This was to be the climactic episode of the second phase of my trilogy-structured campaign. My major goals for the session were these:
- To have the PCs finally encounter the Great Dragon of the Land, in a dramatic way. For two years now, there's been a strong dragon theme going on, but the PCs have never met a dragon. For this session, I bought a Norbert action figure of a dragon (from Harry Potter) with a 20" wingspan, so it would really tower over the 25" cardboard heroes we use for the party.
- I wanted to give Larissa her level of paladin with a big surprise.
- I wanted to have an overwhelming battle in which the PCs ended up fearing for their lives, because I've often been a big softy. (This would also let me see how much the PCs could really handle.)
- I wanted to make that a dream sequence, because, well, I still am a big softy.
So I planned a dream sequence with the PCs entering a cavern and seeing the dragon, and encountering a slowly-accumulating horde of individually low-powered monsters, so that the PCs would be slowly overwhelmed. Larissa would get a magic sword in the dream, which would transfer out of the dream.
I decided to just say that I was starting in media res, instead of trying to be oblique. I think this was the right decision; my players did play along cooperatively without being obstreperous about wanting to know why.
I had put down a 2-inch dragon Cardboard Hero ahead of time to make the players a bit nervous, and to increase the surprise of the big dragon.
When I brought out the dragon model, Kevin said, "Cool!" Which was definitely gratifying, but I had wanted the players to say "Oh, no!" See the curse of my perfectionism?
In general, several things happened to make the whole effect of the session less powerful than I had hoped:
- The players figured out pretty quickly that it was a dream sequence. In retrospect, that was pretty inevitable--I didn't manage to be very subtle with it, and my players have all read the same source material that I have. Perhaps I could have been more subtle about things.
- The PCs didn't have enough monsters to fight early on. Because I started slow, there was a turn early on where there were no immediate threats. Throughout the combat, they were not taking damage as quickly as I had hoped. At 11:00, I felt so tired that I ended the fight without actually getting the emotional drama of "killing" any of the PCs. I could have used higher-level monsters without losing the effect I wanted.
- Most importantly, most of the PCs didn't really have any clear goal in the fight. There was no reason for them to not run away--once they figured out that it was a dream sequence, there wasn't even any reason for them to try to stay alive. If I were to do that again, I should have some reason to try to stay alive as long as possible. Some possibilities:
- The educational: the PCs get significant information about the dragon and the world for every round that they survive. (Or perhaps some people fight in order to enable others to study)
- The mystical: for every monster they put down (or every round they survive, or something) the world gets a moment (a day or a week or so) of peace. The problem there would be communicating that to the players...
Kevin did a fabulous job of creating something for himself to do, by trying to bring the sword to the dragon's mouth, to satisfy the 'Gorge of Fire' prophecy. I hadn't been expecting that at all, but I definitely will reward him for that. (I give myself some credit for recognizing the coolness and rolling with it. I've gotten much better at that than I used to be.) On the other hand, since I don't want to give him a full-powered artifact quite yet, I will probably weasel and say that doing it in the dreamspace is not as potent as doing it in the real world (but not as risky, either).
- I didn't feel totally happy about the way I handled Larissa getting the sword. I had been trying to think of a way to ensure that she would get it instead of one of the other party members, so I used Hrolf's flight. I had been thinking to have Hrolf bring the sword out from some dark crevice and drop it into her hands--but she was flying close to Hrolf, so that didn't work so well. Oh well--it still worked out okay. And then once she found it, she didn't have a chance to discover its anti-undead power in play, because I cut short the combat as mentioned before.
So. I'm so glad that Monica and Lori have been so effusive in their praise (especially Monica). Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, I felt really drained and dissatisfied with the session; by now, I'm warming to things a bit. Even now, I still suspect that the game session really was better than I feel about it. This is kind of a curse--I wish I felt all the quality that I suspect is there.