Monday, February 13, 2017

Monday Recap: Rooting out the Cult

Garton: That's a lot of city!
I had a chance to test out my Big City Investigation method on a grand scale this weekend, and I have to say it went very well. We ran a two-week-long, huge-city investigation game culminating in a combat against an evil cult leader in about 5 hours.

The game ended up being around 17,500 words typed out. For scale, that's the minimum length of a novella. And I didn't end up cutting anything. The game was very directed, but as you will see, the group of players was also very large, so giving the group more free reign would have been absolute chaos.

A full recap for a game of that scale would be ridiculous. So, I'm going to go over some things I did in practice to make the game work, and then do a recap of just the major events and the final battle.

This story is part of a series. The campaign was completed.
Series Recap |

Cult Quest: Rooting Out the Cult of Kam

Cast of Characters:
Jon: Dungeon Master
Will: Kreev, Red Dragonborn Bard, former prince of his clan, fled to be a hero
Cody: Mr. Lizard, Red Dragonborn Chaos Sorcerer, brother of Kreev, hides his real name, crazy chaos magic
Matt: Re'lar, Tiefling Wizard, former member of the Mage's Guild of Garton
Cait: Caitness, Elf Fighter (Archer), she wants to be the very best, from a distant land
Michelle: Nerithya Finzerwin, Half-drow Rogue, former member of the cult who defected
Laura Lee: Runa, Human Barbarian, raised by wolves, loves battle and drinking in that order
Megan: Zovira, Red Dragonborn Fighter, aunt of the dragonbros, here to take them home but helping out in the meantime
Wade: Luth, Human Rogue, rescued from the streets by Voronion, joined up with the group
NPC: Floris, Human Paladin, captain of the city watch, running this investigation
NPC: Oddmund, a shield guardian who belongs to Nerithya, has a smile painted on his face
The group has been serving under the City Watch as the C.H.A.O.S. division. Don't ask what it stands for. Their goal in this investigation was to find the location of a cult ritual meant to summon a demon lord into the city. They basically had to stop the ritual before it went off.

The Investigation

The investigation was broken down into six rounds of searching over 14 days, with some events thrown in to cover the gaps.

Day 1: Setup
Day 2: Round 1 Searching
Day 3: Event: building a better map
Day 4: Round 2 Searching
Day 5: Round 3 Searching (rain)
Day 6: Event: the King's Parade (rain ends)
Day 7: Round 4 Searching
Day 8: Event: Mage's Guild Day 1
Day 9: Event: Mage's Guild Day 2
Day 10: Round 5 Searching
Day 11: Event: Gang War Day 1
Day 12: Event: Gang War Day 2
Day 13: Round 6 Searching
Day 14: Event: Final Battle

Each round of searching, Floris sent the characters out into the city to find information. There were 8 players, so the city was divided into 8 parts. Each player investigated a section of the city, making a skill check to determine if they found anything that day. The skill required varied by the type of clue they could find. The DC started at 10 in round one and increased by 1 each time they searched.
A river also runs through Garton, though this one looks much nicer
In writing this adventure, I knew I had to plan for failure states. What would happen if they didn't make any of the checks? What would happen if the clues they could find were all missed?

So, I made it so that they could miss EVERY SINGLE check and still carry forward on the (albeit shorter) adventure. However, they would miss things such as:
  • Personal plots and chances to do cool things
  • The opportunity to prepare for the events
  • The chance at stopping the cult ritual before the final battle
  • Hints at future plots and references to past plots
  • Getting backstory about the cult earlier (they could find the Black Scrolls of Kam, which totally isn't a reference...)
No matter what, the events would still happen. However, whether they learned about (for example) the gang war before it happened or after it started would change based on their success in investigation.

Of course, if a player didn't make their check, I gave them the option to go out shopping, drinking, or gambling that day. I figure if you spent all day searching and didn't find anything, you might as well make the day productive somehow.

Sharing Information
Cults: every DM's first, second, and last plot device
Each evening, after the players finished their searches, they would meet at their base, which is a repurposed clocktower they call Dethklok. They could share the information they found that day, and decide where they wanted to search the next day. Some of the clues they found granted advantage on a future check in a particular area, so sharing their tip-offs ensured that the person best suited to searching an area was doing so.

In the end, out of 48 clues (8 areas for 6 rounds) they only ended up missing 7 clues. By carefully controlling when the information was made available to the group (e.g. no clues about the gang war until rounds 4 and 5) I was able to guide them to the events and slowly build up to the final confrontation.

It also helped to do an event on day 3, building a better map. Essentially, in round one all I gave the players was a description of the area they were searching. After they had spent a day working with Floris to map out the city, however, they knew the type of check required, the DC of the check, and the type of clue they were looking for in advance. This helped their planning immensely.

The Events

When you gaze into the Abyssal Cult, they gaze back
Since we were playing a game over 14 days, we didn't use HP tracking until the final battle. Instead, I used the exhaustion rules from PHB pg. 291. There were certain clues that resulted in a combat that dealt exhaustion penalties, and each event had a chance at doling out exhaustion as well. The players recovered levels of exhaustion at the normal rate of one per long rest, but starting the day exhausted meant disadvantage on skill checks. That's a tough blow to an investigation.

