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Tabletop Takeaways: Surface Tension

As our heroes arrive on the doorstep of the BBEG for the Rise of the Runelords Adventure Path, there’s sort of a clear path forward. There’s a huge – I’m talking 2,000+ feet fall – building that towers over the rest of the structures here, and it’s clearly the most opulent. This is the domain of Greed, after all.

However, the party doesn’t want to be backsided or surprised by anything. So, they begin investigating all of the buildings around the Pinnacle, trying to gain any advantage that they can against their foe. This includes the investigation of administrative buildings of the formerly-great Thassilonian Empire.

Going through each of the levels takes time, but it goes rather quickly because there aren’t any signs of life around. Eventually, they find details on the purposes of the buildings, thanks to some remnants of files left in one of the annexes. This truly was the heart of Greed, and it certainly makes sense that a Runelord’s return would originate where he was most comfortable in life.

Their next stop is to break into the lowest level of the building that was once a prison for enemies of the state. Thanks to a little quick-thinking and diplomacy, the party doesn’t end up fighting any of the many constructs tasked to guard the prisoners here. In fact, by posing as Karzoug’s trustees, they end up gaining some valuable intelligence about the current state of the army.

With the lower buildings checked out, the party begins investigating the upper buildings around the Pinnacle. They find everything in varied states of emptiness; some are burned out, others show signs of a hurried exit. But no matter where they go, everything is void of life.

FINALLY, they make their way to the massive Pinnacle building, noticing strange, lingering traces of magic in the area. Fyn breathes in deeply, which leads to a second vision of a young Karzoug, detailing his teenage years as a servant to the powerful demon binder, Thurbel.

It’s also where the party comes to the realization of the absolute power of the runewells, and potentially their own role in Karzoug’s rise…

The Takeaway

At this stage of the adventure, at the tail-end of the final book, you expect the action to begin wrapping up. This is the climax! Where’s that building crescendo before the entire story boils over into the final, prolonged triumph over evil? Instead of building up the tension, I found myself prey to the layout of this penultimate area and the players’ desires to leave no stone unturned.

Paizo doesn’t provide any specific maps or exceptional detail to these buildings, leaving it really outside the scope of the adventure. After all, at this point the party should be rushing to confront Karzoug and stop his return. So, why are they stopping to smell to figurative roses when they should be storming the gates?

This is ultimately my fault. In the early parts of the adventure, when the party encounters runewells and signs of Karzoug, I held everything very close to the vest. They really didn’t hear the name Karzoug until maybe halfway through the adventure, when I should have dropped that name much earlier.

Also, by not really knowing about the runewells, the party never made the connection between the Sihedron tattoos and markings on the enemies that they’ve fought. It isn’t until here that I finally give them a morsel of information, and suddenly they’re connecting all of the dots.

By being too secretive, and not wanting the players to come to a correct conclusion too early, I actually ended up eliminating the drive to thwart the Runelord’s rise. When you’ve invested over three years of time in a single campaign, it’s hard to see the endgame at the beginning, but you can definitely look back and see the parts that perhaps you should have done something differently.

I’ve definitely grown as a Gamemaster since we began this adventure, and I’ve learned to be a lot more forthcoming about information. There’s something to be said about being able to giggle behind your Gamemaster screen while the players debate and propose their theories on what’s going on. On the other hand, there’s a point where the players should have all of the information they need to make a correct guess. As a Gamemaster, you need to establish very early on where that point is within the adventure.

I recommend the following:

  1. Figure out when the party should have all of the information to know what’s going on in the greater story they’re a part of. This doesn’t mean that you have to spoon-feed them the answer, or tell them outright. Leave some mystery! At what point should they have all the pieces of the puzzle?
  2. Based on your answer to #1, what pieces of information do you need to get to the players?
  3. Determine where in the adventure you can dish out the pieces of information in #2. I like to use little sticky notes to draw attention to places where information needs to come out so that I don’t forget. A lot can happen in a session, and you can easily get distracted.

If you can successfully drop those breadcrumbs at just the right intervals, you should be able to adequately build the tension at appropriate times. And if you mix things up a little bit, it’s still okay! In my campaign, even though I haven’t done the best job at dishing out information, I’m still building the tension now that the party has moved away from their investigation of the surrounding buildings.

Inadvertently, the lack of enemies in those areas put the party on edge. If he knew they were coming, WHY would he continue letting the party advance into his stronghold?

Sometimes things work out that way!

Thanks for joining me at the table for Tabletop Takeaways! You can always read more campaign journal entries at Origami Goblin, or check out all of the other great GM tips on Nerds on Earth!

Here are all of the installments I’ve written thus far:

  1. Shadow of a Doubt – How to deal with rules mistakes
  2. On the Fly – How to stall and improve your improv
  3. Take the Shot – How to reconcile with tough GM choices
  4. Points of Interest – How to make overland travel interesting
  5. Ruling from the Throne – How to make rules interpretations
  6. Be a Thief – How to steal your players’ ideas
  7. The Plot Thickens – How to divulge story information
  8. Hoodwinked! – How to subtly befuddle your players
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