I’ve been running the Year Five mission for the School of Adventure for several weeks now. I was maybe going to let it finish before I posted a write-up of the whole thing, but there would be a lot to cover. And now I’ve drafted a post about an idea I used while running it, and that contains pretty thorough spoilers for a couple of the recent sessions. So I think I’ll write up the early and middle stages of the adventure here, then post the idea article as a part 2, and then do a part 3 covering just the last few sessions (which, at time of writing, we haven’t played yet).
This Year Five mission will be the last for the School of Adventure, at least as we know it. The players are going to move on to other real-life schools after the summer. I may stop running it for my own life reasons. And in any case, the whole premise of the School of Adventure defines it as a levels 1-5 campaign, one level per SoA year with Year Five the final one.
So, I’m keen to give the kids a good send-off and not worried about setting unwise precedents or storing trouble for the future. So I pretty much planned the adventure around the players’ wish-lists and crazy ideas. Sitting there all this time on the character sheets in the Bonds boxes have been two intriguing ideas that we’ve never explored. Kuswo’s Bond is ‘the lost dragon turtle’ and Sukini’s is ‘a baby bronze dragon’. Right, I’ll definitely put those in. Kuswo also is always trying to get on every creature they meet and ride it. Morgran has been collecting monster body parts since his first adventure, starting with three zombie heads that he stripped the flesh from and kept the skulls, apparently intent on summoning the Wither. Bolok and Elliot haven’t given me such clear leads about what they want, but they do have quite distinctive play styles, and I’ve been conscious that I’ve not made available any magic items, so perhaps I can let them enjoy magic goodies that complement their styles.
So, the mission this year, our heroes’ final exam, is to secure and bring back a scale from the legendary Dragon Turtle. The students are provided with an initial briefing on this creature, about how it is rarely seen and is far too powerful and dangerous to fight directly, so they will have to use their ingenuity to secure a shed scale. The briefing gives information on a couple of past Dragon Turtle attacks and a lead to a Professor Zeevarer who is the world authority on the creature. The locations of these various leads are scattered across a stretch of sea and islands, reachable from the School of Adventure by boat.
I wasn’t telling the players at this point, but I had also planned for them to meet a baby bronze dragon along the way, and that there would be an opportunity for Morgran to build a terrible monster from his collected parts, which could battle the Dragon Turtle and hopefully knock a scale off it.
I also went through the Monster Manual for monsters that had been too powerful to use but might now make good encounters, and some others that would work in the seas-and-islands setting of this mission.
That was about enough for planning—the players usually go off-piste and I would need to play things by ear to accommodate their wishes and fit into the number of sessions available.
All the leads I had given the kids to get started with were a boat ride away, so I devised a little mini-game building on the Survival skill that is used to navigate at sea. The navigating character could roll a skill check, with a success counting as a day’s progress towards their destination, and a different number of successes required to reach different destinations according to how far away they were. Various degrees of failure would trigger other consequences from no progress via deviation towards another destination to dangers and setbacks like loss of supplies or an encounter with a sea-dwelling monster.
I narrated for flavour a scenario that made sense to me of how the different teams from the school were issued with supplies and a boat, which was moored at the docks awaiting the off. The teams would be sent off on a staggered start, preventing them getting tangled up with each other as they left.
How naïve I was. Of course the players interrupted my flavour narrative by pointing out that the rival Farseer team must also have a boat at the dock, and that this presented an irresistible opportunity for skullduggery. So instead of using my sailing mini-game in session one, I was improvising a midnight raid on the Farseer boat, to lay a bear-trap at the bottom of their below-decks ladder. OK fine, some skill checks to pull that one off. Kuswo planted the trap and with his impressive stealth skills managed it undetected. Elliot I think was keeping lookout, and was spotted by a patrolling teacher, requiring some fast talking. Everyone eventually got back to bed.
I asked myself if the Farseer team are any less devious and mischievous than the PCS, and of course they aren’t. So obviously they’ve had the same idea. A Perception check by the PCs when they get onto their boat in the morning reveals that the main rope supporting the sail has been surreptitiously frayed so that it may break in a fresh breeze. The PCs immediately suspect Farseer’s sabotage. Since Farseer obviously jump to the parallel conclusion when they encounter the bear trap on their own boat, accusations are made and there’s an impromptu dockside hearing in front of Professor Brawnanvil (a teacher whose accent entertains the kids). After a collective ticking-off the offending teams are demoted to the last two starting slots as a penalty.
I did then eventually get to use the sailing mechanic, and a little combat encounter with a giant octopus that grappled Morgran at the rail of the boat and tried to pull him into the sea. Morgran being Morgran accepted this as a challenge and jumped in, the better to hack the octopus to pieces with his axe. So Morgran added giant octopus tentacles to his collection of monster parts.
