On the weekend, the group I was playing with screwed up our GM’s adventure from the very first scene, and from that point on he spent the entire session inventing new characters, story lines and encounters as we stumbled from misunderstanding to misunderstanding, culminating in the three-way stand off depicted above. We asked our GM afterwards, and as far as we know the adventure was supposed to involve us killing a black dragon, then a necromancer reanimating that dragon, us killing the undead dragon, then us tracking down and killing the necromancer. Fairly standard stuff, and the adventure opened with the dragon attacking our tavern, so we could have set off down that path straight away.
Unfortunately, we assumed – I think, fairly – that the dragon was too tough for us and that the only option was to negotiate with it. So we went and chatted, and the GM let us. What followed was a train wreck, that was rescued at every turn by our GM laying on an increasingly complex and entertaining adventure. Instead of three straight fights and treasure, we instead agreed to find a lich for the dragon; agreed to find the lich for a wizard called Magister Tiana who we thought was an enemy of the dragon; went to meet a dubious infernal contact of mine, who thought letting the lich go would be a good idea; investigated a crematorium; watched an auction where all the bidders were goth halflings; fought and killed the lich; made a lich compass; lost the lich to Magister Tiana; investigated the lich’s hotel room, where we thought we found evidence of a third force looking for the lich (probably the thieves’ guild); met the wizard that the lich was chasing, a chap called Malachy who was on the lam from the Wizard’s Guild; arranged a meeting between Malachy, Tiana and the Dragon thinking that there would be a three-way stand-off; fought the lich again; fought Malachy as he did a runner; and got a ride on a dragon to meet the heads of the Wizard’s Guild.
As far as I know none of these events were meant to happen. A few aspects of the adventure that were particularly entertaining:
- The town itself: we were in a town called Red Lanterns, that is built on the back of a behemoth tortoise. The town comes alive at night when the tortoise sleeps and sleeps during the day when the tortoise walks; this tortoise is one of 10 such beasts treading a steady path in a circle around the continent, and its pelagic nature makes it a haven for renegades – it has no laws. We didn’t bother finding any of this out when we visited the town.
- The goth halfling auction: In this town the bodies of the deceased are cremated, and then their ashes are auctioned off to the highest bidder – our GM told us he got the idea from Star Trek Deep Space 9. We naturally assumed the lich was after something in the ashes, and so we went to watch an auction and see if he was present. On the day we visited, a halfling was being auctioned off and two factions in his family were involved in a bidding war that was causing some deep tension. All of them were, of course, dressed in black, and the entire audience of bidders were halflings, bidding for the ashes of their own uncle. This scene cracks me up every time I think of it. It was interrupted by the lich outbidding all attendant halflings, who responded to his intrusion by attempting to shoot him, at which point he turned into a swarm of cockroaches and ran, with us chasing.
- Magister Tiana and the dragon: so we first offered to find the lich for the dragon if he would leave the town alone, and he agreed. Then within a few hours a wizard, Magister Tiana, visited us and told us that she was mates with the dragon. We didn’t believe her because she didn’t tell us she knew we had arranged a deal with the dragon, and in fact we were able to cut another deal with her to get the lich for her, with a bonus if we found out who he was working for. Why would she do this if she was an ally of the dragon that had already got us working for free? I’m not sure why the GM did this, or why we cut a deal with a rival of a dragon (thinking about this for even a moment, it’s really not a good idea to double cross people with this kind of power), but he did and we did, and thus the flavour of the adventure turned into one of those “everyone’s out to get Wally, let’s get him first” type stories. They always end well!
- The fugitive wizard: after we had killed the lich and lost his body (aren’t we smart!) we searched his spellbook and found notes in it indicating that he was chasing some guy called Malachy, who was hiding in the local wizard academy. We found him, and discovered that he was on the run from the wizard’s guild due to an “accident” in which he accidentally crashed one of their sky castles. He was on the run from the lich after a confrontation in which he somehow permanently destroyed the lich’s eye and one hand. When he found out Tiana was in town he got all scared and started thinking of running, but somehow we convinced him to meet Tiana and hand himself in.
- The final stand off: we arranged the final stand-off thinking that Tiana and the Dragon would turn up separately, see each other and toast one another, and we would hand Malachy to the winner and loot the loser – we remained convinced she’d lied to us right up until the point that she rode in on his back, carrying the lich’s head. Thus we found ourselves in the situation depicted above, with her and Malachy having a robust chat under the watchful eye of the dragon. Things went pear-shaped because Tiana had brought the lich’s head with her, and it got loose and started trying to waste everyone so that it could catch Malachy – apparently he was quite the prize. We, naturally, sided with the dragon, and then Malachy did a runner while dragon, Tiana and lich were engaged in fearsome battle. We caught Malachy and dragged him back, and that was that.
I think this adventure is a credit to the GM. Every part of it was fabricated on the spot to help us continue charging around the town making mistakes, and although we were starting to suspect we’d cocked it up, at no point did he let on which bits were in the plan and which weren’t – we were convinced the halfling auction was in his original notes, for example. He was creative and energetic throughout the whole process, he managed to tie together disparate elements of the plot even as he was making them up on the spot, and somehow at the end everything was resolved neatly and clearly – all of this in the space of about 5 hours. I think this kind of creativity and flexibility is the mark of a good GM, especially when it’s in response to your having thrown all his preparation out the window from the first encounter. We didn’t intend any of this disruption, we just genuinely misinterpreted the purpose of that first battle – like most players, if he had said “guys, this adventure is meant to involve you fighting this dragon” we would have taken it on, but he didn’t, and so we did what comes naturally to a bunch of cowards, and supplicated the damn lizard. But he didn’t correct us, presumably having faith that he could somehow muddle up an adventure regardless, and that’s what happened. He told us later that he decided many of the plot elements based on our assumptions, so that we were driving the plot forward, which is also a very fine thing to do. The man was an improvisational genius.
If there is any lesson in this for better adventure planning, I guess it’s that you shouldn’t make an adventure’s entire plot hinge on players deciding to fight a dragon – many players assume dragons are too tough for them, and if the first encounter of the day is a dragon they will assume negotiation is the key. But it also shows that if you’re a good GM with a healthy attitude, even when your players completely cock up your plans from the very start, you can still make a great adventure. And our GM this day was not just a good GM – he was a great GM. This is GMing at its finest, in my opinion.
Finally, to top it all off, once we’d finished for the day we offered to do a test fight against the dragon, to see if our first decision was right. It was a close thing, but we killed it. So even our decision to negotiate was wrong!
fn1: And they say Star Trek never benefited humanity!
fn2: we were stupid and evil!