Campaign Diary: Ark, the Eternal Refuge – Causality

By NPC Aaron

Last time we talked about my failure at GMing by email, and also about how to handle hidden information in a campaign.  This week I will go over what happened in our latest session, and the planning I did for it.

The Goal

One thing I wanted for this game, was to create the feeling of the players that they are at the center of the action in the city.  I wanted them to be able to see the gears of the campaign world churning around them, while knowing that no one specific machine was entirely on their side, or entirely against them.  My idea of how to accomplish this goal was to introduce factions.  Previously I had introduced the Qarl gang, as well as hinted at The Harvesters who work for Shindrogon, the master of Del’s character Jon Farrier.  This game I wanted to add one more organization to the mix, as well as hint at others.  I also wanted to start weaving in the prophecies we came up with from the character creation session.

Where We Left Off

The characters, besides Jon, were bringing the boxes with the elven children in them to Lyranna, who is Trace’s (Chris’ character) ex-wife and mother to his son.  She is also an elf, so they thought she might know something about the children, or be able to find out better than they.  We established that Lyranna and Trace still have a friendly relationship, so when the player’s arrived she was happy to help.  Lyranna’s new husband, and elven noble named Eldraeus was less eager though.

In Chris’ backstory he clarified that he had a good relationship with Eldraeus, so I decided that I didn’t want him to be the “evil stepfather”, but I did want some contention there.  When the players arrived with the children, I wanted him to be more cautious and pragmatic than angry.  So Eldraeus wanted nothing to do with the children because he didn’t want to be caught up with the elven children.

At this point in the game, I looked down at the sheet of prophecies and noticed that Lyranna dying was one of the things we predicted for Trace.  I didn’t even plan this, but the player’s gave me the avenue to accomplish this.  I was worried about something this heavy handed early in the game, but I decided to go with it since it made sense here and who knows when an opportunity that seemed organic like this would present itself again.

The players decided that they would find a better place to hide the children, and that Lyranna and Eldraeus should investigate amongst the elves as best they could for answers.  At one point I decided to remind the players about how weird it was they were carrying around two comatose children by having one of them sit up, begin screaming, and then promptly fall back into deep slumber.  The players quickly decided to either store the child at Eaton’s, or at least retreat there so they could plan their next move.

The Dragonshields

Unfortunately getting back to Eaton’s with two children would be much more difficult than they expected.  I decided to use this time to introduce a new faction, The Dragonshields, an order of knights who were sworn to protect those boxes for the past several thousand years.  I decided that an interesting twist would be that they did not actually know what was in the boxes, and that looking within was breaking their oath.

The Dragonshields would be from a district across the city, where they lived in a walled fortress.  And normally the boxes containing the children would be kept in their vault.  Unfortunately the boxes had recently been stolen by a traitor, and the Dragonshields had been chasing them from owner to owner since.

The next part of building a good faction is giving it a couple of faces.  I decided to first introduce Tarrah, a catfolk rogue who was the faction’s information gatherer.  She would be devoted to the cause of their order, but pragmatic, and relatively friendly to the PCs.  Later I would introduce Haloxx, the actual leader of their order, who would be a fanatical Paladin of their ideals, to the point of doing unspeakable things if need be.  I wanted Haloxx to have some sort of dark secret, so the PCs notice that he was unusually pale, and did not seem entirely alive.  Currently, they think he is some sort of ghoul or wight, but whatever he really is, that will wait until later.

At the train station the players would run into Tarrah and some of the other Dragonshields, dressed in their typical bright blue armor.  They would notice them asking questions about the crates to the people there.  I was totally unsure how the players would react, and it was interesting to hear their various approaches to the situation being discussed.  Brendan, who’s character is all about practicality and keeping his life simple, suggested merely giving the crates to one of their purported owners, whether Dragonshields or Qarl.  Others thought about running, but eventually the players decided to tell the Dragonshields that they knew where the crates were, so they could make a trade.  The goal was to pit the Dragonshields against The Qarl syndicate.

They approached Tarrah and explained that they knew where the crates were and they would show her.  In return they expected help with the syndicate, Tarrah promised that if the Syndicate were a threat to The Dragonshields and their mission, she would see them eradicated.  Tarrah gave her weapons to her compatriots and went with the players, with the agreement that the rest of The Dragonshields would meet her at Eaton’s.

