It happens every once in a while. You're moving and grooving in a campaign, joking, laughing, having a blast - then the big bad shows up and things go sideways. They're tough, but you do your best, and the dice are all over the place. Characters are dropping left and right as they pull out all the stops to win, and the rival group's preparation throws the party off-guard. Then the tides begin to turn, and realization sets in - your players are going to lose.
HOW that happens, though, and what it means, is up to everyone at the table.
Sometimes D&D can be hard on you.
There's a beautiful immersive quality to tabletop gaming that invites fun and engaging storytelling, deep role-play (even if it's silly - my favorite), and impactful combat. But for all the moments of victory, laughter, and levity...sometimes things don't go the way you thought they would. Dice rolls don't play nice, your enemies came prepared, or stuff's going on in real life that colors what's happening. Does that mean it was a bad story? Not at all. A challenging encounter once in a while (and in this case, once in a LONG while, as most of the campaign is meant to be fun and light) makes the points of levity even stronger, and how characters rise from the ashes of a "defeat" can uncover new layers of immersion and growth.
The Fears Of A DM
In my Feywild campaign, there has been a consistent air of hilarious strangeness and dark undertones, with a side salad of irreverent quips and bonkers magic. At the table, we find our sweet spot in Social Interaction and Exploring this intriguing setting, while building up a network of knowledge on the many forces vying for control of this magical realm. Our best sessions are derived with zero combat and an army of NPCs to talk to and mess with.
It's in Combat and conflict that the veils struggle, and the dark side of the setting pulls into focus.
This is a High Magic setting full of Fey and wizards and chronomancy and Queen Mab. Campfires sing to you, trapping those entranced in an endless dance of death. The grass needs compliments or it will kill you. The dreaded Theater looms in the dark forests, luring unsuspecting travelers into its immortal troupe. And the evergreen kings and queens of this realm care little for the fleeting lives of a few amusing PCs.
This means that when clashes happen, there are often elements of chaos that are hard to predict. That said, that was one of the selling points of the campaign. A "wild" version of magic and mischief that can swing some things in and out of your favor, but never too far as to push your success to pure luck. A voyeuristic Archfey that finds the actions of a PC intriguing, and grants them a mote of possibility. A character's plant affinity granting them transport across the map. Pockets of void magic that provide inverse effects of certain spells.
But in Combat, the dice can add a variability that can sometimes be less hilarious, and more tragic.
When my party is frustrated, I am frustrated. When they are sad, I am sad. When they struggle, I struggle. I am not a DM that supports adversarial gaming; it is not a "DM vs Players" mindset over here. Do I challenge them? Of course! But when they're feeling it, I'm right there with them. I WANT them to beat my big bads; I want them to win the day, so when they don't, I feel like I lost too. And I don't want them to hurt, I want them to feel energized to return. They didn't sign up for a trauma center EVERY week.
Hmm. Let me get into this a bit more so you can understand where we're coming from.
The Lead Up
The Feywild Warriors have been trekking around the Ionian Feywild for 12 levels now. We do milestones, and they tend toward less combat and more interaction. They're lovable children, when you think about it, as most of the PCs are around 17-19, one doesn't even know his age, and then we've got an old fighter into his 50s that acts like their dad (found family, you get it). We've got a Dragonborn Fighter (Terhune), a Werewolf Druid (Buddy), a Tiefling Wild Magic Sorlock (Bry) and her elemental familiar (Soot), a Tiefling Bard/Fighter (Akita), and a Human Battle Master Fighter (Taman). Because they're so dang adorable and well-intentioned, they've accumulated quite the entourage of NPCs. Alannah - a Paladin/Tempest Cleric (wife of Taman); Essian - a half-elven War Mage, Alannah's ward; Vali - a human Rogue and now girlfriend to Akita (she went to the Feywild to find Akita, so that's love); Broty - a young Tanarukk (who has imprinted on the two tieflings and views them as little sisters)...poor guy has an intelligence of 5.
