Session Six: Plot Exposition Has To Go Somewhere
Having disrupted the rat cult’s magical workings and sealed the abyssal breach (more or less), our heroes recover from their adventures in the sewers. The question of the disappearing dock people is answered, their bodies recovered from the cults dumping pool. Leena the sewer officer receives medical treatment and Grenn learns about the wererats of New Port. The team secures the continuing assistance of Donder McFlynn from the Blue Rose, and ascertains that there is certainly at least one loose thread not accounted for. Specifically, the “she” mentioned by one of the rat cultists who is apparently in charge.
After a lot of discussion, the team decides to head to the Scribe’s Ward to gather information from the students at the College of Veils, with an aim to ending up at the Manor (the Hogwarts-like student pub).
Unfortunately, an unknown dwarf bounty hunter has other ideas and appears to want to put Dorak Lightalker into a sack and take him away. For some reason.
Not really a clip show
I’d promised my players that after the shitpipe adventure, we’d take some time to establish and reinforce the idea that they were agents of the Empire. With that in mind, I decided to do a kind of 13th Age clip-show.
The best clip shows – the very best ones – don’t just recycle clips of old shows as a way to save money they subvert the concept by filming a load of new content and pretending its clips from previous shows.
Before the session I let the players know that we’d be doing some flashbacks during the session, and laid out some basic rules as to how they would work. Each player would set the scene for one flashback, including one other player’s character, involving their previous work for their patron/employer the Ministry of Irregular Assets and Unlikely Coincidences (the Dangerous Idiots).
I actually started the session with a bit of boxed text. I’ve recently reevaluated by dislike of boxed text (I wrote about it a bit already in Spire, Boxed Text, and Matt Fucking Mercer). I already knew that I wanted to give the party an ultimate handler who I hoped they would have a positive relationship with, to contrast with the defintiely-going-to-be-strained relationship with the local representative of their organisation (who someone had defined as being harsh on even the slightest failure and someone else had decided was a cruel-and-horribly-pragmatic shadow elf). I cast around for a strong iconic look-and-feel.
Obviously I picked Dame Judi Dench who after all was the best M in the Bond movies. Shut up. No arguments. I found a great picture of her, and then grabbed another for the garden where the scene would take place.
I wrote up a few paragraphs of “cold open”, and then a few more paragraphs of prepared text that could be interspersed with dialogue from the player characters. I reasoned that they’d be more invested in her as a character, in their identity as Imperial agents, and in their specific New Port mission if they had a chance to chat with her like a person.
Then I threw in a second NPC – the Archmage’s Oracle – to serve to key purposes. One, he could provide vague plot exposition that would underline the conceit of the “vague but threatening events” they would be investigating. Two, he would be annoying and the players would bond with Lady Winter (their handler) in their dislike of/annoyance at him. It’s a cheap trick inspired by the terrible jokes you get in Christmas crackers.
I also bullet-pointed some specific bits if dialogue that would both cover the key facts I wanted the characters to have and that reinforces Lady Winter as clever and with a bit of dry wit (and the Archmage’s Oracle as an annoying prick who spoke in riddles). It can sometimes be hard to improvise these sorts of things.
I think it went pretty well all things considered (even if Clive did interrupt me to go wait! is that Judi Dench while I was mid exposition), and helped set up the more talky tone of the session to come. I think the cold open may have gone on a bit too long, but I allow myself a bit of extra indulgence in an opening sequence to a session because it helps delineate the bit where we’re not doing Sportsball & Soapopera any more and are now playing a game.
A “city session” which focuses on setting scenes, investigation, and character moments is very different to plan to a dungeon crawl. In a dungeon (whatever form it takes – an overland journey can still look like a dungeon crawl when you get right down to it just with more trees), the walls, doors, floors, and ceilings restrict where the players can go. The draw of the more open plan situation is the freedom the players have to go places you’re not expecting. It can also be a bastard.
This session though I had some “walls and foors” in place – I’d already mentioned the flashbacks but I also had some scenes of my own to throw at the party.
I sketched out three of them in some detail – well technically four but the fourth one was a little different. They related to bridging between the previous adventure and the new arc investigating the demon cult in New Port, as well as the session theme of establishing characters outside of an action context.
