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Actual play - the PCs successfully negotiated with Kas


I GMed a 4e session yesterday. Some stuff happened that I thought would be interesting to post about.

First, some background
The PCs are 13th level. There is a dwarven fighter/warpriest of Moradin, a drow Demonskin Adept, a paladin of the Raven Queen, a ranger/cleric who also serves the Raven Queen, and a wizard/divine philosopher who at an earlier time in his life served the Raven Queen but now serves Erathis, Ioun and (a bit ambivalently) Vecna.

Many sessions ago now, the PCs travelled back in time 100 years, and learned that around the time of the fall of the empire of Nerath, that empire's greatest wizard (Perinocles) had gone mad trying to devise necromantic creations to defend the empire against marauding gnolls. While exploring his villa back in the past, they freed one of his apprentices, Jenna, whom Perinocles (in his madness) had trapped in a mirror.

Back in the present, the PCs discovered a letter, from Perinocles to the last emperor of Nerath, telling the emperor that Perinocles had found him a powerful sword - "Truth" - that the emperor could recover from Perinocles' villa. Unfortunately, the emperor had been killed by gnolls before receiving the letter. But the PCs followed the magical rituals set out in the letter and recovered the sword from Perinocles "shadow manor" on the Shadowfell.

(These scenarios were adapted from the Eden Odyssey d20 module "Wonders Out of Time", which I can recommend.)

Early investigations revealed that the sword was quite powerful, and very hostile to the wizard/divine philosopher. At which point the wizard hypothesised that it might be the Sword of Kas (and therefore hostile to him as something of a Vecna devotee), although he wasn't sure and didn't share this with the rest of the party. But there were enough hints to make the long-time D&Ders among my players (which is all but one of them) think "Oh no, artefact!".

Anyway, the paladin took the sword and fought sometimes with it, sometimes with his khopesh (in which he is specialised). And he got more hints of its power. And in the meantime, the party helped rescue a city from marauders and starvation, got on good terms with it's baron, and learned (i) that Jenna, the woman they had rescued from the mirror, was - if the portraits in his great hall were to be believed - the baron's grandmother, (ii) that the baron's niece bore a striking resemblance to the grandmother, (iii) that the niece was engaged to be married to an NPC wizard who was the baron's astrologer and advisor, but was also the PCs' biggest enemy and known by them to be a Vecna cultist and a leader of the marauders, and (iv) that the niece had gone missing a couple of days ago.

The PCs ended up killing the wizard advisor, and getting on good terms with the baron, and went out looking for the niece. (For more detailed reports of some of these sessions, see here and here.)

Searching for the niece
The PCs knew (from clues discovered on their way to the city) that undead were active in the hinterland, and that she had last been seen travelling into the hinterland with her knight bodyguard, and so followed those clues in their search for her.

They followed the trail of undead to a tower on a marshy plateau, where water pools at the base of ridges and mountains. The tower had, obviously, very recently risen from the earth. (This is the Bloodtower scenario from Open Grave.)

They entered, fought some ghouls and zombies (the undead they had been tracking), and then started making their way up through the tower. At one point they found a bath, and other evidence of human comfort, suggesting that whoever had capture the niece and brought her to this tower was at least treating her well.

Then they entered the uppermost floor of the tower (via a magical portal) and found themselves ensnared in a necromantic trap, and attacked by three skeletons, all apparently under the command of . . . (drumroll) . . . the niece, who was there with her bodyguard performing a ritual over a closed sarcophagus.

The players seemed genuinely surprised to find that the niece was a necromancer who was in charge of the situation, rather than a victim of some third party necromantic conspiracy, despite the fact that they knew she was the fiance of the Vecna worshipper. I think that was in part because they had had a good opinion of the great-grandmother, the apprentice whom they had rescued in the past, and they also get on quite well with the baron.

Resolving the encounter
The encounter actually played out over two sessions - we got part way through it in the exploration session a few weeks ago, and then finished it up as the main focus of yesterday's session.

There were some initial attempts to parley with the niece, but this didn't go very well, in part because the players (and hence their PCs) were confused by her turning out to be a necromancer (and they are all pretty much agreed that necromancers are bad - they've fought a lot of Orcus cultists), in part because she had no idea who they were, and in part because when she asked them if her fiance had sent them they answered that he was dead and (I think - my memory is a bit hazy) that they had killed him.

And then the paladin (whose player was away overseas, and who was being played by the player of the Demonskin Adept) decided that any necromancy is bad necromancy, and so charged a skeleton. The niece then retaliated with powerful necromantic magic, and then the fighter went into melee to subdue her, and then all hell broke loose. Between the necromantic trap at the entrance to the room, and the skeleton's dazing shriek, there was a lot of action denial early in the encounter which always makes things a bit more tense for the players.

