This week’s post will be a little different to normal. Usually, if I’m talking about spoilers or things I don’t necessarily want my players to know, I’ll put that stuff in the footnotes and any other talk about how I run the game, or DM tips, or whatever, goes in the main body of the journal.
This time there’s a lot of that kind of thing, and most of it is pretty tied up in spoilers etc. Rather than try to talk around the point in the main journal and expand on things in the footnotes, I’m going to split this post in two instead. The top half in the journal, sans any DM advice or commentary from me. If you’re playing in my game and don’t want to ruin anything for yourself, you can safely read that.
The second half is going to be spoiler city. I juggled a lot of balls in this session to make things work. If you’re just here for the story and aren’t interested in what’s going on behind the scenes, or you’re playing in the game and don’t want to ruin things for yourself, then don’t read the second part.
Last time we met, we left the party standing in the giant hall, staring down a naga who had dominated Thorak and Manbearpig and told the group in no uncertain terms that they were going to die. That meant we got to start the session with a roll of initiative, and a battle against a clearly powerful enemy while the party were much weaker than normal.
Luckily the party weren’t quite caught with their pants down. They rolled well, and were able to get themselves into position before the naga started attacking. Since I haven’t managed to draw a map yet this week (or for the last post, either), you’ll have to do make do with a picture of the terrain I made for this game.
That’s made out of cardboard and modrock, and took a couple of days (with Thorak’s player doing most of the work, if I’m honest). We unfortunately didn’t get a chance to paint it, but I’m still happy with how it turned out. It made this boss fight feel suitably important, which was what I wanted.
Most of the party spread out, taking cover behind the fallen pillars. Wartsnall headed up to the edge of the raised dais, hiding behind the pillar there, while Pstan climbed the dais to get a closer look at the shimmering well atop it. Once he was able to look into it properly he saw that it wasn’t filled with water but some strange gossamer substance that flickered and flared randomly. He thought that it was probably magical in nature, but the barbarian had no way of knowing what it actually was.
Meanwhile, Manbearpig – already very low of health after the fight with Thorak – was climbing back up the stairs, making his way to the balcony with Ha’an to help take the naga down from range.
Thorak, on the other hand, was raging and charging at the naga (after chugging a desperately-needed healing potion). The naga was too far away for the barbarian to get close enough to attack, though, and that meant he was out in the open when the naga’s turn rolled around.
Luckily the dice gods were smiling on Thorak, and he easily passed the save against the naga’s fourth-level lightning bolt. Those same dice gods seemed to have cursed me, and the damage was minimal.
Then the naga did something unexpected. It turned to the mound of dirt it was standing on and plunged into the hole, disappearing from sight.
This left the party at a bit of a loss for what to do. Wartsanall considered going down into one of the tunnels himself, but quickly thought better of it. The group spent their turns healing, while Ha’an and Manbearpig readied actions should the naga emerge from the holes.
Which it did, obviously, popping up closer to the door and unleashing another lightning bolt that caught Thorak, Wartsnall, and Pstan (who had moved away from the well on his turn). Manbearpig’s readied shot – using one of his few remaining barbed arrows – flew wide, but Ha’an’s shatter spell went off right on top of the naga, sending out a shockwave that caused parts of the ancient stonework to crumble.
A full round of attacks from the party later and the naga was already looking noticeably weakened, though Wartsanall’s javelin of leaves – which would have dealt sneak attack damage had it hit – skittered harmlessly wide.
As the fight got going and Pstan came back to join the fray noticed a heavily-armoured corpse on the ground behind a pillar to the right of the dais. Initially worried that it might be the remains of Sif, he soon saw that the body inside was skeletal and clearly long-dead, that the armour and weapons strewn around it had rusted and cracked. Interestingly, though, a leather satchel by the corpse’s side seemed to still be in perfect condition. Once he got to it he soon found that the satchel seemed to be empty, but the inside was much larger than should be possible given the size of the satchel. Pstan had found a bag of holding.
The party continued to deal damage to the naga, with Thorak staying as close to it as possible and taking advantage of opportunity attacks as it tried to get away, and Ha’an and Manbearpig laying down fire from above. Pstan and Wartsanall, meanwhile, began staking javelins into the holes in the mounds of earth, pointing their tips downwards so that the naga would be impaled on them if it tried to come up out of the ground there.
The fight didn’t seem like it would last for very long, with the naga rapidly running out of spells and health, and Thorak soon struck the killing blow. The naga fell, and there was a moment of calm, before the naga sucked in a deep breath and pulled itself back to its feet, striking out at Thorak with everything it had and dropping the half-orc – who also immediately pulled himself back to his feet, making use of his relentless endurance. His next blow felled the naga again, but again it pulled itself to its feet, and again Thorak went down – and this time he stayed down, bleeding out on the floor. The party pumped attacks into the naga, killing it again, but it kept coming back up and Thorak kept rolling death saves while the group tried to figure out what to do.
Then, as abruptly as it had begun, it ended. Pstan downed the naga again, and this time there was an enormous explosion. The naga stayed down, but the explosion dislodged something in the already shaky castle and the whole structure began to rumble and shake. As chunks of masonry and shards of glass began to rain down on the party Thorak passed his third death save with a natural 20, pulling himself back up at 1 hit point only to be struck by a falling brick that rendered him unconscious and making death saves again.
Pstan dragged Thorak across the hall as the rest of the party convened around the well. As Ha’an fed Thorak another healing potion, Manbearpig decided to take a risk and plunged into the well. He disappeared from view completely, and the rest of the party followed him through the portal.