Creating a Monster
The PCs eventually reached their first destination, which was a university town that where they could find Professor Zeevarer, the Dragon Turtle expert. I had decided to liven this up with a more challenging combat encounter and the Flesh Golem (a sort of cadavers-stitched-together-brought-to-mindless-life Frankenstein’s Monster kind of thing) caught my eye in the monster manual.
So that inspired the character of Professor H West, and a site layout for the Monster Research tower in St Maarten’s College, Nieuwpoort, that provided for the players to pass Professor West’s door on the way to Zeevarer’s and subsequently have interesting terrain for a combat against the flesh golem.
I correctly anticipated that a handwritten addendum to the nameplate on West’s door, saying
would be enough of a hook to get them involved. The Lovecraft reference and even some of the Frankenstein-movie cliches went over the kids’ heads, but they got the idea and I enjoyed hamming it up, and we spent I think a good couple of sessions in a knockabout action scene in which West’s monster was jolted to life, turned on its creator, charged the PCs and got shoved through a glass window and into the tower’s moat, and which was finished off by Kuswo swinging out of the broken window and round the tower on a rope and dumping a backpack of miscellaneous explosive reagents onto the monster.
The flesh golem cannot be harmed by ordinary weapons, so that provided a nice tension-generator during the fight. It also provided a way for me to start handing out the magic items that I had planned to give the PCs. West had an Emergency Axe and an Emergency Shield (both enchanted) hung on the wall ready for use. I’m really not sure how he’d have managed with them against the golem, but Morgran and Elliot handled them with great effect. The other characters’ items I dished out in a post-battle burst of scatty gratitude on West’s part and Sukini got a hat that he could use to disguise himself and make illusions, Bolok got a wand to help find traps, secret doors and magic, and Kuswo got a set of dog armor and saddle that turned out also to have size-changing properties enabling his pet dog to grow and him to shrink so that he could ride it. I don’t know how well that logic holds together but nobody was complaining.
Morgran actually took some persuading to get involved in the battle, because he was more interested in arranging his monster parts collection on West’s reanimation bench and trying to make them come to life. I think I had to break character at the end of the session and assure the player that there would be a chance for this later. Also I let him take a small supply of chemicals, which I will have cause to mention again.
(Oak of Honor local hero shout-out: Actor William Henry Pratt, better known as Boris Karloff, was born in 1887 at 36 Forest Hill Road, just on the other side of One Tree Hill from where I’m writing this now. Boris Karloff is of course the iconic cinema face and figure of Frankenstein’s Monster.)
Talking to Professor Zeevarer
This was a much more sedate scene, in which the PCs learnt more of the Dragon Turtle and where they might find it. Salient points included that it loved treasure and might be drawn towards it, that it had a deadly enmity with a thing called Garolgoth and might appear to fight that, and that it was thought to lair somewhere in the Windward Isles. Zeevarer provided a map that would take them as far as the port of Mornsea, close to the Windward Isles, where she thought they might find out more about where the Dragon Turtle might dwell.
She warned them, however, that in Mornsea they should make sure to avoid Professor Hunter, who is also interested in the Dragon Turtle and Garolgoth but whose methods she does not approve of.
The players immediately decided to set sail for Mornsea to speak to Professor Hunter. I was beginning to feel like I had figured out how to present choices to them and know which one they would take. And my wish-fulfilment elements were coming together nicely. The one thing missing from the plan was the baby bronze dragon.
Keeping up with Morgran
Actually, before I get to the baby dragon, I should remark on how Morgran’s player keeps getting ahead of me. I thought that what they wanted was to put some body parts together and make a creature, so I’ve been setting up a chance to do that. But in the time it’s taken me to get it to the table, the player’s thinking has developed.
First, they imagined for themself what the chemicals they got from West were. There was a phrase something like ‘DNA fusion potion’ bandied about. I think this triggered three reactions in me. One, that that’s not what I meant and you don’t know what the chemical does and generally hush you can have what I tell you when I tell you. This, I largely managed to suppress. Two, this is a fantasy game and we have magic, not DNA. I think I’m ready to stand by this. And three, it’s great that a player is being so creative with the storytelling and if I can use some element of this then I should. So, OK, I start referring to the chemicals as a ‘flesh bonding potion’, thinking that it can be used as a sort of glue to fix together the collected body parts when the time comes.
Player then announces, during the next quiet boat trip, that Morgran will take his octopus tentacles and bond them to his own back with the potion. And use them to wield extra weapons in combat. DM does Martin Freeman look to camera… I drew the line at four functional extra limbs. They’re bonded but not functional; they just dangle there. Morgran is still tying axes to them and whirling them at targets. I’m prepared to let the player describe attacks this way, but I’m not making it do anything Morgran couldn’t do normally.
Back to the dragon. The great thing about a boat trip in a loosely-detailed setting is that wherever the party sails you can say ‘you see an island ahead of you’ and have what you like on it. Qyvross is a baby bronze dragon who was separated from their parents/nestmates in a storm as a young hatchling and found their way to this island, where they have been sheltering, trying to feed enough to build up the strength to fly over the sea to find their parents.
