Planescape Next

To Baator and Back, part 3
In which our intrepid adventures run through Hell to get to the Cage

Armed with the knowledge of how to escape Avernus, the party crossed the River of Blood once again (luckily managing to escape the attention of any of the blood worms within) but then they found the Great Avernus Road jam-packed with a huge fiendish army waiting for orders.

After waiting for a few hours (and itching to enact one of several foolhardy and pretty-much-certain-to-kill-everyone “plans”), they watched the army snap to attention when a huge figure flew from the great keep to the north east and fly off. It took another hour for the army to march off and then Belker Bitterleath IV bravely snuck forward to steal a brick. When he was spotted by a straggling flock of abishai devils, the rest of the party ran forward to help him. Realizing that the flock was 50 devils strong, the party decided to just race for the portal and try to get the hell out of Hell.

After a tense chase in which Belker Bitterleath IV was paralyzed and nearly killed and Adrin Xiloscent used a fog cloud to provide some cover from the abishai flock, the party arrived at what seemed to be the portal location – and found it blocked by a vaguely foreboding humanoid.

The creature introduced itself as Ar’kle-mens, the guardian of the gate. He would be happy to let the party use the portal – all they had to do was carry one little orb through. He promised it wouldn’t harm them… directly. While he spoke with the party, the abishai flock circled above, waiting to attack of things got violent.

Elric agreed to carry the orb through, though the entire party was naturally very suspicious of it. Despite some furtive plans to throw it back to Ar’kle-mens at the last minute, they did carry it through the portal. The fiend smiled the whole time.

On the other side of the portal was Sigil, in all its multiverse, urban, city-inside-of-a-donut glory. They have finally escaped Avernus & Baator and were safe… for now.

The orb the fiend have given them was apparently destroyed, and Elric was covered in dust. The rest of the party was covered in soot & dried blood, and no one seemed to pay them much mind.

Notes & Commentary

The original idea for the campaign was to play this adventure and get everyone comfortable with the system and give an introduction to the setting before burying the players in the real meat of Planescape: factions. It seemed to go really well: the players really enjoyed the weird and grotesque feeling for the adventure and seem excited about where it will go next. I was very happy to hear how much some of them enjoyed a lot of the special elements of the setting. At the end of this session I just talked through a lot of Planescape from the cosmology to the factions to the slang. I was shocked people didn’t get bored right away.

I was also surprised that no one decided to make new characters, so they’re all sticking with the existing crew. I wanted to have a bit of “time passes” and start the next adventure with them not being quite as Clueless about the planes, so I said that a year had passed and then asked everyone what interesting things they had done in the intervening time:

Elric had an encounter in a bar with someone who swore had met him before. It turns out that Elric might be a shard or piece of some larger entity, some fragment of consciousness. This revelation led to the warrior joining the Sign of One faction, as he hopes to find the root spark.

Adrin Xiloscent sought sensation, especially the natural tastes and urges of his animalistic side and joined the Society of Sensation. His greatest rush so far was hunting the White Stag on the Beastlands, where the magic of the creature allowed him to experience the sensations of both the hunter and the hunted.

Turga Killdrak was the only one to really try to get home, unsuccessfully. Discouraged, he was eventually taken in by missionaries of the Believers of the Source, and he warmed to their message of life being a forge in which the spirit is battered and shaped and improved. It is unclear what this means for the paladin’s faith quite yet. He turned down an opportunity to go on a pilgrimage to the very feet of the dwarven gods, claiming he was not worthy. He is currently looking for a new mount.

Belker Bitterleath IV jumped into Sigil with both feet, pursuing criminals with zeal. He followed one bounty all the way to Acheron and ended up killing the target. The bounty was technically “dead or alive,” but when the Mercykillers explained that the sentence of “immediate execution” hand’t actually been decided, Belker realized the need to temper his zeal for punishment with the due process of justice, and he joined the faction.

Finally, I asked them what they had done as a group, what their biggest adventure was over the last year:

Belker Bitterleath IV last bounty was actually for an angel named Kobal. A watcher angel, it had actually violated its duty by getting emotionally invested in a tieflng sorceress, and it killed her as a punishment for her crimes. The party tracked the angel to the frozen slopes of Gehenna where it’s flaming sword claimed Belker’s right eye – though when his wound healed, his socked was filled with a tiny flame and he could see out of it without a problem. Kobal gave the party the laugh and is still at large.

Next session we will update characters to level 3 and probably start The Eternal Boundary.

Our young new player joined us for this session, but I hadn’t prepared a character for him, so he rolled for the abishai as they pursued the PCs. He rolled really well (even getting a double crit when the paladin gave a fiend disadvantage when attacking), which was part of why it was so grueling for them at the end.

