The White Knuckle Session
tl;dr This is a session recap of how my party led a group of pathetically weak scholars through Orc infested territory, crazed pyromancer territory, and ghost-infested ruins. Also, how they won a fistfight against a giant Orc with 22 strength, almost died multiple times, and gained nervous ticks that trigger when I reach for any numbered object.
So my party started out this session in the middle of the main Grahl'Gur camp. The large tribe is full of WWE-esque Orcs that greet each other with fists to the face and eat anything they kill (including each other). They had earned the Grahl'Gur's respect with a hard-fought session of unarmed combat, and slept in the camp overnight to barter safe passage from the chieftain in the morning. They are transporting 3 scholars to the ruins of Old Midengard to search the ruins for secrets, and were hired to protect them (so they led them to Orc-topia).
Here are the main players:
Siegbert of Catarina: Narcoleptic Human Knight, custom archetype fighter focused on heavy armor and versatility with mundane weaponry. Also known as Critbert due to his tendencies for the 20...and 1. Despite being mostly homebrewed, his most broken aspect so far has been Great Weapon Master of all things.
"Big Al" Albert Veroe: Half-Fire Giant Barbarian, custom Totem Fire Beetle. Homebrew everywhere, but still has terribad stats and even worse rolls. I made the guy's custom stuff a bit OP, but he's still struggling to roll above a 3. At least, until I flip the target rolls and he hits all 19's and 20's. More than a little self-conscious about his poor rolls recently.
Steve AKA "Malcore, Master of the Arcane": Half-Elf Wizard, School of Divination. Loves using True Strike and utility spells, and forgetting about the 2/19 divination die he's sitting on. Also loves using force-lightning on enemies (Witchbolt in particular). Got the Big Damage spells and confidence in using them.
Murdel Kruhl and Jaehlah Tor: Orc and Dwarf NPCs that have traveled and fought enough with the party to gain levels. Originally meant to show for 1 session then leave, but have been around since the first session. Also somehow survived more crits and near-death experiences than the players (especially the Orc). The Orc has the highest strength and is used as a meatshield (despite having 12 AC) and pack-mule. Jaehlah is the ranger to get them through the wilderness without needing to worry about starving to death and teach them dwarvish curses along the way.
I AM THE DWEAD CHIEFTAIN WOBERTSON! So they start off to Orc Hogan waking them up (and trying to eat Al's rooster pet), then meeting the chieftain. I describe him as an ogre handing the village cook a string of dead humans like wild game until he turns around and they realize he's the Andre the Giant of the Orcs. He speaks up, and doing a (rather poor) Fezzik voice, announces himself as the Dread Chieftain Robertson. He demands to know their claims to walk his land, and what they offer.
After the fighter rolls abysmally for diplomacy to simply convince them to let them have safe passage forever, Robertson gives them an ultimatum: bring him the head of the Forge Devils that plague their northern borders, and they will earn his wespect-er, respect and safe travel through his territory. Then he basically says get out now or I'll eat you, so they book it.
So they only know the Forge Devils are mages, but have no idea what's in store for them. They decide that the best way to transport these scholars safely to and from Old Midengard will be to bring the head of the Forge Devil's base tower back to the Grahl'Gur. They set off, and quickly make it to the edge of Forge Devil territory, where they begin noticing signs of fire and extreme heat plaguing the land. They still decide to set up camp, and split up to catch dinner and pitch the tents.
The Forge Devils Grand Entrance So they are just about to kill a deer when they make perception rolls. Siegbert, surprisingly, makes his and manages to dodge just as a giant fireball blasts past. A lone mage, head and arms engulfed in flames, cackles maniacally as he charges towards him, Jaehlah, and Malcore. Malcore rolled a 21 for initiative, and burns his level 3 spell slot to electrocute the dude. Did like 40+ damage and the guy drops faster than expectations on a nat 1. They realize they're under attack and rush back to camp.
At the same time, Murdel and Al are gathering wood for a fire when Murdel goes, "Do you smell something burning?" Al failed his perception, but Murdel goes "OH SHI-" and the rest of the party gets there just in time to watch as a fireball hits him square in the chest, catching both him and Al in the blaze. I roll for damage, and Murdel takes 33. Everyone at the table gets quiet, then the Barb (who only took 16), whispers "Oh shit." Murdel has the most HP, and he's now in the 20's for health. Malcore is next in the initiative after all my sneaky hidden mages move closer without them knowing, and he decides to cast an AOE spell at the crazed mage that blasted his friends. Almost catching them in the AOE until the Siegbert pointed out he could cast it to the side at an empty square to make the Fire Mage be at the edge of the spell instead of Murdel. I laugh as he casts, and the party raises their eyebrows as I roll (and fail) the saves for the 2 hidden mages they didn't even know about. I vowed then and there to never challenge the fighter to Battleship.
