My players have been through a lot – a lot. They freed the city of Phandalin from the Redbrand Thugs, brought down the Black Spider, fought a green dragon, accidentally released a demon from captivity (which placed them in an inter dimensional spot light after they threw off the balance of good and evil in the world, which they are being requested to fix), and came face to face with an evil Lich lord who, after throwing the party’s teifling through a murder hole (look it up – when it is up), left his business card and stole the Forge of Spells, a magical artifact that can literally create magical items, right out from under their nose. They have encountered vampire spawn, werewolves (one, the party’s rogue gnome, even being currently cursed with lychantropy), and stumbled upon the secret plot of an illithid invasion from the shattered remains of the Shadow Realm. They have been bashed, bruised, burned, squashed, crushed, poisoned; but still they managed to come out on top – which means I still had to give them one more kick.
With the lost mines of Phandelver starter module now behind us, its was time for me to take the training wheels off the campaign a bit. While the starter set did have its downfalls (mostly that of being a bland vanilla experience, which I livened up with a few dashes of evil), it did leave enough open ended sections that I could use to drive the story forward; but sometimes its nice to have a “one off” session where the action is upfront and the story arch ends when the bag of dice is shoved back into the bookbag. Tonight was a such a session, and it was ripped almost entirely from the movie Home Alone.
Around the second time my group sat down to play I was using a random encounter table for when they traveled. Some of things on the random encounter table were placed there as secondary side quests I would flesh out later on (the illithid invasion), while others were just little pockets of fun that helped flesh out the idea the wilderness of Altara was wild and dangerous. At random, the players had come across a small little hamlet (look for the adventure log of Tresendar and the Trolls which should be up eventually) where there was a bit of a troll problem. The party rescued the villagers, finding out that one of them was an elderly man named Mal Tresendar who once lived in the Tresendar manor in Phandalin. Sessions pass and eventually Mal settled in Phandalin and decided he would rebuild the Tresendar Manor for the players to live in as gratitude for saving his life, as well as the life of his daughter and five sons. What the party didn’t know, is that while Mal was working on the manor he was intercepted by a Yuan-ti named D’thro, who is essentially the aforementioned Lich Lord’s right hand man, and was promised that if he rigged the entire manor as a giant trap to capture the party, the Lich Lord would bring his wife back from the grave. Keep holding down the fastforward button until the last session, April second IRL time. The party has finished the Lost Mine’s of Phandelver and spent some time acquainting themselves with Phandalin. They are given an Inn to run, by the Zhentarim, they have two werewolf children they are looking after, and are contemplating the horrid dreams they are having about the Lich Lord. In walks Mal Tresendar, tired but smiling, and jingling a set of keys to the party’s new home, the new and improve Tresendar Manor. He walks the party through the manor, showing them each and every room in this tour, starting from the foyer and ending the tour in the attic. At each room he shows of the manor’s defensive capabilities: dart traps, crushing ceilings, all of which, he informs them, can be activated by panels in each room or in the basement at a master control station. In the attic, at the end of the tour, Mal gives the party the keys with trembling hands, then snaps a crystal that opens a portal from which D’thro walks through with a Rakshasa and a large creature in a black cloak. The Yuan-ti introduces himself to the party, explaining to them that his master, the Lich Lord, feels a little bemused that the party hasn’t called on him and asks why. He also turns to Mal and gives him his “reward” by pulling the cloak of the large creature, revealing it to be Mal’s wife… Only now she’s a ten foot tall Flesh Golem that instantly starts making a meal of old tired Mal. The paladin starts at the Yuan-ti, but the lizard creature jumps back through the portal and seals it, escaping, but leaving the tiger faced, backward handed Rakshasa and flesh golem behind. After the flesh golem is dealt with, as well as the Rakshasa, the party hears mechanical clicks and whirring motors echoing all throughout the manor, realizing that all of the manor’s defenses have been activated and they are trapped within.
