This is an extended “behind the scenes”/DM Advice post. Recently in the MAGI campaign, three separate situations arose where characters were separated from the group as a cliff-hanger ending to a session. None of them were planned by the DM, they just happened organically. In order to minimize the impact on the next session, the DM resolved portions of their experiences with the players away from the table. Each situation and each player is different and so this post looks at how each one was handled with a little insight into the why of it. It also serves as a look at what might have been if the players had made different choices.
One character still has a great deal of secrecy surrounding her resources and abilities, so the section for the Bane Sidhe will be lighter on specifics so as not to spoil anything for the other players and so as not to take agency away from the player of that character with regards to who knows what information. But there will be some information that the other players might have heard but not remembered.
Situation #1: Jacques Goes Through the Portal
This one was resolved via a phone call. The player and DM are in different states, and the player works best with interaction rather than a large text dump via email. The situation was also more about what the player wanted because it was so much of a mystery. The group had basically zero information about the situation so even though the DM had his plans they could be changed without any worry for continuity errors.
At the end of MAGI and the Mercenaries #6, Jacques had investigated the portal to the realm of shadow by poking it with his finger, while the rest of the party was on the other side of the area (a druid grove that had been taken over by an evil witch allied with the Red Plumes and their demon patrons). Two of the characters—the PC Trouble and the NPC Esmerelda, both shouted at him not to, but he did anyway. This caused him to get pulled through the portal and the DM used that natural cliff hanger as the end of the session.
There were several possible outcomes from this listed in order of increasing “badness”:
#1 Totally positive: Jacques finds the cursed rod the Red Plume’s champion tossed through the portal, grabs it and returns to the party.
#2 No big deal: Jacques just walks back through and says “hey did you guys know what’s over there?” or some variation thereof.
#3 Not too bad: Enemies are nearby or other circumstances put Jacques in danger, but not immediate. Trouble and Esmerelda come through after 3 rounds, then Rhuddy, Nadezda, and Arianwyn 1d4 rounds later. Ash and Sir Bel come along a few minutes after. Even if things go bad there are waves of hero reinforcements, and in a worst-case-scenario Ash and Sir Bel are two of the three best capable of rescuing the others from capture (Rhuddy is also a great choice).
#4 Uh-oh: Jacques is in battle right off the bat and might die before the help arrives on the timeline from #3.
#5 Bad: The help comes through and there is no sign of Jacques.
#6 Game over man: The help comes through and Jacques is dead on the ground.
Those following along from home already know that the player and DM decided to go with #5, Jacques was nowhere to be seen when the party arrived. Instead, they found a confusing battle ground with some dead shadow hounds and a strange humanoid the size of a halfling with grey skin, hooves for feet, and it had been decapitated leading Sir Bel’s player to dub it the “4/5ths-ling”. A blood trail led into the woods but the island was much bigger on this side of the veil, much more overgrown, and darker so neither Trouble nor Esmerelda were ready to go machete-ing their way through the bush hoping they didn’t get lost.
The DM is the sort to worldbuild lots of things, but also leave flexibility for improv as needed. Therefore, the plan was for the other side to have a pack of the hounds with a darkling or two assigned with patrolling the grove because the Red Plumes were not allies of the Fomorian who controlled the island from within it. In the DM’s head, it was possible that the players arrived in time to see one of the hounds grab the rod, get turned into a gnoll (revealing they aren’t actually hounds but hyaena’s which is a creature a few of them have heard about but never seen) and run off with it into the woods sparking a chase scene. It was possible that the players took too long, the rod was just gone, and they had a nifty social encounter with the Fomorian who didn’t like people from the prime but hoped they might chase out the Red Plumes who he wanted off his island. And it was possible that Jacques died because the player had been a little frustrated with how limited the options are for a fighter and he wanted a more dynamic character; so this might be a perfect time to swap out. The DM knew that there was a prisoner at the ritual site and could easily have introduced a second one to be Jacques’ replacement.
The player said that he felt that would be giving up, so he wanted options that would allow him to stay with Jacques a bit longer. We talked through what he thought Jacques would do, what might be fund for the story, and what might be most realistic even if it wasn’t fun.