After some crazy combat, the party lost their tents, learned that turkeys are vicious buggers, decapitated and hung the heads of the mages (who were human...), and decided to limp back to the camp and beg for supplies. After a run-in with a pack of wolves (9 to be exact), the party was escorted back in by a patrol to see the chief. Needless to say, he was less than thrilled to see them.
The Hardest Battle Yet So the party was wounded, down on supplies, and low on moral (the mages were one of the toughest fights they had till this point, despite them only lasting about 3 rounds). They only receive a short rest before they try to earn a full night to recoup by bartering the heads of the 4 mages, but the chieftain demands they prove their worth to him now. He doubts their abilities if those whelps gave them this much trouble, and he would rather eat them now than waste any more time.
The fighter "reluctantly" agrees to settle this on Orc terms, and they enter the arena to fight unarmed. And by reluctantly, I mean he goes, "We really should find a diplomatic solution to our- oh, never mind. I'M GONNA SHOW YOU MY WORTH WHEN I SLAM YOU TO THE GROUND, OH YEAH BROTHER!"
He charges in, has an epic maneuver where he bounces off the wall of Orcs surrounding the arena, and does a flying haymaker on the chieftain. He crits, and after all the effects does like 14 damage unarmed. The chieftain gets staggered, but stays standing. The fighter makes his extra attack and does a solid 6. Then it's the chief's turn.
He bellows, and tries to grapple the fighter. The fighter rolls to contest and sets the DC to a 19. He grins, and laughs when the Orc rolls a 15. Then the table freezes when I inform them that his modifier passes. The fighter goes to break out, and they both roll high. The Orc has him, and when he punches the fighter, does a solid 9 damage. The player's eyes bulged out of their sockets when they learned this monstrosity had a +6 strength modifier. Then the Orc picked up and threw another Orc at the fighter as an improvised weapon, and they knew it was worse than they thought.
The combat goes back and forth at first: after dishing out a solid 30 damage and dropping to about 20 health, the Siegbert is told by Al to tag out. The Barb has bonus fire damage on unarmed, bonus fire damage against grapples, the full 9 yards, and he wants to end this. He rushes in, charges at the Orc...and rolls pathetically low. Everything he rolls is sub-5.
The orc chief rolls his grapple, crit success. Does a headbutt. Max damage. Barb tries to escape, crit fails. Burns the chief's hands, but the chief succeeds a CON save 19 to hold on. Orc chief multiattacks with 2 headbutts. The Barb is at 18 health. He sets him down and launches him out of the ring with a right hook uppercut (9 damage). All in all, the Barb did 2 fire damage on the Chief before getting disgraced.
The fighter rushes back in, having regained 4 HP from a weak potion. Some more back and forth, and he's at about 17 health (despite having plate armor, that +6 mod to hit is insane). He managed to drop the chieftain to about 45 /100 HP, though! Maybe he can do thi-
The chief crit succeeds a grapple on the fighter. He has him held held aloft in 1 hand while he bellows to the gathered crowd of Orcs. The party is saying they are so screwed. The fear of a TPK is in their eyes. Murdel, at 22 HP and with 3rd degree burns on his chest, rushes in to save the fighter: he's the only party member to truly earn his respect, and the only one he would do this for.
The party are all on the edge of their chairs as the 2 chiefs make their contest. Murdel, with his +5 STR and the monster chief of +6. Murdel rolls a 20, and the chief...18. They go ballistic as their Orc rips the fighter from the clutches of death and throws him into the crowd. Then the 2 Orcs fight as the party licks their wounds.
The chief makes his first attack and clobbers Murdel with a left-right hook. He almost drops him in 1 turn, and starts insulting the "pathetic chieftain of a rotting tribe." At this point, Murdel loses it and goes all in. And he's actually doing okay, but the Hit Points are bleeding out and they were already a precious few for him. Then Murdel manages to smash the chieftain with a rock, drawing blood.