They emerged in a large, dark chamber holding a massive stone altar. From the size of the brickwork – and the door exiting the room – the party guessed that they were still in the same castle, but had no idea where.
Beyond the door they found large caged cells, clearly intended for storing prisoners once upon a time. In one of the cells they found Sif, bloodied and beaten and repairing her armour. She told the party that she had woken here a few days ago after entering the castle and being overwhelmed, with no way to escape; at the end of this corridor was a huge, locked gate that she couldn’t open, and the portal that they had entered through had led only to the naga and certain death.
With Sif recovered, the party debated what to do. They could go through the portal and try to make their way back to the main entrance, hoping that the explosion that had shook the castle hadn’t blocked their escape route. Or they could try and open the large gate further down the corridor and explore the ruins further.
The party decided that they’d been promised magic and riches, and they hadn’t found enough of them yet, so the gate was the obvious choice.
First, though, they needed to rest for the night, so that’s where we left things.
Behind The Scenes
This was one of those sessions that I prepared a huge amount for, only to find that I had to change most of it on the fly.
As I said last time, I’d realised that I’d mis-used the naga’s domination by allowing it to dominate two characters at once, and as a result I’d drained the party’s resources much more than I should have done. I was also aware that they didn’t have much in the way of healing left – a constant worry when there’s no cleric in the party – and I was worried that the naga fight would result in a TPK.
In planning for this encounter, I was well aware that solo monsters usually don’t do well against parties – especially if you’ve got a big group. Spirit nagas fare particularly poorly in this kind of situation; while they’re a CR 8 monster, most of that challenge is front-loaded into offence rather than defence. The lightning bolt and bite attack hit an average of two creatures per turn for ~28 damage each, but with that AC of 11 and fairly low hit points it goes down fast, and I know my group can soak up some damage (despite their lack of healing). This presented me with a challenge; I wanted this to be a memorable fight where the party felt challenged, but I also didn’t want to either kill the whole party or have them kill the naga in one or two turns. I wasn’t hugely worried about TPKing the group when I built the encounter, but going into it after my fuck up with the domination made me reassess things.
I planned for this encounter to come at the end of the previous session, but it ran late and that meant that I had to start this session with the encounter. Knowing the pace that my group tends to play at, I honestly expected this fight to go on for a couple of hours. In order to stop the party killing the naga in its first round, I gave it a couple of items to boost that defensive CR a little (which raised its overall CR, but I know what my party are capable of and wasn’t initially worried). I created a ring of regeneration that mimics the troll’s regeneration ability, but only has a certain number of charges. The party didn’t actually recover this when they killed the naga, but this was what was causing it to come back from death repeatedly.
The second thing I gave the naga was a necklace of fireballs with only one bead remaining; this was always intended to be used once the charges on the ring of regeneration were used up (or as the naga took fire damage). The reason for this was fairly simple; a) because I knew it would be cool, as the castle started collapsing around the party and they were forced to escape, and b) because the spirit naga knows it will be alive again in less than a week, and if it can take a few of the party members out with it as it dies its vengeance upon returning to life will be more easily achieved. The justification in in-game terms was even easier; the party came here seeking magical treasures, they had seen a location filled with magical items (even though most had been rendered useless by the nothics), and it wouldn’t make sense for the naga that had moved into the castle not to be packing.
That was my initial design for the encounter, but obviously I had to rebalance things once I realised just how weakened the party were. That’s when I added the dead body clutching the bag of holding (which, we’ll discover next week, contains quite a few healing potions); Manbearpig has seen a bag of holding before in his previous adventures, and he’ll know that it can be turned inside out to remove everything inside it. I also lowered the number of charges remaining in the ring of regeneration, and told myself that I’d take it away completely if things were going badly. In the end – due to my poor rolling on initiative and attacks, and the way the party spread out around the battlefield – I didn’t need to, and I actually would have preferred for the naga to stay up longer. Besides Thorak, nobody was ever really in any danger during the fight, and the whole thing didn’t last very long.
The other thing I had to change was a pretty big one, and it caused me to have to improv what the party found on the other side of the portal.
The naga links into the larger plot that I’m slowly building towards, and I originally intended for the party to escape through the portal to find themselves in the naga’s original lair – a ruined temple deep within the sands of the desert. The party have been heading towards the desert for a while, and I’m as keen for them to get there as they are. This would have skipped a lot of cross-country adventure, allowing them to get to the desert at the level they are now and spend some time getting to know the area and gaining experience before things start getting serious.
As they went to go through the portal, though, I realised what I’d overlooked. If I zipped them thousands of miles away now, they were going to feel robbed. Thorak’s instant fortress is still erected outside the castle, and it’s got Nanook, Suddenly Horse, and all the loot they gained from killing their first dragon inside it. It would be the ultimate dick move for me to take all of that away from them just a few sessions after giving it to them in the first place, and I hadn’t thought about that when I designed this part of the campaign. I never intended for the ruined half of the castle to include much of anything – it was there for flavour, not exploration – and I hadn’t designed any catacombs or anything beneath the castle.
On a whim, though, I decided that the portal actually led there. There’s no in-game explanation for the portal anyway – it was always a fudge, a gimmicky way of moving the story forward (and yes, it’s a little railroady, but I never forced them to go through it) – and so I decided that it went to the burial grounds beneath the castle, where the magic is still weird and the dead things aren’t that dead. This also provided me with a convenient way to explain what had happened to Sif.
So that’s where we are, and next time we’ll look at what happens in the catacombs. The group still don’t know that the spirit naga won’t stay dead, either. I’m looking forward to that reveal in future.