I felt like we were due another action scene, so I had the PCs’ arrival at this island coincide with he arrival at the island of a flight of larger, fiercer monsters (manticores), ready to prey on poor Qyvross. To be honest, I wonder in retrospect if a combat here was the wrong choice, or at least in the wrong order. Some of the players didn’t really engage. Bolok stayed on the boat on the beach, having advised the group against going anywhere near this unnecessary danger. Elliot, Kuswo and Morgran mucked around in the battle, trying to liven it up by jumping onto the manticore’s back, swinging on trees to reach it, hitting it with branches, playing dead to fool it and so forth. Sukini was more interested in making contact with the baby dragon than eliminating the manticore threat, which left him and the wyrmling fighting a manticore between them, which was nearly too much. They won the fight and talked to Qyvross afterwards, but I wonder if I should have left out the manticores and let them focus on Qyvross. I think maybe the trouble is that I feel conversations get stilted in our online play. Note to self for the future—put in real effort to planning a conversation scene and see if I can make it as engaging as a good fight. Also in hindsight I could have made it more interesting if for example the dragon initially observed and tested the PCs from hiding to figure out if they were safe to speak to openly. And/or had them meet the dragon first to engage them with the island and give more of them a motivation to protect Qyvross, then if it seemed right have the manticores show up and attack. That’s probably a sequence I can use another time. Anyway…
The PCs got to Mornsea, finding it to be a poor and down-at-heel sort of town, many of the people thin and shabby-looking.
They quickly found Hunter with the assistance of the locals, and spoke with her at her home. The PCs asked about the Dragon Turtle, but I didn’t have more information to give them so that was a bit of a dead end. They weren’t particularly interested in Garolgoth; I had Hunter drop some hints and after a few minutes just info dump on them anyway, because I really wanted them to know what their Garolgoth options were. Hunter said that Garolgoth could be called up and that the Dragon Turtle would also respond, feeling Garolgoth as an intolerable threat to the world and coming to destroy it. The players were overcome with a fit of caution and decided that this sounded like a terrible idea. I mean, they’re not wrong and from Bolok’s player I expected this, but I was surprised that Kuswo and especially Morgran’s players weren’t gung-ho. This conversation petered out at the end of a session and it was only during the week that I figured out what I’d done wrong.
I hadn’t told the players *how* Garolgoth was called up. In planning, I had devised a whole rigmarole involving assorted monster body parts (Morgran’s collection plus a few other bits) and an ancient secret spell that Hunter knew, which would incarnate the spirit of Garolgoth in a monstrous form based on the body parts. This was my big present to Morgran’s player, but they weren’t unwrapping it. I had to tell them what was inside first. So at the start of the next session I recapped the Professor Hunter conversation from last time, and just went on with ‘and she also tells you…’ and *then* we were on.
So now I’m thinking about how I could have planned this scene better too. I could have thought through the different things Hunter had to say, and what their functions were and the effect they might have on the PCs, and what triggers or openings might cause Hunter to say different ones. The encounter menu concept I’ve written up for my next post would be useful here I think.
Interweaving diverging paths
So now we have Morgran fully signed up to the Garolgoth plan, which, in the grip of his new body-modification enthusiasm, he now sees himself physically incorporated into. Bolok is opposed to it. Kuswo wants to ride the Dragon Turtle. The PCs have also learnt that the Farseer team got to Hunter before they did and have the same information, so the group in general is keen to make sure that Farseer don’t manage to win the quest before them, and some of them want to settle scores. My task is now to fill the remaining few sessions of play with fun and games by presenting opportunities for action that offer all players the prospect of furthering their different plans. All while keeping things simple enough that I can bring them to a close on the appointed week.
So there are a few more monster body parts that Morgran wants to get. Hunter has a list of ingredients for the Garolgoth magic. The Claws of the Earth may come from some burrowing creatures that are infesting Mornsea’s agricultural hinterland (which is why it’s down at heel). The Wings of the Air might come from the manticores the party slew on Qyvross’s island, but they’ll have to go back for them and they suspect that Farseer might be looking in the same area for the same things. The other components Morgran already has: Tentacles of the Deep fused to his back, and Brain-cases of the Wise the three skulls he’s been toting around the last three years.
If Bolok doesn’t want to do the Garolgoth calling, the group’s next-best method of bringing the Dragon Turtle is to use treasure, and there’s a rich reward for ridding Mornsea of the burrowing monsters.
And all of the group want to beat Farseer, who were last seen sailing east, towards the area of Qyvross’s island.
Ultimately, the best area to find the Dragon Turtle is thought to be the Windward Isles, which are further west and where I can probably bring everything together even if some of the above get missed out.
The players have been engaging in some lively debate, and I reckon I can provide fun whatever they end up choosing.