A framed scene – I’ve also seen it called a directed scene – isn’t really that different to a normal scene at the table. I set each one up with a bit of boxed test to create the atmosphere and to as much as possible show-not-tell signpost what the scene was “about”.
I’ll quickly outline each one.
- An Hour before Dawn: Mark had said that he was keen to make sure that the victims of the demon cult that the party had found in session four were appropriately dealt with. I had a spare NPC (the watch captain the party had ducked in session one) and saw an opportunity to introduce two other characters I thought would be useful to establish in the upcoming adventures. As a consequence Mark and Clive were talking to the captain as members of the watch (and their giant spider buddies) respectfully carried the bodies out of the sewers. I also gave them a chance to talk to a reporter, and Mark took the opportunity to complicate things by rabble rousing against hidden demon cults.
- As the Sun Rises: John had introduced the character of a ghostly fisherman in the sewers, and we’d enjoyed it enough to keep the ghost around. John “woke up” sitting on a wall by the quayside having obviously had a heavy night of drinking under the influence of the spirit of George Carmichael, Captain of the New Port fishing vessel the Bright Breeze. They had a wee chat, and the ghost mentioned their need to find out why they hadn’t gone to fisherman heaven. This was a personal beat rather than anything to do with the wider arc plot, based around the whole Necroscope schtick that John’s character has going on.
- An Hour after Dawn: Steve’s orc rogue had been instrumental in rescuing the sewer worker Leena and had enjoyed interacting with the wererat fellow in session four. I established he’d taken the injured Leena to a hospital, and he had a chance to chat with her. She asked him to swear his friends to secrecy about the relationship between the Ministry of Gongdelvers, Dunnikindivers, and Filthmancers and the lycanthropes. This was more exposition heavy than the first scene, but I think it worked okay as a bit of back and forth between the character and the NPC.
- The end of the session: I hadn’t given Clive a specific scene, but in the end it was fine because he easily took part in Mark’s initial scene. What I did instead was made a note to end the session on a cliffhanger as some bounty hunters appear to try and capture Clive’s rebel dwarf ranger. My guess is that this would give him the same feeling of “spotlight time” everyone else was getting.
I introduced the flashbacks at roughly half hour intervals over the course of the evening. I’d primed people to think about what they were going to do, but I had a very straightforward shape myself. It was clear these weren’t going to be traditional scenes in which characters interact with each other. Rather they were descriptive, creative scenes. The player we had the spotlight on laid out the scene, and who was with them, and then I promtped people to add extra details (to keep everyone involved).
I had a couple questions to shape the flashbacks. How does your buddy use their abilities to help out?, either What goes wrong? or What’s the unexpected twist? and How will we spot a recurring element form this flashback when it hits the game?
I wanted three things out of these scenes.
- Continue to establish the characters as agents of the Imperial Throne (and maybe the setting itself).
- Create some closer links between the characters so they felt more like a team.
- Get some plot elements I could insert into the actual campaign.
I could have done all this during Session Zero, but I think that might have been a mistake. The flashbacks and the creativity that went into them definitely benefitted from the fact we’d been playing for nearly two months and gotten used to the characters by the time we stepped back to look at past events. I’ll quickly run down what we learned.
- Dorak Lightwalker (Clive) was assigned to infiltrate a dwarf overland-smuggling ring with the aid of Grenn (Steves Orc Rogue). At a key moment, a rogue bullette erupted out of the ground and a confusing three-way fight took place. The recurrent element was the leader of the dwarf smugglers whose body was never recovered after being knocked off a cliff by the bulette. We’ll apparently recognise him because he’s missing an eye, most of his hair, and half his beard. Cheers people, I said ironically as this was established. That’ll be a super easy picture to source.
- Grenn was intercepting a handover between foreign agents with the help of Thomas (John’s necrocleric). The agent they were spying on was a paladin of the Crusader, meeting with a shadowy figure who turned out to be necromancer affiliated with the Lich King. Gasp! The Paladin was actually an infiltrator for Old Boney! I let the players pick which one of the two escaped and they chose the Paladin. This was great news for me because a secret agent of the Lich King masquerading as a paladin of the Crusader would play very will with stuff we’d already established.
