Boer the dwarf awoke under musty blankets. He had remembered leaving with the smugglers, and remembered the storm, but that was it. Now, as his other adventuring companions gently kicked the dwarf-shaped lump he was making in the old bed, he found himself in a large bedroom in a castle somewhere, with no recollection of how he got there. There was a vivid dream, with tall trees, thick bushes, and a woman laughing . . . but then he awoke in a strange place.
The rest of the adventuring party was less than thrilled at the strange happenings during the night. Ander and Jethro had completely disappeared, which added uncertainty to the party as they took stock of their situation. While the gnoll cultists has been harrying them and banging on their door all night, they did manage to eke out some rest. Feeling at least a little refreshed, it was time to act. The group, realizing how dangerous the Imperial Bedchambers would be with ostensibly only one exit, searched for a secret passage. Their instincts were rewarded, with a ladder going down into a carved stone passageway beneath the keep. Before they left, though, they decided to bring the fight back to the gnolls. Hugh opened the door and a gnoll literally fell into the room.There was quick, focused fire on the leader, and Elliot picked up one of the gnolls bodily and threw him out the window. Though the group took some damage, the gnolls were defeated without undue trouble.
After resting in the secret passageway, the group continued down the artificial cave and exited into a bright plain, less than half a mile outside the city. Looking back, the group strategized. There weren’t that many gnolls left in the keep, and they had agreed to provide the Dogs of War with cover by clearing the keep. It would be a hard fight, but clearing the keep was the first step in clearing the city. Some of the group were driven by honor and loyalty…others started thinking about how much potential this abandoned city had. No matter the motivation, the group returned to the keep, going back the way they came.
After returning to the bedchamber, the group scouted out the rest of the keep’s top floor. After entering the children’s room, another squad of gnolls attacked. Elliot smartly threw the pack leader out of a window this time, and Boer’s small stature allowed him to sneak around and backstab unsuspecting gnolls. The remainder were coming, though, so with some damage and healing spells mostly exhausted, the team made a strategic move. Elliot used his height to climb out of the window and grab the crenellations on the roof above, then dropping a rope to the party after he was secure. More gnolls were coming, and the last one out the window saw the door broken down just as he was pulled up. While Hrive and Hugh were able to cover the window, there was no practical way to attack straight down; without an exit strategy, the party was just trapped on a roof. Fortunately, the courtyard around the keep housed several other government buildings. Elliot grabbed one end of a rope in one hand, tied Boer to his pack, and took a flying leap over to the Chancery building.
He almost made it. Just short of the wall he slammed into hard stone, taking a bruising. Boer, unsettled by the impact, fell off the firbolg’s pack and was dangling upside down. Even in his compromised position he was able to hold off the gnolls with his shortbow until he was hauled up. When one of the gnolls tried to climb out of the window like Elliot did, Hrive called on his paladin’s oath, and mightily smote the beast. This scared the gnolls; even hunger could not overcome the visceral feeling of a nearby smiting. Gnolls ran, gnolls fell, and the party made it down into the Chancery.
From the Chancery, the party returned to the first floor of the keep, intent on taking out the last of the gnolls. After hearing a gnoll and commander speak through the door, Elliot burst through, bounding over tables and wrestling the commander to the ground. The fight was over quickly, and the surviving gnoll surrendered. The party took their prisoner to Rom and the Dogs of War. Rom informed them that the wandering dead had been shepherded, though those who still thought they had unfinished business in life were still around. The city streets were no longer filled with undead, but they weren’t completely empty of undead, either. The party looked back toward the keep’s barracks, the Chancery, and the other buildings all around them. With this threat dispatched, they could figure out what parts of the city had not yet been picked clean.
By the second session, you begin to see how players interact with their characters, and what they’re looking to get out of the game. In Dungeons and Dragons these elements may be broadcast by race and class choice, but that is rarely enough information to begin thinking like how your characters. Elliot, for instance, wasn’t much more than a fighter in the first session, but with enough XP to gain a level the multiclass dips began and the vision that Elliot’s player had of the character began to take shape. As you’ll notice from the summary, that involved grappling and throwing monsters out of windows.
While certain builds and actions get a reputation for being “broken” within some editions of D&D, that is rarely as much of a problem as one would think. The issue with game balance is much more of a problem for those who do not aim for optimization than it is for those who do, especially in a game like D&D where there’s generally higher tier monsters you can pull on to even the odds. While Fifth Edition D&D tends to have fewer obvious exploits than earlier editions like Third Edition (either 3.0 or 3.5) did, some of the more egregious “loopholes” in 3.5 were stopped fairly easily by a GM who had even a slight grasp on the laws of physics. As an example, the “peasant railgun” is not broken rules, it is merely an excessively literal interpretation of movement mechanics and no actual GM would allow it in a game.
Back to throwing monsters out of windows. Grappling a monster, especially with a race like firbolg which gets to be counted as large for this purpose, is quite powerful. Throwing a monster out of a window, even if the falling damage doesn’t kill the monster, still removes the monster from the combat completely. This is quite potent . . . against monsters of the appropriate size class, who don’t have touch attacks, and happen to be in a room with windows. Since the game is Dungeons and Dragons, as opposed to Greenhouses and Dragons, the limitations should be clear. That all said, it’s then up to you as the GM to find a balance. Elliot as a character is quite competent, but grappling is where he will excel, especially if the build progresses the way his player has told me it will. It’s not hard to gimp that build with a lot of huge monsters and other things that can’t be grappled, but it’s not really fair, either. Knowing that one of the primary combatants is a grappling build is not something I should plan against, but rather something I should plan for in my effort to give Elliot as much, but not necessarily more, spotlight than the rest of the characters in the party.
Speaking of spotlight. The entrance of Boer the dwarf was the first exposure most of the players had to one of the underlying plot hooks of this game: whenever a player is absent, their character is whisked off into the Feywild to wander around a forest filled with thick brambles while an ethereal woman laughs overhead. On one hand, this is a naked attempt to justify player absences. On the other hand, it is a plot element. There is a lot more planned behind this, but as my players read (and write) this blog, I’m going to stay mum for now. I will say this: having an in-character conceit that states absolutely that the present players’ characters are there and the absent players’ characters are not has been a godsend. I was never aware of how unsatisfying handwaving absences was until I made a deliberate effort to not do it. This is true for all games, but for D&D with its prescriptive advancement mechanics even moreso. There have already been efforts to try and discover what’s going on, and I’m looking forward to getting into it more…in addition to having another plot thread, the progress of said plot thread will also provide built-in hooks for integrating absent characters as the game goes on.
By session 2, the players had picked up on what I was aiming to tell them. They saw the abandoned city and got that it was more than a repository for undead and cultists. As we’ll see in the next session, there is a lot more to this city . . . the characters will discover valuable facts about their surroundings, but at the same time see how easily they can get in over their heads.