Twas but a short session, this past one, which kicked off with a Kingdom turn for the month of Kuthona. The kingdom’s treasury was doing pretty good– enough so that they claimed three new hexes, including the Abandoned Keep which previously housed several Fey creatures, and the Lizardfolk isle. Additionally, they constructed a Foundry on the east side of the capital by the dump to satisfy promises made to the priests of Brigh. The foundry was instrumental in boosting the kingdom’s economy, allowing them to refine the gunpowder and gold that they were mining from their territory. Of course, not everything was sunshine and roses– its dirt and smoke hung over the city and caused a bit of unrest with the populace, but they learned to be happy after further protection was given to them in the form of the newly rebuilt western wall.
During the council meeting that week, Tolemac’s rulers were visited by one of the priests of Brigh, a Kobold who was quite excited to show the group what he had brought them. After being introduced, he stood himself up on a chair and began his presentation. He showed the leaders a small rectangular box, with a gemstone set into the top left corner, and a hatch in the back of the box to allow for access to the inside. The Kobold inventor proudly introduced the clergy’s latest divine inspiration, which he called the ‘auto-painter.’ Its inaugural usage was there and then, as the Kobold shooed the leaders close in to each other before depressing a button on the top of the box, sending a bright glaring flare out of the gemstone! A few moments later, a slot opened up from the bottom, and a freshly painted piece of parchment was dispensed from the inside, showing a perfect likeness of the high council!
The group was highly impressed; the box was enchanted with a special spell to allow it to be used by anybody at all, no magical training required– all they had to do was point and click! The downsides, the inventor explained, was that after it dispensed each picture, it needed to be reloaded from the hatch in the back with specially prepared parchment. The process of preparing the parchment was quite involved though, and so would need to be made by the priests of Brigh. Maia Prang, the kingdom’s treasurer, was quite happy to hear this– exclusivity! Quite the marketable product, and she promised to meet with the Kobold afterwards to discuss further economic potential of their invention.
Jamandi Aldori, the kingdom’s Warden in charge of city security, was happy to report in the meantime that a recent sting operation had managed to bring down a black market fish-smuggling ring that had been operating in Elbat Dnuor for a couple months by then, following the partial destruction of the city by the massive Owlbear’s attack. Though the PC’s had been mostly unaware of this issue, they were nevertheless happy to hear that the problem had been solved, and saw an increase in their kingdom’s stability and a decrease in local crime as a reward. Finally, with all of their administrative duties brought to an end, the party was ready to head out and figure out what was happening to those merchant caravans.
Elysia the Ranger led the charge, leading the way along the trade route which he had been provided as part of the bounty board’s information. The trade route left Elbat Dnuor to the east, crossing over the local bridge that spanned the Shrike river and ending up in the hills outside of Tolemac. From there, they went south along the lake and then followed the Gudrin river until they came to the ford. South from there, eventually cutting back west to the Mud Bowl, where the caravan would often pick up fungus and other medicinal herbs. Thus far the party had no signs of conflict or danger, and so they continued onward. Eventually, the trail led them into the Narlmarches, the route now taking a beeline towards the old Dwarven stronghold that Hargulka had used as his base of operations.
As they were traveling along following the rough trail in the forest, the group was surprised when suddenly, a tall man with a confident air about him appeared in front of them! Coming to a halt, Gavriil the Arcanist greeted the man with a cheerful hello. The man greeted the party with words of his own: “Welcome to my forest. If you wish to live, you will give me your valuables.” This, of course, was met with scoffing, Eneko the Cavalier/Bard stepping forward to inform the man “I don’t believe you know who you are dealing with.” The man didn’t seem to care when informed, and again told them, “This is your last chance. Surrender your valuables, and you may flee with your lives.” Duke Eneko, not one to suffer fools, launched into a tirade of reasons why the man should flee for his life now, before he was ended. At about the same time, Gavriil decided that he would attempt to Detect Magic in the area, and as he was registering an aura of illusion was present, the man gave a sigh, nonplussed by the duke’s attempt to intimidate him. A second later….a green dragon materialized in front of the party!
Even as Gavriil shouted out the presence of an illusion, Noruas swung her rifle around, sighting down upon the man standing in front of them and firing a full volley into him! She was quite pleased to see that it was a critical hit– and much less pleased to see that her shots blasted through him apparently doing no harm, instead splintering a tree somewhere beyond him. Realizing that the dragon wasn’t the illusion, her next three shots landed in the dragon’s hide, causing it to roar in pain and outrage! The rest of the group scrambled into action, with Elysia firing a set of arrows into the creature which pierced its wings, while Gavriil managed to Haste the entire party. The dragon, for its part, gave another roar of fury, and then opened its maw, unleashing an impressively large spew of acid which managed to soak through every single one of the party, Elysia’s animal companion Tyr, and Eneko’s horse Taz. Noruas managed to avoid the entirety of the blast by throwing herself out of the way just in time, but the rest were not as lucky. The majority of the rest were able to dodge some of the green liquid, but Gavriil, at the extreme edge of the blast, was caught full-on and drenched in acid, instantly dropping to one hit-point.
