This is the tale of a man who stepped into another world, and found it pretty much the same as his own.
Last night I guest-GM'd for some friends from work. They play 3.5 with rotating GMs in their current campaign, and asked if I'd be interested in coming by for a one-night-only kind of deal, anything goes. How could I refuse? It's the next day, and I'm exhausted from staying up extra-late then getting up extra-early to do in-law yardwork (the best kind of yardwork!), but here's a go at a summary.
Some background on this... The group in question leans CharOp, numbers-focused. Of late the campaign had been very "that one's dead, next encounter please" in pattern. There was an overarching motivator underlying things - something about the potential return of an evil god. There was a recent plot-thread under the current GM that involved some dragons, some elemental stuff. And, most importantly from my POV, some of the players were talking about how they wanted "more roleplay" and a little less combat-train action. You can imagine how my ears perked up. I agreed to come in and deliver something that was a little different, maybe a mystery or investigation, maybe some kind of heist or something, with heavy roleplay. I warned them that I do funny voices - and this is a group in which not all the players are comfortable speaking in-character, and some folks are accustomed to spending more time tweaking their sheet than thinking about what their character might do in a situation. In addition, the milieu as they were playing it involved what I came to call "magical Costco", whereby they had easy access to any magic item from any book and could just buy the damn thing between sessions if they had enough gold (which they usually did). Oh, and PC-on-PC violence was not uncommon. Mixed alignments, petty feuds ending in spectacular arcane murder, that sort of thing.
Now, let me be clear - there's nothing wrong with the way they've been playing: high power, high magic, combat focused, numbers focused, all of that. Zero things wrong with it... IF they were all happy. Which they were not. So my agreement to come run for them was not intended as some sort of badwrongfun pooh-poohing, or "teachin' them kids how ta play right dagnabbit" or anything like that. I had already experienced plenty of old-man heartburn at work every time they referred to their "toon" and what sort of "mobs" they'd dealt with the previous week (I've no doubt some of 'em started doing it intentionally to make me cry).
Here's how it went down, and my observations during and afterward.
I gave a little impromptu speech about my playstyle, how I wasn't concerned about the minutiae of the 3.5 ruleset, and what I was setting out to do with the session. I wanted to be clear about things - I didn't want folks pawing through books all night, arguing about rules, any of that crap. JUST PLAY YOUR DUDE.
The party members were all 15th/16th level, with an ass-ton of gold and carrying enough assorted magical items to level a city. Not kidding. Everyone in the party had a bag of holding or a handy haversack to hold their crap; almost all of them have the inborn or acquired-from-a-worn-item ability to go invisible (including Greater or even Superior), to blink, to teleport, or several of these combined. About half the party was of evil alignment. (This is me crying) Last night's PCs consisted of:
Kael, human sorceror/arachnomancer
Hairtrigger McMurderpants, human rogue
Shade, halfling monk/assassin/shadowdancer?
Wocka Flocka Seagulls, bard/dirgesinger
Munthrek, pyroclastic dragon disciple
Dash Shieldwell, something inexplicable for the Tome of Nine Swords (warblade?), carefully built to do all sorts of Captain America-like shield-throwing.
Three players were absent from the session due to other stuff going on, so the party didn't have its primary spellcaster (a wizard/incantatrix or something specialized in orbs, a pixie sorceress, and a half-minotaur frenzied berserker killeverything.)
BACK UP A STEP: THE PREP
I prepared a hook to get the group somewhere cool - The City Behind The Moon, basically a fairyland resort/market-town in space, and a mini-setting I'd been messing with mentally for some time. (Yes, it's part of Wampus Country, but I didn't want them tromping around the main area, after all...)
I lightly prepped for a heist-type mission, along with five NPCs: a go-between, a patron, and three suspects in the investigation. All in all about a page of notes and a couple of sketches so I could properly explain the folding nature of the city when the time came. I readied Secret Santicore to use the castle and shrine maps therein, as well as the deadly plants; I also reviewed the turtle-themed map Ian had given me so I could use it to improv one of the suspect's hideouts.
