DM-Only: Allying with Vargas (session 5+) SPOILERS

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The following is for DMs only. If you're a player, click away now!

A friend of mine running Encounters asked a question about using Vargas in a much more on-stage way in session 5 and onward. Particularly, his PCs had a good first impression of him and he became a major NPC ally. Leading to the question: What if Vargas accompanies them in session 5?

This is how my friend lays out his idea:

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In Session 4, our heroes met Vargas for the second time in his home, and one of the more genre-savvy players told the rest of the table "this guy is DEFINITELY the villain", so I spent the rest of the session playing him up as a charismatic and funny character so they would lose the thread (ended up playing him as Dr Orpheus from Venture Bros, which worked beautifully. Such a great character). So of course, they decided they like this guy and want to help him find his wife when he asked to put in a good word, and plan to meet him at Helm's Hold in a couple of days.

The story as written doesn't actually seem to suggest what happens if Vargas comes with them in Session 5 - it seems to assume that he breaks in. So I am trying to figure out how to make this work, and if possible even extend the big reveal until Session 7 or 8 so it is even more dramatic. Any thoughts? Below is my rough idea, feedback or other suggestions much appreciated.

Vargas shows up with them at the front gate of Helm's Hold. Instead of being dominated, the guards are genuinely trying to keep people out because of a riot inside the hold and the danger to general public / not letting lack of control get even more out of hand. Vargas hangs back until heroes either get through or go around. He may have activated everyone inside the previous night or similar, so the dominated inside are as written. As soon as they get inside, he runs off, saying he will find his wife and tasking the heroes to help placate the patients.

When they enter the main hall, they instead see Chartifilex (in elf form) attacking the Prophet, and session ends with the dragon transformation.

Session 6, heroes wake up the Prophet and she says the Torturer came and took Karis upstairs before the dragon showed up (this being Vargas, but they don't make the connection yet). Session 7 goes as written, with the big reveal likely at the end (spilling into beginning of Session 8) - either they see him take off the mask to console his wife or something like that.


Which is a fantastic plan, to which I only added a few more ideas:

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I would suggest an alternative in session 5 is to have Vargas, as soon as the combat begins, say "keep them busy! I'll find my wife!" then disappear. The guy's a wizard, and just because invisibility isn't listed on his statblock doesn't mean he can't do it. Also, we've already seen him capable of teleporting.

When the heroes get to session 6, Vargas has disappeared, and if they demand "what happened to our friend?", have Char programmed to say something about having destroyed him, etc. That is, after all, Vargas's plan--if the pcs have got that far, the dragon will take care of them.


If your PCs did not make such an arrangement but you still like this idea and the PCs had a good interaction with Vargas, consider the following:

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Vargas is the one who requests help getting into Helm's Hold. Someone (Vargas himself, of course) has caused havoc inside the place (because remember, Vargas has been having his mind-dominated slaves infiltrate the Hold), and now it's on lock-down. Vargas has, of course, set all this up. He figures the PCs will come after him eventually, so he lures them to Helm's Hold in order to have Chartilifax kill them. he doesn't anticipate them fighting their way out of the trap, much less challenging him.


Food for thought!

Cheers
Thanks Erik. Due to extremely low numbers last week I am now a week behind in running so we will be doing a mega day of session 4, 5, and probably 6 due to losing Memorial weekend. I will incorporte the ideas of you into the plan.
If you're going this route, I'd suggest changing the initial opener to mention Vargas traveling out with the PCs instead of Satarin asking for aid; after all, he paid them last session to talk to the Prophet on his behalf. It seems like a little too much coincidence if both the letter and Vargas are pushing them at the Hold.

To my mind, Vargas' motivations and actions in Chapter 2 are the weakest part of the story. I like the idea of him being a supposed ally during the initial opening, and then, when the PCs start to take care of the riot in progress, saying "I'll find my wife!" and vanishing. If it makes the game flow better, make it a potion of invisitiility instead of a spell.

I'm anticipating running this in D&D Next, so I'm worried about the balance of the dominated inmates. Some of them seem a little weak.
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The Dominated Acolytes get advantage against any targets that can't move, but none of the spellcasters have spells that prohibit movement; it seems like that would have been a good time to have command ("Stop!") on the Dominated Adept's list.
If your PCs are having a hard time with the encounter, conversely, consider replacing the greatclubs they fight with (where did they get them?) with improvised weapons (1d4+2 damage instead of 1d8+2).

