Completing Heroic Tier Without Destroying the World

My campaign finally reached its Heroic Tier finale last weekend. If you can indulge me, I’d like to discuss the progression to the final string of battles and the ultimate climax that now has the party moving on to Paragon Tier. Along the way, I’ll cover few house rules that might improve your game and present my creative process, which is certainly fueled by desperation. I realize discussing my campaign at length like this could be boring, but perhaps you can learn from some mistakes I made during the first 10 Levels in Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition.

The seeds for the final string of encounters were planted during the first night of the campaign. The party woke up from being unconscious and found themselves in prison at the start of Level 1. An attack from an unknown source on the prison distracted the guards and allowed the party to exit the jail. But along the way, they interacted with another prisoner that begged for freedom. They allowed him to escape; many months later, they learned the NPC they released was a notorious pirate that was plaguing the coast. They were tasked with bringing the pirate, Captain Lockes, to justice.

The pirate plot lasted for several months (we play every other Friday if schedules permit). The party had to find a ship, discover the source of the pirate attacks, and capture Lockes. Instead of establishing a straight line to that goal, I allowed the party to branch off in various directions. As they did this, the base for Captain Lockes and the pirate band took on a life of its own.

I used Campaign Cartographer 3 (CC3) to make the following map of Ernsmaw Island. I asked one of the players in the party to come up with rumors of a pirate island. His Halfling Rogue had a background of working on riverboats and it made sense that he would hear such rumors. I gave the player a few brief prompts and let him run with the rumors, informing him that some would likely be true while others would be false information. He came up with a name that was a bit too long, so I chopped it down to Ernsmaw Island. CC3 is a fun program to use and quite powerful once you learn the controls. I have only scratched the surface of what it is capable of, but I’m happy with the island below.

The mysterious Ernsmaw Island.

The party found the map after patrolling the coast and battling a lesser pirate, Lezoe. I borrowed heavily from the Waves of Fate downloadable delve at Sarah Darkmagic to relieve some of the burden of encounter planning. During the battle with Lezoe, I spent some type crafting (literally) a special healing potion for the group. I used the old Character Builder to modify a potion and created Lezoe’s Rot Gut. The potion allows the PC to spend a healing surge but gain double the surge value; however, the PC suffers a -2 to Reflex and Fortitude until the end of the encounter.

But I wasn’t satisfied with simply creating a unique potion. I mixed several brands of scotch and whiskey into a bottle of Johnny Walker Greenand distressed the bottle to make it look old and dirty. I gave the players the bottle when they searched Lezoe’s ship. It was a nice effect and the players really enjoyed it. It did taste good as well, so if you have several bottles of aging whiskey and scotch sitting around, pour them all into the same container and enjoy your own dragon breath!

Mmmm, scotch.

The party battled through an elemental storm, which was their first clue about what was the come later. to reach the island. I inserted an encounter with sea creatures on rocks off the coast of the island to introduce two new players to the campaign. Sadly, those players only stayed with the campaign for a few sessions as their schedule shifted around. The party was on a damaged ship and heading for the coast when they were surrounded and attacked by a host of Orc vessels. This resulted in a nice moment as the party agreed to parlay with the Orcs as they towed the broken ship to shore, only the wizard stood proudly in the crow’s nest as the ship burned and sank beneath him. I quickly switched my iPod to the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack to capture the scene!

Ernsmaw Island

I started with a map of the island, and then thought about the creatures and people who would inhabit the island. As I mentioned during my interview with Carl Bussler, I have a strong affinity for the television show, Lost, and was influenced by the notion of two factions on an island. The Orcs were one of the factions, although they were horribly scarred as if they had endured experimentation. They were also more intelligent than the common Orc, which is a result of the experimentation. The other faction was the pirates, and they resided on the other side of the island. The party eventually learned through a variety of encounters the truce between the two factions was enforced by a third party - a witch known only as Aurora.

