Hello, gentle readers! Well, my “Sandbox with Benefits” 4E campaign has been going rather well. Recently, my players have gotten themselves involved in a war between the kingdom they favor, Summerlund, and the Orcish Hordes of the Steppes. After a number of adventures and missions that comprised level 6 (scouting missions, take out the siege engines, etc.), the players went to the aid of the affectionately nicknamed Brokenwall Keep.
This strategically important castle is under the command of Daria Havensgard, the sister of Kidalis Havengard, one of the player characters. The Summerlund command doesn’t want to lose it, so, when they lost communication with the castle (thanks to orcish ritualists blocking Sending spells and the death of Daria’s mage), they sent one of their elite strike forces (the PCs) to go see what’s going on. The PCs found Daria’s position surrounded by, as we like to say, every orc in the world. They then proceeded to infiltrate the castle through the sewer system (discovering why the orcs hadn’t when they had to fight otyughs and carrion crawlers) and aid the besieged Summerlund soldiers in holding off the waves of orcs.
This has been a fairly grueling sequence, which will encompass all of level 7 to 8 by the time we finish. The PCs are looking forward to a change of scenery, but they all agree they’ve been enjoying the change of pace. Instead of trying to barge into a dungeon and kill monsters, the monsters are trying to barge into their “dungeon” and kill them. As you might guess, I’ve had some hits and misses during this sequence, and I thought I’d share with you what I think has made it successful and what could be improved.
Abstract the Battles
I didn’t want to be moving hundreds of orcs and humans around on a battlemap when all that REALLY matters to me is how the PCs are doing in the fight. To make fights move along swiftly, I explained to my PCs that there’s a lot more action going on all around them, with orcs and humans fighting (and dying) and that how the encounter they fight goes will determine how the soldiers of the keep fare against the orcs. So far, the PCs have all survived the fighting, but each time one falls to 0 or below, soldiers in the keep die. There are only so many soldiers in the keep, so they’re keenly aware of their need to stay up in battle.
Skill Challenges Can Represent a Lot
I basically abstracted some skill challenges, too. There were various things I thought they might do, such as “Shore Up the Defenses”, “Interrogate the Prisoner”, “Scout the Orc Camps”, “Rally the Troops”, and so on. I jotted down basic notes for the concept of each one and came up with some basic house rules for the benefits of succeeding or failing in each one. Every time they succeed in a skill challenge they earn a “Battle Token”. These represent something they’ve done (such as setting alarms around the walls, intimidating the orcs by putting orcish heads on pikes, or making a rousing “St Swithin’s Day” speech) that provides an edge in battle. I let them use these Battle Tokens for things like taking an extra Second Wind, an extra Action Point, or to recover a used Encounter Power. Failed skill challenges are representing by adding extra monsters to the encounters. This wears the PCs down and forces them to spend resources.
Terrain May Not Vary; Make Sure the Encounters Do
If I were throwing just orcs against the PCs, encounter after encounter, or worse, just standard orcs, they’d probably get bored really quickly. So my encounters have varied considerably. They’ve had fights with orcs and ogres, fights with orcs and dire wolves, and, coming up, a fight with an orc who’s mounted on the back of a rhino (which our minotaur cleric covets as a mount and will of course get the chance to capture).
With orcs, there’s such a variety of templates in the various D&D supplements that I’ve had no problem making sure to use each one no more than twice in all the combats over 2 levels. They players know things about orcs now – they never surrender, they fight without concern for their own lives, and when they die, they tend to get a final blow. But they’ve encountered all sorts of orcs, with everything from pyromaniacal tendencies to priests of their god-king who give attacks to other orcs. They know some orcs flail about like lunatics, shifting through a battle and making multiple attacks per round, and they know that some orcs wield greatclubs and will slam them to the ground. I doubt my players will ever say “oh, it’s just a bunch of orcs again”. And they have yet to meet Gruzhgarn, the grand orcish commander, who will be one of the single toughest foes they’ve met in battle.
Also Vary Tactics – Variety Is the Spice of Life During Siegetime
You might think that fighting a gazillion orcs on the same battlefield over and over could get dull. Well, yes, it could…so that’s why you vary things up. The first major skirmish in the keep happened in the courtyard as ogres burst through the poorly maintained gate. After that, the players got wily and dug pit traps to help defend the gate. Next, the orcs attacked at night, using a frontal assault as a diversion to mask the sneaky orc darkblades who were climbing over the walls to try and rescue a valuable prisoner. Now, the PCs know this is likely to be the last day of the assault, as Gruzhgarn himself is in the field. They’re fighting a straightforward wave battle, and they hope to get a chance to take on Gruzhgarn himself!
If they had taken the fight to the orcish camp, I would’ve made the encounters extremely dangerous, but I would’ve obliged them. I’m glad they didn’t do this, because it would be hard to adequately explain how they survived attacks from a gazillion orcs. They acknowledged that stealth wasn’t an option for many of them, and they didn’t want to split the party, so they are holding the walls, hoping for reinforcements which they believe to be several days away.
Give Plenty of Time for Roleplay
In my campaign world, Adventurers are born, not made. Things like Action Points, Healing Surges, and the ability to activate Daily Powers on Magic Items are represented by the concept of Pneuma, the Breath of Heroes. People either have an excess of Pneuma, or they don’t. Those that do are generally destined for greatness, either heroically (in the case of the PCs) or infamously (in the case of solo monsters.)
Despite this, most of the player characters in my story probably would never have imagined themselves heroes in a war. They’re a humble priest from a country church, the oldest son in a fisherman’s family, the son of an Innkeeper’s daughter, and so on. They’ve been doing a fine job pondering on their possible (or the impossibility of) their own mortality. In the dark before the dawn on the last day, we had a little moment for the PCs to reflect on what could be their final day. The country priest hoped that his friend of the monastery was happy in life. The fisherman’s son swore it couldn’t be the last day, because his family was still in danger. And our party’s shift ranger shocked us all by coming up with a war song and actually singing it at the table to rally the troops. It’s been a fascinating look at the personalities of both my players and their characters.
Make Them Care
You want your players to stay at the besieged keep and really care about the soldiers who’re stationed there. You don’t want them to shrug and say, “Whatever.” You want them to want victory, not just for the experience points and because they hate losing, but because people are counting on them, and they care about those people.
I think this is one place I’ve really fallen down during this sequence. In my effort to abstract things for simplicity, I think I’ve given up the chance to flesh out some NPCs in the Keep. The group knows Daria Havensgard, of course, but the rest of the troops have been pretty much a faceless mob. I intend to try and rectify this during the next session with something as simple as the youngest soldier bringing water to everyone and smiling at them with a hero-worshipping expression. A moment to roleplay with someone like that, a soldier with a name, (I’m thinking Renny – “It’s short for Renthios, Sir”) will put a face on all the soldiers and make the PCs give that much more of a damn about what happens.
Have you ever run a sequence like this? What tricks did you find useful or compelling? Let us all know.