Breaking My Promise

I want to emphasize that I was especially careful about how I worded Tarrah’s promise to help with The Qarl syndicate so that I could use to show the difference between her character and Haloxx.  When an NPC makes an oath to a character and then breaks it, the players are often going to react negatively, especially if the NPC in question isn’t an outright villain yet.  I knew this so I wanted to levy that reaction as a building block in the story.  So when the players met up at Eaton’s, and Haloxx was there to receive the crates, he immediately pointed out that after he took the crates, he did not believe the Qarl Syndicate was a threat so Tarrah’s promise was unnecessary.  He boasted that petty thugs could not break into their citadel.  I also made sure to note that Tarrah was in disagreement about this, and that she clearly thought they should still help since the players were returning the crates.

Disagreements over ethos between NPCs are a great way to build relationships between your NPCs and let the characters know about them without having full blown conversations with yourself.  Those kinds of conversations are going to be awkward and they are going to sideline the players, so I try to stay away from that.  Keep interactions between your NPCs short but vivid and make sure they serve the story.

As tension rose, I decided to remind the players that other factions may not be so happy with them.  Mid-discussion molotov cocktails came crashing through the windows and Eaton’s began to burn.  This was a bit of prophecy for Pyka, Other Chris’ character, who lived and worked there.  Everyone escaped the fire, but were powerless to stop it so the players and Eaton merely watched it burn to the ground.  At this point things escalated with The Dragonshields and a fight broke out.

Fighting Above Your Weight Class

Don’t approach every combat with the assumption that the player’s are supposed to kill or incapacitate all their opponents.  Sometimes the goal is different, like survival or escape.  Sometimes the players should encounter opposition that may be more powerful than they can handle, as long as there is a way out for them that is at least somewhat satisfactory.

Haloxx was going to be tough try and fight.  I purposefully made him that way.  When some of the PCs began taking off with the children, whose crates were lost in this fight, Haloxx reacted by threatening to kill their remaining allies.  He threatened first Trace, and then Eaton, whom he did in fact dispatch after the player’s incapacitated Tarrah.

Eventually the players came up with the plan of threatening to kill Tarrah and coup de grace her if Haloxx did not let them escape.  I had Haloxx and his men stand down an the players took off towards the elven district of Cajaer, where Josh’s character Rhystel was from.

Lyranna, We Barely Knew Ye

The session was coming to a close as the players arrived at Rhystel’s home temple.  The priest there let them stow the children in the basement.  At this point I had one of the children wake up, and introduce her self as Auria, though she had amnesia and could not remember anything else.  I knew keeping a careful hand on escalating the mystery concerning these children would be one of the harder parts of this campaign, but I was happy with how it had transpired so far.

Trace decided to head back to Lyranna’s alone, to see if she had discovered anything about the children.  Unfortunately what he found was Eldraeus holding her dead body, extremely distraught.  He explained that they had been attacked by shadows, and they had killed her.  He indicated that this was all Trace’s fault for involving them in his affairs.  Trace left somber and reported back to his friends.

At this point the players switched gears.  They had let the environment affect them, but now they have decided to be more proactive.  The players came up with a plan to take the fight to their enemies.  Haloxx, in his walled fortress, would be a difficult target, but they already knew where Qarl was.  They planned next session to infiltrate the Qarl Syndicate’s hideout and dispatch Qarl himself.

This is an excellent turning point in the campaign.  We officially ended the “initiating event” that brought the players together, and have now put them more firmly in the driver’s seat.  The obstacles around them have been made clear, so I was more than happy to let go a bit and see how they planned to deal with them.  This can be hard for us as GMs, we build up both world and plot, and we begin to form ideas about how the players should approach the solution, but resist the temptation.  If you present good story hooks the players will grab onto them and come up with interesting ways to approach them all on their own.

Next time we will talk about how to handle MacGuffins in your campaign, since this one revolves so heavily around them.  Thank you for reading, as always if you have any thoughts or questions, contact me on twitter at http://www.twitter.com/npcaaron or email us at thenpccast@gmail.com.

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