The party learned that Aurora first captured Orcs and experimented on them to build an army. Her goals were unclear, and she abandoned the Orcs in favor of other humanoids. She lured men and women to the island and offered them refuge in a coastal paradise, Foole’s Cove, but forced them to steal gold and valuable materials to fuel her research. If her orders were questioned, she tortured the residents of the pirate base. Many of the men, including Captain Lockes, wished to cease their pirating activities but feared the wrath of Aurora. Meanwhile, the Orcs were also terrified of her as she swallowed up their home village, Grakknii, in a violent elemental storm that sunk the earth.

For several months, the party bounced back and forth between the two factions in an attempt to earn their trust and learn the true source of power on the island. I created an Oasis of Residuum, which the party explored as an errand for Captain Lockes. I first included an oasis on the map because it simply looked cool, but it allowed me later to utilize creatures from Dark Sun, which was great. The Dark Sun creatures felt more powerful than the monsters I was running from the original Monster Manual and online builder. This was before the Monster Vault and I didn’t own Monster Manual 3 yet. Using the Dark Sun creates convinced me that I should invest in the newer books to ensure I was challenging the party, and it was fun to have a session that felt “different” from the normal campaign.

The party then had to assist the Orcs reclaim their leader’s helm from the ruined Grakknii Village. Of course, an Orium Dragon had set up shop in the ruins and the party had to deal with it. I wrote about the encounter with the Orium Dragon and how it was somewhat boring to run because the Solo monster did not have many options. At the time, I was playing Bayonetta, so I toyed around with the idea of using combination attacks to produce a more dynamic Solo monster (great responses in the Comments section of that post).

The party rallied the Orcs and pirates to work together to storm Aurora’s tower to free them both from her menace. At this point, I turned to The Plane Below to drive home the nature of Aurora’s power. As they breached her defenses, they were confronted with fantastic elemental weather, creatures and traps. I also started to incorporate creatures from the Monster Vault and Monster Manual 3, which seemed to kick the encounter into another gear.

Aurora’s Tower

During these months, I knew the final battle with Aurora would feature Sly Flourish’s Portal Prop. Because of scheduling issues and the island taking on more life than I anticipated (partially due to the players’ decisions), I waited almost a year from the initial idea to execution this past Saturday. There were many times when I was frustrated by this because I wanted to get to the “good stuff” and run an encounter with the prop. But I didn’t rush it; there is probably a lesson in there somewhere. I think it provided a very slow burn and build up for the final battle.

However, on the earlier floors of the tower, the party faces a variety of challenges, including a skill/combat challenge that featured several mirror tiles I purchased at a local craft store. I used tack to affix the mirrors onto Dwarven Forge pieces to create a situation where the players had to figure out how to get by the mirrors in the room before shadows attacked them. However, I wasn’t completely sure how the players would get past the mirrors either; I didn’t want to creature a structured skill challenge and limit their choices.

The Rogue looks into a magical mirror.

The most interesting idea came from a new player in our campaign who was playing a Barbarian; he sat in front of a mirror and meditated on it. After seeing another player attack a mirror – only to take damage from shattering glass before the glass returned to restore the pristine mirror – the Barbarian looked into the mirror and cut his hand with his sword to offer a blood sacrifice. That was exactly the idea I had in mind, but wasn’t sure how to run a skill challenge to get there.

The players figured it out with some prompts and the session did not get into a statistics game of “Who can roll the highest in each skill that is needed.” I tend to run skill challenges in this manner; I don’t like to announce skill challenges. I prefer to let them happen organically. There are positives and negatives to this approach, but in this case, it worked for me.

The next encounter was a great deal of fun to create. I wanted to create a platforming encounter similar to old Super Mario Bros. games. I mapped out the layout for the “level,” which the party located after stepping through a portal inside the tower. The portal lead to the swirling Elemental Chaos and the floating platforms (see map below). The encounter only feature three monsters, but the party had to navigate a lightning trap and moving platforms. It provided a different challenge and a great deal of tension as players were uncertain during the encounter what would happen if they fell off a platform. Instant death would not have been fun, so the player would get bounced around in the currents of the Chaos and land in a random square (d8) on the map. Sadly (for me), this only happened once as the map was too easy for the players to navigate. In retrospect, I should have made the jumps longer as two-square jumps were easy to clear with running starts.

