Not the literal dragon’s den; we haven’t gotten quite that far, although you know in a module entitled “Hoard of the Dragon Queen” that there’ll be a showdown with dragons at some point.
We’d been on hiatus from our campaign for quite some time due to the holiday schedule and erratic results of adulthood, so it was quite a chore to remember where the party had left off last time. They had picked themselves up after what bards are already calling the “Siege of Greenest” and didn’t skip a beat when Governor Nighthill and his sidekick Escobert the Red asked them to track the departing raiders and find out what their ultimate plans were about. As a side-quest, a frantic monk asked them to keep an eye out for his teacher who went missing during the siege. Supposedly this guy was obsessed with studying the dragon cult, and may have gotten swept up in his zeal as his body had not been found within the town the morning after.
The raiders weren’t difficult to track, as scores of mercenaries and kobolds carrying sacks full of loot are bound to make an impression on the landscape they travel through. This brought the party to a rocky ravine where they encountered some laggards who thought it was a good idea to take their breakfast in the seclusion of some boulders. Unfortunately for them, they didn’t even get to taste the bacon before the party dispatched all but two: one died of his wounds very shortly, but the other lived long enough to spill his guts (!) about the rear guard the raiders had left further along the ravine.
Despite knowing this, the party wasn’t able to use the knowledge to their advantage. From their perch above the ravine floor, the rear guard was able to get the jump on the players, harassing them from both sides of the canyon. Careful use of the blocking power of boulders allowed the players to drive the cultists and mercenaries into advantageous positions, and soon they had whittled the enemy down to a lone mercenary. Seeing as how mercenaries are a self-absorbed lot, this one traded his (relative) safety for some information on the raiders camp, and how the players could gain access, although it wasn’t at all glamorous. He suggested they could just…walk in.
Last night, walk in they did. Amidst the confusion of returning raiders from other avenues, the players were able to simply merge with the throng of cultist, mercenaries, and kobolds and found no one was any wiser as to their presence. The mercenaries were enjoying their adrenaline high with some drinking, gambling, and brawling, while the cultists limited themselves to their enclaves and gave thanks to Tiamat for being allowed to do her work.
Recon was in order. The players integrated themselves into several crowds, listening in on several conversations and being careful not to ask questions that might out them as new additions to the camp. In a rather brazen moment of debauchery, the bard of the party set up her hurdy-gurdy case close to the largest — and most heavily guarded — tent in the camp and played her own account of the Siege of Greenest, earning 17 silver for her performance.
The tent was an enigma: surrounded by four guards and four guard drakes, it exuded an aura of fear and command. There was something — or someone — important in there. Adding to the mystery was a cave beyond the tent where raiders could be seen dragging heavy sacks that the party assumed contained the spoils from Greenest.
One of their tasks was to locate the missing monk. Using subterfuge, they found nine prisoners chained to posts along the south wall of the canyon, but were warned to steer clear of the elf. Mondath’s orders were that he not receive any food or water. The ranger of the party managed to slither his way through nearby shrubs to get close to said elf, and managed to identify him as the monk they had been asked to find.
As the sun began to set, the camp began to wind down. Guard patrols formed once the influx of raiders slowed considerably. Cultists and mercenaries settled down beside their campfire and talked in low tones. The players set up a tent of their own, blending in and giving themselves shelter where they could discuss their next move.
As luck would have it, however, their tent was invaded by a patrolman who claimed to have received a tip from another raider that the party’s own monk had been recognized as having been in Greenest — on the opposing side. Quickly, the bard Charmed the guard, and though him learned that Rezmir, Mondath, and the half-dragon Cyanwrath occupied the large tent, and that the prisoners were sent into the cave to do some kind of work that he wasn’t privy to. The information extracted, the ranger delivered a swift blow to the back of the man’s head, which turned out to be a liability as his compatriot entered the tent in search of his wayward friend. When opportunity presented itself, this second guard was knocked unconscious.
With two raiders lying unconscious in the tent, the players were on the clock. They quickly moved to secure these two bodies when — wouldn’t you know it? — a third guard poked his head into the tent to see what was keeping the other two.
Seeing the party in the process of binding the guards, the third mercenary raised the alarm. Dozens of cultists, mercenaries, and, yes, even kobolds, emerged from their tents, torches held high, and ringed the player’s tent. The party attempted to slip out through the back, but their back was literally against the wall, and the raiders were able to close in on them, disarm them, and bind them.
In the worst case of wish fulfillment ever, they were brought to the clearing outside of the camp’s largest tent. Two figured emerged: a short-haired woman dressed in purple, and the half-dragon Cyanwrath. The woman was identified as Frulam Mondath, the one the mercenary from the rear guard had identified as the camp’s leader. Cyanwrath needed no introduction; indeed, he immediately recognized the party’s dwarf who had faced off against him in Greenest. He and the dwarf continued to stare one another down as Mondath interrogated the party about their identity and the reason for their presence, but none of them provided information that satisfied the cult leader. She ordered them to be chained with the other prisoners until morning.
Circumstances notwithstanding, the players now found themselves alongside the elven monk they were looking for. Try as they might, none of the party members could escape their chains — except for the cleric, who never told the rest of the party he was double jointed. Slipping from his manacles, he…
* * *
I knew this was going to be a difficult chapter, but it didn’t turn out bad at all. In fact, I think it’s been my favorite.
The raider camp is a kind of free-form scene. There’s some points of interest, like the division between kobold, mercenary, and cultist enclaves, the large command tent, and the mysterious cave, and of course the prisoners, but aside from that there’s no real gameplay guidance in the actual module for what’s going on here.
I think one of the reasons this session worked better than I’d anticipated was because the group is rather laid back, and without swords at anyone’s throat, and without a ticking clock, and without me feeling like checkboxes needed to be checked, the players were really in the driver’s seat. I had a whole table of conversation snippets that I used for overheard conversations, and the Charmed guard turned out to be the party’s new best friend. The bard’s impromptu performance wasn’t even out of the ordinary; with the camp operating in party mode, it made sense that no one would think it out of the ordinary.
The two problems were that the monk was recognized via an early roll when the player’s entered the camp. The module asked for all players to roll CHA to “blend in”, and unfortunately the monk failed, but it was a delayed roll, not to be used until the “worst possible time” according to the module. The second (IMO) was the overzealous beatdown that the players administered to the guards who appeared in response to the monk’s failed CHA roll. The first guard had been charmed and knocked unconscious, and the second guard was 75% of the way towards believing that his friend had just drank too much to complete his rounds. Had the players let the second guard take the first away, I was prepared to let the blow to the head give him amnesia about the whole Charm Person thing so he wouldn’t have remembered having been Charmed. Sorry guys!
But overall I think the pacing and flow went really well. It was a combat-less session, which I expected to be harder to run because most of it would have been “on the fly”, but a lot of the results were due to letting the players drive the scene and responding, and pre-loading some bystander stuff into Realm Works “for flavor”. My goal was to let the players mingle for as long as they wanted, assuming they weren’t making it obvious that they didn’t belong.
The hard part, though, is for the only free player — the cleric — to figure out how to get the other players out of prison.