Anecdotes About Being Flexible

Welcome to the Gibbering Mouth article for July 1st, 2014. Today’s article is an Author Anecdote; the topic is GM flexibility.

As a GM, one of the biggest “problems” that you will have to deal with is flexibility. There’s an old GM saying that states, “If you plan it, your PCs will totally ignore it and ruin all of your hard work because they’re all jerks.” The best way to prepare for this inevitable outcome is to not prepare for it at all: instead, learn the game and your world well enough to be flexible.

Today’s author anecdotes are all about flexibility. Today I’m going to share some stories with you about how my players messed up all of my plans and I simply had to throw out my notes and “wing it.” Hope you enjoy my suffering and are inspired to do the same!

Into the Heart of Leng

I ran a kingdom building game a few years back for a mostly-evil party. Very interesting game. The fact that we had five players who were all varying degrees of evil who were effectively running a government says a lot about lawmakers, I think. Anyway, so one day while my PCs are doing their leadership duties a strange, black barge floats into town. Out walk several denizens of Leng, which the sorcerer identifies immediately. The PCs and the denizens talk for some time; the denizens are willing to trade rubies for slaves and the PCs are actually debating about which NPCs in the settlement would be good to sell to the denizens. Of course, the paranoid rogue figures out that the denizens are whispering to themselves about something and a quick tongues extract from the alchemist revealed that the denizens weren’t interested in the villages; they were debating about whether or not it would be worth trying to kidnap the party cleric, who would have made an excellent mule with his Strength of 17.

That was enough to start a fight, of course.

So the party starts battling the team of denizens of Leng. It’s a fairly difficult encounter because it’s four on four and averages out to a CR +3 encounter. So the party buffs and the denizens move in to strike. The rogue goes … and she elects to run for cover and Stealth around behind the denizens of Leng’s ship to sneak inside. The players are all screaming, “What are you doing, rogue?!” but she goes inside anyway and starts poking around the ship while everyone else is in the middle of a big encounter.

So, what do I as the GM do? On one hand, the player isn’t actively participating in the combat, which is a problem. Her exiting through stage left makes the encounter all the more difficult for her allies, but at the same time you want to allow your players to make mistakes like this so they learn why its not a good idea to run away from the group, right?

I decided to give her something to find within the ship. She found the organic, heart-like mass whose pumping moved the somewhat sentient ship. It was gross and it was not pleased about the stowaway, so I flipped through my book, found a creature with the same CR as a denizen of leng (I think I chose some type of ooze) and I had it immediately start attacking her. Boy, was she in trouble! Her sneak attack wasn’t useful against the blob-like heart and she was alone within the ship. One of the denizens of Leng left the battle to inspect the commotion and died upon entering the room, showing the rogue the danger she was in. Instead of fleeing, she stays and fights the giant heart monster and through a lucky string of critical hits, manages to destroy the damn thing just as the PCs finish mopping up the last of the denizens of Leng outside the ship. When the heart died, the rogue learned why the denizens of Leng were so eager to trade their rubies: their ship created naturally and used the gemstones like blood. The PCs got an awesome chunk of treasure out of it (I think I gave them a few BP for their trouble) and the rogue got to feel awesome. So much for me curbing that behavior, though!

Crouching Dragon, Leaping Rogue

“Rogues who make my life miserable” is going to end up as a common theme in this article. (Not really, this is my last rogue-based story.) In the same campaign that I listed above, the PCs discovered a forest dragon that was defending a hex that they sought to claim for their kingdom. The PCs had brutally murdered his greater cyclops servant and were now coming for him. Of course, the dragon is perched up on a cliff high above the range of the melee-oriented party and their group gunslinger. The sorcerer and cleric cast some buffs as the sits around waiting; the dragon is beyond his firearm’s fifth range increment, so he can’t shoot at it. The rogue, being herself, decides that instead of waiting for the dragon to descend and engage the party in melee, she was going to climb up the cliff.

I cannot tell you how hard the party facepalmed at this poor rogue.