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D&D Next: VALOREIGN Home Game Development, Kalani's Homebrew and Original Content | General Campaign Stuff: Bawylie's Budget Dungeons

"D&D is an elf from Tolkien, a barbarian from Howard, and a mage from Vance fighting monsters from Lovecraft in a room that looks like it might have been designed by Wells and Giger." -- TiaNadiezja

To my mind, Vargas' motivations and actions in Chapter 2 are the weakest part of the story.

Really? Huh. As the author of the adventure, I'd like to hear more about why you feel this way . . .

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Seems to me this entire thing has been about rescuing his wife and getting some vengeance along the way, which is pretty much what he gets to do in Helm's Hold. In chapter 1, he was putting his pawns in place, and in chapter 2, he springs his endgame, which would have gone off without a hitch if the PCs hadn't interfered. 

What would you have had him do differently?
 

If your PCs are having a hard time with the encounter, conversely, consider replacing the greatclubs they fight with (where did they get them?) with improvised weapons (1d4+2 damage instead of 1d8+2).

Great suggestion! To explain, this is an issue of using pre-existing monsters, rather than creating new ones for the adventure. But generally speaking, the logic runs that the dominated inmates have access to the Helm's Hold armory. 

Alternatively, if a DM wants them to use improvised weapons that still function like greatclubs, you can easily rule that they seized particularly stout objects such as iron pokers, marble statues, etc, which function like greatclubs, or perhaps the Tormentor conjured up some weapons for his troops.

Cheers
Really? Huh. As the author of the adventure, I'd like to hear more about why you feel this way . . .

What would you have had him do differently?



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It seems unnecessarily dramatic. Vargas can teleport and turn invisible; yet he needs to use dominated minions to spring his wife? I've had PCs with access to only one of these abilities successfully pull off rescues. Alternatively, he could just use his dominated dragon to retreive his wife. Once he's got her, he's got plenty of time to plan his revenge on people he thinks have slighted him. If he pulls her out himself with his own magic, he could probably frame it as an Ashmadai thing, and totally divert attention from himself. Frankly, I'm not sure why he wants the PCs there at all. If they're in the habit of answering letters for help from any stranger who asks, they'll be in for a lot of fruitless journeys. On the other hand, it seems to me he could have distracted them in Neverwinter through a number of strategems if he thought they were enough of a threat. And he used to be a professional is assessing threats when he was a war wizard of Cormyr; remember, he was an interrogator and mind-mage, this is his element. The scenario seems too scripted, as if it was a novel rather than an adventure where the PCs are supposed to make meaningful choices.

Vargas used the Ashmadai to kidnap people on which to experiment to try to figure out how to cure his wife. To my mind, this has more long-term dramatic potential in a scenario that spans a longer time, such as the War of Everlasting Darkness scenario from Season 11. Perhaps the PCs could have been brought in earlier in the kidnappings. They investigate, in the process making some friends in Neverwinter. At a dramatically appropriate moment, it turns out one of their confidantes was kidnapped earlier. Most of the kidnapped who are recovered are sent to Helm's Hold (since they've been used to test mind magic, no one should question this). When Vargas decides he has enough to cure his wife (or when the heat has gotten too hot for him because the PCs investigations have borne fruit) he sets off dominated minions throughout the city. The chaos in Helm's Hold lets him reclaim his wife, while the PCs' dominated ally makes for an emotionally charged battle. When they track down Vargas, he is in the midst of a ritual to cure his wife, a ritual that Asmodeus has corrupted to bring a diabolic intelligence into the mundane plane in the body of Vargas' wife. If Vargas has let them in on his wife's condition earlier, then by now they can have sympathy to her and feel the struggle - do they kill the devil or do they save the woman? How to do both? Can they? It could be a climactic battle against a full-on Infernal incursion, staved off by the PCs instead of them preventing some guy from attempting to misguidedly rescue his wife.

Anyway, I apologize if that was long-winded and not interesting. But that's probably how I would have done something similar in my home game.