Knowing that there were enemies right nearby, within one move and able to attack in seconds, Jacques would grab the rod off the ground and might actually forget that it is cursed and shouldn’t be touched without protection. Jacques is also a werepanther, and when he transforms he not only goes completely berserk, but he blacks out and has no memory of the time spent transformed. The fact that less than 2 years ago this happened while onboard a boat and he slaughtered the whole crew (and ate some of them) still haunts him. Most recently he took advantage of this to wipe out the Red Plumes army in their base of operations during the night. In this case, the rod would force a transformation and then compel him to bring it to the ritual site. Once transformed, the hyaenas and darkling would be unable to harm him (thus their death) and he would leave minimal sign of passage since his panther form has better stealth than anyone in the party except for Ash has perception to detect. And even Ash is challenged.
This brought up one more point the party didn’t know: In this area of the realm of shadow, time moves faster than in the prime. Not hugely faster, this isn’t a Rip Van Winkel scenario where one night is 20 years, but Trouble and Esmerelda use the portal only three rounds after Jacques from their perspective and yet 30 minutes have passed since Jacques used it. If Jacques had been in battle, the DM would have altered this aspect of the island within range of the grove.
Many times, Jacques has been scouting or ran off or something and he always shows up at a fortuitous moment (the lucky feat in Home is not just mechanical but also a powerful plot device). Therefore, the player and DM agreed that depending on how the battle at the temple was going, Jacques could appear at any time the player requested, from any side of the battlefield the player wanted. He could be either in his human form, or the werepanther. As the werepanther he could be insane and attacking everyone so by appearing behind the enemy his arrival would help the party. Or he could appear behind the party and attack them if they were having too easy a time and the encounter was boring. This way they would have the challenge of saving him from the cursed rod. Finally, he could just ignore the battle and be compelled by the rod to take it to the altar.
Again, those following along from home know that the actual campaign mixed together some of these options. A were-feline (called a tiger during the writeup because those were the stats used) showed up behind the enemy, it was compelled by the rod and brought it to the altar. After the fight, Jacques arrived in human form and passed out. Now no one, not even the player, knows if the weretiger was Jacques or not. Which is good because in character only one character has figured out Jacques is a lycanthrope and it could be dangerous if others discovered it. The decision as to whether or not that weretiger really was Jacques or was the Red Plume champion is now in the player’s hands. He might never make the decision and the DM is ok with either outcome.
Situation #2 Arianwyn Teleports With an Enemy Into Her Vault
the fight at the temple against Captain Ehrlich and three of his
lieutenants, one of them was transformed into a partial giant (8’ tall)
and had mounted his magic/cursed sword (warlock pact of the blade
weapon) into a pike. This lieutenant at one point dropped Arianwyn unconscious in a single round of attacks. When she was revived
he was still standing right over her. She had the sword with the ghost
trapped in it from the Megaron fight, plus the sword from the lieutenant
who had split it into two weapons in her bag. She wanted to get all of
MAGI’s property back into her vault and she has a special modification
to her Eladrin
racial misty step ability that lets her teleport to any of the MAGI
vaults she has attuned (currently only two of them) from any distance.
She asked if she could grab the big guy’s foot and teleport with him
into the vault. The DM answered yes but he gets a save. She tried it, he
failed, and they both vanished. It was a great way to completely
transform the battle and make a bad ass heroic moment.
This scenario was going to involve rather a lot of freestyle development and the vault contents were partly up to the player to develop. Also, the player might benefit from some research on their own. So this situation was handled by email to give the player time to do that thinking and research between answers. First, the player indicated what her general goal was for Arianwyn and gave a couple of scenarios they were thinking of. The DM gave answers that explained the differences between the two vaults, which one would work better with which scenario, and then also gave links to a bunch of resources for cursed items that might be in the two vaults.
What can be shared without spoilers is that the Amber Temple vault is two smaller rooms with an open center and items all around the walls. The Branch Administrator is a Tier 4 NPC lich with Challenge Rating 17, whereas the PC is 5th level and the lieutenant is CR 4. But the branch administrator is not necessarily in the vault, in fact he might be several minutes away. There is also a shield guardian in the vault, but the amulet may or may not be in the vault with it, it might be with the branch administrator. All of the items in this vault are related to the remnant power of various deity-powered entities that are “mostly dead”. The sort of things vestige pact warlocks would commit murder to get their hands on. This is where the swords were stolen from. The shelves and doors are trapped and while she is in the vault Arianwyn had certain lair actions (like legendary actions) related to the nature of the temple.
