Thursday, June 18, 2009

Lessons Taught By a Lich

During the roughly two years that I ran my Forgotten Realms campaign, almost all of the adventures we had were self-created. Although this was partially due to the lack of modules set in the Realms, mostly it was because we had such a great time creating our own vision of the world. I was coming into my own as a DM during this period and the adventures were of much greater depth and complexity than anything I had done before. My skills were growing because both myself and my players were maturing and looking for something other than smash-and-grab dungeon encounters. I think the realistic feel and color of the Realms also helped foster this in us. And while I was definitely in top form, there were still lessons to be learned.

To my recollection, the only two published adventures that we used were “Lashan’s Fall” from the "DM’s Sourcebook of the Realms" and the Desert of Desolation supermodule, both of which had profound impacts upon the game and ultimately became the bookends to the campaign. “Lashan’s Fall” was one of the earliest adventures, although looking at it now, I can’t say for certain when we ran through it. My initial impression is that it was one of the first adventures we did, but rereading it, I’m certain that that was impossible. I recall they were underpowered somewhat, but even if I had started them at 2nd level, I don’t see how they could have survived the encounters with the stone guardian and the doombat, both of which they would have had to face to complete as much of the adventure as they did. I can only assume I either modified the adventure to some extent or they had a few levels under their belt when they attempted it.

Regardless of when we played it, “Lashan’s Fall” featured an event that had long repercussions on the campaign. The adventure features an insane lich, Azimer, who believes the adventurers to be his former pupils. Azimer would make short work of any adventuring band if roused to anger but a smart party can keep him passive and out of the way while they loot the dungeon. What I didn’t count on was the greed of the party’s thief.

Although time has robbed me of the exact events that led up to the moment, I clearly recall that Azimer was duped or lured from the room, leaving his massive spellbook unguarded upon his desk. Our halfling thief, seeing the potential market value of such a tome, quickly stuck it in his pack and the party ventured forth into another section of the dungeon. Not anticipating this, I rolled a few dice to determine how long it would be before the lich returned to find his most prized possession purloined.

A little while later, after the party had put some distance between themselves and the lich’s lair, they heard ghastly screams of anger and the sound of destruction being unleashed upon the stone walls of the dungeon. Taking this as a sign it was time to flee the dungeon post-haste, they fled down an unexplored hallway they hoped would lead back towards the surface. As is wont to happen, they found themselves in a cavern with no exits.

Before they could extricate themselves from the situation, Azimer blew into the cave with spells crackling at his fingertips and doom in his eyes. The party was as good as dead. But again, the unexpected occurred.

Having nothing to lose and limited options, one of the players pointed her recently acquired wand of wonder at the lich and invoked the wand’s power. On my side of the screen, the dice clattered and a result of 63 stared up at me: vanish any non-living object of up to 1,000 pounds mass and up to 30 cubic feet in size (object is ethereal). Ruling the lich to technically be a non-living object, the party was perplex, yet relieved, to discover their imminent doom had been replaced by a roughly lich-sized chunk of stone. They beat feet back the way they came, prayers to Tymora on their lips.

That single roll gave me a nemesis to use against the party for almost two years. Azimer wanted vengeance but was trapped on the ethereal plane until he could beg, borrow, or steal a way back to the prime material. In the meanwhile, he used what little ability he had to interact with the physical world to send assassins, set traps, and otherwise seek the party’s doom. It would be several game months before Azimer found his way out of the ethereal plane, by which time the party had acquired a few somewhat faulty amulets of proof against detection and location to cover their tracks.

After many months of other adventures, I decided to run the Desert of Desolation supermodule, both to give myself a break from penning my own adventures and to challenge the party with an environment quite unlike the usual Dalelands/Sword Coast area they’d gotten used to. Before long, the party was trekking through the desert, deciphering ancient codes, and exploring lost tombs. It was to be their final adventure.

I don’t have the module handy, but I recall they found themselves in a corridor that featured a series of locked doors. As their attempts to bypass these portal failed again and again, the party’s ranger, throwing fists to the air, shouted “Azimer!” as if the lich was to blame for their troubles. I did mention they were in possession of faulty amulets of proof against detection, right?

Again the dice clattered behind the screen and a baleful “1” rolled into place: the exact roll needed to indicate a failure of the amulet’s protection. Deciding that the invocation of his name, combined with the temporary lack of shielding was enough for the vengeful lich to locate the party’s whereabouts, within a few minutes, Azimer had teleported without error into the corridor behind the party. There, undetected by the party who were still attempting to open the doors, he unleashed a barrage of fiery death upon the adventurers. The inferno wiped them all off of the face of Faerun.

While the demise of the party certainly seems apropos to the Forgotten Realms as run by Ed Greenwood and I don’t recall too much grumbling, although there was much sadness, I later felt that I had erred in this ruling. Years later, I’m certain of it.

The problem lies in the fact that I made rulings on Azimer’s power that were inappropriate for even the lich’s significant spell-casting ability. I ruled that speaking his name was enough for him to possibly detect the party, something that’s more akin to the slight chance of a deity showing up if mentioned by name. I didn’t have any notes that specifically said he was constantly searching with magic to find them, so my decision that he happened to be looking when they called his name was arbitrary. At the very least, I should have made a roll to determine if it was possible that he was currently scrying for them, and if so, only then rolled to see if the amulet failed. Likewise, I never detailed what spells the lich had access to after he returned to Faerun minus his spellbook. I simply allowed him to teleport without error because I wanted him to. I should have predetermined what spell the lich had access and made my decision on what he could do based on those parameters.

