Building Bhakashal - Let it Ride!
One of the things I love about D&D is that it can go places you don’t expect. My Friday group has spent entire sessions equipping themselves for adventures, “digging a hobbit hole” for a group headquarters, gambling with sailors, you name it. I don’t “guide” players either explicitly or implicitly, part of the agreement between referee and players at our table is that the players can do whatever they want, I’m not there to be the fun police, or to tell them they are “playing it wrong”. I've learned to trust my players to direct the action with their choices, rather than imposing my "vision" of what constitutes an exciting, engaging session. This approach has proven fruitful and fun.
My job is to create a game world, and have the game world react to the actions of the players, whatever they may be. The brilliance of D&D is that this approach leads to both the players and the referee being surprised by what happens. That’s pure gold.
So my Friday group finished off Ghost Tower of Inverness a few weeks back. They were heading back to rendezvous with the ship that would take them home. They lost two party members in the Tower, and were going to roll up two new PCs upon arrival back in the city. The journey produced a random encounter, and I rolled ogres. I use the listed number appearing for random encounters, and I rolled… 16 ogres. When a table throws me something like this it immediately makes me think, “why would 16 ogres be wandering about?”
For me random tables are prompts, what you do with them is what’s important. I decided that they were transporting something important, something so important that you would need 16 ogres to protect it. On the spot I made up a magic item.
Ashfallen: intelligent +4 battle axe, +8 versus undead, on a critical hit, undead must save versus death magic or be destroyed. Ashfallen is cursed, once you grasp it the weapon will transport itself into your hands whenever you try to attack anything (I stole this idea from Tamoachan)
So if you take the axe there is no spell casting or using any other weapon in combat. Now, ogres aren’t particularly bright, so they needed a leader. I decided on an ogre magi. My players hadn’t encountered an ogre magi before, so that would be fun. Because the axe became your permanent companion once you pick it up, it was in a chest and being carried on a giant boar, ridden by the ogre magi. Jimag the Bronze, ogre magi, was taking Ashfallen to a warlock who wanted the weapon. His escort was there as a vampire, Ghamaalin, wanted to destroy the axe and could show up. I decided on a 1 in 20 chance that the vampire would show up during the encounter. I rolled surprise and none was indicated. I rolled an encounter distance of 150’
The party saw the ogres and the ogres saw the party. There was some discussion about the danger of fighting 16 ogres, but they were hot off their victory in the tower and feeling like showing off. So they decided to engage. The ogres were traveling in formation, two in the lead, twelve and the ogre magi in a group and two behind. The two party tanks, a fighter and a slayer (Bhakashal ranger/assassin) took on the two lead ogres. The ogre magi halted the procession to size up the threat.
The slayer and the fighter were 7th and 8th level respectively, so they are fairly formidable in combat. They both won initiative and struck successfully, doing good damage but not slaying either ogre. Then the ogres hit back. At my table ogres do 1-10 damage on a hit, plus 6 damage from their strength. When one of the ogres did 15 hp damage with one strike, that got their attention. Still, the party fighter is now at the 3/2 attacks per round stage, and the slayer gets mad bonuses against giant creatures, so they are pretty badass .
The fight was over in three rounds, and the ogres fell. At that point the ogre magi decided that the party was a real threat, and cast a cone of cold on the party fighter. The fighter failed his save and took 50 hp damage . The whole group was silent after that, looking at each other and realizing that they could potentially be one-shot killed at any second. They didn’t know that the ogre magi could only cast a cone of cold once per day. I wasn’t going to tell them!
While the fight was going on, the party magic-user (6th level) has invisibility and crept up close enough to the main group of ogres to use ESP on the ogre magi, he discovered that they were transporting a powerful artifact in the chest on the giant boar. The ogre magi shouted a warning at the party and told them not to follow or they would be destroyed, and pulled away to leave. The party decided to let them go and regroup. Then the discussion started, should they pursue, should they leave them be?