That is, until the dragon swooped down and unleashed its devastating breath weapon upon everyone who had stood there nice and perfectly arranged in a row. The rogue was spared from the dragon’s fury while everyone else took oodles of slashing and piercing damage. Huzzah! The rogue is victorious! Right?

Wrong. The rogue does something that I would have never in a million years predict. On her next turn, as the dragon is flying around using his hit and run tactics on the melee party and their gunslinger, the rogue leaps off of the cliff and tries to jump on the dragon’s back. It sounds pretty cool, I guess. Of course, she rolls a natural 1 on her Acrobatics check.

So, what do I do? A natural 1 on this check is pretty bad: she shouldn’t get off easy. But a fall from this height could kill her, and the party is doing terribly thus far. This combat was designed to be a hard CR +4 encounter, but it is clear that it is probably going to decimate the party.

So, I do the only humane thing: the rogue’s skill check fails miserably, so she doesn’t get what she wants. Instead of hitting his back, she latches onto the dragon’s tail. The dragon proceeds to whip is tail away; she slips and flies through the air. She’s 50 feet up so I have her make an Acrobatics check to reduce the damage. She succeeds and covers about half of her total (2d6 of 5d6) into nonlethal damage. She rolls something like a 34 on her second Acrobatics check (its one of her best skills), so I have her thrown about 150 feet away from the party. The rest of the party took the hint and bolted for it away from the dragon. Ultimately, the PCs got a solid beating but no one died from it. From there on out, the PCs started building up their supplies and resources to take care of the dragon.

The Tragedy at Westmark

This was my most recent “impromptu” moment, though it happened about half a year ago. My players had travelled to a city called Westmark with an ally in search of a Harrow Deck of Many Things. When the PCs got to Westmark, they found that the entire city was on shutdown for various reasons. The PCs sought the help of the a college located outside of the city’s walls, but it was little help to the PCs because he was overcome by grief: his wife had been kidnapped by goblin ‘blues,’ a fact that the PCs had learned prior at a banquet they had attended with him a week earlier. The PCs decide that the only way to get the headmaster’s help is to learn what happened to his wife (and it certainly helps that he begged them to find out for him!).

So the players find the goblin layer and fight through wave after wave of goblin. They battle the final “boss,” a massive fire-breathing hydra, and they defeat it. Around the final chamber, the “cooking chamber” are a number of emaciated people that are near death. The PCs grab who they can (about six people) and help them back to the college. The headmaster’s wife is fine, but the party cleric is equally concerned about everyone so she spends a few days working with the college’s doctors in order to help get as many people as possible back on their feet.

Now, I had brief backstories for all six of the “survivors” if they were saved. Two of them were star-crossed lovers who ran away from the city in order to be together. It was a throw-away reason for them to have gotten caught in by the goblins, but let me tell you that the cleric LOVED them and their story. Originally, the NPCs were going to just fade away, but it was clear that at least two of the PCs were invested in these characters that I had barely introduced or had done any real writing for. What to do?

Naturally, this was the perfect sort of moment to get my players invested in the game. I went back and tied both lovers and their plight to the reason why Westmark’s gates wer closed: one was the son of one of the city’s leaders, who had cast the winning vote on the city council to bar the walls shut in hopes that he would find his runaway son within the city walls. With the son in tow, the PCs had discovered their own way to get the gates of the city open, which was where I had wanted them to be anyway, and now they had felt like they had accomplished something great because they had opened the gates in a non-linear fashion. It didn’t feel like they needed to do the headmaster’s quest to get inside, rather they had done what he asked and felt rewarded for going above and beyond his call of duty.

And that’s all the anecdotes I have time for today. What did you think of this article? Care to share any stories you have of a time that you were flexible for your PCs? How did that flexibility turn out for you? What other sort of stories would you like to hear from me? Leave your answers, comments, and questions below and I’ll just sit back and look forward to the next time that I can to chat with you on the next Gibbering Mouth article. Stay tuned!

Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long over 90% of his colleagues. Affectionately called a “budding game designer” by his partner at Radiance House, Alexander is the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series (Radiance House) and a handful of other Third-Party Products. Before founding the Everyman Gaming blog, Alexander gained notoriety for writing the GM’s Guide to Challenging Encounters, which remains accessible to this day. His favorite color is blue, his favorite Pathfinder Race/Class combination is kitsune honorguard, and his favorite thing to do is to ‘flip the table’ on all his hard work and wing his campaigns! … yeah, you got me. That’s a big fat lie. It usually feels pretty lame. That is, until all of your PCs are grinning like fools at you for feeling as though they contributed heavily to the story being told!

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3 thoughts on “Anecdotes About Being Flexible

  1. Hmm… Flexibility. I’ve done several little 1-offs and side things, but the only ‘real’ campaign under my belt is Curse of the Crimson Throne, so I’ll be pulling all of my examples from there.

    Early on in the AP (as in the very first book) an Otyugh burst forth out of the sewers and rampages through the streets. Well, my party slayed the beast, and then decided to hope down into the sewer. Fortunately, I happened to purchase the Paizo Card Pack: Sewers, and began just randomly laying cards down as they wandered through the sewers. I had a random monster chart and started rolling random monsters and ended up coming up with a plot in which some Otyughs were being forced out of their normal ‘roaming’ grounds due to the presence of an gelatinous cube. The Otyughs were afraid and had also attracted the presence of some Will-o-Wisps that began feeding on their fear.

    Anyway, the party had issues with the Wisps as I started using them in mean ways with their invisibility, flight, and electric touch. Something I regret to this day as my Kingmaker GM was playing in this and used my very tactics against me. Jerk even had the nerve to say, “Thanks to Darrell for teaching me this trick” after the encounter; oh the angry glares I got from my party…

    Anyway, they fought through the Wisps who were trying to protect the Otyughs so they could keep feeding off them. Then they picked fights with the Otyughs, but the Otyughs weren’t keen on fighting to the death and kept retreating. They managed to start talking with them and learned that some ‘horrible invisible squishy monster’ was intruding on their territory and anytime someone tried to kill it, they suddenly seized up and just fell to pieces.

    So the party had to go off and fight the ‘invisible squishy’ not knowing what it was and found themselves fighting a gelatinous cube. One of the characters actually rounded a corner and walked right into it and failed his save. Another character (the martial with a high con) plunged in and dragged him out.

    Then the fight was on, but it ended very shortly as they just unleashed hell on it, blasting, slashing and smashing it down. They finished it off with the sorcerer scorching the ground it died on just to make sure.

  2. Another one involved the party deciding they were going to go running around the Grey District in Korvosa. Korvosa’s Grey District has a heavy population of undead because they keep re-animating for some reason. So the party decided to go ‘undead slaying’ for some reason (they just felt like it). Ended up tossing together a bunch of zombies and skeletons and then an ambush by ghouls. Due to good party tactics (and a well placed fireball with nearly max damage), they destroyed something like 37 zombies, 16 skeletons and 24 ghouls mixed with 8 ghasts in the span of some 5 rounds.

    Yeah… They were suddenly on a ‘WE’RE INVINCIBLE!!!’ high.

    They wanted to continue on and keep searching for more undead to kill, but it was also snack/lunch/dinner time (depending on how you looked at it). So we stopped for pizza and drink, while I started quickly throwing together something a little tougher.

    I went with a mausoleum filled with advanced skeletons with the bloody template. They were each like 5th or 6th level fighters in life, so they were tougher than normal skeletons in death. They were also being led by an 8th level fighter that became a skeletal champion with the bloody template and a vicious weapon. Now, we all thought the vicious weapon dealt negative energy damage, so it would deal 2d6 points of damage to the enemy, and 1d6 to the wielder, which would actually heal the skeletal champion. That combined with his natural fast healing meant he was an extremely tough opponent.

    With the Skeletal Champion leading them, the other skeletons employed a modicum of tactics. Name;y, they employed shields and reach weapons and formed a horseshoe around the entrance. If one got to wounded, the champion would order them to rotate so the rear would step forward and the front would step back while they also swapped weapons (a full round action).