The only other thing I did was finish up a d100 table of "fairyland weirdness" that I could use on-the-fly to generate appropriately odd/silly NPCs for the location and stuff they'd see on the street. The table has three columns, and generates results like "a camel", "in a tuxedo", "riding a pennyfarthing bicycle". You get the idea.
I was expecting a six-hour session, but a late start (lots of book-flipping and loot-buying and crap...apparently this is normal for them) and some odd pacing got the best of me/us as things went on, I think.
HERE WE GO
Tired of having no actual HQ ("At sixteenth level? For serious?" I said), Kael starts the session by blowing a wad of his superfluous gold and buying the tavern/inn combo they'd been staying at. Awesome - that's going to continue to be real fun for them. We start the action two days post-buyout, with the PCs straightening and rearranging this dumpy tavern. Munthrek is in the store-room, shifting boxes, and comes across something rather strange - an oblong, relatively flat object, covered in colorful gift-wrap, suspended in the air. There's an envelope tacked to it which bears his name and those of his (in town) companions, written in Draconic (or so it appears to the dragon disciple, anyway). Within is an invitation to lunch with the Curatrix Scintilla Umber, and the implication that they share an enemy (which the party rightly presumed to be the overarching evil-god-plot guy).
The party tears the wrapping paper from the object, revealing an emerald mirror in a bronze frame. The rogue checks it for traps while everybody agrees its some kind of portal; then, while looking for an activation stud or command word, the mirror suddenly falls to the ground and shatters in a bajillion pieces, tossing little green shards all over the floor. The metal frame also clatters down. (In typical PC fashion, the rogue says "I didn't do it" without missing a beat.) The emerald fragments start to melt and scoot around, merging and growing along the floorboards and up the walls, and the frame stretches and starts to turn into a gondola. You can perhaps imagine the chatter during this bit; it was appropriately paranoid. As the gondola finishes resolving itself, the bottom clack-click-clacks down into a stairwell, and the party hears the footfalls of somebody coming up. It's this guy:
Festivo, the jolly Falstaffian boatman, greets the party and explains that they really ought to get into the boat before the rest of reality fades away - at this point the "greenness" has almost completely enveloped the room. They do so, and next thing you know they're drinking beers with this dude as he poles them through a vast, horizonless Green that eventually darkens to black then becomes an obvious starfield. The party is now on their way to the City Behind The Moon, the crossroads of nine hundred worlds. Wocka the bard (who has a tendency to ask for a bardic knowledge check every thirty goddamn seconds, I'm not even kidding) recalls hearing that phrase - the City Behind The Moon - as a euphemism for "far-off fairyland" in children's stories from his youth. Surely it can't be a real place? Festivo assures them that it is quite real, albeit founded on the stuff of dreams.
In the distance the Moon is finally seen - an immense platinum plate hanging in the sky, bearing a smiling face. A tongue lolls out of the mouth - an infinite bridge heading down into the dark vastness of space; who can say what's at the other end? (The PCs don't ask.) Festivo pushes the boat around the Moon and into the docks.
The City Behind the Moon is difficult for me to describe without a sketch. Imagine huge square plates hanging in space, connected by edges; some are horizontal in orientation, some vertical. They all move as though hinged - like a deconstructed cube (but with more 'faces'). Each square contains various buildings with matching-colored shingles, so if someone says they live in Viridian Square, you know which zone they're in; there are buildings on both sides of each square, as gravity is localized. I was able to draw it well enough that they got the idea, especially once the squares started slowly moving.
The party disembarks and is ushered through customs, where they learn all about the rules of the city. They are greatly pained to have to put their bags of holding and such in lockers, as they cannot bring them inside. Serious PC heartburn (although the players grokked it), which is totally fair. They get a glimpse of the gendarmerie - hulking exosuited guys who will arrive rapidly after any law is broken, etc. Railroady? Yeah, maybe, but I had to set some guidelines. As tourists from a meat-realm, they were issued twelve-hour visas.
