Between a Rock and a Hard Place

I like to think I have a signature style of DMing. I build gritty, realistic, low magic worlds that challenge the players both in combat and out. I give the characters plenty of time to shine, but the world isn’t focused on their trials and tribulations. They do many small deeds that become great deeds. This style leads me to dial in on aspects of the game that amplify these effects, including the Climate from last week, humanoid enemies, and the players starting abilities. It will also generally focus on the tales that the characters themselves weave, because they cannot rely on magic abilities, magic items or supernatural powers to get them out of problems.

This focus on player ingenuity and cunning lead me down a very perilous, though extremely enjoyable road. At the end of this road is a revelation, one that changed how I created traps, how I build encounters and how I even write adventures. This road is, in my opinion, the most fun that a DM can have in a given session and also the most fun that players will encounter, done right.

The Revelation

This revelation is one that is so simple that I wonder why I didn’t innately gravitate too it. What is cruelest about the real world is that it does not provide solutions for the problems it presents you.  Many times, the world simply graces you with a problem, and you have to find your way out. It is much less like math, and much more like philosophy.

Its the basic foundation of credibility, really. Its how a story rises, falls, or fails. If the world provides all the answers and all the solutions, then we have no real faith in the hero’s ability to solve the problems ahead of them. Instead, they will stumble into solution after solution until they are rewarded for the comical ineptitude and rewarded greatly at the end of the story.

With that in mind, I started to create problems for my characters with no way out. I started with traps, because they are the most obvious. Traps, at least the ones adventurers are likely to run in to have a single purpose: Kill the intruders. Maiming, trapping, discomforting or otherwise simply slowing them down means very little to the overall picture. I have a hard time not making a trap exceedingly dangerous or completely story altering if it goes off. Additionally, most traps are in places that people would not be wandering back and forth. Instead, they are in long abandoned dungeons, ancient crypts and guarded catacombs. With that in mind, they also have no off switches, and the majority of the time its a single shot test.

One of my favorite examples is that I had a troupe of characters adventuring in an underwater castle that was serving as a prison for a long-ago hero. Within this prison there was a room, with a 100″ long shaft with an open one-way gate to the Iron Marches at the bottom. This room, long ago, had been purged of water. It was a simple, empty room with a single door. When the players opened the door, they were swept into the room via the water from the rest of the castle and lake and rushed towards the gate. Thankfully, one of the players cast web at the bottom of the pit, but it didn’t stop the flow of water. I don’t remember exactly how they did it, but they came up with a way out that stopped the flow of water, and then created a water-filled compression chamber to allow them to explore the rest of the castle. I hadn’t created a way out, simply a problem for the characters to solve.

The Prison

I say all of this to prepare the stage for the latest adventure and pain that I put my characters through, a typical Jonathon Problem in D&D.

The Players, through the Obsidian Vault, choose to take on a mission to rescue a nearby Magistrates daughter. The Daughter was believed to have been captured by nearby goblins, as they were always the nearby scapegoat for pretty much any of the ills of the town. As it happens, though, it is the truth. The players end up following some captured goblins back to their town, and its an Island on a lake. and the Lake is ringed with these strange floating pylons. Around these pylons are the bones of many beings, all Humanoid. One of these, though, is located on the island. Through some clever scouting, the players are able to discover that the goblins had a prison for the 12 captives: A pit ringed by a large, shoddy fence. The captive goblins earlier had convinced one member of the party, a large dragonborn, that he should try and fight the goblin boss for control of the tribe. Strangely, the dragonborn consented. Early in the morning of the next day, they made their way over to the Island and are greeted buy three leaders. One is a necromancer, and there are skeletons following him. Another is a priest, with the symbol of Ariannas branded into his chest, and the third is the enormous Goblin Boss. Through some strange goblin customs, Morn, the Dragonborn, challenged the boss to a fight. While they are fighting, the thief, Carric, sneaks off to go and rescue the daughter, who they passed in the pit earlier. He notices that there are zombies walking around, and makes his way rather clumsily, with the rescued girl, out of the town. Some of the goblins notice the girl is missing, and after the combat between Morn and the Goblin Boss crawls to a stand still, notify the boss. He is terrified, as is both the necromancer and the priest. through their broken and terrible speech, they are able to communicate why they are so terrified.