By contrast the primary vault is huge, larger than a football field with rows upon rows of shelves covered in artifacts. Originally this vault was only supposed to hold artifacts that were potentially safe for the Imperial Family to use in case of emergency, but over time it became the only active vault so it got a little of everything. Known items added to this vault are blood samples from many of the PCs and NPCs; a stone that allows the use of the Commune spell 2/day but with the risk of physical blowback even when it is successful (this stone petrified Trouble’s arm for 3 weeks one time and knocked her unconscious for 12 hours another time); a tree in a floating pot that contains a 200-square-mile+ pocket realm and can overwrite reality with a variation of the pocket realm out to a range of 3 miles from the tree; a brazier of summoning for an Efreeti strong enough to cast the wish spell but also with an uncontrollable and very angry Dao stuffed in at the same time; the spellbook of a demonic mage containing meteor swarm, chain earthquake, and several other unique level 8 and 9 spells that could be used for mass destruction; an alchemical grimoire with the recipe for potions of longevity (this is known to be an accurate recipe therefore there are people who would go to war to get their hands on the book and/or the potions); an unspecified method of petrifying individuals that preserves their soul within the body but leaves them conscious so most go insane after a while; and a few more as well.
In this vault Arianwyn had different lair abilities, which were slightly more powerful, especially one that could be used as a reaction to try and protect her from the lieutenant’s melee attacks. Also, this one had other advantages like wards.
It is also relevant that whichever vault she picked, she was arriving at the start of her turn having only used her bonus action (misty step) and free interaction (grab the lieutenant’s ankle and take him with her), but while she was prone on the ground at the lieutenant’s feet. She had her move and action, but it was unlikely she could get completely out of reach of the lieutenant when he got to act.
The DM also gave the following advice:
Some fun links for artifact ideas that might be in the vault:
Some ideas for the trap/ward:
* This one is exactly what you mentioned: https://warehouse13.fandom.com/wiki/Pulley_Block_from_the_Mary_Celeste
* This is also very close: Friday the 13th season 1, final episode cursed mummy’s canopic jar that traps people into a nightmare. The longer they last the worse the nightmare gets. Like any good horror movie, it starts out slow.
* Rube Goldberg’s Wire Collection: A ‘trapping’ artifact. Effect(s) unknown.
These are close but not exact, still cool:
From Warehouse 13: Invincibility Raincoat: Boosts wearer’s immune system to rapidly heal injuries, giving the impression of invincibility. However, the wearer loses objectivity and becomes obsessed with murder.
Friday the 13th Season 2, episode 11, a beehive that turns bees into vampires which transfer the life essence (HP) of people they sting to the owner.
Duplicating Yourself— GavinRuneblade
* Friday the 13th Season 3 episode 14, cameo pendant that resurrects it’s previous owner from the dead if someone wearing it is killed; combined with: Season 2 episode 7 a handkerchief that gives life to wax statues as duplicates of the user but they become homicidal. If you have confiscated say 2d4+2 statues from the last owner, use the handkerchief on all of them, put on the necklace, let one kill you as you put the necklace on it. They have your minds and gang up on him, if he kills the one with the necklace you rise, if not, they will all kill each other until one is left and the gargoyle will kill that one. You come back.
* From Warehouse 13: David Bowie’s Costumes: Part of a contingency plan for Claudia Donovan, written by herself: “Lock in a room with David Bowie’s most famous costumes (Aladdin Sane, Ziggy Stardust, Thin White Duke, etc.), a full Guitar Player Kit and the Lou Reed Music Transformer Machine artifact set to Maximum Power.”
* From Warehouse 13: Dividing Box: Origin and effect(s) unknown. Seen with a collection of other magician and magic-related artifacts
Walt Disney’s Paintbrush: According to the label: “Brush animates directly from painter’s imagination.” Anything painted by the brush becomes 3D, appears to be alive, and looks and behaves in a cartoonish fashion. Used by Pete to paint his shoes, which quickly ran away
The player then read through the different resources, and made
the decision to be in the main vault, not the amber temple, and wanted
to combine a couple ideas from the various resources. The DM and the
player then came up with a way to create a specific two artifacts and
she made a series of three skill checks. The DM then combined her ideas
and her artifacts and her rolls into the epilogue narrative given in the
next session so she knew how it turned out.
