Last week my game group had one of our most fun sessions in a while. I’ll try not to bore you with too many details [it’s not just your character that you should avoid talking about at length] and we’ll see if there’s anything more generally useful we can pry out of the experience.
The current status of the PCs
The group consists of five eighth level PCs [in D&D3.5], who are slightly more powerful than the norm due to the intersection of minor house rules. They’re also dangerously smart when it comes to tactics…
The PCs finished the previous session on the side of a volcano, perched on a small ledge, having just spotted a wyvern and rider coming around the mountain face. We began the session where we’d left off, with the wyvern drawing closer… then suddenly veering away. The retreat struck the players as suspicious… and built tension.
Location, location, location
The PCs decided to continue up the cliff face, looking for a more substantial ledge in case they had to make a stand. A little over an hour later the PCs were strung out along the mountain face; the wizard was first (using spider climb), driving pitons and hanging rope for the next group. The middle group (the best climbers) was about 100′ above the ledge with their friends and a little less than 100′ below the wizard above, while the cleric and ranger kept a lookout from the ledge.
The initial setup of the PCs made the battle dynamic; the rogue/warblade and swordsage in the middle needed to scramble to off the rope line to a ledge where they could fight. Meanwhile, the wizard wanted to reach somewhere his companions could cover, while the cleric and ranger readied their attacks.
Flight and elevation had an influence on the battle; none of the PCs had flight capability inherently. The wizard cast flight on the swordsage very early in the battle, which made getting the middle group to the other ledge much easier. [The lower ledge with the cleric and ranger was too small for the rest of the party to crowd onto and still maintain fighting space.]
The poor flight capabilities of the wyverns restricted their rider’s options quite a bit. They couldn’t just rush to the mountain face and land pointy side first; the 45 degree per round limitation (due to poor maneuverability) forced the wyverns to come in sweeping arcs… leaving them exposed to the PC’s magical artillery and deadly bow fire longer.
The enemy opened with an ice storm on the middle PCs, who were still dangling from the rope at the time. It’s not as damaging as the lower level fireball, but the ice made climbing even more hazardous. (This was circumvented by the wizard casting fly– nice to see a non-combat spell get the glory.)
The PCs were devastating as usual, but they felt vulnerable, split into isolated groups. The cleric couldn’t heal anyone but the ranger, since everyone else was away on another ledge. (It was the cleric’s poor climb skill that had dictated their cautious ascent up the mountainside.) The mage was alone on the mountainside, which had interesting consequences later…
Danger and Opportunity
Near the end of the battle two of the wyverns and their riders were dead; it looked like the PCs would manage to successfully pull off another grand victory. Then one wyvern maanged to line up and fly parallel to the mountain… and snatched the wizard right off the cliff face. Everything was tense as the information sunk in and they hurriedly reevaluated their plans.
Just after that, it was the initiative pass of Talisin [the rogue/warblade on the other ledge]. He carefully gauged the distance and uttered the most surprising action of the game: he leaped off the ledge and attacked the wyvern’s rider, catching himself on the wyvern’s back over the long drop below. The dice were with him [the action was prompted by one of his Book of Nine Swords maneuvers he’s been using for weeks, Soaring Raptor Strike]. The table exploded with cries of “awesome”, and we all agreed that it was an incredibly cinematic moment.
The battle wound up shortly after that; I suspect mopping up and looting are familiar to many of you.
How did I do it?
I wish I knew what made it all work out so well this week. I think that there were several things that combined to set the table for a great night, but it took players seizing opportunities and fighting well to really make it come about.
Location was a big factor this week. Many of the battles have been on relatively flat land, plains, and trails recently– narrow ledges and dangling from a rope really helped distinguish this battle from the others.
Having cool opponents helped; the wyvern riders were evil dwarves that have plagued the campaign from the beginning. Bringing back the people they love to hate got them fully invested. Some of their abilities shine even more brightly when dwarves are the target– that little extra oomph makes their normal competence even more impressive. The idea of flying mounts was hugely attractive too; when they saw their opponents on wyvern back, there was a lot of chatter about trying to capture some flying mounts…
Death was a serious concern longer than in most of our fights. Even when their first opponents started falling (which usually signals the PCs are about to really start out damaging their opponents), they weren’t in the clear. Snatching the wizard in a claw kept everyone anxious, since the wizard does so much of their damage… and he didn’t have feather fall memorized. The wizard’s sudden still feat got a chance to shine, since he was able to toss out a spell even while he was in the claw.
How do you do it?
That was my coolest session in a long time. What made your coolest sessions so great? Did it involve similar factors (a good location, well hated foes, etc.), or did something entirely different spark your play? Let us know in comments about some of your most successful moments.
I would have to say my coolest session was my first session running my evil campaign in 3.5. My PCs were part of an organization vying for control of the country, and they were sent on missions as a sort of task force to propagate that goal.
Their first mission was to assassinate a mayor that was causing problems. Afterward they said they loved the session because they were able to sit back and make up a detailed plan for them to execute, which they did very well.
I have to say that location helps out quite a bit. My current side game has been playing the Pathfinder AP: Second Darkness. One part of the adventure had the players assaulting a gambling hall. The location was huge and the battle took place over the entire building including the 1st and 2nd story, and the two basement levels. It was a huge running battle. None of the players had every seen anything like it before.
I think a good location with plenty of room and things to interact with really helps.
@ski309 – Sounds like you’ve got a group that enjoys planning and were able to deliver it. Did you have any problem getting them to act, or did they keep their planning short enough that everyone stayed involved?
@nblade – Lots of cool stuff to interact with does make a battle dynamic. Did you have to do anything special to keep them moving around (instead of just stopping in one place and full attacking everyone who came their way)?
@Scott Martin – No problems, really. They started formulating ideas for an ambush outside the man’s house right away, and asked questions that would further those ideas–such as, “Can we get any bear traps in this town?” 😛
It sounds like you had an excellent game session. Quite a contrast to your last report that you made in Coming Together (Gnomestew Topic). I wish I knew how the good sessions become good and how the mediocre sessions become mediocre. It seems to be a mystery at times.
I’ve gone into a game well prepared and still had it come up mediocre. I’ve gone into a game half prepared and had the game session rock the socks. The other way around is true as well. Well prepared and rocking or half prepared and it really showed (those are the worst).
I’m my own worst critic though, so I’m never really sure how well a session went as a GM. The only way I know is if I get some feedback or the session was either extremely good or much worse than average.
@Scott Martin – I give the module’s designers some props, they clearly marked where people were and where they would be going and under what conditions. That combined with many doors and doorways made for some interesting play.
I think taking on the pirate airship was one of the best sessions in my last finished campaign. The assassin-y mage got to duel the enemy mage one on one, the mage-y assassin teleported onto the airship and steered it under the waves, the assassin-monk jumped on the pirate leader’s flying horse, and the assassin spent most of the fight drinking rum with a pirate while trying to convince him to keep away from “his” wench.
I think the element of the flying pirate ship, with pirates jumping down from the decks as it hovered about the seabound ship the players were currently on, made the fight extra cool. The enemies could approach the players, but not visa versa, except the teleporting mage. There were some great moments with players climbing and falling from the rigging. And the pirate captain swooping around on his flying horse was hard to counter tactically, since no one had ranged attacks except the party mage, who was tied up battling the pirate mage.
@Swordgleam – That sounds like a fun fight. The spacial concerns and their struggles with the rigging make it sound like motion and position were exciting elements.