With this session, my group left the safe harbours of the D&D Encounters program and wandered into the murky waters of Casual play. All of which means that I’ve stopped ignoring the pacing guidelines of the D&D Encounters version of Hoard (which would have had us going for a few more weeks in any case), and are now working from the adventure text directly. And probably ignoring parts of that instead. The actual sessions remain at 90-120 minutes in length, as we’re still doing them in our Encounters slots. Other groups were still completing Episode 3 (or still in Episode 2). We had about 36 people taking part in the game overall.
This session was rather unusual in that a large part of it dealt with the transition from the first stage of the adventure (Greenest and the Cultist Camp) into the second major stage of the adventure – the road trip north. The group needed to travel to Elturel to meet up with Leosin and his friend, Ontharr Frume, learn the details of what they needed to do, and then get to Baldur’s Gate where they could join the cultist’s caravan and head north, trying to track down the location of the heart of the cult.
All of which meant that a large part of the session saw the players not really making many choices, but instead just sitting there listening to me talking at them. It’s by far my least favourite way of running D&D sessions, and there were time for a few good character moments (Josh’s PC has a wife in Baldur’s Gate, so they had enough time for a visit there), but those moments were few and far between. The role-playing between Onthar, Leosin and the PCs as their mission was described was really flat – a problem I often have with these scenes. The players recognise that they’re about to have something necessary explained to them, and their interaction with the NPCs won’t do all that much, so they just sit back and listen to it than properly interacting with their patrons.
This may, of course, be a flaw in the way I run games, for certainly I’m not the strongest role-player out there. (Story and Rules Knowledge are my strong points). However, it’s also hard for players, especially when they don’t have a great grasp of the game world and their places in it. The fourth episode of Hoard is designed to – as much as anything else – introduce the variety of the Forgotten Realms to the players, so over the next few sessions I hope to improve the role-playing opportunities for the group, particularly in ways that the group finds relevant to the development of their characters.
So, the first half of the session saw the characters get some new equipment and better armour. They were also charged with the duty of catching up with the cultists’ wagons and infiltrating the caravan so they could accompany the cultists north and discover (a) where it was going and (b) what the cult wanted with all that treasure anyway.
The cultists attached their wagons to a greater caravan with two or three other merchants also travelling north, as it’s much safer in the Realms to travel in numbers. The players gained positions as guards with the other merchants in the caravan, except for Paul’s character, who, in his first session, was unknown to the cultists. (Paul has been gaming with me for several years now, but he’d been on holiday for the last couple of months and this was his first session of Hoard). Paul’s character instead joined up as a guard for the cultists directly. The adventure gives a nice amount of detail on the merchants, but doesn’t really detail the leader of the cultists accompanying the caravan that well; we ended up calling him Cultist Bob. A few of the players probably thought the name was a reference to Blackadder (it’s been one I’ve used before), but actually it was more a Doctor Who reference. (Angel Bob, from The Time of Angels in particular).
A couple of days after the caravan set out, it came across a pair of women setting up camp beside the road. Both were stunningly beautiful, and Cultist Bob was quite taken by them; he got Paul to see what they wanted, and the two women soon set themselves about ingratiating themselves with both the cultist and Paul.
No, this wasn’t suspicious at all!
That night, Paul was summoned by Cultist Bob to investigate something happening outside the camp; which proved to be one of the women lying unconscious on the ground. Paul investigated, only to discover that she was merely feigning her unconsciousness. She leapt up and attacked, and soon rendered Paul unconscious. The other players, having been alerted that something was going on, were prevented from helping Paul by a sudden attack from Cultist Bob – and he was proving himself strong and dangerous in combat!
A couple of the players were able to avoid Cultist Bob, and ran to help Paul, who was making death saving throws (mostly successfully), and were surprised to find that Paul was coming towards them – and even more surprised when he attacked them! Soon there were two combats underway, and Cultist Bob and Paul were doing some serious damage to the characters. However, it wasn’t all going their way – eventually the players were able to overcome them, at which point the real Cultist appeared out of his tent, wanting to know what was going on, and the other characters found Paul unconscious hidden near a log.
Yes, the entire business was the work of two doppelgangers!
I’m actually rather pleased with how it played out; the players were kept confused and guessing at what was going on. Was Paul dominated? What was Cultist Bob up to? And it ended with a good explanation as to what had happened – good closure, which I appreciate.
The next session I’ll be giving more definition to the NPCs accompanying the group. Jesse, Tim and Michael have been hired by Lai Angesstun, a gold dwarf who is very interested in money, whilst Josh and Danielle have been hired by Edhelri Lewel, a moon elf who is transporting fine wood. Preparing more for those characters to do in reaction to the events that will occur is going to be important to bringing this part of the Realms to life!