Chaos Platforms

Another battle was had with hostages taken from Foole’s Cove that had been turned into Chaos Warriors by Aurora. I used the Chaos Warrior Theme found in Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 as a template for building the monsters. The party quickly decided to heal the hostages rather than kill them. I considered that as an option ahead of time, but wasn’t sure if they would move in that direction. They ended up successfully clearing the encounter while only killing one hostage/warrior.

During the tower assault and up to the final battle, the party did not have an opportunity to take an extended rest. I work around this with a few house rules. First, I asked the players to send me a journal entry for their PCs between a couple of sessions; the players who sent me some information got two surges refreshed during the next session. Second, our gaming groups use healing potions in a different way; the PC can either consume the potion for a static 10 HP increase without using a surge, or consume the potion to regain a full surge value with using a surge. Third, I used an Endurance check after the second milestone to allow players the chance to regain surges depending on if they matched the Easy, Moderate or Hard DC.

Bringing The Id DM’s Tagline To Life

Which bring me to last Saturday when the party reached the top of the tower and battled Aurora and her enormous Rift into the Elemental Chaos. I worked on Aurora’s backstory in my mind for months, but never committed more than an outline to paper. I had a couple of paragraphs in MasterPlan, which I use to track the campaign and prepare encounters, but I continued to “put off” finishing her story. My reasoning did include wanting the PCs to shape her story, but if I’m honest, I procrastinated. Even though it took months to reach, I kept telling myself, “You have plenty of time to figure out the specifics.”

And that brings me to the tagline I created for this blog on somewhat of a whim several months back, “Cramming before gaming nights just like everyone else.” I’ve always procrastinated. I have fond memories of being the only person in the Psychology building at 3 o’clock in the morning blasting music from my office while making copies and finishing reports down in the lab the night before they were due. I felt like I did my best work “under pressure,” but in reality I just couldn’t focus myself frequently enough to avoid such a predicament of needing to pull all-nighters to finish projects. This process hasn’t changed much in terms of my preparation to DM!

I’m hesitant to write the following because my players read this and I fear they might somehow think less of me, but I got home last Friday from work at 4:30pm. I hung out with my dog for about 20 minutes and set to work on that night’s session a bit before 5pm. Over the next 90 minutes, I finalized Aurora’s backstory, created an extra floor of the tower to a) leave clues about her background, b) reward the party with treasure parcels and c) encourage roleplaying, and created a prop that would be located in her “office.” I typed up the note and then burned the edges; I’ve used the burnt-parchment approach two or three times, and each time I create such a prop I almost end up in the ER or burn my house down!

In those 90 minutes, I also made a sandwich for the night’s game, took care of my dog, and gathered my gear for the night. It was a whirlwind of activity that really should have been spread out over days – if not weeks or months. But I was pleased with the final products.

Aurora’s Origin – Exploring Diversity

First, I decided long ago that Aurora is a female. I’ve read many posts about the need for greater diversity in roleplaying games and had primarily featured male NPCs throughout Heroic Tier. I wanted to change that, and created a villain that was female. This was important to me because I agree with many of the sentiments out there about the gaming landscape being dominated by male characters and perspectives.

But I didnt’ have answers to her backstory yet. Why did Aurora start to explore the Elemental Chaos and turn her eyes toward releasing The Chained God? Why is she searching for the Temple of Elemental Evil and bent on destroying the world?

My first answer was that she was struck with an incredible grief. Perhaps she lost the love of her life? So I thought about her mourning the death of a husband. I short-circuited that thought because it felt too cliché. I thought about adding another female NPC to the mix, and thought about her mourning the death of her sister or daughter. But then something else hit me, “What if she was mourning the loss of her true love, and her true love was another woman?”

Kids, do not try this at home. Fire = bad.

