Curse of the Black Pearls
This session was one where I had been sweating an enormous amount of bullets over for a while, because there has been a secret in this game: One of the players characters had decided to work for Talitha (the villain) and betray the party. In the previous escapades you’ll remember that the bard Amaund ended up with the Black Pearl. This situation wasn’t actually set up by me at all, rather the cleric Narvarie was the only character who didn’t vote for themselves to get control of the pearl when they found it. It just happened that the Pearl ended up right in the hands of the traitor.
Now, allow me to preface this with a general discussion on “Should you ever let your party betray one another?” as the answer to this is generally “No, you really shouldn’t”. It’s usually a completely terrible idea, will give players an out of game grudge against the player (depending on how poorly it works out) and may break down the entire game if it goes really badly. Plus it kind of defeats the whole “Team sport” thing that Dungeons and Dragons on the whole has going on. So these are all brilliant reasons why you shouldn’t ever allow someone to betray the party in a major way, but I promptly decided to ignore all of those reasons.
Hopefully you aren’t too confused.
I allowed the player to do this for a few reasons:
1) I felt that story wise, it was actually perfectly on theme and worked brilliantly for the progression of the plot. It ensures that the Pearl gets into Talithas hands, which is basically justification 101 to make her a much more powerful antagonist. Originally I wasn’t running this game long term, only for a few sessions, but now I’ve decided to make it go longer I’ve got to add more oomph to her so she’s a more relevant threat later. This was a good story justification for changes in how she works mechanically from the first time to later. Plus it’s a game about Pirates and everyone in Pirates of the Caribbean just about stabs one another in the back consistently – not that I want it to continue of course, but it sets an interesting precedent and tone.
2) Removes the Black Pearl from the players possession early and gives more impetus to find (and retain) the others.
3) May work to provide me with a recurring antagonist that the PCs have a real reason to want to hate and hunt down.
4) This is more of a meta reason, but I felt that another front line type character would balance the party better and give them some more survivability. Amaund had reasonable AC, but terrible HP and so couldn’t stand at the front line very well at all. With only 2 real characters that engage in melee, I felt this was much better balancing with the new characters concept (which is a Monk or potentially Fighter, the latter of which becomes a lot better due to certain houserules I’ve implemented such as changing opportunity attacks and soon adding the marking variant from the DMG).
Overall I was worried how this would work out? Would everyone just get so annoyed it broke the game? Would everyone just die due to how hard the encounter was? Would it just not really accomplish much at all? Time would tell.
Returning to the session, the players debated what to do for a while before they went back to Ezrakiel. Ezrakiel was delighted they had survived and rewarded them for opening the chamber, but they carefully avoided (or nearly did, Calliara almost told the truth this time and got them in trouble, AGAIN!) mentioning the Black Pearl. The crazed beholder cultist rewarded them with two potions of Greater Healing and a Trident of Fish Control. Yes, THAT item. It’s amazingly useful in my campaign! Seriously! 90% of it happens in water!
In any event, the Kuo-Toa were nowhere near as stupid as they appear and their vile Archpriest recognized the power of the pearl immediately, rallying some fishy forces to attack and head after the retreating characters. Upon reaching the surface of the now exposed lighthouse tower, the characters had mere moments to prepare to defend themselves as the Kuo-Toa reached the top and poured out to attack! This encounter wasn’t really meant to take that long and frankly, I wanted the funny option to succeed: The party teleporting the Kuo-Toa straight onto Talitha’s ship. Unfortunately, I didn’t anticipate the party actually staying around to fight them straight up and so it was a couple of rounds before they used the staff Uldarin (Talitha’s ship mage) gave them. It was also a couple of rounds before they then discovered it had become damaged due to the underwater escapades and needed to be corrected before it would work. Some terrible rolling on the half of the Gnome Wizard delayed out the fight, with the Kuo-Toa really taking it to the PCs (particularly with a nasty aura spell the Archpriest had, which I will detail in my monster spell list below for anyone curious).
They actually were able to kill nearly all of the monsters in this encounter though, which initially was 4 kuo-Toa, 2 whips and the archpriest (so basically all the Kuo-Toa, all the time). However, this encounter had a hugely negative effect on what I actually wanted to focus on: Which was the moment of betrayal. For one thing, while I initially was happy to have people Skype in this method slows the game down considerably: Skype turns take on average about twice to two and a half times as long to complete, especially compared to players at the table. It also makes communication a bit difficult as I have Skype on my PC and the PC naturally faces me (away from the others), so communication with the skype players and those at the table was nigh impossible. In any event, the PCs really wrecked the Kuo-Toa eventually and the Archpriest chose to run.
It’s never a good sign for PCs when a devious antagonist chooses to run and fight another day instead of dying…. just saying.