The dragon took off into the air, flapping its massive wings and soaring up a hundred feet in height, floating above the party. A few more shots from the group caused the dragon extreme pain and damage, and Noruas even managed a hit that blew off one of the dragon’s hind legs! Realizing the reality of its situation, the creature shouted back upon the wind to the party that it would return….and began to fly off, heading away over the hills and placing a steeply rising cliff in between himself and the party. The group had only seconds to respond, to figure out something to try and finish off the dragon; Gavriil’s Fireball spell seemed not to effect it, and none of the rest of the group could get a good line of sight upon the dragon as it retreated. Elysia, thinking quickly, took one of her last few Tree Feather Tokens out of her pouch and threw it hard into the ground, sending a tree sprouting up in front of her! Making her reflex save, she grabbed ahold of the growing plant and swung herself up into a stable position at the top of the tree, which grew just high enough to give her an angle upon the retreating dragon.
With a careful breath, Elysia drew back her bow, Eneko below her offering her words of courage and inspiration. She sighted down the shaft, adjusted for the immense distance….and loosed. The arrow flew true, arcing over three hundred feet to strike the dragon just right, and sending it crashing down into the forest below…dead! The party cheered, Elysia offering a brief grin before dropping down to the ground. With the foe defeated, the group began scaling (or floating, in the case of Gavriil) the cliff between them and the dragon’s corpse. Reaching the top, they made their way towards where the creature fell, the Ranger spotting along the way a small cave. Diverting to investigate, the party found inside a large treasure horde, filled with glittering coins and gems, as well as some old wagons filled with various goods and supplies, possibly once having been bound to or from the capital.
Among the items found was a beautiful set of Green Dragonhide Armor, a potion of Resist Acid, a ring of Improved Climbing, and Mistmail. Most of these items were found along with the skeletons of two humanoids….perhaps previous adventurers who had attempted to stop the dragon?
The session came to an early close as the party decided upon the best way to return the harvested dragon parts and treasure hoard to their capital, with a decision eventually being made to take the most of the best and most valuable parts of the dragon’s corpse along with them, and to send caravans back to the location to collect the rest of the hoard. Elysia also made a promise to be sure to educate the citizens of Elbat Dnuor on just what exactly a Tatzlwyrm looks like– for what they faced most assuredly had not been one!
Players, do not read!
Okay– lets talk balance. No, better yet– lets talk challenge. I’m much more interested in challenge, than I am in balance. This should be evident by the way I’ve altered the Pathfinder rules to favor the player’s ability to customize/power up (such as changing proficiencies to a skill-point investment instead of a feat investment). Thing is…I’m having a difficult time giving the party encounters that challenge them, without completely overwhelming them. I’m all for the encounter that they can breeze through without a problem– let them have their moments of greatness every now and then, give them the feeling that they are important in the world! But then when they must face off against the truly terrible things in this world– such as a troll king, or the mother of all owlbears, or an enormous Roc, or a Green Dragon– I want them to feel….challenged. Like these things are great accomplishments.
In the fight with the green dragon, the dragon was able to get *one* attack. It was the second to last in initiative order, so it took a bit of damage from the party first– but then it got off its nasty breath weapon for about 40 points of acid to everyone (very nice of them to have placed themselves on the map in a nice grouping, Gavriil actually moved away on his turn but ended up just in range of the cone), and flew up up and away to place it into range penalties for the archers. Interestingly, because the majority of this party deals ranged damage, that really didn’t do too much to stopping them from hitting him, and instead made me regret that he had taken off, because when his next turn came around he wouldn’t be able to make a full-round attack spread out across each of the PC’s. That, of course, turned out to be entirely pointless anyways– but the time his second turn came around, there would be no way that he’d survive another round of combat. So….he ran away, live to fight another day. The terrain that I had set up for the area had been designed as such that if the dragon wanted to, it could have grabbed one of the PC’s and flown it up on top of the cliffs to split them off from the party. That wasn’t able to happen, but it did provide decent visual cover from the party to shield it from their attacks as it ran away.
I will say one thing about this encounter: I loved how it ended. It was really short, the dragon only hit the party once, and overall it didn’t give that feeling of amazing and overwhelming power that I wanted it to– but man, did he die in a cinematic fashion! After it took its turn to fly away, I straight up told the players– ‘okay, he’s 300 feet away, 100 feet in the air, and he’s broken line of sight because of the 40 foot tall cliffs. If anyone has anything they can do at all to try and stop him, this is your one and only chance before he gets away.’ After a bit of pondering, Elysia’s player asked me, ‘do I have enough time to throw down one of my Tree Feather Tokens?’ I had to grin at that, and so the tree sprouted. Elysia got a Reflex save to grab on, and an Acrobatics check to get a good stable spot to fire from, and something like a -6 or -8 on range penalties for the 300 foot shot…but with an extra bit of boost from a Bardic spell to add 2d4 to the attack roll, she *just* met the dragon’s AC. One hit…down. It was pretty awesome.