Arianwyn’s greatest personality trait, and the one the player loves the most, is her ability to intimidate. As a Bane Sidhe (faerie of death, tightly related to the banshee undead) she does have many powers that work synergistically with the skill, but the player always wants NPCs and PCs to be uneasy around Arianwyn and afraid to piss her off. This lieutenant knocked her unconscious, so Arianwyn didn’t just want to defeat him, she wanted him to understand to the depths of his soul how bad an idea that was.
Since Arianwyn was just down and this guy pretty well just showed that he could hit her for hard enough to take her from full health to dead in one swing – and she hasn’t really gotten to go full on banshee on anyone – she really wants to make sure this guy remembers what a mistake he made making an enemy of her. She wants to wail on him so hard that even the sword remembers to be afraid of her forever.
What she wants to do is appear at an intersection that will help her hold him and disengage (for a moment). Bonus if the defense is like a Chinese finger trap or quicksand and the more he struggles the tighter it gets.
I’m also thinking that there are likely a few artifacts that have some sort of glamour where people want to pick them up and then when they do, does something terrible to them. Since she wants this guy to not swing at her… being near one of these artifacts that might distract him, would be great. I’m thinking that it might eat his flesh (or makes a controllable flesh golem out of it) and leave him a living skeleton.
So long as this doesn’t make him immune to her wail… because the main thing she wants is an artifact that will actually multiply her (not just mirror) so that she can surround him and coordinate a group wail. I imagine that something that could actually create an army out of one powerful person would be scary enough to be in my vault.— Arianwyn’s Player Genesis
As everyone who read the session summary knows the player and DM found a way to make this happen, and yes he died a very broken shell of a man. If his soul reincarnates it will no-doubt have recurring nightmares of a ring of glowing eyes and shrieking voices and incurable insomnia. If he becomes a petitioner living in his deity’s celestial realm he will actually remember it, and the PTSD might even be worse.
The downside is that her first roll (to survive) was crap and she died. However, not before her clones got activated according to plan. The other two rolls—to carry out the plan—were awesome (16 and 20, each with +6 from stat/proficiency and the 20 with advantage), so the plan clearly did succeed despite her death. On the plus side, her plan had a contingency for death, because access to Tier 4 legendary items (appropriate for characters level 16+) means raise dead is on the table. Which means that Arianwyn is in a shiny new body. On the downside, she also will have some repercussions we will get to play out in character because of this. There were some people she didn’t want to have to talk to that being dead forced her to deal with and now they know where to find her.
Scenario #3: Sir Bel Falls Into the Temple
Sir Bel, Changeling Paladin of Thor, loves breaking the unholy artifacts of evil cults with his magic maul. So does his player. In fact, it might be his player’s favorite in-character activity. He is absolutely willing to risk life and limb if he gets to land one more blow on the idol, altar, relic, or whatnot.
During the battle atop the temple, Captain Ehrlich used his first 3 actions to ward the altar before transforming into a lycanthrope then joining the battle. Sir Bel didn’t dispel the ward, he pounded the ward until the floor cracked and the alter (with the ward still intact) fell into the temple. Then as we ended the session, he failed an athletics check to jump across the hole and the DM gave the player a choice: climb out safely but drop your maul in the process, or fall in holding the maul. Sir Bel would never let go of the maul, his player even said there was never a choice. So the session ended with him falling into the blackness of a temple the Fomorian had warned them was overrun with traps and undead and they should avoid going into.
Several wards and magical explosions went off, some visible from outside the hole. Then silence as Trouble and Nadezda called Sir Bel’s name but he didn’t/couldn’t reply. That was a totally epic cliff hanger. I wish I could plan stuff like this.