At about the same time that the wizard cloaked half the room (including the sarcophagus) in darkness, the sound of the sarcophagus lid being lifted became audible. A heavily-armoured vampire climbed out of the sarcophagus and ran out of the darkness, ending up next to the PC wizard on the edge of the tower. He asked the wizard "Where's Jenna Osterneth?", and "Where's my sword?" The wizard (both PC and player) worked out that it must be Kas. The player made his religion check, and I read him the information from the Open Grave entry on Kas. As things played out, the most salient part of this information was that Kas lives on the Shadowfell and has an understanding with the Raven Queen - she tolerates him because he provides her with information about the dealings and plots of Orcus and Vecna.

But then confusion set in. The ranger-cleric fired two arrows at Kas, and one grazed him. The PC wizard was trying to negotiate with Kas. Kas initially thought that the niece was Jenna (they resemble one another greatly) but the PC wizard explained that she was in fact the great granddaughter. Kas wanted to eat her anyway, on general principle and because he hates Vecna worshippers (which he correctly intuited her to be).

The dwarf fighter moved up to flank Kas with the wizard, while still remaining adjacent to the marked niece. Kas asked "Are you with the wizard?" and the dwarf answered yes. Kas took this as an assurance of non-interference, and attacked the niece with his sword while throwing his hammer at the ranger-cleric who had shot at him. The dwarf took an opportunity attack for the ranged attack, marked him, and then took the interrupt for making an attack against another target (in retrospect the timing on that is probably a bit dubious, but no one noticed at the time).

The warhammer did a lot of damage to the ranger (I had statted "Kas, weakened by many years of dormancy" as a 13th level elite combining aspects of the Ctenamir and Kas statblocks from Open Grave, with MM3 damage, and letting him keep Whelm, a dwarven thrower artefact, as per Ctenamir's stat block). But Kas was royally annoyed at being attacked by the dwarf, and after muttering "You'll regret that" dominated him (a minor action). The dominated dwarf charged the ranger-cleric and nearly knocked him unconscious before recovering his senses.

Meanwhile the PC paladin was bargaining with the niece's knight bodyguard (who there was reason to think was undead under all his armour, given that he was taking vulnerability damage from radiant attacks), persuading him to attack the vampire in order to save the niece. But he (the paladin) could also feel the most powerful urgings from his sword he'd ever felt - as statted up in 4e, the Sword of Kas gets bonuses when used to betray an ally, and against Vecna cultists and their servants, and against undead, and here was a chance at all 3 - stab a newly-recruited undead servant of a Vecna cultist in the back! The paladin could sense the urgings for betrayal, and tried to sheathe the sword and draw his khopesh. He drew the khopesh, but the sword somehow missed its scabbard and dropped to the floor. He picked it up again and tried to sheathe it as a standard action (instead of the typical minor) but instead it stabbed the NPC bodyguard-knight in the back! (I let the player of the paladin roll a saving throw to avoid this, but he failed.) But the attack roll was a 1, and a successful Bluff check for the paladin meant that the bodyguard thought that the near-miss stabbing was a result of careless handling of the sword.

Now about this time something else killed the bodyguard - I can't remember, but it could of been because he spent too much time next to the wizard's Wall of Fire, or maybe the Demonskin Adept caught him in an AoE attack. I do recall that the niece tried to escape by teleporting away from Kas and then attacking the two PCs in between her and the exit - the Demonskin Adept and the paladin - but only succeeded in triggering the Adept's Slaad's Gambit, which let him teleport out of her attack and drop her unconscious with his own psychic assault.

At which point it was just the PCs "negotiating" with Kas. This was a bit hit-and-miss - the ranger-cleric and paladin of the Raven Queen both have fairly mediocre Religion skills, and their players didn't roll very well, so they didn't have any independent way of confirming what the wizard/divine-philosopher was saying about Kas being an enemy of Orcus and an ally of the Raven Queen. And Kas himself made it pretty clear the he wanted (i) his sword, and (ii) the niece. In pursuit of the first goal he walked over to the paladin and demanded the sword. When the paladin refused, Kas struck him twice and knocked him to the ground, unconscious, before picking up the sword from where it had fallen and then (spending an action point to get the action) turning into mist form.