Several on-the-street encounters occur as they walk toward their rendezvous, strictly flavor stuff. The table ends up giving me a mix of silly and disconcerting which I hope got the 'wonder' bit across. Anyway, it didn't take long for the party to arrive at the Gallery Infinite, ostensibly one of the greatest collection of paintings in the multiverse. The butler (a two-dimensional shadow dude) shows them in and they sit and have lunch with the Curatrix, Scintilla Umber - a practically-porcelain lady of obvious faerie extraction.
The Curatrix lays the poop on them - the evil god dude has agents in the City, so she suspects, and she thinks they may have been involved in stealing a painting from her. The painting in question - unseen by the Curatrix - was being brought in via ship by her procuring agent when the poor agent was gutted and the painting stolen. The painting itself contains great magical potential and power - which is why she acquired it in the first place! Who knows what EvilGod(tm) could do with such an item! As the crime occurred outside of city limits in the vastness of the void, the gendarmerie are of no use. This, she explains, is why the Curatrix needs men such as the PCs - heartless murder-machines who also hate the same evil-god and who will be out of town in less than a day regardless - as a catspaw. In exchange for their aid, the Curatrix will give them new information about the evil god's return blahblah (actual content to be determined by whoever DMs next).
After some chitchat, the party agrees. The Curatrix gives 'em the lowdown on the three people she suspects might be the culprit.
I was explicit in telling the players they could literally do whatever. Break in to steal the painting back. Try to con or browbeat a suspect. Gather information. Kick in the door. Or say 'screw it'. I would roll with whatever they did. The players discussed for a bit which suspect to tackle first?
Baron Czlzgaht, a hedonistic drow swordsman (using Shinto Shrine map from SS; Czlzgaht's servitors are spider-faced gorillas dressed like footmen)
Jasper & Gnitwick, a two-headed dragonblooded turtle dude who runs an extraplanar import/export concern (using Terrible Towers of the Treacherous Terrapins map from Ian; Jasper & Gnitwick employ a cadre of turtle guys)
Mazzle Kappulsham, a green-skinned faerie lady and professional rival of the Curatrix; Mazzle is equally famous for her art collection, beautiful garden, and series of lovers (using Castle Santicore map from SS paired with whatever deadly plants seemed useful at the time, also from SS)
As they're discussing what to do, I make it clear out-of-character that the culprit is not pre-written, and I was randomizing who the culprit was right that second by rolling a die. Turned out the villain was Mazzle, the faerie; and that's exactly who the PCs wanted to investigate first! Maybe I wasn't going to run short on time after all...
The idea was to pretend to be art collectors to gain entry to the castle; while some of the party talked with Mazzle, a second invisible contingent would have run of the place and could search for the painting (which they knew was probably still inside a magically-sealed protective transport tube). As a codicil to the plan, Dash (the warblade) was going to attempt to "interest" Mazzle using his massive throbbing Charisma. Do they sound like your players yet?
Well, since they took the con approach, I didn't end up needing to attack them with evil plants - at least not on the way in. Mazzle led them through the outer courtyards herself ("Please don't step off the path"), so the giant venus flytraps and vines-with-eyeballs and all of that didn't get a shot at attacking a PC. There's an extended scene where we're jumping back and forth between talking about magical art with the suspect and team two tossing the upstairs. In the end, Mazzle was far more interested in the half-dragon Munthrek than she was the earnest Dash (again, randomized), and those two sneak off for a tryst off-camera. Meanwhile, the rest of the party runs through a Scooby-Doo montage of the PCs trying to search an entire old, crumbling castle as quickly as possible without breaking anything or arousing suspicion (this ended up involving several Search rolls, which seemed a very 3.5 thing for me to do at the time).
Shade, the halfling shadowdancing assassin (who's STILL invisible) ends up finding the shipping tube in the icebox next to a talking head of lettuce. After some communications issues (this is bound to come up when half of you jackasses are invisible at any given moment), the PCs make off with both the painting AND the sentient head of lettuce ("You'll be a star at my new tavern...").
