The Head in the Road
[The weekly D&D post had been postponed due to the holiday here in the US]
As the caravan surged onward, a whole lot of nothing happened. The end.
But wait! Although we’re not modeling a two month journey in real time (although sometimes it feels like it), things do happen. Like how the caravan found a severed head in the middle of the road last week.
The caravan stopped, or at least slowed. The folks at the front of the caravan got out and investigated. The players moved up along the column to join in the gawking. Turns out some of the forward guards noticed that while there was a head in the road, the head was still attached to a body, and that body was actually buried in the road up to his shoulders. To add to the mystery, he had the word “Oathbreaker” written across his forehead.
Some caravan members wanted to keep going, to leave this “oathbreaker” to his fate. He obviously did something horrible, or else why would someone go to the trouble of burying a man up to his shoulders and scribbling on his forehead? Best not to get involved.
The cleric of the group stepped up and did a cursory check of the…head…and diagnosed that he was still alive, but dehydrated and worse for wear. He would die soon if he didn’t get out of there, so the Samaritan’s outnumbered the Do Nothings, the man was excavated, and one of the cart drivers offered his cart as a mobile hospital for the remainder of the need. He wore only a loincloth, his forehead tattoo…and the symbol of the Harpers on his arm.
After some water and nourishment over the next few days, the bard — obviously the most charismatic of the group — opted to interrogate the new addition to the column. His story was that he had been betrothed to a woman, but had broken off the engagement when he found out that her father and brother were part of a bandit gang, and that they were expecting that he would join up once he was part of the family. He had been jumped by the bandits, branded, and buried in the road as punishment.
The bard didn’t buy it, and said so to the rest of the party. Why would someone with the brand of the Harpers end up in such an embarrassingly dangerous situation unless they had angered a group more powerful than roadside bandits?
Over time, the man regained his strength, and helped the carriage driver with his tasks. The party noticed, however, that he was paying particular (in their view, overt) attention to the cultist wagon, which was only a few wagons behind his own. The cultists, in turn, seemed interested in this new addition to the traveling group, although neither the man nor the cultists made any overt attempts to intercept or interfere with one another.
It wasn’t until a stopover at a roadside inn that the party waved the man over to their table, where they proceeded to once again interrogate him. Once one of the members mentioned that they were on a mission for the Harpers that he came clean with the truth: he had been on a mission similar to theirs, embedded in an earlier caravan in which a different group of cultists were carting goods along the trade route. However, his cover had been blown, he was framed by the cultists as a bandit sympathizer, and the caravan opted to bury him in the road as punishment.
In the end, he swore he wouldn’t interfere with the party’s mission; it would be best if they not be seen talking for the remainder of the trip. However, he could serve as a distraction; since the entire caravan knew about his supposed association with the Harpers, the cultists would certainly be keeping an eye on him, and less of an eye on any other potential threats. Also, he offered to get the party in touch with the Harper contingent in Waterdeep once they arrived.
A few days later, the party arrived in Daggerford, the last major stop before Waterdeep. Several passengers who had been traveling with the column left, but two signed on for the last leg of the journey: a female gnome, and a tall, bald man wearing a suspiciously warm woolen cap that covered his head, ears, and neck. Making matters more suspicious, this stranger managed to engage the cultists, and even to somehow book passage on their wagon.
With a fair bit of Wisdom (Perception), the warlock noticed that the stranger was sporting some interesting tattoos on his head and neck that he felt necessitated the strange choice of headgear. Although this stranger was traveling with the cultists, he didn’t seem welcome in their midst, so while the caravan camped beside the road one night, the warlock approached the stranger.
He seemed affable enough, and when the warlock called him out on his attempts at subterfuge, the man admitted that he was Thayan, a nationality known for it’s almost rabid devotion to necromancy, and feared and hated throughout the Sword Coast. However, he claimed that he was only a merchant before the rise of Szass Tam, the lich who now rules Thay. Not every Thayan was devoted to the art of raising the dead, this man claimed, and he was headed to Waterdeep to take a ship across the ocean to a place where Thayans aren’t as repugnant as they are considered on the Sword Coast.
* * *
The caravan trip is getting a bit long in the tooth, so events were sped up just enough to reach a milestone this week or next week. Modeling a two month old journey, mixing in excitement and adventure, is difficult. It shouldn’t be wall to wall combat, but it shouldn’t also be boring. It shouldn’t be undiscovered country (a well-traveled trade route), but it shouldn’t be uneventful. There’s always opportunities for combat in D&D, but there’s rarely scenarios which require real RP skills, so I wanted to focus this trip more on the non-combat random events listed in the module.
RPing is difficult, though, on both sides of the screen. From my perspective, combat is simple: pay attention to the enemy stats, use their abilities to drive their behavior, and pull no punches. The same goes for the players. RPing non-combat events is significantly less simple. These require a setup, which is easy and provided in the module, but they also require a response that’s built upon the player actions. It’s up to me whether or not the player actions can subvert and trivialize the importance of the event’s outcome for the remainder of the story, or to somehow make player actions have a long-lasting effect and find another way to keep the story on track. Ideally, in a custom campaign, I’d be perfectly fine with the first situation: let the players drive the story outright, and just fill in the gaps with the result. With a module, though, certain encounters and events are important later on, and if the players trivialize them by ignoring them, or turning them around (in a logical sense), taking the outcome of that encounter out of the flow of the module is like playing Jenga with the story. Once in a while should be OK; When it becomes a pattern, and too many blocks are removed, the whole thing falls apart.
I was a bit concerned about the approach the players were taking with the oathbreaker. They were confrontational and arrogant, playing the encounter like they had the upper hand. His story about breaking off an engagement couldn’t possibly be true since he had a Harper insignia, and outright told him that he owed them the plain truth for digging him out of the ground. I ended up strongly suggesting that maybe they should name-drop Leosin’s involvement, because I was very disappointed that they were taking a combative approach rather than an approach that (to me, which may have been the real problem) should have been more logically forthcoming: he’s a Harper, and the party was sent on the mission by the Harpers, so the mutual association could be exploited instead of relying on brow-beating this guy into compliance.
This was obviously an overstep of my job as the “impartial DM”. If the players want to approach a situation as they see fit, it should be their choice, and it’s up to me to either deal with the consequences (in some way), or to somehow re-route them back to the official story later on. This encounter was from the random encounter table, which means that technically it has little ramification on the overall story, so really there is nowhere to re-route the players to. I was more disappointed that I felt that there wasn’t a lot of thought being put into the approach, but that should ultimately be the player’s call: however they want to approach a situation should be the way they approach a situation, and it’s up to me to deal with the results. My job is really to not use the party’s actual approach as a determination for reward or punishment; their actions simply are what they are. If the players push the story away from the intended outcome, then it’s either find a way to get the story back on track (if it’s important to do so), or to simply let the outcome stand on it’s own.
However, after feeling really bad about blowing up about the situation, I opted to install this Harper as a reliable contact in Waterdeep that the players can use in an unfamiliar city. I figured that while the players considered getting the truth as gratitude for saving this guy made sense, getting the gratitude of an entire city-wide network of the Harper society was an even better reward.