Firstly, this campaign is actually a rejigger/reinterpretation of a 4E PBP I was going to run on the Penny-Arcade forums some years ago. I found my notes for it and after thinking about it, decided it was such a strong idea/theme that it was worth revisiting. With the advantage of access to a club with a great deal of new enthusiastic players to choose from for a DnD game at an actual table, I decided it would be well worth the risk in trying to play more 5E. I hadn’t really warmed to 5th Edition that much to be honest, but having tried it several times I thought it was worth giving a fair and proper shake. So I found some players and got this game underway.
Here instead of starting on a ship that begins with a bloody mutiny, I decided to have them escorting a caravan carrying an important NPC, the Countess D’Costa, back to Regalport. Due to marry Prince Rygar, her arranged marriage will see a closer tie between the isle of Greentarn and a neighbouring island Questor in the Lhazaar Principalities (Game is set in Eberron). Obviously things go very very wrong.
The party is:
Amaund Dukov – Tiefling Bard
Calliara – Half-Elf Rogue
Glorkk – Half-Orc Barbarian
Narvarie – Elven Cleric
Reebu – Gnome Wizard
Everyone started the game at level 4, with 1700 GP for various things. Most players have a masterwork weapon of some sort as a result and decent armor. Having learned valuable lessons from Vault of the Dracolich, I limited potions to 3 per player at character creation. Otherwise things just get plain silly. At some point I will sit down and work out precisely how much gold was used on this stuff so I know precisely what the players do/don’t have. I am still unsure what they should have as treasure, especially magic items, by this point and if Horde of the Dragon Queen is any indication getting magic stuff seems obscenely rare these days.
In any event, we began with an explanation of what is going on and why, with the PCs hired as mercenaries to protect a caravan heading back to Regalport. Nobody really expects any attack, but a mercenary guard is always important around this area and the PCs will be paid handsomely for it (or would have been…). An NPC called Avery told them various tales of his exploits in the Last War (which is an important plot point to emphasize, so was brought up very early) and shouted the characters to an evening in the forts Tavern. This was my attempt to try to make him rather endearing to the party and establish some kind of relationship, but sadly it didn’t work out that well for reasons that will become apparent.
Inevitably, with the large map I prepared and put in the center of the table, the players suspicions there may be some kind of combat were met! So this encounter has multiple elements, which actually were fairly daunting given that most of my party is entirely new to DnD (and some to roleplaying games). Firstly, it’s entirely mounted so all characters/players were on horses. This is because I wanted to have a kinetic introduction to the game, with the players and pirates attacking them racing along the road. Helping out the players are carriages with crossbow toting guards, who could easily one shot the initial attacking Hobgoblin mercenaries that first encountered the caravan.
Making the encounter mobile had two interesting points: Firstly, being mounted meant my players could usually go anywhere on the map they felt like. Secondly, being dismounted or knocked off the horse meant rapidly falling behind and being left for dead. So the 11ish HP riding horses were extremely valuable targets: Eliminating monsters or enemies from the encounter could be accomplished in more ways than just whittling down HP. Additionally, the placement of patches of thorny brambles that would damage horses (specifically) if forced to move through them by their rider made for some interesting choices. Finally players could just straight up jump on top of the carriages and fight up there if they chose as well, ignoring most of the problems with the horses.
When designing this I decided to simply throw away all of wizards encounter guidelines, which I think are dreadful and just go with my instincts. The guard carriages were designed with being very heavy and hard to hurt physically, so the enemies needed to close in to a handful of squares and chuck alchemists fire into them. The fire does double damage to the carriages and once it reduces them for half HP, kills half the crossbow guards inside: Reducing their formidable (it turns out) 2d8+4 damage to 1d8+2. These carriages were important initially for the players because they could easily one shot a Hobgoblin or enemies horse. In fact, this was indeed the point and it was so I could choose to give my players a break if I wanted by eliminating enemies quicker. Additionally the guard carriages provide something for the enemies to attack that aren’t players, because their objectives are to destroy and disrupt the caravan. Whenever possible, they go for these and attempt to use whatever alchemists fire they have on hand (they have a minimum of 1 vial each).
Finally, I decided to break up the enemies into waves: 6 Hobgoblins in the first wave, then 4 more Hobgoblins on round 3 and finally 3 Crimson Legion Pirates (Veteran stat block, with more piraty weapons) on round 4. This worked fantastically, giving the players enough of a break they could strategize and get away from danger, while still being enough of a threat consistently that nobody got bored. Even though the set up is fairly complicated, my players easily got the idea of how it worked and nothing felt overwhelming – other than looking up the odd spell I thought this encounter went pretty well. It still took about an hour or so of real time, but it is a big complex encounter and so it worked really well overall.
And again, I paid no attention to whatever the encounter guidelines actually say. So to make this clearer, here is a picture!
I hand drew all of this (if that isn’t obvious) with the pencil art on the paper tokens (like the carriage) being done by my amazingly talented and immensely awesome wife (much to everyone’s appreciation). The caravans tend to follow the road (in the center) while the brambles surround the sides of the road. Otherwise I combined stuff from Shadowfell (oddly the only 4E supplement I still have) and Gamma World (Hobgoblins were naturally laser toting insects). Here the players and hobgoblins are largely fighting on the northern side of the map, dodging trees, pushing people off horses and generally trying to stop the hobgoblin (behind the first carriage) continuing to set it on fire.
The Hobgoblins proved to be workable opponents, with their high AC (18) making them pretty resilient but the Barbarian still managed to mostly one shot them with most attacks that landed. A tasha’s hideous laughter used early on basically instantly removed one of the hobgoblins, because he couldn’t get back on his horse or do anything except get left in the dust of the combat (which was again, a very interesting and incredibly successful dynamic to add to this encounter with enemies/characters that don’t move or keep pace with the caravan moving back towards the edge of the map and eventually off it).
