Friday was the latest installment of the Post Tenebras Lux campaign.
It’s been a long week, and I was kind of tired and unfocused that evening, and I didn’t have a very good game.
One of the things that I notice is that, when I’m tired and not completely into the game, I wind up making bad calls. Nothing huge, really, but missed opportunities for making the game more fun for everyone. You say you’d like an example? Well, sure. Here are a couple.
First of all, we had another combat with a patrol of gnolls*, which is fine. The party is trying to scout out the Ghostlord’s tower in the Thornwaste, which I’ve decided is sort of a savanna-like plain with hedgerows of brambles, and some deep gullies and mesas in places. As part of the scouting and avoiding detection, I let everyone make either a Perception or Stealth check, and used a sort of conglomerate of the scores to decide what happened. Now, the heavily armoured paladin really blew a Perception check, so I decided that the group and a gnoll patrol just sort of stumbled on each other at point blank range, and each party was equally surprised. I drew a few hedgerows on the map after the group had placed themselves, so that I could have the paladin basically coming around the end of a hedgerow face-to-face with the gnoll patrol*. I was using the thorns and brambles essentially as walls, obstacles in the combat. I described them as between eight and twelve feet tall, dense and impenetrable. And then one of the players asked if he could push an enemy into the brambles to hurt or trap it.
And I said no, because I was thinking of the hedges as walls.
That was the wrong answer – the fight could have become very cool, with people pushing each other into the clinging, piercing thorns, setting them on fire, and stuff like that. I realized it during the fight, though by the time I did, we had got deep enough into things that changing my mind would have made things worse, by invalidating the tactics the group had come up with to deal with the environment. I consciously tried to say yes to stuff after that, letting them climb up on top of the tangles and such, but I think I really missed an opportunity for some interesting stuff with that single no. I need to remember to say yes more often.
Second example came later, as they first encountered outriders of the Stone Swimmer Tribe – a tribe of goliaths who raise bulettes. The group wanted to talk the tribe into meeting with the Grass Dragon Tribe (enemies of theirs) in order to forge an alliance against the gnolls and the oni who may be behind the army. Now, the way I’ve been running these, as I mentioned last time, is that I’ve been listening to what the characters are saying to the NPCs, and giving them a roll against an appropriate skill when they say something that has a chance of swaying the listeners to the party’s point of view. With this particular tribe, the chieftain has had her position undermined by the tribal shaman, who thinks she’s being a coward for not making a direct attack against the gnolls, despite the overwhelming odds, so there was an extra layer of complexity, as the chieftain couldn’t come out in support of the meeting and alliance until she felt she had enough support among the warriors to stand up to the shaman.
So, what happened? One of the characters, playing the cleric, upon first meeting the Stone Swimmer scouts, launches into a very eloquent appeal to them to ally with the Grass Dragons. He manages in his speech to lay out the prospect in terms that gets the Stone Swimmers’ backs up – uniting with the Grass Dragons, the tribe not being strong enough to protect their own children, the way they need outsiders to come show them the errors of their ways, all that kind of thing. And all of this coming out of the mouth of an outlander worshipper of a foreign god, and a city boy, at that.
Now, what I should have done is used this opportunity to show the reactions of the goliaths in such a way as to provide guidance to the party as to what arguments would and would not be useful. After all, except for one of the warriors being the husband of the chieftain, they were all just extras in the scene, not decision-makers, so I could have offered instruction by having some of them react badly, citing the specific insults, and having a couple of the calmer heads settling the hot-heads down and saying that these questions need to be settled by the chieftain and shaman. Maybe even have a friendly one offer some sotto voce advice to avoid certain approaches.
What I did was have the entire Stone Swimmer party take umbrage and start to dismiss the group, until the paladin piped in with one sentence – after the cleric’s lengthy argument – calling the tribe’s courage and love of their children into question, which got them in to see the chieftain.
See, I made the mistake I railed against back here. I responded as if the goliaths were actually proud tribal warriors being insulted by an outlander. I did “what the goliaths would do,” not what I needed to do to move the story forward. In doing so, I devalued the cleric’s contribution to the process, and I almost threw a very large obstacle into my own plot.
Things worked out in the end, but not as cleanly or as interestingly as they might have. The cleric’s Insight skill became integral in figuring out the divisions within the tribe, and the trophies that the party had collected from the gnolls managed to set the tribe’s shaman back on his heels when they were dropped in front of him in response to one of his challenges.
So, the game was not a bust, but it wasn’t one of the best sessions I’ve run. If I had been a little more attentive and focused on the things I mention above, I think it could have been great, but it turned out pretty mediocre.
Have to try harder. But that’s always the lesson, isn’t it?
*2 deathpledged gnolls, 6 gnoll minions, and 3 krenshars – 1,225 xp, a level 5 encounter for 6 characters. Back
*I can rhyme! Back