However, here’s the kicker: When preparing the encounter, I wanted to see what I could do with this CR10 dragon to make it a challenge for the party, where it wouldn’t straight up die as soon as it was spotted. We began with an Invisibility spell and an illusion, to give the group a nice surprise when a dragon appeared in their midst. I also love that they fell for my trick– first thought was that the dragon was an illusion, had me chuckling for a little bit! The next thing I did to prepare the dragon was to give him some new feats– Hover, Flyby attack, things like that. Hover, by the way, is pretty awesome because it lets you kick up a cloud of dust that gives concealment– thought that’d be pretty nice to use to block up lines of sight for the archers. After that we gave the interesting terrain of the nearby cliffs so that the dragon could draw one or two of the PC’s up there to engage while the rest attempted to catch up. Finally…I increased its hit-points to 200.
And wouldn’t you know it, I let that sucker stay alive after he ran out of hit points before his second turn. When the dust settled and Elysia’s arrow hit him, the final damage total would have left that dragon at -138 hit points, meaning the party had dealt a total damage of 338…within two rounds of combat. That was about 200 hit points more than the typical CR10 green dragon is supposed to have anyways, give or take. And the party is level seven– a CR10, even a single creature, should be quite the challenge!
So what is the cause of this imbalance and inability to properly challenge the party? I hate to say it, but I’m going to place the blame pretty much on the Gunslinger class. At this level, our friendly Musket Master has a +5 dex bonus which is being added to damage rolls with rifles (a standard for the class which is gained at level five), a double-barreled musket she built to allow for extra shots, reloading is a free action (combination of a feat, a Musket Master archetype feature, and special ammunition), and to top it all off the musket’s crit modifier is x4! This is going to be quite something else now that she’s taken a new level in Barbarian– I’ve heard that her Barbarian archetype that she chose will give her a bonus to Dex while raging, giving a bigger bonus to AC, to-hit bonus, and damage on top of that. And honestly, the thing is…pretty much none of that is because of my homebrewed rules for the game.
This is leading me to the conclusion that either Paizo just didn’t put enough thought into this class, or that there’s something that I’m missing. The firearms hit touch AC, so all the large and impressive enemies that should be a threat to the party get hit on pretty much anything but a one; the multiple shots takes out the foes quickly; and to top it all off the high dexterity lends to higher initiatives which often results in Noruas taking her turn before the foes. These factors have led to some interesting enemy tactics in the past– hordes of small enemies with few hit points will die in one shot, but if I have enough of them they can’t all be killed in one round; creatures who grapple the party instead of attack with physical blows; even just going as far as to add huge amounts of HP to their targets. The adventure itself has lent itself only a single enemy thus far who has proven to be a reasonably level-appropriate challenge for the Gunslinger and the party as a whole: the Quickling in the Dancing Lady’s keep. His high dexterity gave him a naturally high touch AC, and added on top of that was his blur chance when he was moving quickly enough. Of course, as soon as he slipped up and lost the blur chance, he was obliterated in one go….
So what will I do about this? I don’t like throwing targets with naturally enormous pools of hit-points at the party; doing that usually means that the creature is way above average party level, and its damage potential means that it might kill a PC with one or two hits– more deadly than I want. Throwing enormous amounts of enemies at the party also has its drawbacks, specifically in the time it takes to run a combat encounter, but it does mean that *everyone* in the fight will get the chance to feel effective, which is another disadvantage of the one really big and powerful enemy– if he’s got a huge number of hit points, I don’t want the rest of the party to feel like they aren’t affecting it with their 15 and 20 points of damage per hit. Adding HP to an average party level creature has had moderate success, but again I brush with troubles of other PC’s not feeling as effective.
I suppose the conclusions I’m led to are twofold: One, I will have to modify the heck out of a bunch of encounters moving forward. In the past I’ve utilized the community-made six-player conversion guide for Kingmaker, but now that seems to be less useful as a quick fix, and more of a possible starting point to bring things in, take things out, and adjust. I’m thinking of trying to include more creatures or NPC’s with a dexterous build, and more fully utilizing terrain and environment in encounters to give the party different things to deal with other than just the enemies.
Conclusion two is that I may need to hold some kind of group discussion about the gunslinger class. When starting games, my first inclination is to let players create the characters they want, and to let them be pretty awesome. After running this game for eleven months, I’m trying to find what gives the whole group the most fun– so if none of the party have any issues with the challenge or lack thereof which they’ve experienced thus far, perhaps I don’t really need to do anything other than what I’ve been doing. But it would be decent to talk about it with everyone, especially with Noruas’s player to see her take on the situation. If the party thinks it’s for the best to change the class, I’m not really certain what we could change to make a major difference. Perhaps making the firearms hitting regular AC instead of touch AC, or removing the dex bonus to damage on the firearms? Both of those seem like they almost rob the class of what makes it special though…so I’m not convinced that would be the right way to go yet. Anyways, those are my thoughts on what we’ve got going on there– if you’ve got any suggestions, feel free to mention them in the comments!