This meant I had 1 hour of a 3 hour session to really get around what to do about the Betrayal and so certain aspects ended up forced feeling. Most notably, once the staff worked and the signal was given, the players ended up on the ship roughly split apart but with Amaund nearest to Talitha. Naturally Amaund then put his plan into action and gave Talitha the Pearl she wanted, to her delight. Without a need for the characters anymore and knowing they were spying on her for Rygar (due to previous betrayals on top of betrayals) she told her crew to kill the PCs (despite Amaunds protestations to spare the Barbarian Glorkk).
However Rygars forces rapidly leapt into action and initiated a rescue. One that was immediately doomed to failure as Talitha had already prepared a trap for the attacking ships. One ship was assaulted and annihilated by her pet Steel Kraken (you might recall a while ago I mentioned something Talitha had not wanting to approach the temple underwater, hence why it worried her), another was assaulted by 2 of her other vessels (lying in wait). This left only one ship of Rygars ambush to actually do anything and they focused entirely on getting the characters off the boat for whatever information they held. Many of Rygars men sacrificed themselves to buy enough time for the damaged ship to limp away.
The players are at the top, Talitha’s pirates are in the middle with Amaund and the Contessa (all the way from the first session) in there as well. Talitha is at the other end of the ship supervising the other two battles, believing that her pirates will easily take care of the rest of the players. The basic goal here was simple: Get the hell off the boat, but the players of course had something else in mind, murdering the hell out of Amaund first. The war cleric naturally obliged, with Narvarie shooting an accurate crossbow bolt into him and then finishing him off with a +10 to hit guided bolt, dealing easily enough damage to drop him in one round.
A subsequent crossbow bolt/critical hit later and then Glorkk sealing the deal and Amaund was slain before the richness of his betrayal even had a time to get cold. My players evidently believe that revenge is a dish best served extremely hot and immediate, with a dose of setting people on fire to complete things. Personally, I found this pretty disappointing as I had plans to turn Amaund into a recurring villain for the players, but that’s the thing when you roll dice and I like to live with the consequences. Besides, I know for a fact when I’ve just enabled a betrayal like this in the first place the last thing I want to do is then ensure the PCs couldn’t kill him! Unfortunately very high damage rolls and that War Cleric Domain thing of “I really can’t miss” ensured I didn’t get any real chance to do anything about it. Even the rogue rolling with disadvantage on his ranged attack (unconscious characters are prone) hit him easily (critically so, inflicting two failed death saves) and as I mentioned, Glorkk finished it.
The players then used the swirling melee of pirates as a distraction to jump ship and Rygars captain saw fit to spirit them away from the battle, with the steel kraken finishing off one ship and the other dramatically sinking. Thankfully for them, Talitha was sufficiently distracted with her victory that she didn’t need to pursue any further (plus it was the end of an intense session, so I didn’t want to add anything else at this point).
Overall I think it worked out pretty reasonably, not as well as I hoped especially as the betraying player had to actually commune in through skype – so it was difficult for him to convey the real villainy of the situation in many ways. It certainly made for a very dramatic and intense session, with the stakes raised sky high now their enemy has command of three pearls now. Oddly enough though, Amaund dying does have one advantage to the PCs: Talitha will have no knowledge there are actually eight pearls, not seven and this might be very significant information in the later part of the game. If you have to have a betrayal like this, at least it should be dramatic and in service to the story – which I think overall benefits from this more than anything else.
From a time point of view though, having players through Skype didn’t work well at all. 10 minutes was the average turn on skype, much of it just me reexplaining things because I couldn’t easily show the map or needing to clarify questions. Then looking up rolls, waiting for rolls to be posted on invisible castle and so forth. Bandwidth was also a bit of an issue and players frequently dropped out, leading me to do at least two turns for them just to keep things moving. I think we would have been done with the first combat in less than half the time due to this, which really took away from the dramatic moment I wanted. Then again, perhaps I should have simplified or made the first encounter more clear that “Getting out of here now is the most important thing”. Either way, I think now we will be making this game only flesh and blood, because it honestly makes the game easier to and quicker to run – which is very important for progress when you only have a 3 hour session every week.
Now to plan the real part of the campaign: When the players finally get their own ship! Plus now they are level 5 and so get a bunch of extra stuff (I believe proficiency increases to +3 at this level). It will be interesting to see what long term consequences this has: I already gave the “Don’t blame players for their characters actions” speech and of course, this sort of thing only happens when the DM decides to actually let the player do it (so it’s also mostly my fault in the first place). I think everyone took it pretty well, though I think one player is more than distinctly mad about it: But hopefully such actions will be looked back on (in time) as moments that really helped define the game and make it more interesting in the end.