I know now that I failed to uphold my end of the DM/player social contract, and the incident remains an important lesson in my DM career. I also came to realize that I was getting burned out after two years of running a game every weekend with little break and that played a large role, consciously or unconsciously, in my wiping out the party. I wasn’t experienced enough to recognize the warning signs and to make arrangements to give myself either a break or a change of venue until I got back up to snuff.

If there was anything positive about this lack of proper judgment on my part, it was that the campaign came to a close before the Realms changed from an old school game setting to a marketing brand, allowing me to have my memories of that campaign firmly set in a version of Faerun we made for ourselves.


Christopher B said...

Wait... the party lets their thief steal the most prized possession of an insane and insanely powerful creature, one that they knew would and could kill them if it so chose, and you feel bad for nuking them months later? Sheesh - and here I thought I was hypercritical of my gaming decisions. :P

It all sounds pretty fair to me - although I'd have let the party become aware of his presence behind them, just to give them a fighting chance (albeit a small one). Shooting fish in a barrel is no fun...

Amityville Mike said...

The incident still strikes me as being a little too "rocks fall, evryone dies" for my tastes. I've got no problem winging it in games, but I think that my on the fly decisons regarding the lich's power level was too powerful. I should have better stipulated its abilities and then, on a later date, gone for the kill.

kelvingreen said...

I really like how you've turned this retrospective on the Realms into a more personal story of your experiences with the setting, and the game. Great stuff.

Matthew Slepin said...

Good story that, although I’m old enough to know that the Desert of Desolation was only moved to Faerun by the will of the greatest lich of all. I’d say her name, but I’m afraid that she would appear and destroy me.

Norman Harman said...

The "error" wasn't enforcing consequence for their actions but in giving the players zero chance at survival.

Lichboy should have teleported in front of them so they could fight, flee, plea, have some control over their fate.

Or maybe it captured them for later torture with inevitable chances for escape.

Something other than just DM fait "You all die. Thanks for playing."

Pukako said...

Great story, and I think the obliteration was truly warranted - they did betray the very powerful lich, steal his spell book, and then turn him to stone. Of course he was looking for them. All the time. And you did say they were very occupied with opening the non-opening doors.

A cinematic ending, and so much more memorable than being clubbed by a horde of goblins, falling off a cliff, or being stuck on the ship of undead while the rest of the party sail away (oh how they laughed....)

Juampa said...

I completely agree with kelvingreen and Norman Harman here. I am also guilty of severe DM fiat by killing a PC, so I understand Mike's point of view.

I'm really enjoying these FR posts! :)

Eldrad Wolfsbane said...

Wow what a great story! I always enjoy coming to your Blog!

I too had a party wiped out by a room similar to the Tomb of Horrors with the stationary Sphere of Annihilation set in the mouth of the statue. Only the half elf mage girl Mia Bladecaster survived and had to get out of a dungeon as a 2nd level dungeon. Everyone else rerolled characters but a few were totally pissed. We played for a few more months and then when our super fighter killed himself in a tornado and on that day everyone in that group just stopped playing.

HawaiianBrian said...

For what it's worth, as a DM/GM of 30+ years I totally disagree with your mea culpa.

"I simply allowed him to teleport without error because I wanted him to. I should have predetermined what spell the lich had access and made my decision on what he could do based on those parameters."

What's wrong with having a powerful NPC lich do something because you want him to? Your job as a DM is to create a dramatic story, and to allow the players to share in the glory of that story. As long as your spontaneous rulings further the plot and don't break any major believability issues, nor go against something the players already know to be reliably factual (i.e., breaking already established convention), then you've done nothing wrong.

I blame WOTC for this idea that the DM and players must function on the same playing field (that the DM is limited to the spells in the PHB, for example, or MUST go by the raw stats of a monster come hell or high water, can't make a ruling that goes against something in the book, etc.). In their efforts to sell books they took an unprecedented route in RPGs, that is, undermining the DM as storyteller and arbiter. It's a shift I didn't recognize in myself for quite a while, but one day I realized I was laboring to build complicated and rules-legit stat blocks for minor NPCs who would die in two rounds, and poring over the spell lists to find a spell that would accomplish something I wanted. What a waste of time! Far better to jot a couple quick notes about an NPC's most necessary stats (attack, HPs, and saves) and figure the rest out IF it even comes up. I reject the notion that my NPCs have to be built just like PCs -- those rules are there to give the *players* parameters, not the DM. Besides, how boring would the game world be if all the NPCs you ever meet have no distinguishing traits other than what is in the PHB? Any studious gamer would know all the villain's capabilities just through close observation and guesswork. Why not just create them as you *think* they should be, based on their concept, and ignoring such technicalities as level or class? If you made them too powerful (or not powerful enough), simply adjust their abilities on the fly to something more reasonable as needed. Too few hit points? Just keep them alive as long as is dramatic. Too strong? Scale back his AC or attack. It's that easy.

As long as DMs know how to make such rulings without abuse (in other words, not using their power to mess with players or turn it into a competition), they should be free to make up whatever they want. It's time for DMs to take back the power they had in the 80s, for heaven's sake. Don't let a company undermine your creativity and capacity for reason just so they can sell books.