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Winging It

(Poison) Oaks from Acorns

by Ian Sokoliwski
Jul 20,2005


(Poison) Oaks from Acorns

Welcome to the ninth instalment of the column 'Winging It', a column discussing the promises and pitfalls of a more improvisational approach to GM'ing.

As another aside from the ongoing discussions of my 'Hunter: the Reckoning' Campaign, I would like to discuss a 'Dungeons and Dragons' game I ran a couple of years ago, and how it illustrates the idea that the actions of the players can completely and utterly overwhelm any sane and rational thoughts the GM may have had, even in an improvisational setting, and how that same GM may cope with it.

In a previous instalment (my fourth column, 'When Campaigns Crash'), I had discussed the intersection of two separate D&D Campaigns that I had been playing with. The second Campaign had been a low-level game, using a fairly well-detailed setting of my own design. The first Campaign, however, was the one I had referred to as the 'Superhero Campaign'. Essentially, this was my way of running a superhero game with players that were more interested in a fantasy setting, using the vast, epic scope of comic books such as DC/Wildstorm's 'The Authority' for inspiration. The characters themselves began with ten million plus experience points, as well as an interesting variety of magical items, and were frequently more than capable of handling any opposition; indeed, the game was much more about epic conflict (sometimes more about 'who should we help' rather than simply 'I swing my sword at the obvious bad guy') and the interpersonal relationships of the various Player Characters rather than any individual fight scene.

It is an earlier adventure in this 'Superhero Campaign' that I wish to discuss, and how it relates to the improvisational approach to GM'ing.

This particular session had sprung from the purchase of one of the books for the 'Dark Sun' setting. One of the nice things in running a game with elements of first and second editions of D&D is the plethora of cheap modules and reference books available at most used bookstores (due both to their age and the fact that most players seem to want to 'upgrade' to 3.0 and 3.5), and, as such, I was able to take a look at some of the source material cheaply, in this case the book 'Veiled Alliance'.

Now, this has been the only real exposure (besides advertisements and the occassional discussion in 'Dragon' magazine) to the Dark Sun setting. As such, I felt no compunctions about altering it to suit my whim, taking the elements I found in this book and weaving the entire world around it, giving it and the twisted, altered magicks in the setting my own spin. Thus, if my descriptions of the setting doesn't match those of people who have played in the setting or have run it, that is partially intentional.

At any rate, I felt a good way to start this particular session would be to have the party (a very high-level Human Cleric, another very high-level Elven Ranger/Cleric/Assassin, and a very high-level half-Drow Monk/Thief-Acrobat) become the victims of a quest for power of one of the Dragon Kings. In so doing, they would inadvertantly be responsible for the deaths of said Dragon King as well as thousands of other individuals.

Travelling onboard a captured Drow flying ship (legacy of the previous session involving a minor near-Demigod trapped on the Moon), the entire party (ship included) found themselves teleported (Gated, more likely) into a vast coliseum. The energies released during the transport wrecked the ship and flung the party members about, each into piles of fresh dead bodies. It turned out that everyone in the coliseum, including a large dragon and other 'spellcasters', were dead from what looked like rather severe cuts and gouges, with no visible reason for this state. In addition, any spell effects that were normally in place on the party members (Endure Heat/Cold, etc) were not in effect, presumably cancelled by the teleportation.

The two Clerics began re-casting their protection spells, but noticed two things. First, the spells seemed to not have the same effect that they normally would (for instance, upon casting Endure Heat, the severe heat in the coliseum abated...but not enough compared to what they had been used to). Second, the Monk manifested wounds (and suffered damage) similar to those of the dead crowd surrounding them. It appeared that their spells were causing the Monk damage, as though it were draining her life essence. Only in a rather bloody fashion.

Eventually, upon leaving the huge charnel ground, they discovered that those in the rest of the city, believing the party to be 'evil spellcasters', began attacking them indiscriminately. Not wanting to butcher hundreds of deranged (but probably misguided) townsfolk, the party decided to flee, eventually encountering a member of one of the 'Alliances' from the aforementioned sourcebook. He helped them get to a safe place in the desert (well, outside of the city...really, everything around them for thousands of miles was desert), where he could better determine what they were.