The warchief lets out a primal bellow so loud, everyone makes a save to not flinch from the noise. Only Murdel, Siegbert, and Malcore make it, and as the chieftain surges forward, Siegbert jumps in to assist Murdel: eats 2 shots meant for him (that would have killed the NPC), and lays into the chieftain again. Finally, the chieftain knocks him over just as Murdel crits a grapple. The chieftain had 15/100 HP. Murdel, using the combat rules we had, could do this if he hit and rolled max damage. The table cheers, I grab the die. He goes for it.
The party holds their breath.
The dice hits the table.
It's a 19.
The damage is rolled...
The Dread Chieftain Robertson gets suplexed, and lays there dazed at 1 HP. He reaches to tag out...and the fighter tags in for him. He and Murdel, after knocking the chief out, have a fake back and forth battle that ends with the fighter pretending to get KOed (but both were actually at 1-hit-means-death ranges). Murdel makes the party's demands for safe passage and rest, then they decide to call it a night. Al and Siegbert freak out, though, as Murdel grabs the unconscious chieftain and takes a huge chomp out of his arm (a sign of respect for Orcs after such intense combat, and a scar for the victor to remind the loser).
So they drop some wolf pelts off in the morning to make a cloak, get Robertson's word of safe passage, and now freshly supplied depart on their new mounts (a giant beetle [Al], 2 giant wolves [Murdel and Malcore], 3 war-chargers [the scholars], a war-pony [Jaehlah], and a donkey [Siegbert]).
The Low-Roller Blues Sadly, Al's player was feeling down after so much failure. He's had a history that makes Wil Wheaton look like a high-roller. These recent fights only seemed to make it worse, and while me and the rest of the table made fun of him a bit, I secretly changed things up. I decided to use inverse tables for the next 5 rolls, and had the scholars ask him for help with things that didn't need rolls, but only he could do (discretely light passages, etc.). This seemed to help a bit, but the inverse tables really led to a great moment.
To Old Midengard They decide to take out the Forge Devils later for personal gain and to get on Robertson's good side. But for now, they make haste to the ruins of the once grand Midengard!
They approach the city and notice the destroyed walls, overgrown and entangled. After hacking their way in, they decide to look about to figure out how to get to the main castle. They begin climbing to a roof when they make a wisdom save. Al and 2 scholars roll 2's and 3's, while the rest of the party celebrates their 19's and 20's. Then I describe to Al's player that as he surveys the overgrown roads with the scholars, he notices the other characters walking down a street. He calls out, and I tell the table that they don't respond. They heard "the whispers," and have been charmed; they are now compelled to enter a decrepit church further in town.
Al and the 2 scholars charge after them, the inverse table letting him find and shake Malcore and Jaehlah from the trance; they don't recall anything, just they had to go somewhere. Jaehlah gets a cathartic moment when he shoots Murdel with a bow to break his trance, but Siegbert and the last scholar enter a hidden staircase. Just as they descend, a trap triggers and steel bars slam shut over the entrance. The players make ingenious use of acid spells, fire, and brute strength to break the bars and chase them.
Al decides "screw running down there to stop them" and just dumps his giant bucket of ball bearings down the spiraling stairs. They hear a thump and the scholar calls out. Tripping let him make a save to break the trance. Siegbert, the dice knowing his oblivious nature, trips down the entire flight. He makes not 1, not 2, but 5 saves to break the charm. He fails all of them and takes 2d6 falling damage. It's not until he fails another save and trips again before he finally breaks his charm, realizing that he is now alone and in pitch darkness.
The Catacombs As the rest of the group decides how to proceed, they decide to hurry down and grab the fighter. However, the stairwell is now difficult terrain due to Al's stunt, and Siegbert fails to find his way back to the stairs in he pitch black, echo-filled tunnel. He can't find any torches (he forgot to restock), and decides to wait for the party alone in the dark. However, he feels something grasping at the back of his neck, then fails to get a response from the thing grabbing him. After a few more attempts at communication, the creature withdraws its hand and swings its sword. It hits, and from the sparks he sees the skeleton and a few shambling forms farther down before he's plunged back into darkness.
