Tuesday, July 4, 2017

New Dawn Session 9: Enter the Villain

Precis: The PCs fight a powerful sorcerer.

I ran the ninth session of New Dawn a few months ago. It was a pretty short session, nust dealing with the fight between the PCs And the evil sorcerer general Arcane, which didn't last as long as I expected. I had nothing else prepared, so I ended the session early.

I wrote about half this report immediately after the session and then sat on it. Now it's a bit more of a retrospective.

Cast of Characters

New Dawn is a troupe style game, with each player having two characters. One team primarily does military stuff; the other team has been doing delving and diplomacy.

The Delvers

Sacrifice Denied

At the end of the previous session, the PCs were in the process of burglarizing the home of the evil sorcerer general Arcane. To their misfortune, Arcane had magical wards set up, which they had tripped. Arcane was also capable of teleportation, and has returned and hit them with a powerful spell that made them incapable of action while she read their minds.

The key elements of my portrayal of Arcane was that she was extremely arrogant and a sadist. She wasn't going to take the PCs seriously until they did some damage to her, and until then, she was going to toy with them. Having decided the PCs weren't a threat, she offered to let them live if they were willing to flee like cowards.

Of course, PCs being PCs, they wanted to fight. I pointed out that Nayla was badly wounded and Attivi was nearly dead, and that a tactical retreat, even if feigned, might be in order. But they were insistent that the time to fight was now, and Ariana charged forward, intending to slam Arcane back into the library and have Skyler shut the door, so that Arcane and Ariana could duel while the wounded healed with potions.

Arcane mostly dodged Ariana's charge, but it left her out of position and Skyler managed to close the door on her. Arcane was facing north with Ariana behind to the south. Arcane mocked Ariana for a bit, effortlessly parried her attacks without turning around, and then teleported back to where everyone else was. Ariana's attempted sacrifice came to naught.

Six armed Cpellcasting Cuisinart

The next several rounds went poorly for the PCs. Arcane was a Weapon Master with two dancing swords who also had 360 degree vision and a compartmentalized mind. She could launch four sword attacks while casting a spell and defending herself against whatever the PCs tried with a pair of magical, invisible arms holding invisible shields. She was also in extremely heavy armor, so even their infrequent lucky shots or meteoric iron weapons pretty much bounced off her armor.

Even so, Arcane's attacks were mostly ineffectual. It takes a lot of firepower to overwhelm a PC's defenses, especially if all the attacks are coming from a single source and the PC can apply a retreat bonus against all of them. She did manage to get another hit in against Nayla, but mostly Ariana, Nesta, and Skyler blocked her attacks.

I played up Arcane's arrogance and overconfidence throughout this. She didn't believe the Resistance was a threat, she thought she could take on all five PCs at once, and she figured after that she would spend a couple of days organizing the orcs and putting down the rebellion. She told the PCs of her plans and mocked them for their ineffectiveness against her.

Things Don't Go as Planned

Eventually the melee PCs managed to force Arcane away from Nayla, and she started firing meteoric arrows into Arcane's eyeslits. Arcane did have some armor for her eyes, but an unlucky dodge roll meant she still took a hit. Badly wounded and impaired, she launched her signature spell: a rolling cloud of white mist that was a persistent life leach effect, intended to kill all of them while healing her. Unfortunately, she couldn't set up the attack and teleport far enough away to prevent Nayla from shooting her in the other eye with a lucky shot.
Arcane duels the PCs as Nayla and Attivi bombard her with ranged attacks.

This was slightly frustrating for me. As the PCs would later discover, Nayla was a demi-god of some sort, and certain people in the know, such as Arcane, would recognize that fact when Nayla used her imbuement powers. But in this fight, for some reason, Nayla didn't use any imbued attacks. There was supposed to be a dramatic reveal that Nayla was something special and that it was related to some kind of ward that hadn't been breached, but that didn't happen. So a useful clue for setting up my ongoing story was lost because the PCs didn't cooperate.