I ran with the idea for a few minutes and fleshed out her story. How she met the woman, how their love was not accepted and how her partner was murdered for being different and thought to be “a witch.” I created three rooms in the tower to tell her story. First, a simple bedroom that clearly has not been used on a long time; the party previously suspected that Aurora is centuries old, but items in the bedroom confirmed the knowledge. Second, an office held the burnt letter, which was a letter from her mother pleading with her to come home and be “cured” by Brother Nizine. Brother Nizine had until this point never been introduced to the party, and until I typed the name quickly when I wrote the letter, never existed.

The third room was covered in living ice and featured a dead woman encased in the middle. The party melted the ice and found a dead female Elf with stab wounds to her chest and abdomen. A session or two earlier, I had given out a History Revealed Ritual that would allow the party to interact with NPCs to recall their past. I’d like to give myself credit for thinking that the story would work out exactly as planned, but I’m not sure I was 100% aware of how it would play out.

Without any prompting, the wizard in the party suggested the ritual to learn about the woman. He rolled well and got three scenes from the woman’s past. I detailed a meeting between two young women that eventually led to a kiss, an intimate scene (I kept it classy) in a bedroom that was interrupted by two sets of parents and another man in a robe chastising the young women, and a final scene that featured he woman being executed by the order of the man in the robe. The party put the pieces together and learned that the other woman in the scenes was Aurora, and that Brother Nizine was the man who ordered the execution of her true love.

The cleric in the party inquired about the religion of the Brother, and he learned that it was the very same order he belongs to, which blew his mind. He now has a new goal – find out why his religious order, the Chizoba Sect, was persecuting homosexuals several centuries ago when Aurora was young. The body of Aurora’s true love disintegrated once the ice was melted, as the ice was keeping her remains preserved. The cleric gathered her ashes and a solitary ring that rested on her finger – inscribed, From Aurora, For My Love – and placed them in a makeshift urn.

The party then entered the final chamber with Aurora. With their information about her past, the party had many opportunities to roleplay and interact with Aurora. As soon as she saw the cleric wearing the Chizoba robes, she flew into a rage, and he attempted to apologize for the actions of his order. After learning that the ice was melted by the party, she refused any parlay and fought the party to the death. Meanwhile, the rift into the Elemental Chaos produced harmful effects for the party and spit out an archon every few rounds. The party got wise after a few rounds of taking variable elemental damage from the rift and closed if as they battled Aurora.

A glowing portal deserves the lights turned low and candles.

Seriously, build this prop to add some shock and awe to the table.

After Aurora was defeated, the cleric gathered her ashes and placed them in the same urn as her true love. The cleric’s action made the months, weeks and frantic last 90 minutes before the final session of Heroic Tier worth it. I thought that was a very cool – and touching - moment to end the combat encounter.

Conclusion

I started to DM over a year ago, and I really enjoy the process. I’m still learning, and know I can improve my skill in creating adventures and capitalizing on player contributions. I can think of several occasions in the campaign when I did not improvise when players attempted to do something I did not anticipate. I certainly want to increase my ability to let the players take more control of the story and the outcomes of combat encounters.

There were times when I relied on published materials and other times when I spent hours creating my own NPCs and adventures. Do both to keep yourself fresh and minimize burnout. Take pieces of published materials and make them your own. Building my own world and borrowing from other sources increased my skills in multiple areas. For example, creating an adventure or a town works different mental abilities then taking an adventure and adapting it to fit into the campaign. I find both challenges rewarding.

Let your players do some work for you. Encourage them to keep journals or discuss how they want to influence the world. The wizard in the group seeks the Crystal of Ebon Flame, the cleric is seeking out seven temples and now has a new moral dilemma regarding his religious order. I gained assistance from the rogue to describe the pirate island off the coast. Keep an eye out for plot seeds that sprout at the most unexpected times, and latch on to them!

Know your style, and capitalize on how you work. If you procrastinate like me, then admit that to yourself and don’t try to construct new encounters and adventures right before every session. You will drive yourself to a heart attack! Try to space out your creative efforts; it helps to keep a notebook with you to jot down ideas as they come to you. I’ve sent text messages and emails to myself when something pops into my brain but I’m not in a position to flesh it out.