Now this fighter is in pitch black, but he decides to screw it and declares that he's going to run towards the skelly and attack. He rolls a d4 for direction disadvantage on attack. Manages to go straight for the guy (once again, I'm swearing never to play him in battleship) and rolls 18 and 19 for the attack, one-shotting it easily. Then the Mr. Skeltal's Firing Squad begins lighting him up with arrows (everything's rolling 18+). They also begin hearing trumpets, and I mess with them by playing "Doot Me Up Inside," and "Dooting in My Skin," but I tell them I am serious about the trumpet sound.
Al gets there and after both getting nailed by a bunch more arrows (I'm still rolling 18+ despite switching die) they start to retreat, but then Siegbert decides to keep fighting. Sure enough, they get down to 1 last skeleton when the trumpet becomes deafening and they make a Will save. Siegbert fails and becomes possessed, the trumpet stopping as the ghost starts pretending to be him for a bit. He tries attacking the skeleton with Al, but failing horribly on his rolls. Al insists they get out of there after he decimates it, but "Siegbert" insists they explore the tunnel. When Al tries to stop him, he just books it, grabbing an old trumpet from a tomb and escaping several grapple attempts. The rest of the party gets there, and Al yells for Murdel to grab the fleeing Onion Knight. A brief chase and struggle later and Ghostbert's manacled and with increasing urgency begging the party to let him go. They refuse, and finally the ghost uses the frightening visage, which only the dwarf avoids, and Malcore gets aged 15 years. It's from this point he also took the Barbarian's awful rolls, failing every insight, perception, and arcana roll for the rest of the night.
Ghostbert rushes past everyone, and Jaehlah can't keep up. After he crosses a certain point, another steel trap blocks pursuit and he gets to a small table with a skeletal rat. As the party comes to the bars, Ghostbert begins performing a ritual with his bound hands, and Malcore makes his last success of the night to distract the ghost with a spell. I pull Siegbert's player to the side while the other 2 players to plan what to do. I inform Siegbert about the facts he's gained from the possession, and the effect of rolling a 1 trying to communicate it.
He gets back and tries: he gets 1 below the requirement to take control and tell them, then he gets a crit 1, ending the distraction spell and allowing the ghost to finish the ritual. The rat skeleton gets up, runs to the wall, and disappears. Malcore fails to stop it, and it gets away. After a few moments, loud bells begin ringing and deafen the party. Ghostbert exclaims "Finally!," then he slumps over. The party is freaking out, Siegbert regains control, and the party now no longer trusts him. He tries to tell them there's no need to worry, it's just a defunct alarm with no purpose, but they don't care. He spent the rest of the session in manacles, despite the party literally seeing the ghost ascend after having fulfilled its purpose (to sound the alarms it failed to in life).
This whole scene though was the most white-knuckle for Siegbert's player, as he swore his character was going to die. The formerly invincible players are now getting some real threats, and it's giving some great dramatic tension to exploring the world.
Session's End As they traverse the town, they begin to notice ghostly scenes of the grand battle that destroyed Old Midengard. Spectral Humans and Orcs alike engage in fierce combat, but there are noticeably more ghostly Humans than Orcs. As they draw closer to the castle, the ghosts become more ragged, wounded, and desperate looking. They also begin to hear the ethereal sounds of the battle: steel-on-steel, cries of the dying, and roars of anger.
So they do a bit more RP, try to identify the trumpet on Siegbert (it's an ordinary herald's trumpet), and manage to get to the castle. Unfortunately, the drawbridge has long since collapsed. To cross the moat, Al is convinced that he'll be able to make a stone canoe to help them. He pushes it into the moat, and it just slides to the bottom. However, it catches an old siege ladder, pushing it most of the way up the wall. Malcore freezes the water to the ladder, and they use it to climb into the castle courtyard. Inside, they see a spectral scene of carnage overlaying the rusted armor and weapons buried amongst the overgrowth. They see a tide of Orcs overwhelm the battered defenders, then the vision fades and all goes silent. After a few moments, the sounds of the wind and wildlife returns, and the party is thoroughly creeped out. I call the session, and they don't even realize as they are freaking out about the scene I just laid out for them. It's not until I tally up their EXP and tell them they've reached level 6 they they realize I actually called it.
So all in all, a good session. My party is now terrified when I roll any die, show any emotion, or offer them any chance to split up for even the most mundane of tasks. The party agreed this was by far the most dangerous session, and they felt a lot of tension the entire time. Now that they've reached level 6, I'm looking forwards to throwing the secrets of the hidden catacombs at them. Now the question is, when do I reveal the mimics to them?
submitted by Rathhunter94