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To Baator and Back, part 2
In which the characters must "negotiate" with the Pillar of Skulls

After recapping what Halitsu told them about Avernus (which is apparently where the party has found itself), they followed the devil’s map to talk to “the old witch.” This involved fording the aptly-named River of Blood.

After very nearly descending into violence after the witch webbed half the party and applied holy water to them to make sure they weren’t fiends, they settled down for some interesting tea and to find out how to get off the plane. The witch didn’t know herself how to escape (or wasn’t lucid enough to explain it) but she advised they speak with the Pillar of Skulls, supposedly built of the souls of sages who lied to their customers.

They found it easily enough, though it turned out to be more the Pillar of Contradictory and Untrustworthy Con Men Heads. Trekking through hell having drained much of their patience, the party decided to get rough: they pried out one head as a warning to the others Turga Killdrak began liberally applying holy water to the most talkative head, causing it to howl in pain.

The screams of the Pillar summoned the attention of two wandering spinagons that the party was able to defeat, but only barely. They decided to sacrifice the one fiend they captured alive, “feeding” it to the Pillar (and being more than a little disturbed as the heads moved to swallow the creature and digest it). That got them answers to 5 questions, and though they didn’t quite get the answers they wanted they did get enough to figure out how to leave the plane: collect a black brick from the Great Avernus Road and use it as the key to a portal to the south.

Playtest Notes

There weren’t a lot of rules in this session – it was mainly roleplaying with the witch and the Pillar of Skulls, which was quite a bit of fun. The witch in particular made the party suspicious and they were suitable paranoid as they tried to figure out exactly how to phrase their questions to the Pillar.

There was also a great moment when Elric, the war-weary fighter, wasn’t entirely comfortable with Turga Killdrak the paladin torturing one of the heads in the Pillar. “Is it OK because they are evil?” “Is that who we are, even if it is OK?” Always great to see questions like that pop up, and perfectly suited for a Planescape campaign.

The only rules comment that most players agreed with was both good & bad: combat turns go really fast.

It’s great to get through a fight quickly and keep things moving, but many of the players are used to 4th edition fights where there are more tactical choices and you can still contribute on your turn even if you miss with your sword.

That’s a problem I have long had with old D&D editions (I summarize it as “I swing my sword. Done.”) and I’ll have to think about how to deal with that if/when combat becomes a little more central to the game. Not sure how much I want to tinker with the rules as part of the playtest, so I’ll likely have to review the plaaytest packet and see what tools are there to help spice up fights that are supposed to feel important.

It was also very interesting that while we were waiting to start a lady came up and asked if we were playing D&D. Her husband apparently had a regular game and their (rather shy) young son wanted to play, but didn’t have anyone his age to play with. We gave her the usual advice on how to find or start up a group but they had already tried a lot of that. She and her son ended up sitting in and listening to our game and were pretty engaged – she actually tossed out some good ideas and tips to the party. They should be joining us i the future. Her son is only 9 and very quiet and shy, so I’ll likely have to reach out and help him along through many sections, but she said that he was very excited and engaged, and the whole thing was just too adorable.

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"To Baator and Back", part 1
"They square off like miniature kaiju... wait..."

The first real play session! So exciting!

The party heard about the strange happenings around “the old wizard’s place” and couldn’t get much useful information out of the increasingly drunken locals, so they set out themselves to see what’s up.

Along the way, they encountered some owlbear tracks and decided to investigate, only to be ambushed by the beast. In the ensuing battle, Adrin Xiloscent turned into a bear to square off against it and almost died for his bravery. Elric was able to take advantage of the owlbear nearly ripping out the druid’s throat, though, stabbing his blade right through its back.

Picking themselves back up (and harvesting the apparently-valuable owlbear heart), they continued on to the “wizard’s tower” – which actually turned out to be a 50’ tall mound. Inside, the wizard’s place had been completely ransacked.

They did encounter two lemures, though – strange creatures they had never seen before. Shelton Widowberry tossed out a quick entangle spell, though, nearly killing one of them in one hit. The party easily dispatched them and searched the rest of the wizard’s domicile.

They found Finott’s Book (spellbook containing 6 1st level and 4 2nd level spells) and a stick belonging to a dead peasant girl the lemures were eating.

Adrin Xiloscent found another book marked “Lab Notes” right as Belker Bitterleath IV decided to enter an exposed “secret” chamber, activating some magical effect and disappearing in a swirl of blue flame. Shelton Widowberry immediately jumped after him.

The rest of the party read through the “Lab Notes,” discovering that wizard had apparently succeeding in contacting “otherworldly realms behind his imagining.”

Assuming that their friends had been transported to some alien realm and intent on saving them, the remaining PCs jumped through (after failing to convince Turga Killdrak pony to come along for the ride).

