Content of the article: "Your players can figure a way out of a tight spot…You just have to give them enough information and time to do it."
TL;DR My players were trapped in a bad spot and a TPK seemed imminent, but I ended the session at the right time and gave them enough information so that now they have a good chance of surviving.
Some days ago I was wondering if I should ask this sub for help about my last session. My players were ready to go into the boss fight I had planned for this campaign arch, but had absolutely no resources and no chance of winning, even with some DM leeway. I reflected on the issue and ended up writing this post instead.
The party is composed of: a Human Samurai cursed with demonic rage who lost control and wiped both the mercenaries attacking his village and the villagers themselves, trying to escape his own past and find some sort of redemption; a sleazy Dragonborn Bard, from the guild of the Dracobards, who searches for a legendary flute made of a dragon skull that appeared in his dreams; an ex-spy Kobold Wizard with a sense of morality alike Garak's from DS9; and a Tortle Barbarian who became a mercenary to travel the world.
On the last months (in-game time), there have been several reports of strange orc activities along the mountains up North, specially near the dragonborn citadel of Pendragon. The city and its battalions of paladins of Bahamut have kept the orcs at bay for several centuries, but a new leader has united the orc clans and launched an organized attack against it.
Some sessions ago, the adventurers arrived at Pendragon, using old tunnels under the mountain to avoid the orcish troops. There, the bard discovered new information about the dragon flute, and, by connecting the dots from other sources, he arrived at the conclusion that this new leader of the orcs might be in possession of his prized instrument. Even more, he might be connected to the dragon whose skull now lays in the shape of a flute. Knowing that, they met with the Council that runs the city and offered to go up the mountain to kill the mysterious leader, aiding the fight and hindering the organization of the enemy troops. With no promised prize but the honor of Bahamut and what they may find in the leader's lair, they began their journey.
On the highest peak of the Silver Mountain behind Pendragon, there is a temple. This Sanctuary was used by many factions and for many purposes over the last two thousand years, but had originally been built as a meeting place for Silver Dragons. There they laid their justice, discussed the mortal races and revelries of the planes, created their plans, settled their matters, and studied the weave of magic. But the dragons were gone for a long time after the Amethyst Storm, having resurrected only two centuries ago. In the time they were out, the sanctuary became ruins buried in snow. Large rooms of blue and silver were sometimes uncovered by lashes of the snowy peak's strong winds, but not much was seen before Zilax came.
Zilax, a silver dragon born after the calamity among the cinders of thousands of eggs. Zilax, barely turned adult, but with the will and intelligence of the dragons of old. After searching forgotten libraries, he learned of his parents' cruel destiny under the hands of a silver-tongued Dracobard, who made a flute out of his mother's skull, and a slave of his father. This cruel man had the same surname as the adventurer that currently climbed the sanctuary's mountain, where Zilax had built his army of savages to crush the dragonborns once and for all, each step closer to his fate.
Yet, this is no mere convenience. Zilax attracted the bard with dreams of the legendary flute. Zilax knew they would break through the sanctuary's defenses, weakened by the efforts of war. And Zilax knew they would tremble over his arrival at the temple, as his powerful wings beat the wind against the ruined walls of stone. They would tremble, fearing what they could find behind the last set of gigantic doors, the ones that lead to the dragons' old amphitheater.
And so he waited. Right now, the adventurers have explored most of the sanctuary. Not thoroughly, mind you, there are items and passages they've missed, but enough as for them to think its time to face the gigantic doors from where the thunderous noise came.
This is how they ended up in the last session: no spell slots across the two casters, everyone is half-life or lower, they have around half of their hit dice (if they choose to take a short rest), two potions of healing left, no rages for the barbarian, no action surge for the Samurai (who refuses to use a magic weapon, since he hasn't found a katana to replace his yet), no spell scrolls.
They are all level 8, a little overpowered in magic items (given what's expected for the level).
The coming fight was supposed to be against an adult silver dragon (again, given their current power level, but I have considered turning him into something between young and adult), fully powered, and who planned for the death and humiliation of the bard for many months.
At first, I thought: I fucked up. I didn't take their mad no-care-for-life exploring into consideration. I didn't consider I have two players who play with no strategy at all, and two others who do use everything in their character's sheet. Besides, Zilax threw a Geas on the bard in order to make him do nothing while his friends die at a crucial point (I did it with a vague phrasing so the player could abuse it or take the order in a different manner during the fight, or simply choose to take the psychic damage).
I asked myself "What can they possibly do to have a chance?". They can't take a long rest without backtracking a lot, since it's not safe and Zilax already knows they are in the sanctuary, though not their precise location. They would also condemn Pendragon for good if they took longer to complete this quest, since the orcs are already breaking through the city gates (not that these adventurers care too much about it). One possibility is for them to find the secret passage that leads to the amphitheater and then set up a trap or an ambush for Zilax.
I thought and I thought, but every time they seemed more doomed. It wasn't a situation from which I could fumble my way out without my players noticing. Though we have talked about these "hot fixes" before, I would prefer if they kept the agency in this one, as they had been following this campaign arch for some months now and I wouldn't want to break their immersion.
And then I realized, I was admitting defeat before the fight. I still had a whole week before the next session. I could ask reddit…or I could "ask" my players.
Giving the players information they already have
Players forget stuff, as do DMs. But with a mix of their notes and mine, I gathered enough information to develop a plan that could give them a chance. And they wouldn't even notice.
So, after the session, we often discuss the funnier and -sometimes- most important events of the game in our WhatsApp group. We often trade DnD memes and I read the despair in their comments about how they escaped near-death, and how they should update their spare character sheets. To put my plan in motion, I leaned into that.
Me: "Hey, you guys really had a hard time in this one."
Players: "Good think the traps had just snakes and fire, and not your usual gelatinous cubes/oozes"
Me: "Oh, that's because you didn't check every corridor MUAHAHA" (hint at the undiscovered passages)
Players: "Man, I wish I was able to keep that badass magic shield that woke up the Eidolon who kicked our asses, but we had to leave that behind. We must have lost so much loot."
Me: "Oh, I always have more loot knowing you will skip through most of it. Hell, you even have unidentified things in your sheets from our first session!" (hint at the great magic items that I remembered about when looking through their messy sheets)
And on, and on. Through these pushes in the right direction, they now have (finally) created a group without me to discuss their secret plans, while also mentioning the scrolls they must loot in the library to find some backup healing, the tunnel they hadn't explored to the end, the possibility of leaving this cursed mountain to start a guild somewhere else, the shaman's tent where they left a magic javelin that the barbarian can use as a ranged option, and even an old devil-summoning coin the bard had won in a bet a long time ago.
These players are acquainted to character's death, and I won't be surprised if one of them falls in battle during our next session. But now they have a good chance. Perhaps the memes will be more optimistic next week after that fight. Perhaps it will be all about the new build they will make with Tasha's to survive my sessions. But I'm glad that I did my job, fixing my mistakes and guiding them to put a good fight for that silver dragon.
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