When discussions like this happen I often leave the table, take a break, and let them hash it out. I don’t want to bias the decision, and I want to give them an opportunity to talk without me listening in. Let them plan without me knowing to emulate the enemy not knowing. When I returned they had decided that they wanted that artifact, and they were going to pursue it. Fortunately they had a slayer in the group who could track, and the conditions were ideal, so they followed the ogres from a distance for 5 hours until they set down for the night
That was session 1. In session 2, picture the scene, 14 ogres and an ogre magi setting down for the night, some immediately went to sleep, others set a watch, several gambled, a few clubbed or speared small game for food and cooked it over fires, etc.
The party waited in the forest for three hours until the ogres were all either sleeping or keeping watch, and executed their plan. The frontal assault had proven dangerous, and they decided to try something else. The party magic-user had memorized invisibility twice, so she cast it on the party fighter and he snuck into the camp while most of the ogres were sleeping and mounted the giant boar, planning to ride it away with the axe. Unfortunately, when he woke the boar and started to move it woke up the ogres around it… and the ogre magi.
Just to be clear, I rolled for that, it wasn’t automatic that he would wake anyone, I treated it as a surprise roll as he was trying to do things quietly. The ogres, however, were not surprised, so the giant boar made enough noise to alert them to it’s departure. The ogre shouted a command at the boar and it stopped, he could see the reins floating in mid air and figured out what was happening. He shouted out to the ogres that there was an intruder in the camp and took out his naginata. At this point the fighter realized he was alone in a camp of 14 ogres and their powerful leader, he knew enough of the grappling rules to know that he was in big trouble. So he leapt off the giant boar and bolted, invisibly, through the waking ogre horde to get back to the party. The ogres broke camp and left. At this juncture they could have decided to give this up, the ogres are very challenging, and this was a random encounter, they had a Soul Gem to return, and new PCs to roll up. Some referees would have pushed them to abandon the axe and move on.
But that’s not how we roll. I left it to the players, press on or leave? They talked about it and decided that it was time to press on, they wanted that axe! They camped out and slept to regain spells and rest, counting on the slayers tracking and that the ogres would have to make camp again as they had interrupted their sleep. They followed the trail again and caught up to the ogres as they made camp again. At that point we broke for session 2. When we got back for session 3 they came up with a new plan. This time the party priest got close enough to cast Command.
Fortunately, the ogres understood enough common tongue that they could understand a Command. He told one ogre to “fight”, and the ogre failed his save, then took out his club and smacked another ogre, doing good damage. The other ogre got pretty upset, and whacked him back. While they were fighting the priest cast command again, and two more ogres got into a brawl. I roll on the spot for HP, and two rounds later two ogres were dead and two more were wounded. That left 12 of the original 16 ogres around.
The camp was in chaos at this point, as ogres aren’t so smart and once the brawling started it spread. The ogre magi bellowed commands for the fighting to stop, not yet realizing that there was magic afoot. The priest tried one more command, and it also worked (ogre saves are not that good). The ogre magi cornered the ogre that started the first fight and asked him why, he replied that he didn’t know, and the ogre magi suspected the party must be around and using magic to cause the chaos. He ordered a retreat and I rolled a morale check, they passed and left with him.
The party decided they would repeat the strategy, letting the ogres leave and attacking with stealth later. Before pursuing, the party priest cast Animate Dead on two dead ogres and created two ogre zombies to accompany them. I decided that using their dead allies against them would trigger a morale check. They pursued for hours again, maintaining distance and hoping that the ogres would stop again and they could pull off another ambush. However, since the party came back twice so far I rolled to see if the ogre magi would go on the offensive or not.