Thus, most of the events happened over a day and a half. The players pushed themselves during the event, but got two rests to recover. This kept most of the heroes at decent levels of exhaustion, except for Runa. That's no fault of the player though, I had her lose sleep over terrible portents of things to come. Even then, she still ended the game without any levels of exhaustion.

The King's Parade was celebrating the return of the king form his mountain villa. This relates to events that happened in my very first campaign, so the player who knew the implications of that (Megan) loved seeing the effects of her old character's quest.

Floris was working the parade, so he gave the group the day off. The players got to pick how they spent their day, mostly shopping, drinking, gambling, and picking up rumors. Some of them took the day to rest off their exhaustion, others ended up even more exhausted than before. One player (who had found a clue the day before) got to perform in the parade and heard a very juicy rumor.
Woo! Big Lizard party!
The next event wrapped up some plots at the Mage's Guild. If you can't tell, this game is one of the last in this campaign, and I wanted to cover a lot of plot in a night. The Mage's Guild has been connected to some shady practices around town: drugs appearing in the streets, a rise in assassinations, and the highly suspicious "League of Royal Eyes". The players had previously learned that the League was in fact the corpses of the former thieves' guild, reanimated and put to work ensuring the Guild's interests were met.

Of course, a splinter faction in the guild opposed the guildmasters, and the spell holding the undead Legionnaires was broken. The League began attacking the city and the Mage's Guild. The heroes were prepared for this event, and decided to work their way through the city, taking out the undead as they went. Once they were all taken care of, the Guildmaster emerged from the Guild. His name was Ramudys, and he had a bad rapport with several of the players. Re'lar in particular was eager to see him arrested for the things he had done with the League.

The players received some magic items and spells from the Guild as thanks, and Re'lar chose to have a mage cast Legend Lore to learn more about Ramudys. They learned he was part of an underground network called the Black Hand, who was supplying the drugs and hit men that the city was being plagued with.

I'm robbing you! No, I'm robbing you!
The last big event before the finale was the gang war. A mysterious man named Dorian reached out to one of the players (in the form of a clue) and said his gang was about to go up against another gang, and seeing how that gang was run by a demon in disguise, he could use some help. The players had previous run-ins with his gang, The Purple-Hooded gang, and Floris had some dealings with Laus, the supposed demon who ran the rival gang Havok.

The group could have decided to ally with either gang, or against both of them. They decided to go with Dorian and the Purple-Hooded Gang. They spent a day fighting Havok, and then that night routing Havok hideouts until they found Laus. Laus, rather than being captured, killed herself to return to the Abyss, proving her demonic nature. However, before she did she revealed that Dorian's real name was Denizard, and he was actually an Incubus in disguise. By then, Dorian had already escaped, however.

The Final Showdown

After the players had (via clue finding) successfully tracked down and captured a high priest of the cult, they went to work interrogating him. Their methods seemed to all fail, until they realized he was on a Black Hand drug that made him immune to pain (called Lubix, found in the Abyss). By the time the drug had worn off, he was extremely talkative. However, he warned them that the ritual was already beginning, and that they must hurry.
It's normally such a nice place
The group made their way to the place he had described, a nearby tavern where they had gotten drinks before. They searched the tavern and found it empty of patrons or even owners. In a back room, however, they found nearly a hundred charms with explosive runes cast on them.

Kreev used Animate Objects to bring 10 of them to life and asked them when they were supposed to explode. They told him they would explode when the ritual was complete. The characters realized they had to hurry and find the ritual space before the building went up in flames.

Runa and Zovira were hacking the place apart (literally) to look for secret doors, and they found a trapdoor leading to a stone staircase. The group went down and saw a long, columned hallway with statues of horses and a black alter. This was the ritual chamber, and standing at the alter, completing the ritual was Thron Magnus himself, leader of the Cult of Kam.

The statures reared to life, attacking the party. Runa, who had been told a secret about a connection between her and Thron, rushed past the statues and straight towards the man. He turned to see her and began to smile. He had finally found his long-lost sister.

The rest of the group destroyed the horses just as Thron finished up his ritual. The scraps of paper Kreev had brought with him exploded, taking down Luth. Thron turned to engage the heroes himself, using his powerful magic to avoid attacking or being attacked by his sister Runa.
And somehow, despite being separated, they ended up with the same number of scars
Thron has been magically blessed by the characters in the Evil Quest campaign, so he had abilities based on those powers. Thron isn't the type of guy to call his attacks, but he had at his disposal:
  • Aura of Falsehood (based on Famine)
  • Scythe of Oblivion (based on Death)
  • Sword of Annihilation (based on War)
  • Arrow of Extinction (based on Pestilence)
He (and the explosive runes) dealt some massive damage to the party, but ultimately the group felled him with one of Caitness' arrows.

Dragging their wounded back to the surface, the group saw above them five lines of light shooting out of the city and converging above them. The ritual was still happening. A giant bird flew down near them while city medics bandaged their wounds. Rank and Aethryn leapt down from its back, asking what the hell was going on.

The demon summoning had begun.
You think I'm above using that Yu-Gi-Oh art? Who do you think I am?
Dramatics aside, next week we're doing a dual game with both groups. That's a total of 14 people (including a couple who haven't been in games for a bit). They will either stop this ritual or die trying. I've made several backup characters for those who go down.

I've also made a unique ruleset for a hex-based area control combat. No way am I running a 14-person combat across an entire city with regular D&D rules.

I'm looking forward to it!

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