Arcane's white mist of leeching death spell wasn't healing her as fast as it needed, and with her eyes shot out, she was mostly dead meat. Skyler used his signature weapon with enhanced knockback to hit her three times, sending her flying to the edge of the tor that they were fighting on. I figured that since Arcane wasn't going to accomplish anything in the fight, and it was dramatic and amusing this way, that I might as well redraw the map slightly and have her get sent over the end of the tor, so she could bounce her way down to her death in the castle courtyard. This wasn't a case of Never Found the Body: Arcane was very, very dead and her corpse was lying in the courtyard, surrounded by friendly soldiers. I just wanted a more dramatic send-off.

Answers Lead to More Questions

The PCs went back down to the courtyard and examined Arcane's corpse. It was pretty battered, but they removed the helmet. Arcane had been an extremely beautiful blonde with delicate features and pointed ears: almost certainly an elf. This immediately raised the question if she was a renegade elf in Imperial service, or if all the Luminals and masked nobility were actually elfs?

They poked around her villa some more, finding some books on magic written in an unknown script that resembled the Squallite and Fae scripts but was clearly different (much like the Hebrew and Arabic scripts are related to each other). They couldn't do much with that, but it was another bit of evidence for the "Luminals are elfs" theory.

They also found some nameplates in the common tongue, and discovered that Arcane was actually named Whitemist, and that "Arcane" was the title for an archmage. This didn't have a lot of bearing on the plot, but it reinforced my theme that the Resistance knew so little about the Luminals that they didn't even know their names or titles. Skyler pointed out that "Whitemist" was not a very scary name, and Attivi intuited that white was the Luminal color for death, so the name might have been more accurately translated as "Deathmist."

I hadn't prepared anything after this fight, so we ended the game at this point after about 3 hours of play time.

Edging Toward GM Burn-Out

I was getting really frustrated with the campaign at this point. I was putting a lot of effort into the game, and aside from Kevin, the players were not really engaging with it. It had the potential to be a really amazing, epic campaign, and there were some cool things that I wanted to do in the future that would engage me even if the players were less interested, but I was afraid I was going to just give up before we got to any of those stories.

Fortunately, we powered through to Stinecrice, which was the first of the really interesting setpieces I had planned. The game has been consistently good since then, despite some shuffling off the players. I'm no longer worried about burning out for a while, but it was touch and go for a bit there.

Review of Play

It's always hard, introducing a big solo villain. There's a fine line between push-over and unstoppable death machine. On paper, Arcane looked more like an unstoppable death machine, but in play, she was very stoppable. A huge part of the problem there was that I really misread the rules for switching Sorcery powers, so several of her nastier abilities should have persisted longer than they did and I should have been freer with switching out her spells as the situation demanded.

Another difficulty was that I didn't have a good sense of how powerful a high level sorcerer should be, and just kind of winged her spell effects. I've since done some math, and Arcane should have been much more powerful than she was. That just means the next Luminal will be much more powerful.

It wasn't really a bad thing to have a stoppable monster for the first big villain to show up. She was dangerous enough that the PCs were scared without being utterly destroyed. It would have been nice to kill a PC, to really put the fear into the players, but I don't have a group that would necessarily react to that with anything but despair and complaints about unfun! Which is sad sometimes, but you game with the group you have and not the group that John Wick claims he has.

I was bummed that Arcane didn't get to shout "What!? No! The Wards hold! You cannot be here!" before turning the full force of her destructive power on Nayla. At the time, it would have been as confusing as heck, and it would have set up the theme for when the demons at Stinecrice did the same thing. Also, it was a great line that I spent some time polishing. But as I've said here and there, this is a collaborative story-telling experience, not a novel that I'm reading to the players. A lot of the time, the PCs don't do what I want. I adapt and respond to what they do, not what I thought they would do or what I wanted them to do. That's important to me, because it means the game isn't a railroad.

What Next?

Focus shifted over the next couple of sessions to the army group that was tangling with orcs in central Hanist. I hope to write up what I remember of those sessions in the next few weeks.

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