. Drusiss begins to respond with derision to the effect of “You can’t think I’m that stupid,” when everyone gets a sickening twisting feeling in the pit of their stomachs. Fate twists, and Drusiss says “You’ll regret that!”

Moments later, via teleportation magic, Drusiss arrives with his minions. A psychic blast stuns half the party, but the gunslinger Rook in overwatch pumps Drusiss full of lead and after a few rounds, he’s in pretty bad shape.  In desperation he makes an offer to Elarion. He will tell him where he can find Elar – the man who enslaved him, and whom Elarion has been seeking for years. It’s a wonderful moment as I watch Elarion’s player torn with indecision. In the end, he decides that vengeance doesn’t trump the safety of his companions and refuses. On his next turn, Drusiss casts plane shift. Nouf’s counterspell fails, and Ali asks. “Can I follow him.”

By the rules? No, of course not, but why not give a chance? So I offer an Arcana check. Ali makes a 23. Yes, she can, but she won’t be able to if she waits. Tess is the only one adjacent, so Ali grabs Tess and casts plane shift, following Drusiss through the planes to his homeworld of Athas, a barren, magic blasted waste. Tracking reveals Drusiss has traveled into a stationary sandstorm. Tess and Ali follow him in, but Drusiss is on his guard, and the heroes are not especially strong. They are in serious danger of being separated and lost in the storm. In desperation, Ali activates the Cleric ability, Divine Intervention to stop the storm. Frankly, I’m pretty sure they’re about to die.

She must roll a d100 and roll lower than her level (13). Low odds, and she rolls a 9. The storm stops, Drusiss is 15 feet away preparing to attack, but Tess has the next turn and hits him with a lightning bolt that fries a hole through him.

Now, they’re still on a distant planet and can’t get back til Ali has rested. So I begin plotting the dangers they can encounter while waiting. Except… the Workshop. At Tess’s suggestion, they retreat into the Workshop to rest in safety. But all is not lost for the vicious DM. They still have to get back out of the workshop to take it with them when they Plane Shift, and they left Drusiss’ corpse on the ground. Surely some terrible monster will have been drawn to the smell of blood! Except… invisibility. Tess casts invisibility, allowing them to exit, pick up the workshop, and only appear in the moment of casting plane shift.

Lessons Learned

  • Players will ruin your plans: For the record, the planned encounter at Drusiss’ base was awesome. It had a ritual to summon an Old God, cultists, slaadi, and of course Drusiss, who had lair actions. It was wonderful, and I was sad, but it died on the altar of story.
  • The rules are like the Pirate Code, more like guidelines: The cost of death matters, and in this case, it results in Ali’s magic being twisted up with the Raven Queen. Also, by giving the players the chance to twist fate, I got one of them to agree to a no-questions-asked open favor to an implacable goddess. Likewise, Ali and Tess had very little hope that they could safely chase Drusiss, but they were willing to try anyway. Both were low on spells and HP. If my players are willing to do something exceedingly risky, but very cool, then who cares if the spell is supposed to be able to do that?
  • If you’re going to make your players’ characters suffer, find a way to reward them too: A session before, I murdered Ali in cold blood. It was a rough session and it had a profound affect on Ali, and to some extent on her player. Giving Ali the spotlight in the next session and setting the rules aside to allow some of her risky but clever thinking to work out was a nice pay off for that.
  • Again, the monsters know what they’re doing: I said it last time and it’s still true. It would have been great for the players if Drusiss had been willing to fight to the death, but it wouldn’t make any sense. He’s a brilliant creature out for vengeance, but also survival. Why stand and fight when you can retreat, regroup, and try again later.

Next Time…

Sabine, Warlock of the Raven Queen, returns! Also, what happens when you’re players decide not to take on an obvious threat in the middle of an adventure?

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