This session ended up being a multi-wave combat with a bit of great roleplaying. The PCs caught up with their enemy Scab, a renegade gang member who screwed them out of a lot of money last session, and tried to tie up this nasty loose end.
Session 19 finished on a cliffhanger with the PCs buying a Scry scroll and using it to locate where Scab was hiding. Turns out he was living large – and spending all the PCs’ guilders (gold pieces) – at the Gold Goblin tavern just down the block.
I had the map already drawn and laid out for the players when they arrived for session #20. We had dinner and chatted, then got down to business.
The first thing the Chalice Bastards (PCs’ party name in Riddleport) did was send Thorne to the Gold Goblin to scout things out and have a conversation with Saul, the tavern’s owner.
Thorne came in aggressive. Riddleport is all about respect. Weakness loses respect fast in this pirate town, so it was a good approach. Unfortunately, Saul is an ex-pirate hardened tavern owner used to running a business in the bad part of town. He was having none of Thorne’s intimidation tactics.
However, he did receive the party’s message loud and clear: they were coming after Scab in the tavern and nobody was gonna stop’em.
Thorne asked Saul to trick Scab into going outside where the PCs could deal with him and spare the Gold Goblin property damage and worse. Saul opted to remain neutral and refused, but he did not utter any counter threats forbidding the PCs to enter and handle Scab inside.
Pleasantries out of the way, the Chalice Bastards made a grand entrance. Crixus the pit fighter drank a potion of fire breath outside the tavern, then slammed open the doors and let rip a large blast of fire. People started screaming and running. Scab was caught off-guard. The rest of the PCs stormed into the tavern bristling with weapons, spells, and menace.
Poor Scab was standing at the south hearth regaling a large audience with tales of his valiant fight and narrow escape from the clutches of the evil Chalice Bastards. The murderers killed his friends, cost him his job, and now aim to steal his life savings. Buying rounds of drinks for the house, and delivering a few compelling tales of the PCs’ misdeeds, he had assembled a large and sympathetic audience by the time the PCs charged in.
His plan might’ve worked except for Thorne. As people started to react to the characters, Thorne stepped up and delivered an impressive short speech, calling out Scab and intimidating any potential supporters. What was to be Scab protected by hired bodyguards and drunken pirates won over to Scab’s cause, turned into Scab and five defenders thanks to Thorne’s oratory and Crixus’s impressive exhalation.
As the battle heated up, Saul and his staff watched from behind cover. Panicked patrons bottlenecked the exit, clawing to get out lest they be dragged into the deadly conflict.
Arrows flew, swords and weapons cleaved, and a certain bardiche swung two-handed with 10’reach. The characters soon mowed down the five remaining defenders. Just as the last mercenary was falling to the ground, Scab made a break for it and fled to the kitchen.
A few opportune attacks later and the party spotted that Scab was actually an imposter! The real Scab had switched with a hired double at some point between the scrying and the fight.
The PCs pursued fake-Scab with a vengeance, determined to clobber answers out of the vicious fighter.
This took the battle through the kitchen, past the scullery, and into the back alley. Unfortunately, this seemed to be part of real-Scab’s plan too, for disguised as beggars in the alley were a quartet of crazy kukri-wielding assassins.
Blades dripping with poison, the assassins struck hard with amazing speed, catching the heroes off-guard. This battle ended quickly, however, and three assassins died fast, with one escaping.
The ploy worked though. The group studied the spot where fake-Scab was last seen in the alley moments before. A pair of tracks lead from a covered spot against the tavern straight to fake-Scab, then both sets of prints just end there, in a standing position. Thorne figured teleport.
The battle ended in frustration. Real-Scab escaped. Fake-Scab escaped. Saul threatened to take the costs of the battle out of the PCs’ hides. The players are frustrated and their characters are as well.
Dejected, the party returned to the Silver Chalice and we ended the session there with a few actions queued up. The group wants to speak with a few NPCs to get more intel, and Velare the wizard will visit his guild, though I’m not sure what he is up to.
Post game analysis
Thanks goes to Mike Bourke, Gerald, and Stephen Yeardley for ideas that I used in whole or in part this session. Reader ideas and feedback on my campaign is always welcome!
The PCs were expecting duplicity from Scab. However, I think they were counting on illusion instead of a physically disguised NPC.
Also, the timing of the late reveal was perfect, making the twist much better. I offered a couple of clues at the start about fake-Scab and then we dove into battle. By having Scab revealed as a deadly stunt double near the end of the combat, the players were caught more off-guard than if the disguise had been revealed right away. This was mostly luck, on my part, as I was thinking fake-Scab would be unmasked fast.