Ogre magi are smart, average to exceptional intelligence, so it was possible that it would decide to stand and fight when fleeing wasn’t working, and it would definitely assume the party was pursuing. Fool me once and all that. So this time the ogres slowed down, anticipating the party would try the same stunt, and instead of catching up to a camped down group of ogres, the party caught up when the ogres were in transit. We stopped there for session 3
Session 4 the party had to decide to engage or not. This time the ogres were ready, they dispatched two ogres to trail behind the main group and try and ambush the party if they caught up. When the party was about 100 or so feet from the ogres, the two who held back attacked.
They exploded from the forest and gained surprise. Clubs and spears were used to good effect, one of the party magic-users was knocked down to 3 hp with a critical hit that doubled damage (I roll for monster criticals rather than choose), the party fighter, who was only partially healed from the cone of cold, also took a solid blow that knocked him over. While this was happening the ogre magi sent one ogre off on the giant boar with the axe and went invisible, flying into the sky above the party, and the remaining 9 ogres formed into a dispersed line and charged the party.
They were focused on the ogres that surprised them, so they did not respond as the ogres charged. Some intense melee from the party tanks (which includes the party Spartan - Bhakashal monk) took down the two ambushing ogres. At this point almost everyone in the party had taken damage, a few of them heavy damage, so they were definitely pushing their luck. But they wanted that axe! By the time they finished off the ambushing ogres the rest had charged to greet them.
On charge the longest weapon strikes first with a +2 to hit, and the ogres had large clubs and spears. So all of the ogres struck first! The party hadn’t ever encountered a charging line, all with long weapons like this, and they watched in horror as I rolled 9 consecutive attacks without response. The party did respond, and they did represent well, two ogres went down (the two were the wounded ones from the last attack), and I rolled a morale check when the zombie ogres attacked. They made the check, and then the ogre magi, invisible and flying above, cast cone of cold
I rolled exceptionally well, and the party bard, who is a HP sink (triple classing will do that) went down to 2 hp in one shot! The party priest had the zombie ogres protect him immediately and the rest of the ogres pressed their attack, hoping to turn the tide. There were now 7 ogres and an ogre magi left to fight them. We broke for the session at that point, and next week they will be right in it.
One of the things I love about this game is that it really does respond to player choices. They decided to skirmish fight with a large enemy force, so that’s what we did. This skirmish fighting involved a lot of planning, hit and run tactics, and persistence, whittling away at the enemy to gain advantage. And it has lasted four straight sessions. Now, if I was “story focused” I might do something to end this, as four sessions of fighting would be “too much”.
But to interfere in this would be to interfere in what makes D&D so freaking awesome. THIS IS WHAT THE PLAYERS WANT. Sometimes they want to shop for supplies, sometimes they want to gamble with the sailors, and sometimes they want to skirmish fight with a bunch of ogres. Interrupting the flow of the game to assert “narrative control” and “tell a story” is an anathema to me for this reason. These have been exciting, nail biting sessions, and we wouldn’t have had them at all without random encounters (something that narrative focused refs often decry) and party direction as to what to do.
They are afraid for their lives, they suspect they can win, but they may take losses to do so. Still, they want that artifact, not knowing it’s curse though, and they will do what it takes to get it. They have displayed some tactical thinking (the Command trick was inspired) and used the party’s abilities well. This is the zone for gaming IMO, with the players fully engaged and excited about achieving a goal, and the risks associated with that goal are high.
What they don’t know is that there is ANOTHER party looking to snatch the Soul Gem from them, this other party has commandeered the ship that is to take them home, and are waiting for the party to emerge from the forest. So if they exhaust themselves to get that artifact, then they are going to be in for a difficult time when they reach the ship.
None of this was planned, and none of this was anticipated, which makes it all the better. The players are surprised, I was surprised, and if they pull this off, they will have a great story to tell. Four consecutive sessions of high tension, tactically charged combat is not our regular fare. But when it happens I don’t try to curb or curtail it, I let them run with it, just like I would let them spend as much time shopping or doing any other activity that engaged or delighted them. I’ll throw in some other loot in the chest with the axe (randomly generated of course) if they succeed
Next week is going to be lit!