They hightail it back to the Gallery Infinite, where the Curatrix confirms it's the right painting as she pulls it out - a very simple child's fingerpainting. This is supposed to resonate back to all the previous talk about the painting potentially having great power blahblah imagination dreams yadda yadda wankery.
AFTER THE CAPER, IT'S THE AFTER-CAPER
Happy ending? Not quite. Before they leave town, the PCs want to screw with the drow, as after several conversations around town regarding the Baron, the PCs are now pretty sure that 'hedonist' really means 'pedophile and slaver'. Dash Shieldwell - who, by the way, always refers to himself as "the Hero's Hero, Prince of the Sword" - can't let this stand. The party heads to a cigar bar not far from the Baron's complex and starts talking crap about him in hopes of it getting back to him (quickly, I guess). In the meantime they run into a giant severed head with a glass dome for a skull; his brainpan is full of smoke and he has hookah attachments. It was weird. Dash ends up spending "seven years from the end of his life" to buy a small bottle of the most expensive thing in the place, Afterlife Cognac from Gehenna, in order to look like a high-roller. Eventually, despite the giant prawn bartender's attempts to taunt the drow from the rooftops, the drow doesn't come out. So the PCs go to him.
They knock on the drow's door after using makeup and disguise magic to make the halfling and the rogue look like little kids. It's like 'To Catch A Predator', and it was getting really strange. Anyway, the Spiderilla footman lets them in, challenges are thrown around, and Baron Czlzgaht strips off his samurai robe to reveal a second set of arms. Take a second to process that if you have to: four-armed drow samurai. And I continue to maintain that it's no sillier than what the PCs were.
Now, killing a sentient is illegal in the City, so the PCs have this plan whereby Kael, the arachnomancer, will use his spider-kind command ability to tell the spiderilla servitors to kill their master - the idea being that the drow bites it and the gorilla-dudes take the blame, with he PCs aleady out of the complex when the gendarmerie show up.
Well, it worked. Because dice, that's why. They dominated the servants while combat was ongoing, and Baron Czlzgaht met his maker while his butler choked him and his gardener stabbed him repeatedly with pruning shears. (Note to self - I have a real "scissors" thing going on lately, need to knock that off or figure out why it's in my brain).
At this point, it's like two in the morning and at least two of us are past Spousally-Approved Depature Time, so we wrap it up; the party hauls arse back to the docks and departs the City Behind the Moon.
LESSONS LEARNED so far
1. A nice reminder that good food helps make for a good game. Those ribs were awesome.
2. Players are players. The game doesn't matter, you'll get the same combination of laughter, stupidity, bravado, smack-talk, and dick and fart jokes. Edition shifts do not impact this whatsoever.
3. Initial playstyle exposure may indeed influence you for life. The player of Shade, the assassin, started with AD&D, and he was a very deliberate, cautious, even paranoid player.
4. Random tables are awesome.
5. Using improv to run a session makes you look really smart if the players are accustomed to DMs who plan every little thing. I'm not smart, I'm a decent liar. Big difference.
6. A mix of stupid and faux-fantasy names feels appropriately D&D. No, seriously - scroll back up to the PC list and tell me that assemblage of names doesn't look like a FLAILSNAILS party.
7. I will crow this one 'old-school victory': "So, wait...basically you always set things up so that you, the DM, have literally almost zero idea what's going to happen in that session." "Yep." "And you don't plan out changes to the status quo based on the characters, you just let the NPCs do whatever they do and stuff, and whatever happens happens, for good or ill." "That's right." "Holy fuck, that's some kind of brilliant insanity or something." You have to imagine that response with a "kicked my brain in the balls" kind of face. That player's supposed to run the brand-new-start-at-the-bottom campaign after this one, and he's been asking me questions about "sandbox" and "world in motion"...
IN SUMMATION THE NEXT DAY
I have no idea what the next DM will do or whether the heroes will be able to stop the return of the Huge Evil Death God, but I know one thing: they now own a bar and run around with a talking head of lettuce, and that means my work here is done. PEACE! /drops DM screen