On the other side, the discovered that Belker Bitterleath IV and Shelton Widowberry had struck up a conversation with a spiny little devil-creature named Halitsu. It was initial shocked and fearful at their appearance, but Shelton Widowberry cast charm person and gained a new friend who was more than happy to tell them wehre they were – as long as they didn’t get Halitsu in trouble with his boss.

They party is on Avernus, the first layer of Baator.

When asked how to leave, Halitsu had had two suggestions: “Join the army, but then you’ll end up dead. Or you could try to talking to the crazy witch and see what she knows.”

The second option being more to their liking, the party sets off to cross the River of Blood to find this “crazy witch.”

They even gave Halitsu his pitchfork back. He was such a nice little devil, after all…

Playtest Notes

So this was the first actual play session and it went very well, overall. I had some initial concerns about monster power, but it seemed to work itself out reasonably well. There were a couple rules questions that popped up that I made a call on the spot for that I’ll need to iron out.

No rules for mounted combat?
I might have missed them, but I don’t remember seeing mounted combat rules. Might be overthinking it, too, but it seemed like it should be difficult to just charge into the middle of two bears duking it out and skewer one on a lance, so I basically just had the knight make a Dexterity or Charisma check (his choice) with Ride with DC 10. If he failed, I was going to five him disadvantage. He got it, and missed anyway, but definitely something I’ll have to check on.

Do devils/extraplanar creatures count as humanoids for charm person?
This was something else I wasn’t sure of, but I erred on the side of letting the players get away with it. It was a neat idea and worked out well, but I’m pretty sure that it totally wouldn’t have worked in 2nd or 3rd edition.

Table comments about the session:

  • Players liked that they were never really looking at their character sheets
  • They also liked that it was much less structured – more free-form and less combat-focused
  • They liked advantage/disadvantage – good way to show advantage, basically, without a lot of math

Personally, I had a lot of fun. I think I’m finding that I actually quite like running relatively loose published adventures because I can focus almsot entirely on description and embellishment. I also found that running a combat as a DM was more fun than I expected. I rolled quick and moved on. As a player, I’ve found D&D Next combat much less engaging – I think it’s a factor of “my turn’s done quick, let me know I’m up again.”

So far, D&D Next seems to mesh reasonably well with my freeform, seat-of-my-pants DM style, though I’m worried about monster stats overall. I think I’ll have to put a bit of prep into that as fights get more complicated.

The owlbear fight was quick, but it also nearly killed the druid in one round. Overall, it seemed about right, but it was pretty brutal on that one player. The lemure fight was almost a token conflict, especially by comparison. The other druid cast one spell that very nearly took care of everything.

I put up some separate notes on my loose 2nd edition conversion logic.

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Character Creation
in which the characters are born

For the first session, we just made characters.

The plan is to start with traditional fantasy D&D characters and then we’ll run through one of the adventures from Well of Worlds – “To Baator and Back.” Once the party finishes the adventure and arrives in Sigil, we’ll take stock and players will have the opportunity to make new characters or keep their existing ones, etc.

I fleshed out the world a bit by asking characters specific questions about their characters’ histories, letting them just flesh things out. All the details here were worked out by the group as an explanation of how & why they know each other.

Elric, Belker Bitterleath IV, & Ragnar the Red were soldiers in a war of aggression against the cosmopolitan, mercantile city-state of Tesch. It was a brutal war, and Elric isn’t proud of what he got a medal for. After the war, Ragnar the Red disappeared into the frontier.

Ragnar the Red attacked and slaughtered a dwarven trade caravan, only leaving Turga Killdrak alive. Belker Bitterleath IV, now a bounty hunter, and Elric were hired to track down the madman and “deal with him.” They hired Adrin Xiloscent as a local guide.

They tracked Ragnar the Red down and killed him. They suspect he might have actually been possessed by some dark spirit, but couldn’t find any proof.

Now they’ve returned to town and are drowning their sorrows/celebrating in the local tavern when they overhear the locals talking about “the old wizard’s place” on the outskirts of town. Apparently some locals broke in there recently & hear a roar from deep inside – and one of them disappeared…

Playtest Notes

So we mainly just did character creation, and it was all from the playtest files I had on my iPad. I felt like the whole process was terribly annoying & boring – lots of players just waiting around for their turn – but I guess I was just being paranoid, as everyone said they had fun.

Specific comments:

  • race, class, background, & specialty seems like too many choices
  • more complicated rules made you more invested in character
  • specialties and backgrounds gave charcters more flavor, and subraces
  • liked background non-combat thing
  • favorite thing: background, race & class had sub-options
  • leaset favorite thing: character sheet

Next time we’ll actually get into some adventure.

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