Saturday, May 26, 2012

Let Others Choose the Way

[Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6 - Part 7 - Part 8]

In addition to verbal descriptions of locations and scenery in my D&D campaigns, I employ crudely drawn maps on an erasable whiteboard to help the players visualize the setting, and to keep track of where everything is whenever exploration and combat inevitably ensue. Some DMs will draw maps on graph paper or lay out dungeons tiles to ensure distances remain consistent and accurate, but I don't care to expend the extra effort to calculate exact lengths ahead of time when, in my head, the distance between the castle and the goblin cave is precisely "pretty far." I'm content to approximate distances with the D&D miniatures we use to represent the characters, as the base of a medium-sized miniature equates to a 5-ft. diameter in the game world.

Anymini, the players thought it might be amusing to take certain liberties with the map I'd drawn while I was away from the table.

Go ahead. You can click to enlarge. Judging from the handwriting, the room full of magical kittens, and the wonderful reference to the Ted E. Bear song from Sam & Max: Season One leads me to believe that only my wife could have masterminded this diabolical reimagining of the tower map. I let it slide for a while.

The party awakes from their slumber and opens the door into the hallway--comically bumping the door into the golden-furred cat that had fallen asleep in front of it. Hissing at the party, the cat runs off--a far cry from the friendly kitty that had fetched the key in the jail.

Doing a little more exploration on this floor before progressing, the party finds a secret door (elf senses, you know) in the dining hall fireplace, which leads into Ziggy Frood's secret bedchambers. Bedchambers also accessible by the elevator up from the basement level, which the adventurers smack themselves for not trying. Bedchambers filled with cat tapestries (depicting cats, not made of cats) and a small adjoining bathroom with kitten-scented soap. A search of the area reveals the Knockback Ring I had planted, along with one of the last strips of paper, saying, "...whose cold shell melts into ooze..."

There doesn't seem to be much immediate value to the Knockback Ring--the players ambivalently offer it up to each other until someone finally takes it. Exploring the rest of the tower's second floor, the party comes across a bathroom where the minotaur had clearly been showering earlier. They claim a paper from the drain that reads, "...nature, which is consumed to easily by flame..." as well as a potion that the half-blind minotaur apparently mistook for shampoo. Having done all there is to do here, the heroes climb the stairs to the training chamber level, unlocking a sizeable door at the top with the key they picked off the minotaur's corpse. Reluctantly, I erase the whimsy from the whiteboard to make way for the floor that will defeat the players.

Not the heroes--the players.

First comes the examination of the platform in the middle of the room, with lines carved into the platform, extending from the center, resembling spokes on a bicycle. There's an inscription: "COMING OR GOING / IMPOSSIBLE TO SAY / I REMAIN WHERE I AM / AND LET OTHERS CHOOSE THE WAY." Unable to immediately discern the purpose of the platform or the meaning of the riddle, the heroes begin opening the doors lining the room.

The first door is to the ooze chamber, where a lake of poisonous green ooze resides in the middle, with a few small platforms forming a path to a larger platform in the center, assuming anyone cares to roll a few Jump checks to maneuver across. The only thing of interest in the room is the teleporter in the middle of the room--which the heroes don't yet know is a teleporter--but it's obviously going to take a little effort to reach. Instead of looking around the other chambers before thrusting anyone into danger, Dia takes the initiative to jump across to the teleporter.

Upon closer examination, there are unintelligible runes inscribed around the teleporter's edge, along with a series of five numbered switches--which I am improvising because it is just now occurring to me that I should figure out exactly how these teleporters work. The heroes eventually discover that flipping switches summons whatever creature is in the corresponding jail cell--as evidenced by the sudden and triumphant return of their seryulin sea slug pal.

For all the hullabaloo they made about trying to take the slug with them before, the party seemed to be utterly baffled about what to do with it now that it was here. The best solution they had--and indeed, the best solution, period--was to open the door to the water chamber and let the slug swim around in a more comfortable habitat (thanks to that successful Knowledge check at the beginning of the game that gave everyone some much-needed insight about the creature). The water chamber is a dim room filled to the ceiling with magically contained water, and as with every other room here, there's a teleporter in the middle.

