A few players were running late, so I decided to open the session with a discussion on expectations/hopes about the campaign. Most of the players I had met with prior to session zero, to talk about my intentions for the campaign and hear if they had any concerns with my choice to limit the game to human characters and to introduce some game hacks. As a group, the four players present talked about what they were excited about:
- The darker setting/tone and the idea that magic is somewhat taboo
- Playing at a physical table & playing with a more serious tone – not adventure zone
- Having a regular time to get out of the house to hang out with friends, hoping for a longer campaign
- Exploring the setting and learning more about the mechanics that we will be hacking into 5e
I was grateful that the players were excited about many of the same things that I was hopeful to do with the campaign. I think that meeting with them ahead of time to discuss my aspirations about the campaign was helpful to get everyone on the same page during session zero.
After one player discussed mechanics, I told the group that I did not want to run a game where character optimization or balanced encounters were a core focus. I shared a bit about the fact that while I do know the rules and want the rules to guide 95% of what happens at the table, I believe that game tone is the most important element. That as long as we have a shared understanding about the tone of the setting, that we can each enjoy the game and have varied sessions that speak to the interests of each player. I want combat to be fun, but I will not usually prepare a series of “set-piece” encounters for any given session. Further, if there are times when we aren’t sure how the rules would work in a particular situation, I will want us to discuss it as a table and choose the option that best fits into the established tone and fiction.
I transitioned us into gameplay by passing out pregenerated “level 10” characters. I used a stripped down character sheet for each one that only had a handful of attributes, abilities, and values. I told my players that we would be playing with cinematic rules for the purposes of this session zero. I had prompted them by emailing that we would be playing out a historic vignette that would have occurred a generation prior to our campaign. I elaborated on this idea at the table, by giving some narration:
“You are elite troops who have spent your lives fighting a generational war against the Dark Lords. A few years ago the king died and the young queen, only 12, picked up his spear and has led the charge against the undead foes. Unfortunately, despite all the gains of late, the young queen was captured within the past month. This loss has galvanized the army, and now you are with a group of templars leading the charge against the Vampire’s Castle where the queen is being held.”
I asked the players to name their pre-gen characters, letting them know that north-east European names would be the norm. We ended up with: Peter Petchkoff, Piotr Metchnik, Akman, Gregor, and (after Gregor died) Irena.
Scene 1 – Undead Masses
“A trebuchet payload breaches the tower nearest your position, the four of you run through the opening before the stonework crumbles behind you. You are isolated from your battalion. Ahead of you in the dark tower you see one of The Undying. He speaks words of arcane power that awaken the many servitors along the two walls. These skeletal troops wear the armor of your nation, they are the animated corpses of your fallen comrades. The air reeks of carrion and decay. A blue circle fades into life and the Mage disappears, teleportation magic. The circle is still active, but fading. What do you do?”
I had miniatures set out on the table, the players were on one end of a hallway. Each side of the hall had 8 zombie/skeletons and one giant flesh golem. The teleportation circle was about 40 feet away from them. After initiative was rolled, only one player was able to act prior to the horde. The greataxe wielding fighter (Akman) took out two of the lesser undead, and then all the players were swarmed. The masses of foes didn’t do too much damage, but the golems began pounding away at the heroes. The wizard summoned a wall of fire, killing eight undead and wounding a flesh golem. The cleric healed one of the fighters who had been struck by the flesh golem, and then ran towards the portal. The others fought as they could, Akman realized that one of the zombies was the animated corpse of his brother, who had fallen in combat against the Dead Nation. The wizard ended up isolated on one side of the room, and both flesh golems charged him. They pounded poor Gregor into the ground as the other three characters stepped into the teleportation circle.
Scene 2 – War Room & Hallway
“You emerge from the teleportation circle into a round room, ringed with similar circles of power. They are all dull & inert, the one you stepped out from fades to grey. The center of the room holds a heavy wooden table, covered with maps, books and other objects. It appears to be a war room, a place of strategizing. The room is ringed with leaded glass windows. The sounds of the siege echo from far below. You realize you are near the top of the main keep. Some burning pitch flies past the window, exploding in a blaze against a nearby tower. There is one large door leading out from this room. A trail of fresh blood leads from a nearby teleportation circle through the ajar door. What do you do?”
The group took a moment to mourn for Gregor before heading towards the door to scout. They discovered a hallway leading to a large door about 50’ away at the opposite end. Another large door was midway down on the left wall, and a small reinforced door was set into the right wall near the far end. Voices could be heard down the hallway from the room at the end.
The group listened first at the door to the left. They heard numerous footsteps running away from the door. The blood trail led through this door.