ALSO, along the way, they have happened upon another adventuring party led by a character they presumed killed in their first adventure. A bridge guard who survived The Massacre Of Sentry at the hands of a Black Knight and joined up with another party to help him seek righteous vengeance. His name is Jenkins Carpenter, or Jink for short, and he is avenging the death of his brother, Leroy Carpenter (yes, I am that guy). Jenkins is joined by Nessa, a High Elf Ranger/Rogue, Remy the Lizardfolk Barbarian, and Sloan the Dwarven something (seriously, I don't think he knows what class he is).
This literal army of deadly kittens have built powerful bonds between each other as they navigate the dangerous wilds of the Fey realm, each strengthening and redefining the odd family dynamic of those that face threat together. All the while, dark forces move into position. The Winter Court has occupied the City Of Astrazalian - a neutral ground between the Fey Courts - and is using it as a military position (that's not okay); an orcish army led by a tiefling warlord marches on the West; a gnoll army marches Northwest (and threatens to clash); the stars (spirits of guidance in the Fey Realm) are falling from the sky and being collected by the Whispering Rock guild and their seemingly corrupted leader, Montblanc (doesn't help that Terhune, Taman, Alannah, and Essian were all once members of this guild, whoopsie)... And all of this seems orchestrated by a small group of individuals that call themselves The Four Gears.
The party has had fleeting encounters with each of them.
Hush, the Black Knight/Silencekeeper - the first real threat the party saw in their inciting incident on a bridge. Simple stuff; they all met, hung out, antics ensued, they went to bed. Woke up and the bridge town was burning down, and this jerk was coming through killing folks. They tried to distract them, but the bridge collapsed, and now the Black Knight haunts their nightmares as they catch drifting news of their exploits.
Albrecht, the Kingslayer - a cleric of multiple gods (it seems), the party has mostly witnessed the aftermath of Albrecht's handiwork. The guy has a huge distaste for small fey, burning spryte villages and darkling conclaves to the ground. In a way, he's been knocking out lesser leaders to pin focus on larger forces. He is surgical and pragmatic, but his true intentions are unclear.
Eon, the Kingmaker - a silver-tongued lavender tiefling wizard of deep knowledge and cunning, Eon has aided the party in navigating the gnoll army early in the campaign, but he has only become more creepy as time goes on. He took a liking to his fellow tieflings, but holds no love for other races. Seeing the growing power in Bry and a possible kinship, he has been invasive in contacting her, much to the worry of his fellows, even going so far as to bind himself to a promise not to kill her companions. A promise that may spell his undoing, but it is entirely possible that he is playing a different kind of game.
Arameis Salfurion, the Whisper - an aasimar of unknown origin, this entity is known only through word of mouth and fleeting visions before death. Most recent word has it that he serves as a consultant to Montblanc and his guild, and may be behind the collection of Fallen Stars. He has been seen as an after-image of a Contingency spell woven into the symbol of the Whispering Rock Guild - set to turn people to dust if they broach certain topics of discussion. Luckily, Alannah and Essian's abjurative abilities tipped them off before it was too late, and Taman and Terhune had already forcibly resigned.
In the Ionian Feywild, there are forces that serve as great equalizers. None are more powerful or resolute than the Erlking and his Wild Hunt. He is appointed by the Stars, so his legend is known among the denizens of the Fey far and wide. He holds no Court of his own, though many claim to be of it. In truth, he calls the honored dead to his banners - ancient Eladrin warriors culled by his Hunt in days long past and sworn into servitude to wash the realm of dangerous chaos. He and his Hunt are the last bastion of defense and the grand hammer that allows the Fey Courts to sit on their thrones and raise their goblets in indifference. In other words, if crap gets real, the Erlking will take care of it.
Thing is, the stars are falling and war is brewing, and no horns of the Hunt are blaring. The Fey Lords and Ladies are only mildly concerned, as is their way, but the lesser fey - like the extricated Autumn Court, or the Darkling clans - know that something is wrong, and that they'll be hit by the brunt of it long before Summer feels a tickle.
Though they be young, the party has heroes in it, and those that lack heroics still garner a sense of justice. There is wrong happening around them, and though they often move on to their next adventure, the wave is catching up to them - threatening to drown. They conclude that they have two real choices: 1) Get someone to plane shift them to the Material Plane (where most of them are from), cozy up at Taman's house with his wife, get adopted, and wait till this all blows over; or 2) locate the Erlking and his crown, so evil can be stopped.
