The last session was largely roleplaying and hobnobbing with Aundairian nobles. Really it was to try and get a sense of what the PCs’ next move would be. I knew they wanted to head to Thrane and I knew they wanted to pursue their own objectives rather than keep bopping around as Aundairian Special Forces.
One problem with high level play I’ve found is coming to a response to the players when they’re literally on a quest to save the world and they begin asking people to give them stuff. “Give me magic items for I am on a quest to save the world.” From a story perspective it makes complete sense. From a “playing a game” perspective” I can’t just give you shit for free without completely fucking up the future encounters. There are in-story reasons to be sure, most of them thought of after the game. Sure you want a Staff of Encounter Ending but maybe they only have the one and someone is using it. I have a bad habit of saying yes to people and generally being a weak-willed pushover which is why historically power gamers love my ass.
For this session I was planning to run some sections I stole adapted from Murder in Baldur’s Gate with the PCs caught between the machinations of royalists, dragonmarked, and the Church with the corrupt church officials as the ultimate antagonist. Over the course of 2-3 sessions they would do jobs for these competing factions and their reward would be access to their final opponent. I wasn’t sure if they’d go to Thaliost, the occupied city taken from Aundair during the Last War, or Flamekeep, the capital of Thrane and seat of the Church of the Silver Flame. I made my notes general enough to do either.
Then we had a problem come up. A player needed to take a few months off from the campaign for work and since I’m a monstrous selfish asshole my thoughts were, “how does this person’s opportunity affect my pretend story about dragons and dark lords.” I decided to junk the drawn out part and improvise as the PCs just rolled into Flamekeep, talked their way into meeting Jaela Daran, the Pope-Equivalent of the Church, and then went straight to High Cardinal Krozen, fought him, and beheaded him. They need the skull of a holy man for their fetch quest and we figured, might as well be an evil guy.
If Keith Baker or the Total Party Thrill guys read this they might be pulling their hair out as this. High Cardinal Krozen is basically the second highest ranking official in Thrane and paranoid to boot. You can’t just roll up on this motherfucker. Unless, I reasoned to myself after the game, unless you had the direct assistance of the Keeper of the Silver Flame. Now, would Jaela Daran, age 11, alignment Lawful Good, allow a party of adventurers to assassinate Krozen? What if she did? What does this mean for the Church and the nation? What will Thrane’s enemies do with their most fearsome opponent dead? What will Aundair do about Thaliost? What will Karrnath do because the PCs left behind the emblazoned cloak take from the Order of the Emerald Claw? Would Jaela turn to House Jorasco to raise the Cardinal from the dead knowing her own complicity in his death?
I wasn’t thrilled with how the fight turned out because I definitely didn’t play Krozen to his full effectiveness or his two angelic bodyguards. This kind of speaks to a larger bias, maybe it’s just time to put it in plain language. Sometimes I hate DMing Combat. Partly this is practical. By social contract we play on a grid rather than doing theater of the mind combat. I like to create maps in a program called Maptools rather than drawing them out on a mat or printing out maps. Usually I find a map I like and recreate it with the program. I don’t really have the confidence to write fair combat encounters so this works great for me. But it does take time and it makes a truly random encounter next to impossible. Sure I could throw random tokens on the screen but I prefer meaningful combats that move the story forward as opposed to something just for the sake of a fight or to use up PC resources.
Especially since the party is high level now, combats take time. And a difficult combat where the PCs have a chance to die definitely takes longer, at least an hour more likely longer. I could bring out some minion monsters that have 10 HP but deal 30 damage a hit. Maybe I will but that feels a bit too gamey to me. The point is that the necessary prep for each encounter only keeps growing so they wind up being much larger set pieces rather than a featureless 40×40 grid. But since I wasn’t really sure what was going to happen I wound up using a fairly featureless big old grid.
The other thing is that I’ve come to believe that making NPCs into PC style spellcasters cribbing off the same spell lists was a step back for D&D. It’s harder to run. When I did Curse of Strahd I had MONTHS to hone Strahd’s spell list, look for improvements, and memorize what his spells did. Krozen I used as a mid-level cleric. I wasn’t sure we’d get to the fight and I really didn’t think during the battle what Krozen would use to buff himself or to damage the PCs. My tactics sucked. Think of it this way, Krozen had 15 spell slots and a host of cleric abilities I didn’t even remember to use. King Nibenay, the Sorcerer King Monster from 4E Dark Sun, is a Level 29 Monster meant for endgame play. Nibenay has 6 abilities he can use in combat. With a plot, a map, 5 high level PCs with different abilities hungry for loot and victory and story advancement, it was just too much to handle too quickly. I didn’t remember to use the Deva bodyguards’ healing abilities. Krozen would’ve certainly buffed himself and used spells to provoke saving throws and circumvent the astronomical AC of the frontline PCs and a summoned elemental bag of hit points. A precise map gives me a finite design space to think of who lives here and what they do. Something more improvised like this session makes for a better story I find but less fun combats, at least for me.
So now Krozen is dead and the PCs are moving on to their next objective, a staff in the possession of a short man standing above tall towers. Which means this game is headed to Sharn. Sharn is the D&D equivalent of New York and it is loaded top to bottom with NPCs and factions. I’m really going to try to not get too far astray but as Total Party Thrill noted, you could run a level 1-20 campaign entirely within the city of Sharn. And what portion of this metropolis will the PCs encounter there? Well I don’t want to spoil it but I think they’re really going to dig The Boromar Clan. As far back as I can remember I always wanted to DM the Boromar Clan.