    So the party had a tough time taking down the skeletons as they would just rotate places, and let their fast healing patch them up.

    The party ended up retreating from this encounter. But after 3 levels, they came back and then whooped those skeletons’ asses. But, ever since then, if I put skeletons on the board, the party gets afraid.

    In fact, in Skeletons of Scarwall, when they first cross the bridge, there is supposed to be a huge trash mob of 1/3 CR skeletons. One my group saw this group, the put the game on pause and spent a little over an hour discussing tactics, spells and strategies to overcome them. They ended up rushing forward and unleashing some of their best spells and abilities, slaughtering these skeletons by the score. Afterwards, I couldn’t hold in my laughter any longer and had to let them know exactly what they did. See, it didn’t help holding in the laughter, because i kept letting small bouts of laughter over take me… and my party heard me laughing and thought it had an ominous ring to it, so it only redoubled their efforts to ensure total victory over these skeletons.

    So a hastily thrown together encounter from 2-1/2 years and 10 levels previous, forced them to nearly panic and blow all of their best spells and abilities on a mob of meaningless skeletons in a medium/high-level dungeon. Absolutely one of my most favorite memories of the game. Also, to reference your metagame article, the very last time the party fought skeletons was against that Skeletal Champion, so when the party drew from previous experience, they really only had the experience of getting their ass kicked to draw from, so their reaction was totally in character, which just made it all the sweeter and more hilarious to me.

  3. The final anecdote I’ll be sharing, comes from a side adventure I threw in for more XP and Treasure. Now, I didn’t know this until afterward, but the module Seven Swords of Sin was originally formed from a ‘bet’ by the Paizo group. The bet being, if they held a ‘murder’ challenge, who could design the deadliest CR appropriate room for a group of PCs to navigate. So at a convention, they had a hastily thrown together series of scenarios they ran groups through; whomever had the deadliest room at the end of the convention, won the bet.

    Later on, they took some of the rooms from the bet, and put them into a module with a dungeon crawl and tacked on a story. Voila! Seven Swords of Sin.

    Anyway, the module is designed for a group of four, 7th level PCs using the 3.5 edition D&D rules. The PC Pre-gens they give for the module are 8th level, and I ran my group through it at 10th level. I ended up killing, I think, 4 characters in this module? I don’t remember the exact count.

    Anyway, one of the encounters had a Black Dragon and a Water Elemental in a lake, with only a rickety boat as a method of crossing it. My party arrived at this lake depleted on spells (but I didn’t know just how depleted). I honestly thought they would smash through this encounter and have little difficulty. Anyway, the stated tactics of the encounter was that once the boat was half-way across, the Elemental forms a whirlpool and capsizes the boat. Once the party is in the water, the Dragon tries to grapple and drown as many people as they could, and if that fails, engages in melee.

    What ended up happening is the Dragon got to play with the party as none of them had a swim skill worth a damn. One character’s Dwarven Roge/Shadow Dancer got drowned, and, here’s the worst part, they party split up. Some of them crossed the lake, while most of them stayed on the original shore. One of them was an Oracle with a strength of 8 that could fly, and the other was an NPC Bard that got shrunk to tiny size via a Rod of Wonder, and the third was an Elven Fighter/Arcane Archer. The Archer told the Bard to ride on the Oracle and fly back across the water. The Dragon proceeded to chase down the archer who managed to kill the dragon before succumbing to his wounds (he dealt bleeding damage that the dragon couldn’t stop but was knocked unconscious).

    Anyway, directly after the dragon, was a pair of Chuuls who watched the entire fight.

    I talked to the two players and asked them what they wanted to do with their characters, whether they wanted to be brought back, or roll up new characters. The dwarf was fine with letting his guy stay dead, but the Archer wanted him back.

    We took a little break (due to summer) and revisited during the fall. I came up with a little side-adventure for the side-adventure.