Prepared for both outcomes, I did not nudge a thing, but the group voted - option 2 was the way.
So they ventured to the savage dark forests of The Fading City, seeking an audience with its undead Fey Ranger King...Lord Calenon Thrayn. Turns out, two armies also threaten to converge upon the city, so the party must sneak past in order to get inside first. Which, they just barely do so, as orcs begin to pour into the city hot on their heels. Luckily, the city has a defense mechanism: the Fog Of Purity. Creatures that pass into this Fog undergo strange, random trials that measure a piece of their soul - some are straight forward, some are outright weird, and in clear Feywild fashion, it's pretty random. Long story short, a few of the smarter captains emerge from the Fog deep into the dark forest that permeates the city...knee deep in dinosaurs and gigantic beasts. Our heroes, however, emerge before a guide - a little Fey kitty - that leads them to Thrayn.
Much discussion later, we discover that the Erlking's Crown is hidden in the Material Plane. As part of Shinealestra's lore, the city will phase to the Material Plane every night at midnight, its forest of nightmare creatures becoming a prized hunting ground for only the bravest of hunters. It returns to the Fey Realm at first light, at dawn. The castle flips, our resident human Taman and his wife rejoice at seeing a normal sky and normal grass, and the army of squirrels is led by a pack of sentient mushrooms with messenger bags to their next destination.
After a clutch phantasmal force on a nasty T-Rex, the original party plus a Jenkins makes it through just before the cave mouth closes, leaving their allies to fight the dino. Trusting each other, they have a chat with an Elder Being, get a very needed Long Rest in a time bubble, and push their way into a teleportation chamber. The werewolf, rocking his child-like intelligence, bounds through the portal before the others can stop him. He is seemingly atomized (think Dr. Manhattan, you weirdos), and while the players at the table contemplate if I just killed a character, Bry notes that the transportation runes have been tampered with. Conclusion - they still work, they just don't go to the right place. Four fragmented sendings and a lot of swearing later, Buddy returns, Bry fixes the portal, and our Taman has the brilliant idea to scan the area with a See Invisibility item. Good thing, too, as Eon's voice creeps into our Sorcerer's head, and they watch him drop into the fixed portal, before they all jump in after him.
They feather fall down into ruins; gravestones and sarcophagi overgrown with moss and fallen trees. Bry's nature affinity clears the path to a throne, a skeletal guardian, and a crown...before urging everyone to look up. Eon, silhouetted by a dark sky, floats above them. "Thank you for showing us the way..." He summons Minute Meteors...and detonates the Delayed Blast Fireball under their feet.
Why This Was Tricky
I crafted this particular encounter without a clear idea of how it was going to end. Not that I've ever shunted PCs into certain positions to reach a specific outcome, but sometimes you can foresee the three basic endings in a battle. Get to know a party well enough, and you get a pretty good idea how most things are going to play out. But this time, there were certain variables that made things tricky.
1) THE DICE WERE BEING JERKS - I award inspiration, give advantage where I can, and overall support my players given the wacky setting we all agreed to...it just wasn't helping! Saving throws getting botched, attack rolls whiffing, amazing ideas with simple checks falling flat. On both sides! And, you know, maybe that's a good story, too. This is a group that buys into that variability; I like to think we're charging up for those legendary three Nat 20's in a row moment. (it's happened, let's let it happen again).
2) THESE ENEMIES HAD TIME - They have been plotting, preparing, and hiding. I can't spoil a lot here, but their abilities are based on rules, magic items, and preparation. They are a counter-party, and this is their moment. They had a plan. Eon shows first and distracts while Hush goes for the crown, and the third waits in the wings for the most opportune moment. They are smart - flawed, but we'll get to that - and deadly.
3) THEY'RE PUTTING IT ALL ON THE TABLE - This being such a clutch moment for The Four Gears party, they're going to burn a bunch of resources to achieve their goal, making them LOOK very powerful for a limited time. IF our heroes can hold out against that onslaught, that's another chance in the PCs' favor.
