Last week’s session ended with the death of the paladin-cleric, Ravakain, who had been one of the only stable and consistently good characters in the party. From what I’d seen before (and especially what came after), I believe that Ravakain may have been one of the two major PCs keeping the group from completely falling apart. The other force is Theatris, Ravakain’s best friend. Unfortunately, because of this relationship and other matters at play in the campaign, this drove Theatris to go on an enraged hunt for the rogue, Cal. Cal had already betrayed the party last semester and was being kept under the eye of the party. Cal had fled when Ravakain died, leaving Throg, the dwarf chaos mage, on the floor, bleeding out. Bizshnips, the wizard, was busy reverse-engineering magical technologies they had stolen from the Archmage in a cavern, a three day’s journey from the town.
Everyone was scattered everywhere and no one was together. And I had to reincorporate a character who hadn’t been around for a few weeks and the Ravakain’s player’s new character – Tret. My solution was to treat the entire session as one big, dramatic session.
I started by setting the DCs for any checks a little higher than normal. I also gave the player’s a session-long escalation die. They could add it to skill checks in addition to attack rolls. I went from character to character as we roleplayed how they were dealing with the problems they’d been left with from previous sessions. After each character had had their time in the spotlight, the escalation die would increase by 1.
The result was probably one of the most dramatic sessions I’ve run. We would end each character’s scene right at a moment when things were ramping up (one player compared this to the Star Wars prequel movies; always creating tension). Throg was about to have his neck snapped by a Great Old One when we’d cut to Theatris taking a chainsaw to Cal’s head and just when that happened, we’d cut to Elim, a ranger, who had his eagle reporting to him on events.
The escalation die worked as I expected it to. Early on in the session, the players were having slightly more trouble making their saves/checks/attacks due to the slightly increased DCs. With the ‘fail forward’ philosophy, this created more complications. As the session progressed, they succeeded more and more, which kept things moving forward, eventually culminating in a moment when Throg arrives at the battle where Elim and Tret are trying to stop Theatris from killing Cal. Throg finally knocked some sense into Theatris by explaining that the Great Old One they were having problems with was in the very town they were in and they needed to stop fighting! (The final total for the roll, with the escalation die, was in excess of 30)
I also was able to use the escalation die to have events trigger on different rounds. I spent the week preparing for the session simply coming up with things that I could use to make the situation worse. (It was already clear that the characters’ conflicting motivations and alliances, distrust for each other, and the death of a friend were going to be driving the majority of the session) When the escalation die reached 3, the Archmage unleashed his army upon the city of Forge (the characters ignited a war between the Dwarf King and the Archmage a week before in game time and this seemed like the perfect session for this to be very inconvenient). When the escalation die reached 5, the cultists of the Great Old One had succeeded in their ritual and the earthquakes started again as the underkrakens restarted their journey to the surface.
This usage of the escalation die gave a structure to the entire session, which was greatly needed since they had split the party as much as they could. Using the escalation die outside of combat is something that should probably be saved for sessions where you might have “rounds of roleplaying”, lots of PvP going on, and a very split party.