    Basically, the Elf didn’t die, and was captured by the two Chuul. He was dragged back to their Queen’s lair and then ‘glued’ to the wall via dried spittle and other bodily materials that shall be remain unnamed. He, and another guy (new player as a half-orc rogue) were both trapped there in a hatchery (think 1998 Godzilla with the eggs). The eggs began hatching and they had to break free and collect their weapons and armor, before fighting a bunch of hatchling chuul (Chuul with the young template applied twice). Amongst the eggs and younglings was a horde of silver, copper, and gold with some platinum as well as some magical items (because Chuul like to horde and they have some relation to dragons as I outline later).

    Meanwhile, the party had to navigate underwater rapids and waterfalls, following the underground river that the chuul had dragged their ally off into. The ended up washing out into a huge underground cavern with a bunch of chuul standing on the far shore (the water in this area was waist deep). The Chuul Queen (a chuul with the Advanced and Giant template and some Adept levels I think) offered them the chance to live if they left all their gear behind and then her children would return them to the surface. Naturally, the party refused.

    The Queen ordered them killed instead, and then left down a tunnel that she closed behind her (moved a big rock). The party fought against ~4 Chuul and ~4 Chuul Bodyguards (advanced template). On the shore shelved in some nooks in the wall, were various treasures the Chuul had gathered over time. I ended up including a bunch of stuff they needed, or interesting things and some stuff of my own creation. In the following room, the Chuul Queen lay in her little pool of water with 3 bodyguards (Water flooded this entire complex and was a constant hazard for the party to deal with).

    The Queen’s Lair composed of two area, one a deep pool of water (over the head) and the other being waist deep. I included a special tactic in which the Queen could, as a move action, raise up and splash down in this pool and send out a wave of water that acted like a bull rush to everyone within 15 ft of the ‘deep end’. The party ended up countering this by casting Wall of Force over the entrance and that damned up the water (which quickly began draining out as behind the Queen was the entrance to the hatchery).

    During this time, the Archer and the Rogue heard a commotion from above as the party began fighting the Queen, so they crawled up the water and attacked her from behind.

    The Queen saw the emerging Archer and Rogue and looked beyond to spot the her dead younglings and smashed eggs (rogue murdered the babies). She flew into a rage and used her Awesome Blow feat to smash the Archer back down the hole where he was grievously hurt.

    Anyway, the party beat her down, but now they discovered they had a problem. See, the water flowing through this complex wasn’t flowing very slowly, it was flowing quickly and that meant where the Wall of Force happened to be, there existed a huge back-up of water that was building more and more pressure.

    The group proceeded down into the hatchery to look for another avenue of escape (the Wizard could teleport, but couldn’t take everyone). In the hatchery itself was a sort of walk way designed for medium creatures suspended above the water. In the middle of the walkway, was a pool of water that all of the eggs were in. Around the circle was a group of arcane writings that did special things. The ‘hatchery’ was an experiment by long-dead Wizards (possibly even the Thassilonians) to infuse some of the strength and power of Dragons into other beings. They tested it on the Chuul Queen (who, amongst other things, gained a dragon’s lifespan), but shortly after, they abandoned the project and left her to die (though she didn’t).

    The Hatchery Circle did several things, it infused those in it with strength and power (advanced template), healed them of sickness and wounds, and also prevented the water from harming the hatchlings. The water around the pool flowed quickly, but the water in the pool flowed at a very gentle pace, before resuming speeds outside the circle.

    So the party got the idea to withstand the torrent of water by riding it out in the pool. They ended up casting Water Breathing on the party and dismissed the Wall of Force. They were really nervous as the water ripped through the tunnels above, dragging the bodies of the slain Chuul, before slamming into the pool of water… where it all suddenly slowed to a crawl.

    Anyway, the side adventure dealing to introduce new characters, and bring back a dead one after a near TPK and routing of the party turned into a fun, awesome adventure that none of the people had ever experienced before. Which is awesome, because 3 of the people have been playing this game consistently since the Red Box.

    So that’s my last anecdote. I’m hoping to hear more from others.

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