Exploration of the other rooms goes relatively quickly: a chamber whose every surface is covered in ice; a chamber resembling a cave, complete with outcroppings and stalagmites behind which to hide; a sky-blue room with some vision obscuring clouds floating about, and some sort of enchantment in the room allowing anyone to fly; an ash-gray room with a rounded platform overlooking a pit of raging fires; a room containing a small portion of the cogs and gears that were initially to make up the entire floor; a chamber with five pillars--effectively Tesla coils--bearing evidence of having been dragged around; a greenhouse with a variety of plants, including a concealed Udoroot (which the heroes were fortunate to not disturb) and an enormous swaying plant reminiscent of Little Shop of Horrors that rotates in its gigantic pot to keep its eyeless gaze fixed in the direction of anything moving nearby. Oh, and a perfectly empty-looking room with absolutely nothing in it but the teleporter.

Well, that, and a well-hidden trap on every square. One of the floor tiles sinks as Sally steps onto the floor, triggering a poison dart trap that prompts another discussion of what that Amulet of Delay Poison does.

After poking around in all of the chambers, there is little left to do but crack that riddle on the platform in the center. Now, I've been writing D&D riddles for many years, and I've come to understand that it is the characters, not the players who play them, who ultimately solve the riddle. Thus, I allow the occasional Wisdom or Knowledge roll to provide hints to the players that their characters would be likely to consider. Additionally, I've started trying to make the riddles somewhat relevant to the situation, or at least provide some clues somewhere about what the solution might be. None of this seems to help this time around.

The quest grinds to a halt. Knowledge and Wisdom checks aren't high enough to come up with any particularly helpful clues, and the only solid lead is that the riddle pertains to a form of transportation. Once again:


After ruling out carts, carriages, and the like, the party proposes one option that would certainly fit the description: a road. However, a road is not going to magically emerge from the floor and take everyone to the top of the tower. Stairs are. Assuming anyone says the word "stairs" before the characters die of expired patience. It's not until someone looks up at the ceiling, sees the tunnel leading up to the next floor, and receives some nudging from the DM that the correct answer is spoken. The "bicycle spokes" on the platform begin to rise from the ground, and before long a spiral staircase has emerged.

I make a mental note to ensure I test my own riddles more extensively in the future, and to plan a little more thoroughly so that I'm not realizing, "Oh wait--there's probably a hole in the ceiling where the stairs will go" after the party has already exhausted all the clues I can give them.

To help break up the tedium of trying to crack the riddle, I had suggested the players try to piece together the scraps of paper to form something meaningful. After writing everything out on paper and then tearing up the paper for a more authentic (and easier) attempt at piecing the notes together, the party soon came up with the following:












Nice, neat, orderly...but not entirely useful. Clearly, this was referring to the training chambers, but how wouldn't become apparent for a little while longer.

Anyhow, we're past that: right now the party just solved the riddle. The cat appears again at this point and darts up the spiral stairs past them. At the top of the steps is the top of the tower, completely empty except for the cat.

The cat transforms into a full-sized Ziggy Frood (who the party scribe describes as "a stoned '70s wizard"). The master of the tower had been trailing them all along, growing progressively less friendly after the party had begun slaying his staff. Of course, the players had suspected something like this for a while, but there had been neither reason nor opportunity to act on it. That quickly changed when Ziggy announced he was dragging them each into one-on-one combat with him.

Outrage. We won't fight you. Yes, you will fight me. I'll be downstairs; find me, or else--and come alone.

The way I envisioned this playing out was as follows: Ziggy teleports into one of the training chambers. One or more party members enter the room where Ziggy currently is; Ziggy has a readied action to cast a spell or fire off an elemental ray (effectively a regular ranged attack like you'd make with a longbow, but with the appearance of a magic spell) when the first person enters the room.

If more than one person is headed into the room, Ziggy will use his move action to click his heels together and activate the teleportation anklet that will take him to the next training chamber referenced on the list the party assembled from those scraps of paper. This effectively gives Ziggy the ability to hit and run before anyone else can get in an action. He'll only stick around to fight if he's facing one of the characters alone.

Once the players realize this, they can play it one of two ways: send in one person at a time to fight...or set up a series of ambushes to let the training chambers work for them.

With the help of the assembled scraps of paper (or through close observation over at least a dozen turns), the party would be able to predict where Ziggy would show up next, and lay traps for him wherever he arrived. The Tesla coils could be dragged around the room so that the electricity jumping between them (controlled by a switch on the wall) would pass across the teleporter where Ziggy would appear. Someone could lure the hungry plant in the greenhouse to be facing the teleporter when Ziggy arrived, spotting him as a new meal and taking a decent-sized bite out of him. The Knockback Ring could be used to push Ziggy backwards in the trap room, triggering any number of damage-dealing, save-requiring traps.