The DM gave the player the following OOC narrative and question:
Ok, so no matter what else Bel has the maul in his hands and he is alive. That was not a save-or-die roll: Bel might be totally unharmed, unconscious and mostly buried, or anything in-between, no roll has yet been made to determine his condition. But even if he is concussed, with broken legs and buried under rubble, he still is holding the maul and alive not dying.— GavinRuneblade
The temple was built by snakemen, they’re all dead but left behind a ton of traps, mummies, and non-living guardians. The altar fell through not only the ceiling but also the floor and into the next level down. 2 wards were triggered on the first level, and 2 more on the second level. The upper level has 1 mummy (not active yet but will be soon), the lower level has 9 mummies (one always active the others dormant and not activating yet but may) and one snake-golem-thing. the wards on the upper level exist because it has a ritual chamber prepared for summoning spells, they are meant to contain dangerous entities. the wards on the lower level are because dozens of people would gather in the central hall there, so they had to be protected from enemies and also the priests wanted to be able to murder everyone at a single go just in case of uprisings.
That is the basic scenario. Do you prefer to just decide what makes sense via discussion or roll it out? Either way works for me.
The player wanted to talk it out and use rolls only as needed:
As for how to proceed, I’d like to handle it mostly via discussion, with rolls whenever you think it appropriate. This might be viewed by Thor as an opportunity to test (and torment) his Paladin.— Sir Bel’s player Ed
What we did was a series of choices. The first decision was between dramatic action, exploration, or being tested by Thor.
It is a safe bet Bel knows about mummies because the process of making them is relatively common. I use the rules for Van Richten’s Guide to Monsters from Ravenloft for most things in my setting (including the were-creatures upstairs, not just the mummies and vampires).
They are uniquely among undead resistant to radiant damage but definitely vulnerable to fire. They are among the few undead that take full damage from psychic too because they do have minds. They may or may not have the soul of the original person. Greater Mummies are made from priests, sacred defenders, and lords and they always have the original soul and are completely sentient, can be negotiated with etc. Lesser Mummies are most often servants or generic guards, they can be mindless and soulless, and if the original soul is in there it has been driven mad by agony. Despite the name, a Lesser Mummy might be more dangerous than a Greater, the name is just because of the value of the person not the challenge rating of the monster in game terms. Though a priest who can still cast spells is incredibly scary.
The ritual chamber has supplies and tools that he knows he can use. Unlike other religions that would refuse to touch anything, Bel knows Thor is not against stealing from, or working with, giants and other evils if it gets the job done.
With your rope you’d still need something to act as a grapple, or someone outside to hold it/tie it off. You have been told by the Fomorian that there are supposedly secret entrances scattered around the temple on multiple levels.
So the first question is which floor? Attached are three maps (the module they are from totally screwed up proportions and scale so, sorry about that):
* “altar falls” 5th floor is the roof you can see where Bel was standing and where the altar went down.
* “altar breaks through” 4th floor is the ritual level. The altar glanced off that thick dividing wall the in middle and went nose-down into the floor, not sideways into it. This hole is much smaller but the floor here has ZERO support because look at the room below: it is a huge empty hall with no pillars or anything. So Bel coming down after the pillar could have ended with him making the hole bigger, landing safely, or landing at risk and having to save himself from falling a second time.
* “Hall” is the lowest you’ve seen, but still the 3rd floor of the temple.
The Landing— GavinRuneblade
Choose from Dramatic Action, Exploration, or Test:
Dramatically, I think it is most interesting if BECAUSE he held onto his maul, he punches loose one stone on the edge of the altar’s hole and hangs feet in the air of level 3, maul across the opening on the floor of level 4 holding him up with his chest and head on level 4. The two stones the maul is supported on are starting to give way and he has to choose to risk climbing up to the ritual chamber above where he thinks he can find options, or drop down to what he knows is stable ground, but he hears the groaning of something dangerous and cannot see what that room looks like at all. There is only dim light coming through the hole, because remember this is the realm of shadow it is never bright anywhere. This is the Dramatic action because he has to immediately save himself again and possibly get right into a fight with the mummy guard on the 3rd floor. Here, we’d call him having only a light leg injury.
Otherwise, he is far enough to the right and that hole on the ritual level is small enough, that he might have landed on safe flooring, but then how are his legs? This option would come with a serious leg would and maybe a light arm wound. This is the Explore option.
If he landed badly, say as he slid down the falling roof his head tipped back and angled his fall closer to the altar. He hits the edge of the hole on level 4 and goes down into level 3 with the floor. By luck, or fate, the altar crushes the mummy, but Bel has a light head wound, a mild chest wound (from the impact flat on his back against the stone floor of level 4), and light arm and leg wounds. He blacks out for a moment and comes awake as he realizes he needs to crawl out of the rubble that partly buried him. There is a hole straight up, but only a small area of dim light and everything else in every direction is black. The ceiling is more than 12 feet up, and the walls might be farther away into the darkness than he can get in one move without running (they’re not but he thinks they might be). Something is moving in the darkness, and the crushed mummy’s army is trying to rip loose from the body and crawl on its fingers. This is the Test option.
