We have concluded the Third Session of my Eberron set Curse of Strahd sequel, “The Mark of Mercy.” This was one of those sessions that the players tell the DM it went really well and how much fun they had but behind the screen you’re thinking “I’m fucking it up I’m fucking it up.” I think we all have those sessions and just like in theater it is never as bad to the audience as it is to you behind the scenes. I did have fun, the players had fun too but it just wasn’t as well thought of an adventure as I imagined. So I wanted to write about that if only to talk myself through and do better in the future.
The brief recap begins with the PCs meeting up with a Shifter named Rupp. In Eberron, shifters are a race of quasi-lycanthropes. The idea is that they can occasionally go into beast mode to do some cool animal stuff for a minute. For Rupp this meant that once per day he could gain advantage on Survival Checks to track and Wisdom Saving Throws. Rupp is a member of a Druidic sect that governs this region of Eberron called the Eldeen Reaches. He is trying to gather mercenaries and adventurers to journey north to fight with the Order of the Emerald Claw, a group of bad guys who are up to some shit but worst of all they have a Dragon helping them.
My Eberron games always at some point use the Order of the Emerald Claw. They’re great starter villains for your first few months in Eberron. By design, they’re basically the Nazis from Indiana Jones. Keith Baker referred to them as the “Black Hats” of the setting. They are Bad Guys. They’re always Bad Guys and you don’t need to feel bad about mowing them down. They are pulp villains for the good guys to stop. I like using them.
I think at this point I can lift the screen, this adventure was directly inspired by/Stolen Wholesale from an early Chapter in Rise of Tiamat when the PCs go after a Green Dragon who is up to some shit. I don’t have a lot of confidence in my own encounter building so I like to steal encounters designed by professionals and throw my own story on them. In this case it was the Neronvain chapter from Rise of Tiamat with the map from a 4E adventure, Warrens of the Stone Giant Thane.
I was a lot happier with how this last section with the actual dragon went than the interludes I wrote for the way there. When I was plotting this all out I could see that walking there would take weeks if not a month or two. So I offered the players mounts. Now I’ve just doubled the number of creatures in the encounters if they bring their mounts with them. I thought it would break verisimilitude to not have any meaningful encounters for weeks wandering through the woods and just arrive at the correct location. So I put in some social encounters that really didn’t have anything to do with the adventure or the characters. I wanted to introduce some of the druid sects and House Cannith, one of the dragonmarked houses but they just didn’t have enough to contribute to warrant the time we spent on them compared to the dungeon/dragon fight that we spent our last two hours of gameplay on.
The two interludes I wrote were meant to kind of drop some hooks about things to pursue in the Eldeen Reaches. The issue with that is the players are kind of supposed to feel like they’re on a ticking clock to rescue a bunch of kids abducted by the Order of the Emerald Claw. I knew I didn’t want the players spending a lot of time on these and I should have cut them entirely to save them for the return journey to Aundair, where the PCs are based.
The first interlude was a more social than anything else. There’s a village on the map of the Eldeen Reaches called Mossmantle. I wanted to flesh it out and make it sort of like, a place the PCs might want to return to if they were coming back to the Reaches. While the town is mentioned in the Eberron Campaign Guide, it has no details. So I ripped the details off from the 5E adventure Legacy of the Crystal Shard where there is a town called Lonelywood. It’s a small logging village and I decided to give the local druid a magic item that was literally a cloak made of moss. In this Druid’s case he’s literally being kept alive by the regenerative properties of this cloak because he’s an Orc and Orcs have about a 40 year lifespan. And since the druid is this old guy in a regenerating moss cloak I decided to make a Metal Gear Solid 3 reference and name him Nagant. His half-orc granddaughter is named Mosina (http://metalgear.wikia.com/wiki/The_End). The reason I put them in was that 1) This is a town that exists and they can return to. 2) Orcs exist, since the PCs are from Ravenloft they’ve never met Orcs. 3) Mosina and Nagant are members of different Druid factions called the Wardens of the Wood and the Gatekeepers and they have backstory. The problem is that all those things have nothing to do with the players’ current goals of 1) Save Princess Name-Not-Important and 2) Find out what happened to the Dark Power that escaped Barovia.
The Second Interlude was a bit more thought out in that it had the potential for combat. The idea was that while the Druids are running around trying to fight the Order of the Emerald Claw other unscrupulous factions are taking advantage of the chaos. One such faction is House Cannith, one of the most prominent of the Dragonmarked Houses in Eberron is basically a megacorp from Shadowrun. I had thought that the Eldeen Branch of House Cannith, it’s not an important branch, it’s kind of a backwater, but the person in charge has ambitions. So while the Druids are away they would rush into the woods to poach. The Eldeen Reaches is a primal land so it has an array of unique plants and animals which of course the Druids would not export to the degree desired by the profit-minded megacorp House Cannith. And worse, the actions of House Cannith might excite some of the darker Druid circles. These circles might have a problem with the magitech positive attitude of House Cannith. I wrote this one out to be much longer about a month ago and every week leading up to the session I was trying to cut more and more from it until I would’ve been better off keeping this encounter in my pocket for later.