Despite this unpromising start, negotiations took place. The PCs revived the paladin with a healing word, and - not wanting to fight a regenerating insubstantial foe - started talking with greater unity than they had so far been displaying. The PCs asked Kas what his relationship was to Jenna Osterneth. It turned out that about 70 years ago she had caught him in the tower after he had consumed its earlier occupant - a necromancer called Mervaun - while looking for his sword. While he was taking a kip in the sarcophagus after feasting, she had sunk the tower into the earth, trapping him. The PCs then revived the niece, and discovered that she had sought out the tower after learning that it had risen up from the earth (and this turned out to be on the same morning that the PCs brought "Truth", the Sword of Kas, out of the Shadowfell to the mortal world). She had been expecting to find Mervaun in the sarcophagus, and was hoping to follow in her great-grandmother's footsteps as a student of his necromantic arts. The players (and their PCs) were a bit upset to find out that not only was the niece a necromancer, but apparently her great-grandmother - whom they had rescued from the mirror - was one also.

Kas then told the PCs that he was off to hunt Jenna (despite the niece suggesting that she would be dead by now, Kas seemed to assume that a powerful necromancer would still be alive, and the players - and PCs - had no trouble going along with this). The PCs offered to do it for him, pointing out that he would have a lot of catching up to do in his kingdom on the Shadowfell, after 70 years absence. (And I think they wanted first dibs on the woman they'd rescued, although I'm not sure what they have planned for her.)

Kas agreed to this, but there was then some discussion on whether or not they'd hand her over to him. There was also some discussion over whether or not he would get to eat the niece. When the PCs insisted that he couldn't have the niece, he asked them to swear to let him know when they found Jenna by the same oaths they had sworn to return the niece to her uncle, because whatever oaths were so binding on them as to make them deny Kas a feed were good enough for him! There was then some discussion among the players, both in and out of character - and I didn't get all of it, as I was doing some kid-wrangling at the time - but the player of the dwarf, fed up with necromancers and also with the Raven Queen cultists in the party, announced (in character) that he would swear. And the other PCs (except the paladin, I think) agreed.

And in return, and also in thanks for returning his sword, Kas left them Whelm, a dwarven thrower artefact. (The player of the dwarf was happy to scrub the throwing hammers of his character sheet and write in Whelm instead!)

The party then finished exploring the tower (which mostly involved a silly encounter in which the dwarf held off and destroyed a horde of undead streaming out of the flooded basement of the tower, because in about 7 rounds of combat and probably over 30 attacks I rolled greater than 7 only 4 times), before striking off back to town.

They seemed happy enough except for the paladin, who seemed disgruntled that they were returning the necromancer niece to her uncle - who presumably would spare her - rather than executing her on the spot. That they also now seemed to be in the service of a vampire lord who had beaten him up and stolen his artefact only added to his disgruntlement!

Concluding reflections
This is the most complex encounter I've run - in terms of the mix of NPC motivations, and PC motivations in relationship to those NPCs - for a long time if ever. The peak of the complexity was when the PC wizard was negotiating with Kas, and Kas thought he had an understanding with the dwarf while fighting with the ranger, at the same time as the PC paladin of the Raven Queen was allying with the undead knightly bodyguard to fight Kas, while trying to retain control of the Sword of Kas.

But it had complexities all the way through - from the initial ambiguity about rescuing vs fighting the niece, through to the final resolution that left the paladin still unsatisfied.

The negotiations were adjudicated primarily as free roleplaying (although knowledge checks were made by various players at appropriate points). Because there was no opposition between Kas and the PCs - he wanted to know about Jenna, and so did they; he wanted his sword, and they weren't going to try and take it from him - there was no need for a skill challenge. And a simple Intimidation check against the niece was enough to get her to tell all that she knew.

There was still plenty of tension. I wasn't sure that the players wouldn't, in the end, decide that their PCs should attack Kas. At which point he would have fought, at least for a bit. I was impressed by the PCs' determination (led by the dwarf and the wizard) not to hand over the niece - I hadn't necessarily expected that much resolution on their part. It was nice to be able to express this through Kas's response, of realising that these were people who took their promises seriously, and therefore could be relied upon to keep their word if they could be persuaded to give it.

And the other surprise for me was that Kas left the encounter with his sword in his possession. I haven't made any plans for what this might mean - I had expected the players to fight to try and keep their artefact! - but will have to make this matter in some fashion. I don't think I've ever seen the possible consequences of this discussed in a rulebook, but surely it's a matter of cosmic significance when Kas regains his Sword!

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Plane Sailing

Astral Admin - Mwahahaha!
Good writeup.

It was nice to be able to express this through Kas's response, of realising that these were people who took their promises seriously, and therefore could be relied upon to keep their word if they could be persuaded to give it.

This was a particularly good touch.

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