And finally, bring on Paragon Tier!!!

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About The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.
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13 Responses to Completing Heroic Tier Without Destroying the World

  1. Matěj Bína says:

    This article was great! It really made me reflect on what I’m doing, spark up some new ideas, and generally gave me a feeling I can’t describe, but it’s there and feels good. Thanks a lot for putting this together :)

    • The Id DM says:

      Your comment reads like a generic Spam message, but since WordPress didn’t catch it as such, I’m going to assume it’s a genuine person. No insult is meant by that. Did you come from a Russian site? Glad you enjoyed the article!

  2. COMPLETELY stealing the “lost love” storyline,, the Past Revealed ritual,and the “three rooms to reveal backstory” stuff. Well done. That’s just fantastic.

    • The Id DM says:

      Yes, the History Revealed ritual gives you many cool options as a DM, but your players have to remember they have it and use it. I was thrilled when my player mentioned the ritual as an option. I’m still learning how to build rooms and areas of a “dungeon” that are not simply an arena for combat. It was good to focus on plot and roleplaying elements and create rooms that would tell a story and led to the PCs interacting with the world.

      Thanks for the feedback!

  3. Just an FYI,,,, Regarding the “skill challenge” with the mirror… This is a “puzzle”, not a skill challenge. They are two very different obstacles in D&D. Puzzles have been around in D&D since the begining. Taking form as riddles, or some other type of “tell me what you do” puzzles. Puzzles challenge the players mental gymnastics, while skill challenges are meant to challenge a characters skills. This technique works well if you have a pretty sharp group who likes to engange in them. Unfortunately not all groups are created equal. I’ve had silly riddles completely stump a party before. While another group will think the riddle was too easy.

    For our group, the mental puzzles are a good play and should work well.

    • The Id DM says:

      You bring up an interesting point, and I think the line between “puzzle” and “skill challenge” can get blurry. If you are going to rely on rolls to determine success and failure, then it’s more of a skill challenge. But allowing the PCs/players to investigate their options, which don’t have to be tied to skills, is probably more of a puzzle.

      I’m DMing for a group with a LOT of experience, so the puzzles work well. I have to try to stay one or two steps ahead of you guys. :-)

  4. Jason Kopka says:

    Great article! Thanks for sharing your creative process, it got my mental cogs turning.

    I also run my skill challenges more organically, choosing to let the players use their skills creatively. Very rarely do I set high DCs or make certain skills auto failures. In regards to skill challenges, I like to “say yes.”

    • The Id DM says:

      I did set some high DCs in the platforming skill challenge, but I typically shy away from setting them so high. I’ve run into the situation where I set them too low and a player that isn’t trained in the skill outperforms someone who is trained. That can be awkward (but perhaps fun) to roleplay!

  5. Eric Moon says:

    What a fantastic writeup. Makes me want to start blogging my campaign! Lots of fantastic ideas here that I’m going to have to use… hope you don’t mind. :D I love puzzles and skill challenges – I constantly worry that I’m giving my group too much combat and not enough to challenge their minds, so I’m always looking for interesting non-combat encounters for them to experience.

    Also, prop rotgut would go down REALLY well with my group. Ha!

    Thank you so much for the awesome post and for sharing all these ideas!

    • The Id DM says:

      I do not mind at all. As I mentioned above, I have borrowed from other sources for my campaign. Let me know how those ideas work for your group. :-)

      Another puzzle/skill challenge I forgot to mention is I printed out some moderately difficult mazes for Thievery checks one night. The Rogue had to turn off a device in the platforming stage and I gave him a maze to complete; depending on the time elapsed before completing the maze – he either got a bonus or penalty to the check. It provided some interesting moments at the table both in and out of game as everyone else gathered around him as he tried to complete the maze. Too many cooks! lol

  6. Pingback: This is My Game » No Assembly Required: Aurora Izel

  7. Pingback: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Improv | The Id DM

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