- Calcifer was given a job to infiltrate a sinister cult with the aid of Thomas, and we started with our heroes tied to stakes about to be sacrificed. They traded quips because of course they did. The cult itself seemed to be about killing people to steal their power – which Calcifer felt marked them as Diabolist pawns. The twist was that the player characters had been set up by an agent of the Lich King and that while they took out the cult, the Lich King managed to claim the ghosts the baddies had been creating. I liked this one because it had a nice feel of Indiana Jones or the campier Bond movies.
- Finally, Thomas and Dorak were involved in trying to stop an assassin in the (a) Imperial Palace. Someone had killed a guard and taken their place, and with the aid of the ghost our heroes were trying to catch the would-be assassin. It ended with the villain detonating their alchemical explosive and blowing themselves apart. Their final words were the intriguing “For the great worm!” or possibly “for the great wyrm!” There was some humour around asking the fellow how it was spelled so they could work out who their enemy was.
Two things went slightly awry with the flashbacks. First, we missed that Thomas was in three of them and consequently Mark as only in one. Second, one of the players’ suggestions cancelled something someone else had already established and that caused my brain to stall out for a moment – we managed to deal with it and keep the flashback on track but its something we’ll need to watch in future.
Regardless, I think the flashbacks achieved their aim. The players had a feel for their characters as secret agents and I had two nemesises, a secret conspiracy involving a great worm/great wyrm, and a solidly established villain in the form of the Lich King.
The rest of the session
The bulk of the planning for this session was writing ideas and boxed text, but it was also important to think about how time would work here. One of the drawbacks of the framed scenes is that the players of the character who isn’t the focal point have nothing to do but listen so I wanted to make sure they didn’t drag on. Unlike the flashbacks, it was going to be a one-on-one which I’ve never really tried over the internet before. This meant I wanted to make sure the rest of the session was as group-oriented as possible.
We play in two hour sessions, and one of the first things I did was roughly plot out the “shape” of the session. I reasoned the initial establishing sequence with Lady Winter would take about half an hour. I had four flashbacks to get in, call that ten minutes or so each, and a note to do them at roughly half hour intervals. The three framed scenes should take about the same amount of time. That left me roughly twenty minutes free.
I knew that the main other thing the players would want to do would be to have a scene with the Blue Rose (their rescued handler), and the main thing I wanted was them to decide what their next move was going to be following up on the demon cult.
This was actually pretty straightforward – once the initial framed scenes and flashback were done I dropped the characters into their hideout. I say hideout – by the end of the framed scenes half the NPCs who have appeared in the campaign so far knew where it was. I was then able to drop the rest of the flashbacks in as they discussed where they were going to go with their investigations.
With a nod to Blades in the Dark we had another flashback at the same time in which the players talked to the Blue Rose and got a feel for the situation around the demon cult. It seemed pretty clear they were not going to get along with their local contact.
We overran slightly – by about fifteen/twenty minutes – but on the whole the session was successful.
A Few Other Bits and Bobs
I also used the opportunity of a city session to drag out some of the rumours the players had given me a few weeks previously – using a variety of delivery methods. It turned out the party hanger-on Donder had a friend who had worked at the magical Hogwarts-style pub in the university district and had some stories relevant to the investigation for example.
I’m really enjoying this method of making the game richer incidentally. The serendipitous cool that comes from incorporating the player material stretches my creative muscles in a way that just running a straightforward “this is my game and you’re along for the ride” approach generally doesn’t. Answering questions like why agents of the Crusader have been hassling the librarian for example, or whether there’s any truth to the story that the tulsoolo served at the Manor has kobold meat in it have the potential to take the campaign off into unexpected directions.
And that’s making planning a session more fun, and less of a chore.
Some Boxed Texts
Introducing Lady Winter
There is a woman. She wears a severe dress of a style that never goes out of fashion, even if it is not always fashionable. She walks with purpose, striding through the cool corridors of her mansion. As she passes, servants bow or bob quick curtseys and she acknowledges each with a quick nod of the head but her progress never slows.
She stops suddenly in front of a doorway, and it as if she has never moved at all – her stillness so profound the very idea that she might move is inconceivable. She takes a single deep breath to centre herself and then once again she is in motion.
Beyond the door is a garden at twilight. She knows every flower, every tree, practically every blade of grass. Every quietly flapping banner, every gently flickering torch. Everything. Each is in its place, and a place for everything.