This was where I had explained to the party (through the Alliance mage) my take on the world they were in. That a great evil had threatened to destroy the world years and years ago. To save the world, a cabal of sorcerers, wizards, clerics, and mages used all the mana (native, world-based magical energies) ambient in the world to power the spells that were needed to capture and bind the beast. In doing so, however, the nature of all magic changed in this world. Where spells would be cast powered by the vast supplies of mana surrounding everything, they instead had to draw power from the only remaining source - living beings. This was why the Monk was taking damage when the two Clerics were attempting to cast spells (even though their power supposedly came from their dieties - I simply determined that the theocratic source of their powers only supplied the opening 'spark', if you will, of the particular spells, but the main power had to be drawn from everything around them). Somehow, the mage told them, anyone with any spellcasting ability seemed to be immune from this effect. Mostly immune, anyway.

The mage had heard for weeks about the large 'event' that was to be held today in the coliseum - it appeared that the Dragon King, the lord and ruler of this particular city. Most likely, the Dragon King was wanting to bring over some artifacts or other sources of magical power (the flying ship and the magical items carried by the party) to further increase his source of power and better assert his dominion over this city, and wage war over the other Dragon Kings and take over their cities. It would appear that the magicks required were so powerful, that they ended up slaying the entire audience as well as the sorcerers themselves. This seemed to convince the players that there would be no easy way to cast a spell to return to their home world.

(I had even thrown in a bit about how normal human sorcerers eventually found magicks that turned them into Dragon Kings, who were better able to use the magical energy remaining around them, hastening the doom of the world but becoming personally more powerful. I had also included my own riff on how the type of magic that the mage and the rest of his alliance used actually worked to heal the world, and helped to rebuild it, perhaps eventually restoring it to its' former glory.)

Up to this point, I had been rather pleased with my off-the-cuff descriptions and explanations as to the nature of the world, and the poor quality of life here. I had been making it clear that the world was dying, that the hordes of downtrodden citizens were alternately bullied and terrorized by their Dragon King overlords, while quite often being served up as 'power sources' for their dark magics. Without having created any notes, just a few assumptions in my head and flipping 'Veiled Alliances' open at random pages during the game, I was creating a compelling setting, and even began dropping hints through the mage as to what the main purpose of the particular session was going to be.

There were two fundamental flaws with my thinking and approach, however, that were soon to bite me rather harshly in the hind end. The first was small and humourous, but the second was much larger and much, much more game-altering.

The first one was flipping through the book randomly to determine which city it was that the party had wound up in. For those familiar with the setting, I chose the city of Balic. Not a problem, until I had to tell the party (again, through the mage) the name of the local Dragon King.

And if you do not take the time to sound out the name 'Andropinis' to yourself before announcing it to the players, you are quite likely to slightly mispronounce it.

It took about ten minutes to get the players back into the game after that.

The second flaw was thinking that, as I explained the political situation of the Alliance versus the various evil Dragon Kings, the players would decide it would be a good idea to assist the Alliance in overthrowing them, to halt the worlds' descent into destruction. It would have created a very interesting series of games, as there are quite a few of these cities (and I had thought of many ways to allow the PC's to be able to alter their style of magicks to better match the healing-magic of the Alliance) and many hundreds of thousands of people would be in their debt.

Instead, however, the party decided to track down the captured evil 'beast', destroy it completely, and thereby release the magickal energies that had been holding it prisoner, thereby restoring the magical balance to this world.

This, frankly, was an eventuality I had not even remotely considered. Really, I had only used the term 'bind' rather than 'kill' so I could explain why there was no real chance of the old magic returning to the world (as it was in continuous use).

So, I relied on some old chestnuts of GM'ing. They would need to travel to a lost temple, out in the deep, deep desert somewhere at the centre of a circle the edge of which was the various cities of the world. This temple was buried deep underground, protected by dying magics, and ultimately housed...