Inevitably I had the Crimson Legion actually arrive and these guys were substantially harder. For one thing, attacking twice meant they could really wrack up damage quickly and their 53 HP really made them a pain. In fact, here is where I noticed the players had a lot of trouble: The Barbarian in particular didn’t really seem to do a whole lot of damage at all and missing/guys saving made them somewhat hard to actually hurt. At level 4, the Barbarian only dealing 1d12+4+2(raging) damage seemed ridiculously low – which makes me feel I missed something? Or does damage really not scale that well? In any event, the combat was still dramatic and one raider got knocked off his horse after a player killed it. In a desperate moment he ran up to the last carriage and attempted to jump on, naturally rolling a 20 in the process (much to the players disgust). At this point both carriages had taken a massive beating, but the players noticed that the pirates were deliberately not attacking the Contessa’s carriage! Perhaps treachery was afoot!? Rumor did have it the Contessa was not happy about the arranged marriage and I was pleased to see one player advance this idea themselves.
In any event, the pirates were defeated and the PCs picked through some of the corpses left behind while they rested. Guards tried to shore up some of the (now badly) burned carriages and they soon got moving again up the coastal road. Here is where I flipped my map to reveal another portion of the road: This time going alongside a seaside cliff. I gave them several vials of the alchemists fire, which is actually fairly handy as it deals 2d6 fire damage (half on a save) when chucked at enemies. It’s a very useful potential horse killer.
The next encounter by the coastal road was where I was going to pull the incredibly risky DM trump card: The unwinnable encounter. Three dreaded words, which have doomed many a campaign in the past. In this encounter, I deliberately started off with a highish level mage, three more Crimson Raiders and then on the second round, the spectacular entrance of a young blue dragon: Smashing into the cart and slamming it down into the cliffs and sea below. Then running after the PCs.
Here I made two things clear to them: Firstly, the Dragon spent most of its effort chasing the carriages, so couldn’t advance beyond the left edge of the map. This was basically to turn the edge of the map into a deadzone where the players needed to be concerned about going near (as the Dragon could then eat them) and watching out for its breath weapon (which I used as an automatic and dramatic “Fry the horse that PC is riding on automatically button” but without targeting or killing the PC specifically as it’s breath weapon was more than sufficient to kill a player). Thankfully for my PCs, the “Trigger” for the end of the encounter was when the shipwright mages flaming sphere burned through the roof of the frontal (remaining) guard caravan and entirely destroyed it. At the end of round 2, another serious Crimson Legion pirate rode in and she cut down the horses carrying the Contessa and caused both her (and Avery) to be thrown out.
With the Contessa under the Legion’s control, all three carriages destroyed and a powerful new enemy on the board, especially after the mage used cone of cold to turn two PCs horses into Horseicles – they took her offer of an amicable surrender and [i]did not fight to the death[/i]. To be honest, I’d been having kittens about that all week and it was good to see the players decide that not dying horribly was the better idea. I then got to demonstrate the Contessa’s disgust of being forced to marry Rygar and she appealed to the pirates to kidnap her for a ransom. They had no interest, instead grabbing a piece of jewlery she had received as a gift, a pearl necklace that the Contessa insisted was of limited value. A sharp eyed PC noticed that when the woman who seemed to be commanding the legion touched it, it darkened momentarily before she put it away….
In any event, visibly upset and frustrated, the Contessa demanded to be allowed to join the Legion, where their enigmatic Captain simply shrugged and said sure (she got what she came for after all).
Here we see the other map, with the road towards the bottom and much denser forest. Due to the amount of damage the carriages took and the dragon, this encounter ended pretty quickly compared to the first as leaving the PCs in a no-win situation for a long period was not a good idea. In essence though, I got all of my major story set up in here, got everyone familiar with the basic rules/concepts in 5E and already established some personalities in every character. An overall success. Oh and I didn’t kill anyone or get a TPK, even better.
Of course, not everything went to my plan as I mentioned earlier. Avery was supposed to be a reasonably endearing character, but like 90% of RPG NPCs his flailing and terrible record of accuracy with the crossbow during the combat meant the PCs were convinced he was constantly drunk (I don’t think I rolled above 10 more than once for him). So when the Captain offered to the PCs for them to join her crew, they did so and when I tried to make a hard moral choice in shooting Avery down as he escaped on a horse (to prove their interest in joining the Legion) they followed her order readily. In fact, Reebu caught him with a Ray of frost and it was a critical hit, laying the man dead on the ground. Unfortunately this didn’t work out because:
A) It’s hard to make players care about an NPC early on until a few sessions have passed
B) His mechanical uselessness at the table further didn’t endear him to anyone.
On thinking about it, I should have played up the drunken pirate swordsmaster angle more and made him a mobile combatant like I originally planned. I could have given him some depth and supporting abilities to help the players (especially damage). This would have helped him forge more of an interest relationship and made him more of a character – sadly Avery’s journey in the game ends in a small ditch on a poorly maintained road.
Overall I think the session worked very well and I was pleased that A) Nobody died and B) the players took the interesting route of chumming up the Crimson Legion for a while. This has some advantages in that it lets them get an idea about the antagonists for a while and get some actual meaningful interaction with them (that doesn’t feel forced). Unfortunately, it does mean I don’t get to use that super awesome encounter where the players are chained up to a sinking object and harried by sharks….
Overall the single most pleasing thing was the extremely enthusiastic reaction of the players afterwards and I am already excited about next week.
Something something crazy fish people is in the future I feel.