4) MANY WAYS TO "WIN" - with an Ancient Artifact in play, there are a plethora of ways this could go down. We just finished a segment where at least two of our PCs saw visions of themselves wearing the crown, so we know it's possible. Holding the crown has one effect (it can't be stowed in a container, btw), while WEARING it has another. On top of this, despite Eon's destructive forces, his connection with the party can be exploited; whether that flips him to the other side or pisses off his companions enough to cut him loose, that's another win in the PCs's direction - he DID make a blood pact not to kill them. Throw in our Amplified Wild Magic (Feywild custom), a reluctant warlock pact, burgeoning tiefling rage powers, our Taman's random ability to nullify certain magical effects (I have to roll for it - dice were jerks, see above), and a custom druidic circle all about ripping and tearing, and there's a surfeit of possibility here.
How It Played Out
This was tough challenge against prepared, patient enemies. And for a PC party that has done pretty well flying by the seat of their pants into most encounters, I foresaw that this could be a tougher go this time around.
After eating the explosion, the party scatters while Eon attempts to place Bry into stasis - keen to remove her safely from the fight. Taman, in a cool reaction that I will allow, pushes Bry out of the way, and becomes inert for a round instead! Meanwhile, the perception-level-stupid-high Buddy notices that someone invisible might be making their way to the crown.
Akita decides on her own to polymorph into a super fast, super squishy bird and bum rush the crown. An invisible Hush cuts her out of the form as she flies by, but Akita maintains her momentum to land on the throne, hands already on the crown. With Jenkins and Buddy sprinting to help (the natural 2 on Jenkins's acrobatics did not help), Akita weighs her life choices as the skeleton wriggles to life and begins to wrestle with the tiefling to keep the crown.
Hush, now visible, puts on full display the completely legal and totally unfair mechanics of the Echo Knight and proceeds to tank a clutch polymorph (on an Echo), phase from one Echo to another, and one-shot our resident NPC Jenkins (who's just trying to avenge his brother, my guy, come on now!) with a Nat 20 great sword + sneak attack. With Jenkins making death saves in front of Buddy, Hush cleans her blade and silently squares off against our druid.
On the other side of the battlefield, Bry begins to show just how much she's grown as a mage as she not only deflects blows from Eon, but shatters his wards. The surges of Amplified Wild Magic elevate stones around her, and continue to build up inside her, threatening a cataclysmic burst. Terhune hides, and does his best to stay hidden while taking sniper shots at Eon. Both, due to obstructions, are unaware of Buddy and Jenkins's battle, nor are they fully aware of Akita's predicament.
Akita wrestles the crown, and the skeleton guarding it, off the throne. She does so with such primal force that the throne, its pedestal, and the plinth of stone it rests on, slide free in a shower of stone and dust. In the debris, a focused Akita pulls the crown free, its desiccated husk filling with new florid life and personality akin to her own. And crawling from the opened tomb under the throne, are the honored skeleton guard of the Erlking, watching their potential queen eagerly.
Whether by fear or force, Bry pushes Eon further into the ruin, and he doubles over in pain in the air; the arcane agreement he made threatens to be broken, so he sends healing words to Jenkins as Buddy rushes to help Akita (and more skeletons rise around her). Hush shifts her Echo closer to a hidden Terhune, and finally Taman has someone to fight.
Without structuring the rest of this in a play-by-play, a few things happen in quick succession that turn this whole thing sideways:
1) Bry's Wild Magic begins to manifest in telekinetic ways, flinging terrain across the map (one of which knocking Hush prone, to Taman's delight).
2) Hush shows her hand by raging, and a real threat comes into play, one that hits exponentially harder and is way more difficult to wound. ...But at least she's finally HAPPY to have an opponent worth fighting.
3) Eon's arcane agreement begins to debilitate and damage him the more hurt the PCs become; his allies do not share his values. The lavender tiefling becomes so overwhelmed by Bry and maintaining his arcane deal that he fails his saving throw to not become Entangled in a terrain hazard, and a few more failed saves later, becomes a sitting duck for the enraged Sorceress. ...So Bry intentionally devotes her resources and ire to immolate Eon, but not before he relinquishes his Staff Of Balance (Chronomancy) to her, somehow happy that she is the one to kill him.