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D&D Next: VALOREIGN Home Game Development, Kalani's Homebrew and Original Content | General Campaign Stuff: Bawylie's Budget Dungeons

"D&D is an elf from Tolkien, a barbarian from Howard, and a mage from Vance fighting monsters from Lovecraft in a room that looks like it might have been designed by Wells and Giger." -- TiaNadiezja

Interesting! I'm not sure what you mean by your novel vs D&D game comparison. Logic is just something that every story requires, whatever the medium. Characters in novels and in games make choices with consequences--it's just that in novels I as the author can determine those choices, whereas in a game the best I can do as the author is anticipate what some of those choices might be, and you as the DM have to anticipate the others.

 

D&D Encounters is supposed to be a singular story, wherein lots of people play the same adventure, going through the same campaign--it's a little railroady by design. That said, I have tried to build in as much freedom of choice and action as the form allows, and encourage DMs to innovate and tell their own stories, like the alliance concept, which the baseline adventure does not anticipate.


Anyway, regarding your thoughts on this course of the story, I certainly won't argue with you, mostly because I see nothing wrong with your plans! As a DM, it's your prerogative to do what makes sense at your table.

 

Here are some considerations, however, to take into account:


1) Magic has limits
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This is D&D here. If it were logical, wizards would just win every situation. But magic has limits in the game. Powerful as Vargas might be, he can't just sweep in and take what he wants whenever he wants it. It's a conceit, sure, but it's necessary to game function.


Here are a couple reasons why:


2) Villainous Competition
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Neverwinter is full of powerful npcs, not the least of which is the Prophet, who is way more powerful than Vargas. He is better served to turn her pawns and servants against her, then spring the trap on her when it's too late... Which is exactly what he does in session 5-6.


3) The Storm is Key
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Vargas needs the storm . . . or more specifically, his wife needs it. Even if he could teleport in and rescue her, she's still crazy, and now he has to flee the city, losing everything he has carefully built for years. He's a controller: it is against his nature to sacrifice his tools unnecessarily, particularly in the name of love or some such nonsense.


4) The PCs are a Problem
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Vargas had a plan, to seed Helm's Hold with sleeper minions, and he was well on his way to getting that accomplished. In chapter 1, the pcs stumble onto his plans, and in session 4, he comes face to face with the threat they pose. The baseline adventure assumes he takes steps to stay below the radar, but by coincidence the heroes are summoned to Helm's Hold. He doesn't want them there, but they show up all the same, as a logical consequence of what he's doing (i.e. Brother Satarin manages to get a S.O.S. out to the PCs to help with Vargas's endgame). Perhaps that's him subconsciously sabotaging himself--villains do this all the time in fantasy. It suggests that he's conflicted and maybe redeemable.


5) Dealing with the PCs
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If Vargas is actively luring the pcs to Helm's Hold, as is the case in my friend's innovation, it is because he recognizes them as a threat, but he can't just ignore them or they will get suspicious. If the PCs have (as my friend recounts) volunteered to help him save his wife and Vargas agreed, then logically Vargas has to play along until he has an opportunity to get rid of them. (And that appeals to his tyrannical mindset--he likes controlling the direction and actions of his enemies as well as his friends.) Sending them against his dragon is his best shot at putting them out of his misery. It doesn't even occur to him the pcs might be able to defeat Chartilifax. And yet, again, he's sabotaging himself subconsciously.


In conclusion: absolutely do what makes sense to you--it's your game and your story. I just wanted to offer some of my intentions.


Cheers
I like all of the points in the previous post. This may just boil down to a DM style, because I think the campaign setting and story of the adventure is great and provides so much room for the DM to be creative and improvise if desired. In other words, if DMs have differences of opinion with regards to NPC motivations, creating PC motivations, etc..., this adventure is rich enough in story that alterations can be made to suit your ideas with minimal impact on the actual flow of the events. I honestly don't think I have ever DMed a published adventure that precisely followed the story presented. I always add, remove, alter or flavor events to my own tastes or to conform to character stories, etc..
I think every published adventure should be approached in that manner. It's ultimately our story anyway, so my advice would be to not get too hung up on things like motivations or actions. If you don't like them, alter them.

my 2 cp.
I honestly don't think I have ever DMed a published adventure that precisely followed the story presented. I always add, remove, alter or flavor events to my own tastes or to conform to character stories, etc..
I think every published adventure should be approached in that manner. It's ultimately our story anyway, so my advice would be to not get too hung up on things like motivations or actions. If you don't like them, alter them.

Right there with you, Spykes. Speaking as a professional game designer, I agree 100%.

And I'm glad you're liking the adventure!

Cheers