To no one’s surprise, Sir Bel chose the test option. There was one follow up interaction with a series of similar choices. Sir Bel’s player made his decisions and the next session picked up from there. An important part of this interaction is that the player didn’t just say “option C” he got to define his goals, how he envisioned it relating to his character’s relationship with his deity (Sir Bel is a paladin of Thor), and his vision of the character.
Bel’s immediate considerations will be to determine his own status, see if there’s a direct way out (he does carry a 50′ length of silk rope) so that he can return to help his party-members, and if that doesn’t seem possible, explore the temple with an eye to getting out. Oh, and he’ll also use Divine Sense to get an idea of what to expect out of the place. IIRC, Mummies are undead, but Bel is out of spell slots. OTOH, he’ll still fight if he has to fight: a Paladin of Thor doesn’t run from undead, though Bel *will* try to avoid fighting them.— Sir Bel’s player Ed
As an aside, though you probably already know this: Bel doesn’t try to act like Thor. He doesn’t drink like Thor does. He doesn’t have Thor’s bloodlust, either. He lacks many of Thor’s signature characteristics, and doesn’t try or want to try to emulate them. Bel has his own views and his own way of dealing with things, which he holds to. I think that this is one of the reasons Thor made him a Paladin; Thor did it *because* Bel is different, and he was both intrigued and amused by those differences. But in some things, they are indeed much alike: Bel, despite his pretenses, tends to be pretty single-minded about things that matter to him. He also does what he says he’ll do, once he says he’ll do it. He focuses on what matters and does what he thinks is right regardless of how others see it. He trusts his own judgement and, generally speaking, he *likes* Thor, treating him as much as a friend as he does as a god (though he never forgets that Thor *is* a god).
Anyway, I brought that up because IMO, this excursion is as much about Bel’s relationship with Thor as it is with him getting out of the predicament he’s in.
Alright, we had three different situations that each involved a PC vanishing in front of the party and being in potentially lethal danger all alone. Each time there was a slightly different method used to resolve the situation.
When the whole situation was a mystery to the players, the method of resolution was Player and DM verbal discussion and coming to consensus. No dice were rolled, and the player was granted the authority to decide the final outcome on the fly during the next session. This was a pure story-driven technique, 100% Role-play and 0% Roll-play with all power in the hands of the player.
When the situation was heavily understood by the player (and somewhat by the party), but only the outcome was a mystery, the method of resolution was to jointly construct a skill challenge and some unique magic items. Then the player made the requisite skill rolls. Because the player needed some time for their portion of the creative process, a single conversation wasn’t going to work out and we used email. This was a blended technique, I’d say 70% role-play and 30% roll-play, again the power of decision rested entirely with the player, and in this case the player even had a role in creating new items and backstory for the setting.
When the understanding and player knowledge wasn’t relevant, the real issue was how would the player have fun in the situation, the method of resolution was to inform the player of some of the out of character information and ask them what kind of challenge they wanted to play through. The starting conditions were set by player choice with the level of combat vs skill checks and starting injury vs resources in the environment being the parameters. Again, because the player needed time to think about it, email was used. Then, once the starting conditions were determined it was resolved in game purely by the dice. This was also a blended technique but in the other direction, I’d say 30% Role-play and 70% Roll-play, or maybe 40-60 with a 20/80 split of the power in the hands of the DM vs player and again the player got the chance to add some backstory into scenario.
In the end, all the players had a great time, they were very memorable scenes and the follow ups had the whole party engaged not just the vanishee’s. Also all three rose to the occasion of taking an active role in developing the story not just reacting to the DM’s story. So, the DM would like to pat himself on the back for apparently getting it right. There absolutely may be better ways to handle these situations, these three are just the ones that came up in the MAGI campaign, and hopefully the techniques are useful for some other DM out there. Also, I hope the players enjoy the behind the scenes look on what the other people got to do out of sight, why it was different for each of them, and how the outcomes came about the way they did.