Well, frankly, I had no idea what it housed. Something big and evil and, obviously, a 'beast'. But I wasn't going to worry about that until they got deep underground, into that temple.

After a variety of encounters with magical traps, seals, and mystic runes, the party (including the NPC mage, who is still trying to tell the party members that they really would be better off contacting the remainder of his Alliance members, to perhaps deal with the Dragon Kings more directly - one small part of the GM that still wanted the game to go back to the rough idea I had originally, made 'flesh', I suppose) finds itself at the top of a deep, dark room. So deep, they cannot see the bottom, no matter how good their torches and eyesight.

Then, just to be creepy, I throw in the distant sound of water. From somewhere below them.

Okay, at this point, a general plan began to form in my head. First, with no real Magic-Users among the party, the runes in the temple were mostly indecipherable (even to the mage - he was more similar to the sorcerers of 3rd edition, and didn't use spell books). However, they had been able to pick up odd bits of references to an evil 'from beyond the stars' and other vague, menacing phrases like that. This, obviously, began to give me some Lovecraftian thoughts as to the nature of the 'beast' somewhere at the bottom of this room.

Under huge amounts of water, I then realized. 'Of course,' I said to myself. 'The beast is obvious now!'

Using a magic carpet carried by one of the PC's, the party was able to travel down the hundreds of feet to the top of where the black, impenetrable water was. Stopping just above the surface, they saw what sort of looked like a tentacle...

...and a huge eyeball...

Just the vague suggestions of each, mind you. One of the PC's (I don't recall which one, though I'm tempted to blame the Monk) basically tried to clear some of the water away to get a better look at whatever was under the water. This temporarily exposed part of the monster to the air.

The monster being, of course, Cthulhu.

(I should probably explain who Cthulhu is, because it is entirely possible that some few readers of this column may not be familiar of that pinnacle of the horrors created by Howard Phillips Lovecraft. However, I would rather wait to see if anybody instead asks about him and continue on the story at hand.)

Well, I figured that was all the break that Cthulhu needed to come back 'to life', as it were, and be able to ascend into the upper parts of the temple to escape his prison. All the vaunted powers of the PC's were only able to prevent them from getting killed during his escape (not helping the mage at all, who quickly became a sticky smear on the wall) and the destruction of the temple.

A touch heavy-handed, I will admit. I figured that, if it had really taken that much power and the near-destruction of an entire world to bind and capture Cthulhu, only three PC's (no matter their level) would not be able to actually 'kill' him.

On the plus side (sort of), I determined that Cthulhu not only escaped his prison, he also fled the world entirely. Thus, the magicks binding him (which were trapped in the water, by the way. It is thought by many that immersion in water is what keeps Cthulhu 'dead', but I thought it had to be something more than just water) would now be released back into the world (as the water evaporated - part of the mystic bindings in the temple served to prevent the evaporation of the water - this is also partly responsible for the entire world turning into desert, as all available water would be eventually redirected into Cthulhu's prison). Of course, this could potentially make the Dragon Kings much more powerful and harder to deal with...

But then, so would the members of the Alliance itself. So, some sort of balance has been restored to the world. Eventually.

Now, the nice thing about the players deciding to take a more pro-active solution to the problems faced by this particular world is that we were able to start and finish this entire scenario in one game session. I am a big fan of brevity (in games, if not in my writing...), and find quite often that shorter is better. Or at least more destructive and memorable.

Plus, ultimately, I am always happier when the players come up with something completely beyond what I had been considering. Even if it does make me crazy for a little while.

Now, it must be noted, that I was being quite facetious with the title of this particular column. Rather than thinking the players had destroyed a perfectly good concept, I instead gave them XP bonuses.

...well, and a visit (at the start of the next session) by an Avatar of the Elven Ranger/Cleric/Assassins' Diety who was none to pleased about Great Cthulhu being released into the Universe again. But that is a tale for another time...

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