She has guests. Four of them stand together talking in low whispers. The man with a bitter past. The agent wish so much to prove. The exile with nowhere else to go. The dangerously useful renegade.
As she approaches the little group, their conversation falls silent. A scruffy little dog stands up, wagging its stumpy little tail, it’s ears cocked. She stops briefly to scratch it between the ears, her face betraying a moment of joy that she quickly locks away again behind her impassive facade.
She takes another breath, holds it, quickly appraising each of her guests.
“Gentlemen,” she says. “I imagine you are wondering why I have called you here today.”
It is a little less than a month ago and you have been called to the estate of Countess de Morlay, in Axis for a private meeting with your boss.
Her official title is Countess de Morlay, and if she has a first name you have never learned it. As far as you know she is the head of the operations arm of the Imperial Intelligence Service. She reports directly to the Throne, and has served under three Empresses – first as an agent, later as an analyst, and now as the head of the Ministry of Irregular Assets and Unlikely Coincidences – the Dangerous Idiots.
The Countess has been married three times – two of them ending in divorce and one in the tragic death of her spouse at the hands of agents of the Lich King for whom she has an abiding… distaste? She is far too professional to give in to hate, after all.
She is your boss. Do you know anything else about her?
The Watch Captain
You’re surrounded by a low hubbub of conversation. It’s maybe an hour before full dawn, but the sky is just pale enough that you know its coming. It’s raining just a little bit – not enough to get you wet but enough to let you know that might change later.
Another body is manhandled up out of the sewer grate. The labourers are being as gentle as they can, but it’s still difficult work. It’d be quicker if they just tied ropes round them and hoisted them out like sacks of grain but… nobody has suggested that for some reason. Instead the dead are bound in thick shrouds of spider silk by one of the watchspiders, working under careful supervision of their bonded partner. It makes it… easier… while still remaining respectful.
The crowd is quiet, respectful, but there’s smatterings of anger here as well. People want answers. They want to know why these citizens are dead, and why they are in the sewers. Most of the people here are local but there’s a couple who stand out as different.
A smartly dressed halfling woman who is making notes in a notebook – likely a correspondent for one of the papers. A white-scaled dragonic, given a wide berth by the other citizens unsurprisingly, who has been watching the scene since the first bodies were brought out. The watch captain. Yourself.
As the next corpse is brought up there’s a commotion in the crowd – an older man with snow-white hair suddenly starts to wail and sob. The young man whose body has just been removed from the sewer is his grandson. The people near him try to comfort him, but he tries to push forward. The watch hold him back.
Watch Captain Coraline takes a deep mouthful of strong coffee from her battered tin mug, and offers you some.
“So,” she says in a tired voice. “Tell me again what happened to these people?”
Sitting on the Dock of the Bay
The first thing you’re aware of is the sound of gulls screaming abuse at each other, then the gentle hubbub of people going about their business (interspersed with the sound of them screaming abuse at each other). Then the strong salt tang of the sea attacks your nostrils, along with the almost overwhelming stench of tar and fish guts.
You’re sat on a low wall overlooking the docks, your feet dangling over a twenty-foot drop into the cool black waters of the Middle Sea. As you shift there’s a clink. Theres an empty bottle of rum in your pocket and another one next to you.
Sitting beside you is George Carmichael, Captain of the New Port fishing vessel the Bright Breeze. He looks gloomy.
“I divvent kna what I was doing in the sewers. I divvent kna why the gulls of Llyr haven’t come to take me to fish the endless waters. Has he turned his bck on me? Why would he do that? If only I could remember….”
What do you do?
Waiting in the Hospital
The air is heavy with the smell of herbs and that peculiar alchemical tang that orcs find particularly overwhelming. It’s shortly after sunrise, and you’re sat in the bed next to the patient. One of the healers glides past, a human man who’s clearly grown a beard to try and hide how young he is. He glances over, gives you a tight smile, and keeps walking. The medicine smell gusts around him and follows in his wake.
What are you reading?
As you can hopefully see, I made them shorter as I went on. I also made sure to end each bit of pre-written text with it’s focus on the players. Both of these are essentially tricks to make the players resent the boxed text less and hopefully to absorb some of the details.