This session was about set up and pay off. Even though my planning was “off screen,” when I was building the various traps and alternative paths through the manor, I felt a lot like Kevin McCallister during the montage scene in Home Alone when he was setting up his defenses against the Wet Bandits (and mind you there was a lot of Home Alone jokes during this session); but instead of paint cans and marbles, I used grinding wheels cover in spikes, tripwire activated dart guns, collapsing roofs, and monsters – lots of monsters. Aside from planning out the actual manor, there was a lot of thought being placed behind the reason for this happening, and not all of it has to do with story, although that plays a fairly large part in it.
First, I needed to give the players one final kick from the Lich Lord. When he first appeared the party knew he was not some one to be toyed with (see Murder Hole), but it was a just an appearance. The party relatively walked away from the encounter knowing that he was not only a bad guy, but a powerful bad guy; but he had let them leave alive. The party could go after him, sure, but there were very few plot devices (other than the Paladin, who was sent out to the Wild Frontier to kill Red Mages) that drove the players to seek him out. Normally when a story arch or quest is accomplished i give the players’ characters some breathing. They’re allowed to level up, do some training, move about town, ect; but one of the most important things is I give them an option of which why they want to steer the campaign. I don’t put them in the driver’s seat, so to say, but i let them know that this journey is essentially an open road and we are – together – drawing the map as we travel it. As an example prevalent to this campaign there were a few things left open after we finished the lost mines of Phandelver. There’s the looming threat of the Illithid invasion and a lead towards where they might snoop around to find out more information about it, there’s a few jobs coming in from the Zhentarim that need their attention, there’s the threat of vampire spawn that have been slowly creeping their way south from some unknown location, there’s the whole inter dimensional unbalancing unfolding around them (which caused the party’s Dwarven fighter, Taros, and Human paladin, Jhonen, to be chosen by their deities to help return the balance), and then there’s the big bad Lich Lord they known relatively nothing about. As per course, before this session i had asked the players which way they wanted to steer and their response was scattered, but none of them pointed towards the Lich Lord. This didn’t discourage me in using the Lich Lord as the party’s antagonist, but it did worry me that they were so startled by his appearance, but so bewildered by his intent, that they wanted nothing to do with him and didn’t think they had to do anything about him. So to amend this, I simply had him come to them. I wanted, and taught, the players that the Lich Lord (who’s name is Dagon Vile, by the way) was not only more powerful and smarter than them, but also that he had a vested interested in them, so much so that he had plans working against them even before he made his presence known.
The second bit of thought that went behind this was purely to balance out some of the mechanics of the game that I accidentally unbalanced. My players are sixth level (now seventh after this session), which – depending on what type of DM you are in regards to doling out treasure – means that without Mal Tresendar there would be no way for them to have such a swag pad. Even if they threw all their money, jewels, gems, and belongings into the proverbial pot and tried to buy it outright that wouldn’t even be able to afford the foyer. So to them they essentially saved a guy from a few trolls and then *poof* free mansion. It just felt cheap – and it really made me think it wasn’t something they would be able to fully appreciate. So i had them work for it, and i had to work for a reason for them to work for it. Cyclical, i know, but reasons are reasons, and i felt mine were justified and the party walked, well, limped, away from this one with a few lessons, a swag pad, and a new level of appreciation that big bad old Lich Lord was keeping a close eye on them.
I know there are few people, mainly the people I get flack from on reddit, that might view this as a bit of a railroad. In some sense, they would be right. This session had a few tracks to follow, but I like to think of this “one off” session more like a colorful ride. The players are marching their way through their mid-levels and needed a real chance to test their abilities, but they also needed to know that failure, and death, is a real possibility. They weren’t allowed to rest, minus short rests, and failure had some real weight to it. A missed roll nearly threw the Taros into the elemental plane. Fireball cast by a Death Slaad does 8d6 fire damage, and half that on a fail. And, most importantly, the magic users learned that spell slots are like water in the desert. All in all though, my players got a glimpse at the lengths a Lich Lord will go just to let you know he’s out there.
For those of you who are interested, keep an eye out for the “New and Improved Tresendar Manor” page on this blog if you want to look at / use it in your campaign. I made a few minor adjustments to it when it came into play, but all the traps are there. I didn’t bother populating with monsters, seeing as it all depends on what level the players are at.