In the previous part, after months of preparation the party had delivered their oldest enemy, the lord of madness called Patient One, to the one place where it could be destroyed. They ventured down into its prison, dragged it out of hiding and watched it burn. Just as it looked like it was about to unleash some new hell on them it exploded, showering them in aberrant flesh. They have won. Or so it seemed.
In the week between the gaming sessions, my players have come up with an entirely unexpected problem. In the last rounds of that fight they have accumulated a lot of taint. So much, in fact, that they couldn’t get rid of it there and then by sacrificing healing surges. This meant that they would have to leave the area closed off by the Seals while tainted. And this taint came from the Patient One itself, and was, arguably, a part of it. Even though they had the capacity to heal long-term taint (it sets in if not removed straight away), they didn’t want to take the chance of letting the Patient One escape. To that end, they were prepared to sit inside the circle of Seals, say their goodbyes and burn with their enemy until there was nothing left.
This was unexpected and awesome. A fitting end to the campaign one of the central themes of which had been “no victory without a price”. I even briefly debated doing this, but we had been planning to go all the way to 30, thus there were all these plot hooks that still needed following up. This wasn’t meant to be the final battle of the campaign, thus it would have been disappointing to end it there.
Encounter 4: Wish fulfillment
What if the moon is actually a hole in the ceiling that is the sky? And all those terrible things we’ve seen on the moon are actually a tiny fraction of what’s waiting for us on the other side, looking through this hole at our world?
The Patient One wasn’t dead. Instead, it had changed tactics, whisking away the PCs’ minds into a dreamworld where they had won. And not only that, they won at everything, always. A wish fulfillment fantasy, to distract them long enough for it to break free. Do you know the GMing principle introduced by Mouse Guard/Burning Wheel (unless I’m terribly mistaken): ‘Say yes or roll’? The Patient One basically took over the GMing chair for a while, following the first part of it: ‘Say yes’. Anything the PCs wanted to do, they succeeded at. Anything they thought would happen, happened. The Patient One didn’t know or understand the material world, so it constructed their surroundings from their memories and expectations. Except occasionally, when it came to very obscure topics, it actually knew an answer and supplied a unique perspective.
One of the party members, a dwarven cleric called Witterich, has a most magnificently paranoid mind, and starts spewing ridiculous conspiracy theories any time there’s a chance. And suddenly, they would all be true. What fun.
To add to the general wtf vibe, I’ve made an mp3 file consisting of 15 minutes of silence followed by an echoing banging noise, and set it on infinite repeat when the game started. It was the only real sound the characters heard, the sound of the Patient One slamming against a Seal. A hint at the wrongness of it all. And something I refused to acknowledge in-game. I figured it would take 3 hits to break a Seal, with even chances of players figuring it all out before this happens.
It took much longer. While they started suspecting something fairly soon, and BANGs helped, it wasn’t until they had a friendly chat with the Lady of Pain that it hit them that this couldn’t possibly be real. However, from there they proceeded to test the limits and rules of this warped world. And even when they tried to escape, it was easier said than done – which was the whole point. You want to meditate and step outside the reality? Done. You go back to the iceberg and investigate the battlefield? Yes, you find your true selves trapped there. And so on. The only way to win is not to play – something I’ve hinted at by being persistent in constantly asking for actions and input from players. And eventually they got it, one by one either leaving the room under some excuse or shutting down. Of course, convincing them to then come back and that they overcame the challenge was a trick in itself…
Defeating a lord of madness takes much more than just hitting it with a sword repeatedly, and this encounter was meant to illustrate this. Challenge the players from an unexpected angle. Mess with their minds. While this took longer than anticipated, it worked rather well. I’ve been called a sneaky bastard, and couldn’t have wished for a higher praise. Plus, now the PCs would forever have to ask themselves: is this the real world? Or dying dreams of a mad god? I run horror games, if you couldn’t tell before.
Encounter 5: Final Battle
Shards of broken Seals lay on the ice. Sickened grey skies looked down at dirty pieces of ice floating on grey waters. Try as they might, they couldn’t recall anything other than this desolate place. Nothing remained. Nothing pure, nothing worthy. Just them and the thing.
The monstrosity before them was a pale shadow of its former twisted glory. No longer everchanging, no longer ignoring the laws of this world, it was made fully corporeal. Flesh and blood and bone. Stuck in its transformations. Malformed arms growing out of its bulk, their fingertips melded into folds of warped flesh. Multitude of teeth sticking out at random angles, piercing its own body with each movement. Eyeballs getting squashed as it shifted its mass. No longer a god. No longer an architect of their misfortunes, if it ever was. A trapped beast to be put down.
This was it. The last fight. Not about the fate of the world, just about the fates of those present. Both sides wounded. Only one would walk out.
So many things going on in those stat blocks. Lets take a look. First, a new mechanic for massive boss monsters: Size Does Matter/Body Part. Spreading them out into, effectively, several creatures. Which means they no longer need to be immune to most status effects the PCs can throw at them – a very good thing. It also adds a new level of strategy: do you concentrate on just dealing damage to the main body, or lob off extra bits so that they don’t crush you first? Also, the eye was the only thing with truesight – something the party wizard with about 5 invisibility powers cared about.
Obviously, not every giant monster can be represented with these traits. But some, like hydras, are made for them. This can be further fiddled with by, for example, making the main body resistant to damage, thus making cutting the body parts the preferred way to victory.
Next, we have player templates. I’ve had a bunch of these printed out, and handed them out when the PCs became afflicted. They are great for complex, transformative powers which change the way the character plays – something you wouldn’t normally do as it’d take too long to explain it. In this case, I wanted the Patient One to use their own bodies against them, but regular dominate or even “make a basic attack against your allies as a free action” didn’t seem fun or fitting enough.
And linked with the template is a different use for taint – not merely a disease, but a weapon in the pseudopods of a lord of madness. Go against player expectations. Challenge them by presenting new uses for existing elements of your game.
Shared history, lengthy preparation for this fight, a victory that was stolen from them, the final confrontation – it all added up to make this an exciting and satisfying end to their adversary. As the Patient One lay there, defeated, turning to ashes and then to nothing, deep within it a fractal perpetually imploding butterfly could be seen – its true self, unconstrained by reality. The players were presented with a choice: show mercy to this utterly alien being by shielding it and transporting it to the Far Realm – which was what it was trying to accomplish all this time… Or let it burn. After a very brief discussion, they made sure there was nothing left of it. The fact that two of the party members fell in this fight might have been a factor.