4) At the precipice, the Skeleton Guard ache for a choice, and Akita hesitates. Instead, Buddy makes the decision FOR HER, forcing the crown onto her head. Her wounds disappear, the Skeletons bow, and her sight opens to the hundreds of spirit warriors now at her command. This transformation takes time (3 rounds), and she can interact with her growing powers each turn, but again, it takes time.
Quick Aside - My Little Rant On Fighters
Fighters should absolutely NOT be equipment-dependent. It is freaking ludicrous.
Also, WHY can't a Battle Master use Commander's Strike on a spell caster and that spell caster burn their Reaction to cast a cantrip? "Because a spell isn't a weapon." Yeah, yeah. Well, in the Feywild (purely as a product of the PCs being exposed to such a high magic surge area, and not because that was one of the most sad I've seen my Fighters), you can! So there.
It's not like Hush's abilities are broken, but she's rocking three classes (Fighter - Echo Knight, Rogue - Swashbuckler, Barbarian - Zealot) to gain the features to make her feel effective in combat. She isn't loaded up with crazy gear (good gear, nasty gear, but not ludicrous), and remember, they were prepared; so its feasible to get there, HOWEVER, you should not be required to multi-class in order to make your primary class effective.
Our PC party (at the moment) has TWO fighters; a Battle Master and a legit archer build, but with all this magic getting flung around, it can be easy to feel behind the pack, and vanilla fighter deserves better. Yet, in every campaign I have run, the fighter gains (through organic storytelling, questing, growth, and other such good stuff, mind you) a home-brew boon of some effect, to help off-set the distinct power creep from the other classes.
How It Ended
As Akita rises up and the crown begins to take hold...Albrecht, the leader of the Gears, appears from behind a veil of invisibility. Flying next to Akita, he grapples her (one hand on her throat, the other to her sternum) and channels divinity, attempting to interrupt her life force and fell her in one strike. She saves, allowing Buddy time to leap onto both of them, biting onto Albrecht's arm. Akita, in her second round, summons the skeletons and shades to help, and they begin to drift toward them.
Hush, seeing an opportunity, fells Terhune a second time. Then, with a sickening stab and a twist, ends his life then and there in front of Taman. As Bry puts the finishing touches on her murder-immolation across the map, Albrecht quickens a Banishment - "No hard feelings, pup" - and boops poor Buddy on the nose, hurling him into the Astral Sea. With Akita still in his grasp and at death's door, Albrecht uses a Deathly Grasp on her throat, wrenching her into unconsciousness. As her body goes limp on the ruined pedestal, he snatches the crown, calling out to Hush that it's time to leave.
Hush is hesitant, now that she has a worthy opponent all to herself, but she abides. Taman and a renewed Jenkins get some good hits in (Sentinel, bitch!), but she's able to scrape close enough over the next turn. Albrecht regards the dying Akita, and reaches out, stabilizing the girl (Spare The Dying - Grave Cleric). He then cracks the tiny Gem Of Recall, and pulls himself and Hush far and away from this plane. The Skeletons and Shades of the Hunt...are pulled with them.
And the party is left alone in silent, mossy ruins. Jenkins slumps to his knees as Taman sprints to Akita and pulls her back to consciousness. She sits up in silence, and Taman rushes back to Terhune's still body, Jenkins with him. Taman pulls a strange fruit from his pack; something he nicked many sessions ago - a Fruit Of Restoration (what kind? No one knows!) - he opens up Terhune's mouth and forces it down his throat. They watch as vines and earth begin to cover, then swallow the silver dragonborn's body, a Reincarnation-like spell taking effect.
A minute passes, and Buddy does not return to them. But somewhere in the Astral Sea, he is meeting a Githyanki pirate and Werewolf Vampire Hunter, picked up by an Astral Spelljammer vessel hell-bent on outrunning a Dreadnought. I'm sure he'll be fine.