Tomorrow, they must sacrifice the 12 captives to each of the pylons. If they do not, a terrible thing, defeated in battle and trapped by Ariannas, will fall upon the world. The players question him but, unable to really speak their language, he calls in the Priest, who uses a little magic, a little bit of smoke and some drugs to induce a dream-trance and show the players what is happening.

The dream shows generations of sacrifices on this spot, years and years of rituals from different cultures that show up here and realize the great problem. Each performs the bloody spectacle at long intervals, but when the intervals are missed, a pylon breaks and the lake expands. Three intervals are missed throughout the ages, and the time period between the intervals shrink as each pylon breaks. Eventually the dram reaches down into the lake, impossibly deep and filled with terrifying creatures, and reveals a single, massive eye at the bottom. Then, the dream washes away the mud to reveal this Frog-Lizard-creature of singular size, though with no perspective it was hard to gague how big exactly, wound tightly with twelve bands of black and blue energy. As they watch, three of the bands dissolve, and the creature squirms slightly.

The Players wake up and immediately have disagreements on how to solve this problem. The Sacrifice is required tomorrow, and there is no time to find new sacrifices. One of the players, then another, offered themselves up for sacrifice to stave off the release. Another pair of players disagreed, stating that even if they sacrifice themselves, they would all be complicit in the sacrifice of at least 10 innocent people. The discussion moved to the sticking point after some time.

Was there, in the design of the prison, a tipping point. Will the monster be loosed after some critical mass of pylons are destroyed or will he be released only when the final pylon is shattered. They argue thought the night until the bard, Rummy, calls upon the gods themselves in desperation for assistance in an ancient orcish ritual. They are greeted by a phantom who offers to answer what questions they can.

They players learn here that all sacrifices are equal, and that the Goblins have been mislead. They also learn that 12 may be to many sacrifices, but three is too few. And, finally, another clue clicks into place. The Undead. The Accursed are the cause and creation of undead, and their is a powerful Priest here of Ariannas. Something must be wrong. With the battle to resume between Morn and the Boss the next morning, they decided to intervene and assure Morn won, no matter what. Then, they would pit the Worshipers of Ariannas against the Cultists of the Accursed, and use the cultists to fuel the prison, at least for another 5 years.

Thankfully, mostly due to the help of the other members of the party, Morn is able to defeat the Boss. his life essence powering the Pylon they were near in a visible display of power. As the fight proceeded, a pair of other characters convinced, mentally, the priest of Ariannas that he should sacrifice the blasphemous worshipers of the accursed. Needing little encouragement, but still afraid of the Boss, he watched the fight intently until the boss was slain, and at that moment, he unleashed his followers on the Cultists. The party convinced the goblins not to use the prisoners, and instead to sacrifice the cultists. It worked, and the prison was empowered for 5 more years.

Or so.

Referee

Sometimes, like here, I wasn’t needed for the majority of the thinking and planning, but I was there to focus their thoughts. While last session I allowed them to brainstorm and kinda of wander about willy nilly looking for solutions, this session was a lot more organized because I jumped in. I don’t often like doing that, but I really felt that they were stuck, and creating more problems for themselves than I had originally intended.

What was really fun for me, though, was reacting to their prodding, their questions. While I had initially put the necromancer there as just another bad guy, Rummys player quickly picked up on the paradox there. With both accursed and Paltonarchs openly worshiped, something had to be keeping them at bay. Deducing that it was the leader, deciding to make sure the leader dies and killing the Accursed cultists was 100% the players ideas. I would never have thought of that, and it makes a much cooler story now, than if I had created it on my own.

I look forward to the next time I can set my players to a task and see what they come up with!