The DM Experience 5: Failure is Always an Option

Previously on Mummy’s Mask…

Wati is attacked! Having triumphed over Drusiss, the players return to Tephu. Their attempts to wrap up a few loose ends in the city are interrupted when a flying pyramid accompanied by an undead dragon arrive and begin bombarding Tephu and its neighboring city Wati!

At the same time, Sabine (F Human Warlock of the Raven Queen) is patrolling the borders of Death when a powerful spirit breaks through, not only escaping, but knocking her out of Death and into the physical world. She finds herself in Wati facing a horde of undead, which she battles until her allies arrive on the scene to aid her in a fight with a massive skeleton.

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You think these guys are susceptible to destroy undead?

When the battle is done, the party can see that the pyramid and the dragon are approaching the Grand Mausoleum (the temple of Pharasma, goddess of the dead), but they’ve taking a beating. They have to make a choice, and they chose to rest and heal. The chaos of the city rages around them, and when they arrive at the Grand Mausoleum, it’s too late. The temple has been destroyed and the pyramid and dragon are heading out into the desert.

The party joins rescue operations and use teleportation magic to recover survivors from the ruins. In the process they learn that the assailants have taken the Mask of the Forgotten Pharaoh, which the party recovered in the first act of the campaign. They also learn that the dragon is Asuulek, an evil red dragon who was thought to be dormant in a desert volcano. At the same time, Ali is receiving urgent flashes of a location she knows she needs to go, and a book she knows she needs to recover as part of her deal with the Raven Queen. What do they do? Go interrogate Chisisek, the architect who might have designed the flying pyramid, and therefore might help them bring it down? Go find out what happened to Asuulek and why his undead form is attacking Osiron? Make their way to the location in Ali’s visions?

After the sort of lengthy weighing of options familiar to anyone who plays D&D, the party decides Ali’s visions are most urgent, and they strike off into the desert. Arriving at the Ravenous Sphinx, they find the pyramid hovering in silent menace, but no sign of the dragon. After a short battle with undead guardians and their lion-headed commanders, the heroes burst into the Ravenous Sphinx and into the midst of a battle. On one side are the Keres – death-fates, servants of the Raven Queen – and on the other are a number of enormous creatures who look like the Osiriani gods Horus and Sekhmet, as well as a mummy lord in the Mask of the Forgotten Pharaoh, and a female Death Knight.

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Horus wants you!

Readers who know the Monster Manuel will know that this is a dangerous fight for 14th level heroes, even well equipped and powerful ones.

It’s a long and brutal battle. I think the players realize about half-way through  that they are losing, but they know – even if they don’t know why – that it will be devastating if the enemy obtain that book. So, they fight on. Ali the Cleric goes down, is brought back, and then goes down again – this time in an area of effect attack that also takes down Rook the Gunslinger. Tess the Artificer is stunned, and Elarion the Monk is trapped on the other side of a spell, doing what limited attacks he can at range. In the end, Sabine the Warlock is defeated and the enemy escapes, leaving them for dead. Neither the players, nor the characters know what was taken, but they know it will have dire consequences.

 

Failure – The Good and Bad

The above took place over three sessions. The first ended with the fight with the giant skeleton. The second ended with rescue operations and the discovery that the enemy had taken the Mask of the Forgotten Pharaoh, and the third with the defeat of the heroes in the Ravenous Sphinx. The second and third session ended in failure. The second in the failure of the party to arrive in time to stop the theft of the mask, and the third in their defeat after a battle. Both allowed the enemy to take a powerful artifact for his use, but after the second session, the players felt frustrated, and after the third, they felt satisfied. I’d like to look at why.

In the second session, the player characters decided to rest and cast a lengthy healing ritual before moving on. I described the ongoing chaos, the enormous crash as the flying pyramid blasted the Grand Mausoleum to rubble, but they felt they were better off healing first. As a consequence, they didn’t get the chance for their first encounter with the big villain – Hakotep I, reborn as a Mummy Lord – or the opportunity to stop him from retrieving his mask and making himself whole again. This meant they went into the second encounter less prepared for the power of their enemies. At the end of the session they were frustrated by that failure.

In the third session, they were beaten. They didn’t force the enemy to flee. They didn’t make the enemy limp away having suffered terrible harm. Hakotep and his lieutenants strode out of the Ravenous Sphinx with the same confidence with which they strode in. The only soldiers they lost were the guards outside and a few killed by the Keres. By all evidence, it was a much worse defeat, yet I did not sense the same frustration in my players. Why not?

 

Lessons Learned…

  • Failure of Communication: Since these sessions, I’ve learned that the reason for the delay in session 2 is that they assumed it was already too late. The Mask had already been taken, so they marshalled their resources for the assault on the pyramid they thought was coming. They misread the situation I was presenting, and that left us all feeling frustrated by the results. In hindsight, I could have had some city guards run by and call out “The Mausoleum is under attack! Help!” or had one of their allies at the Mausoleum use sending or a similar spell to communicate the situation and call for help. I don’t know if that would have made a difference in how things played out, but it would have clarified the situation.
  • Failure hurts most when you never got to try: The frustration was the feeling of having missed an opportunity, I think. The players had no way to know what their characters were trading for the chance to rest. This is something we face in real life, and ultimately the outcome of session 2 was a result of deliberate player choice, but it felt unsatisfying because the heroes were rendered passive observers.
  • Failure is a great roleplaying opportunity: In session 3, they players were simply beaten. It wasn’t an entirely one-sided battle and the players did substantial damage to their enemies, but they saw clearly that they were losing. This resulted in some revealing character choices. Elarion was the last hero standing (Tess was stunned and knocked prone, so she was helpless) and he decided to hide until the enemy left in the hope of saving his fallen comrades (and himself). Tess recovered from stunned but elected to lie very still til the enemy left. Sabine counterspelled an attempt by the enemy to teleport out with the book well after it was clear that the heroes were outmatched. This choices showed who the characters were to various degrees. That’s always a good thing.
  • Failure can be satisfying: My players didn’t leave session three distraught over their failure. They had survived; classic villainous hubris, surprising humanity, or something in between made the enemy leave them alive. Rather than a let down, the battle had the resonance of a cinematic fight where the heroes are thoroughly defeated in a way that hardens their resolve rather than breaks it – Loki’s escape from the helicarrier in Avengers for example. I don’t know what effect the defeat will have on the characters, but my players left satisfied because the battle had been a fun challenge, and they lived to fight another day.

 

Next Time….

The heroes now know they are up against Hakotep, and that he claims to be trying to save the world. Also where did that dragon go? And what do you do when you’ve been beaten to within an inch of your life and wake up in a forbidden archive of dangerous knowledge?

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