The bad news was I forgot all the active feats of Scab’s hired guns! I could not believe it when, late in the battle in the tavern common room, I realized I was not using any active feats for the foes. I even exclaimed out loud and hung my head, though my players did not know what had happened.
I think this is the first time it has ever happened. I have forgotten key foe abilities during games before, but never the whole array. Perhaps I was too full of myself, pleased by how well the bait-and-switch was working out, and I became distracted from good, tactical GMing.
However, I think part of the problem was I used pre-generated NPCs, and I was getting used to new GMing software in-game.
I used Hero Lab to generate foes for the session. The software works slick, but it means I did not go over feat selection and thinking. I was less attuned to my NPCs because of this, so their abilities were not top-of-mind as I GM’d.
In addition, I used Hero Lab as reference for all the NPC information during the combat. While the software is excellent, it has GUI challenges, and I think I was just not used to seeing NPCs presented in a new way and forgot to check for feat options during play.
Just excuses though. It was mostly a mental lapse on my part. The good news is the combat was fun and interesting even though the NPCs were poorly managed.
“I am frustrated, Johnn”
At the end of the combat, the players told me they were frustrated at the outcome. The foes had slipped away again. I was happy with this result. It might seem odd that I was glad the players were upset, so let me explain.
One of my goals as GM is to provoke an emotional response during play. Happy, sad, curious, mad – it is all good in my books. While being frustrated is not a positive emotion, it is only temporary and it sets up an even better and more emotionally charged confrontation with Scab in the future.
You have heard about good stress versus bad stress?
Good stress happens when you push yourself, and it means you are improving in some way because learning or new environmental factors are causing change in you.
Bad stress is destructive and is caused by negative stimulus eating away at you.
Likewise, I believe there are two kinds of negative player emotions. The good kind of negative emotion comes from in-game events, and challenging and interesting gameplay. It is good the PCs had a frustrating battle because of the skill of their opponents.
The bad kind of negative emotion comes from nasty meta-game issues. Players do not have fun because of inter-party conflicts, or my GMing is ugly and heavy-handed, or there is perceived unfairness.
So, while frustration is not fun in the moment, when it is caused by interesting gameplay and from character interactions in-game with foes and their environment, it is fun at the session level. The frustration just encourages good players to game more to resolve things or to get their emotional victory.
I would rather have frustrated players than bored or jaded ones – as long as the frustration is momentary.
The true test will be next session and seeing if anyone shows up.
Mike Bourke suggested I mention what aids and tools I use in game sessions and before for planning. I’ll list these below – let me know if you want more information about the GMing resources I use, and whether you found this information interesting.
- Laptop, real dice (I do not like digital dice if I can use the real thing)
- Hero Lab software
- Pathfinder Core Rules book (and one of my players used my Pathfinder APG)
- D20 PFSRD
- Google Spreadsheet – to manage combat on a second monitor so players can see initiative and what’s going on
- Laminated 1” square graph paper and dry erase markers
- Numbered poker chips to track wounds
- Regular poker chips to use as pocket points
- My Info for campaign organization
- Pathfinder #13 module —Second Darkness Chapter 1: “Shadow in the Sky”
- Red laser pointer
- D&D minis
- Digital map of Riddleport
- My three lucky d20s
- You – thanks again for everyone who wrote in with ideas on how to handle Scab
Mike also suggested finishing off with any advice I have based on my session’s GMing experience.
The multi-wave combat (starting with the main fight and carrying it out into the alley) works well once in awhile. The time was right for Session 20 because a major foe was involved. It also was realistic based on the foe’s abilities (the NPC was smart enough to hire help and think one step ahead).
I prefer to GM every NPC as a standalone entity, with flaws and strengths. Not every NPC is tricky. Most are not smart. Almost all will do anything to live.
So, NPCs in my games do dumb things and make non-optimal choices. This sometimes means they are easier to defeat. I think the variation is worth it though.
So my advice is to play to your NPCs’ traits, and to not superimpose your own tactical expertise onto them.
I originally roleplayed Scab and his fellow gang-member Grim Fang last session as stupid. The PCs just killed their boss, so these two NPCs decided to play dumb until the characters made their intentions known. In this case, it worked out very well because it allowed a great game twist.
As for me forgetting to use NPCs’ abilities in combat – that’s GM stupidity, not NPC stupidity, and I do not recommend it.
Another tip, though not a new one, is to draw big maps and important maps ahead of time. Having the Gold Goblin already mapped out let us jump into gameplay right after dinner without delay.