The characters proceeded to the reinforced door, and heard a rattle of chains within. At this point, I turned to the player who had been playing as Gregor and told him that he was a woman in her late 20’s who had been captured along with the queen. I asked him what class he was, and he chose to be a rogue named Irena. I said that Irena has been plotting her escape these last few weeks, and has learned how to work her chains loose.
We had a good scene with Irena asking the party who they were with the opening question “Are you the Dead or the Living?” before freeing her from her captivity.
The cleric (Petchkoff) soon convinced Irena that they were allies, but the commotion of the conversation alerted the well-trained ears of the vampire steward in the next room. Filip the steward appeared in the doorway, receiving an arrow to the chest and an axe blow to boot. The party was dissuaded that their blows seemed to barely hinder the vampire, who then bit the fighter and regained his full health.
Petchkoff held forward his holy symbol and channeled his divinity, Prios the Lightbringer. Instead of a normal turning a miracle then occurred, waves of sun fire filled the hallway and reduced Filip to a pile of smoking ash. After the blinding brilliance faded, the cleric found that the holy symbol he held was now a sphere that appeared as a sun.
Scene 3 – The Dark Lord’s Chamber
“In the silence following the miracle of Prios, you each feel something vibrating the very air of this hallway. In tune with your own heartbeats, the very chamber before you seems to thrum with a heart of it’s own. Beyond the charred doorway you behold a large octagonal chamber with an enormous black iron chandelier hanging far above. The chandelier holds enormous red wax candles that burn crimson. Each candle seems to contain a skeletal corpse within the wax. Opposite you is an enormous bronze and iron sarcophagus set against the far wall. Nex to that chamber is a smaller door, where Irena believes the queen to be held. Laughter fills the chamber, as the Dark Lord whispers telepathic promises of death to each of you.”
Akman ran to investigate the crypt while Metchnik, Petchkoff, & Irena opened the door to the queen’s cell. They freed the queen, who was extremely weak and frail from torture and starvation. She reached out a hand to Metchnik, asking who it was that freed her and offering her blessing against the dark lord. Metchnik received her boon, standing up and applying a vial of blessed oil to both of his short swords.
The sarcophagus opened releasing a thin fog and ten ghasts. The cleric cast holy aura, giving advantage to his allies and disadvantage to the undead foes. After a round of fighting, the fog thickened such that all were effectively blinded. In this chaos, a few ghasts were slain. In the following round, the chandelier flames roared as a deep arcane voice boomed out from the crypt. The flames seemed to depart from the candles, each character saw in their peripheral vision the apparitions of many flaming skeletons flying through the room, but they could never see one clearly, only in their peripheral vision.
These flaming wraiths seared away some of the fog, reducing it from heavy to light. In the light fog, they witnessed a 10’ tall hulking vampire lord emerge from the crypt.
During each round of combat, I described sounds of an approaching force of templars. As the lord emerged, the templars were attempting the breach the iron portcullis that closed off the chamber after the players entered.
The players fought a last round of combat against the giant vampire. Metchniks’ blessed blades seemed particularly effective, and the dark lord’s skin blistered where the blades cut him. The lord spoke arcane words and suddenly appear as multiple identical images. The lord then pointed at Irena and spoke words of death and disease. Irena was reduced to 4hp after failing her con save.
At this point we faded to cutscene, narrating the resolution of the battle as the templars entered the chamber. I worked in the prep questions (below) to the players as they narrated the resolution of their characters.
We talked about these events being part of the lore of the world, and I told the players that they could narrate the fate of each of the characters and also describe whether there was any link between their campaign character and their pre-gen. We had some really good discussion around this topic, the players all really loved Gregor the Wizard who died in the first scene. Since Irena the Rogue was at 4 hp, the player decided that she was mortally wounded in the upcoming fight. He was somewhat gleeful and chuckled “I’ve never had two characters die in one session before!”
With the rest of the time, the players created their lvl 1 characters for our upcoming campaign. They each rolled for attributes and together chose to play two Fighters, a Paladin, a Rogue, and a Cleric.
The only prep I really did for this whole session was writing the following four questions, some of them I was able to get into a scene but the rest of them were answered during the end narration:
- You come face to face with your brother, now raised to serve as undead in the dark lord’s army.
- How does he appear to you?
- What family heirloom do you recover from his body?
- In the tower of the dark lord, in a moment of respite you notice an ancient tome of power.
- Is it in a script that you understand?
- Does anyone see you take it?
- Surrounded by skeletal foes, you surge with the holy fire of Prios. After the blaze recedes, a blessed object now rests in your hand.
- What form did the holy artifact take?
- Was it handed over to the church or kept secret?
- After rescuing the queen from her captors, the queen gave you a boon.
- What did you ask for?
- How did it go awry?
I used the Blood tables in Kabuki Kaiser’s Castle Gargantua to come up with descriptions of the rooms.