But none of this really got across to the players because they didn’t really have a reason to ask and I didn’t really have a reason to tell them. It’s the plot of a sidequest they never started. What I wound up doing with it was have the PCs starting position based on their survival check to make it through the woods. Then, when the PCs told the House Cannith people the druids knew they were there, the House Cannith people left. The gain for me here is I got to show what House Cannith does. They had this base in the forest that could be folded up into a little cube instantaneously. That came across as cool I thought and sent the message I was hoping to send about who House Cannith is and what they do.
These two interludes were ancillary to the main plot and I should’ve held off on them until/only if the players opted into them. This is a bad habit I have as a DM. Because part of me is living in this world I know that after this “prologue” section that should end in 1-2 sessions the story will open up into some choices. But I should’ve put the choices upfront anyways because I want this to be a player centric game and not “This is My Eberron Story.” It’s not. It’s our Eberron story. Fortunately I have an amazing group of players. They were kind enough to indulge me after Curse of Strahd when I said “how abouts Eberron.” I want to repay them by serving up a quality D&D experience.
While I’m flagellating myself I might as well discuss the dungeon that I thought went okay. Like I said earlier, this was the encounter from Rise of Tiamat grafted onto the Warrens of the Stone Giant Thane map. The plot is that the reason the Order of the Emerald Claw kidnapped those kids from Arcanix is that they want to enact a blood ritual to open a sealed gateway to another dimension and use its power to rule the world (OF COURSE!). There were a few encounters on the way in but I just handwaved us past them. Time was running late and one of the players had a really good idea to deal with the problem non-violently. Mayhaps one of my flaws as a DM is that I’m bit overly lenient in letting the players talk their way through problems because I like that sort of D&D.
So then we reached the main event. A blood ritual in a big circular map. Emerald Claw minions basically dangling these kids off cliffs. Venarcia, an Elf Warlock, is conducting the ritual. Although the dragon is nowhere to be seen and that didn’t occur to anyone right away. I’ll just say it, the fight was a lot harder for the PCs than I expected. I was basing on a Level 11 encounter from a published adventure and my experience with Curse of Strahd told me that appropriate level encounters tend to be on the easier side. Also they beat the CR 17 Strahd pretty decisively (albeit they were specced out with anti-Strahd artifacts and were seasoned vampire killers). The PCs achieved their objective of rescuing the princess and the hostages but the dragon is still alive and kicking. So what happened?
For one thing, I got lucky and was able to recharge the breath weapon very quickly. Secondly, the PCs did not have an answer to the Dragon beginning combat flying and invisible. I had it show up in the second round and it became visible in the third. But even then, flying, the party’s heaviest melee fighters stayed on the ground fighting minions. This was another thing that the Dragon had over Strahd. Strahd had some bat swarms and a couple other vampires hiding in crypts but the Strahd fight was against Strahd. Here, the Dragon and the Warlock were of comparable CRs just like Neronvain and the Green Dragon from Rise of Tiamat. The hostages with their 16 HP guards added another complication as the PCs wisely moved to save them first.
I don’t want to come off as denigrating PC tactics because, as I said, I have great players. And not just because they indulge me in this Eberron campaign but because they play the game well with a good balance of tactics and RP. I wrote a challenging encounter and I got lucky.
For a clearer, better spoken idea of where my head is right now I would suggest you give a listen to this episode of the podcast Total Party Thrill. This is about when a DM is beating themselves up for a session they felt was subpar, how do they regain their footing?
So now the most important thing. Where do we go from here? We ended the session with a split party. Some PCs went Left, other went Right. They’re alive, they’re sheltered from the Dragon at least in part, but they also just killed the Dragon’s elf girlfriend and he’s kind of upset. I think the most important thing to do as soon as possible next session is to give the PCs some tangible goals that relate to their character. Those ideas were simmering for a while, now it’s time to bring them to the forefront. It’s also got me thinking about What To Do When The Players Retreat or even When the PCs lose. The goal of this encounter was not “kill all opponents.” The goal was to rescue the children of Arcanix that had been kidnapped by the order of the emerald claw. Those alternate combat objectives are critical during any encounter. But then even in an encounter where the players achieve their objective they still might lose. “We rescue the princess and run away because we are heavily wounded.” “The Dragon chases you in your wounded state and kills you. Who wants to play Pictionary!?” You can’t do that. That’s a terrible story, it’s no fun for the players, and it’s no fun for the DM. The Dragon isn’t going to do that. The DM’s job is to figure out why. But at the same time the DM has to telegraph that Things Are Still Wrong. The PCs scored a victory but it’s a partial victory. If they slew the dragon but the princess died, well, Aundair would be pissed. If they can get the princess out but the Dragon is still alive then the PCs might be okay if they can escape. The Druids of the Eldeen Reaches are in deep shit though.
So in closing, I was not thrilled with my performance this session. The players liked it and they did great but when you sit behind the screen you overanalyze. It’s just what you do.
Also, I got a mention on a recent episode of Total Party Thrill on Playing Gnomes. You should totally listen to the whole episode and the quote comes in at 26:10.