The seryulin could save the adventurers the trouble of trying to move and attack through dark water by swimming up behind Ziggy in the water room and reminding the characters why they were wise not to try petting it back in the prison.

Every location is designed to provide some interesting hazards that can be beneficial to the heroes if they are thinking creatively enough. However, the battle is set up so that traditional hack-'n'-slash tactics will work as well.

Aside from a failed Suggestion spell and a bat swarm summoning (allowing me to finally use the bat swarm I had left in the corner of the basement a while back), Ziggy is surprisingly conservative with his magic. I blame this on me as a DM being more caught up with logistics than actual combat, but it doesn't help that I as an RPG player am naturally inclined to save my magic for emergencies and other situations where regular attacks just aren't cutting it. Apparently, a final battle against opponents who are winning doesn't quite count as an emergency for me.

Over the course of fifteen rounds (so, about a minute and a half in game time) the party successfully manages to zap Ziggy with the Tesla coils, put him within biting range of the overgrown monster plant, and allowed him to be attacked by the ambush slug. Most of the other rooms aren't used to the potential I imagined for them, in large part because the Knockback Ring is all but forgotten in the flurry of readied ranged attacks that has Dia and Salieri firing through doorways as Sally tries to get close enough to Ziggy long enough to spear him. There's more of a focus on individual combat capabilities than elaborate setups and team coordination, but the party's approach is ultimately effective.

Toward the end of the battle, Dia summons a monstrous spider capable of entangling the groovy wizard in a web, and Salieri loads his crossbow with those teleportation-inhibiting bolts of Minor Binding he picked up after the party looted the defeated redcap's shop. Sally sets a fire on one of the teleporters where Ziggy is expected to appear next. Ziggy's best asset is his mobility, and the party strips him of it, and also sets him on fire. Humiliated, in pain, and with dangerously low HP, Ziggy transforms back into his cat form and makes a mad dash for the stairs, risking the attacks of opportunity to outrace his attackers to the top.

When the party arrives, Ziggy has a little (read: humongous) surprise for them. Four giant stone statues come to life and climb up the side of the tower, soon surrounding the heroes. Injured from the fight and barely able to contend with one of the golems in peak condition, the party is at Ziggy's mercy. Thing is, Ziggy has conceded--the heroes have survived his test, and are free to go. He produces three scrolls, each signed by one of the characters, stating that "I, the undersigned, agree to be a test subject for Ziggy Frood and to have my short-term memory wiped so as not to create any bias or preconceived notions about the test," or something to that effect. After verifying that the signatures are, in fact, authentic, the party gets reeeeaaaally upset.

Which is not what I was expecting. I was expecting an "ooooohhhhhh" revelation instead of getting angry about something they willingly signed themselves up for. Well, that I willingly signed them up for. Sally hands Ziggy the unhappy letter from Zep Neblin that was found on the ground floor of the tower--she had previously tried to shout at him that his funding had been cut and he needed to stop his tests, but he had written it off as some sort of mind game--and upon realizing that there were no more free resurrections awaiting his mangled test victings, Ziggy becomes apologetic...especially because he can no longer compensate the party for their trouble, as he had previously planned.

The party threatens to go directly to the gnomes to file a complaint. Ziggy counters that he's the only one with the creativity to prepare the kinds of challenges that reflect what real-life combat situations will be like for the emperor's son--if he's removed from his position here, the gnomes will only convert this tower into an ineffective and uninspired sword-training facility.

The party...does not care. Making sure that inconceivably fascinating sea slug creature of theirs is properly cared for before they leave, the party exits the tower and heads off for...

...actually, we have no idea where we're going. It's nothing but miles and miles of snowy expanse in all directions, and we didn't bother to ask Ziggy which way toward civilization.

Oh, well.


Piles of XP all around for a job well done. And piles of XP to you, faithful reader, for (presumably) sticking around through all eight parts of this unfathomably longer-than-expected story. I think we could both use a break--I hear there's a day spa up on the second floor that's pretty nice...


JoeReviewer said...

Clap clap clap Very fun story, though I think you may be missing a [Part 8] or [Final Part] in the title, but I'm not sure. Either way, this was a very entertaining read, and I certainly wouldn't mind more stories like this in the future, after you've taken your break from them that is :)

Flashman85 said...

Thank you! This was a beast to write, but I'm glad it's over. I mean...I'm glad I did!

I've also gone back and added a cleaner, more navigable "jump to part..." list at the beginning of each post.