Proof Of Concept and The Lowest Point
The Feywild is a land that, on the surface, might appear more silly than serious. However, the consistent theming of this campaign yields specific truths of the setting.
1) Fey and their realm are mischievous, dark, and often twisted entities who care very little for the mortal coil. Just because it looks nice, doesn't mean it's safe. Even the "jokes" of the Fey can be deadly.
2) Magic, though not at its most raw, perpetuates all living things here. So, weird stuff abounds, and it's pretty common.
3) There are rules, and they are numerous, for navigating the Fey realms safely; but many do not know them, and they often change dependent on a plethora of factors.
4) Fey and their ilk are often unreliable narrators, choosing interpretation over hard facts; this laces their words and veils their intentions - a true Theater Of Life.
5) Study of this realm yields immense power, but it requires extensive time, focus, and energy. Even a little bit of digging reveals the dark tone beneath the whimsy (consistent from the beginning of the campaign). ...we just really saw this one, this time. :(
It was stated before that this group has done quite well just stumbling through. Sometimes the PCs plan a little here and there, but mostly they do exceptional when they fly by the skin of their teeth. These PLAYERS are top-notch; they bring vibrant expression, creativity, knowledge, and joy to the table, which only deepens our collective world, and they PAY ATTENTION, no worries. And all have expressed that they brought creatures to the table who are "inexperienced" in at least one important skill each. Good! This found family has done amazing things in the face of overwhelming odds - by luck, creativity, allies, and pure unadulterated pun power!
This is the first time that they were unsuccessful, in the traditional sense. The bad guys "got away." One of the party is missing, another is dead (but not for long!), and the others are grappling with their decisions - some made BY them, others made FOR them. From the DM's side, I offer opportunities for choices, but the distinct choices are specified and executed by these veteran players. They are organic, in the moment, sometimes snap character decisions. Which means, another reason why I love this party, we now have a huge opportunity...
We get to DEAL WITH THOSE DECISIONS.
Cultivating Aftermath and The Arc Of A Character
Every character in this party was struck down in this session. Whether it be the very real severing of physical mortality, or the denser psychological dread of vengeance, or the helplessness of being a human in a world of fairies. For many, this could be described as their lowest point.
It can be a rough place to be in as a character, let alone a PLAYER. Several members have talked openly about the "mistakes" they made during the fight; things they could have done differently if the dice had cooperated; musings on certain game mechanics and gear load out... And yet, each came out with a plan to process this experience. Maybe we take some extra time before our next session, but we WILL have another session, and many more after that. This story WILL continue. Where it goes, is up to us.
In all great stories, especially ones that we share, this moment occurs. Some hit it harder than others, but they share the same term. We have entered The Abyss in our heroic journey. It is the space diametrically opposed by our Call To Adventure (our first few sessions). Often this is a Death and Rebirth - for some, perhaps more literally than others - and what comes next is a Transformation; rising action, rebuilding momentum, standing back up with lessons learned.
Initially I was concerned with the low energy post-session. With so many mirthful games under our belts, it felt WRONG to end the session like that. I became obsessed with the idea that I had led them astray; wounded them somehow. And what we all needed was a little extra time to process the events, and hatch a plan moving forward. What we've done, at last, is setup an arc for just about everyone. Our innocent, fun-loving Sorceress just straight-up murdered a dude (he was probably bad news, but still); our werewolf is Lost In Space, dealing with the guilt of putting the crown on Akita; Akita is grappling with being robbed of her choice, and yet craving the crown for the good it could do; Terhune, literally dead, drifts through his Ethereal past as his body and soul are reconstructed anew; Jenkins sits in silence, feeling weak and a waste of space, completely unable to enact his vengeance; and Taman, the old fighter and tactician, the hero of this story and the glue of this group, couldn't protect his adopted family even if he tried.
That is an Abyss.
And, as anyone who has struggled their own depression knows, the first step out of the dark is the hardest. But with every step, you will be stronger for it. You will stumble, you will learn, you will heal, and you will keep moving forward.
This time: Death (close Phase I)
Next time: the steps toward Rebirth. (open Phase II)
See you at the table.
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