The Raining City, Strasa

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That's a really great idea, Beach.  I might pitch that to the players and see what they think.  It's only a little different to what I've got now, but I think it's a lot more effective and interesting; certainly a lot more "D&D"-feeling.
Also, just wanted to point out that I know the Abiding One shouldn't really require fonts of magical energy to focus its psionic powers.  Unfortunately, the players are only Level 2 at this point, so an Aboleth is so much more powerful that it's not even a contest.  I needed to figure out ways for the low level group to somehow affect this ancient, other-wordly creature, without actually, you know ... fighting it.  So they've dealt with its agents, and now they're learning that it needs these fonts of power to focus its mind, since its so far away from the seas of its birth.  Those are things the 'Watch can handle right now, you know?

They have no hope of defeating the Abiding One directly, but if they can weaken it by destroying these Hearts, maybe they can force it back into the Underdark.  That's a start, at least.  When they're higher level, they'll have the option of taking the fight to the Abiding One on its home turf, which could be really interesting.

Also, I really wanted to play up the Abiding One as this creature of unimaginable power.  I want the players to fear it.  I want it to warp the world around it with illusions, and give people who encounter it nightmares.  I want it to be unique, I guess.  So I never even describe it as an aboleth.  In my version of the world, maybe it's the only one of its kind, you know what I mean?  I don't imagine an underwater city where hundreds or even thousands of these things live.  That's just ... way overboard.

If it's a single, unique monster, who's terrorized the world since the race of Men was young, that's a lot more memorable, I think.

I think the Abiding One is awesome! Great write up and excellent campaign!

If I may, I have a suggestion. As you acknowledge, the Abiding One shouldn't really require fonts of power for his psionic energy, but I completely agree that you don't want level 2 adventurers taking on something that may or may not be more powerful than a God. What if the the Hearts aren't actually doing what you have said they are? What if they appear to be focal points (to both the party and NPCs), but in truth are something else entirely? I propose that they may actually serve as feeding nodules for the Abiding One, passively sucking in excess psionic essence from the city and providing the aboleth with the nutritious dreams and thoughts. However as they are destroyed, the Abiding One no longer can simply 'Abide' in relative peace, and it becomes increasingly proactive in reestablishing it's dominance over Strasa. Basically, at some point down the line it would be awesome to have your players come to the understanding that their involvement isn't actually solving the problem, it's making it worse!

One thing you might also explore at some point is having the Abiding One gradually undo the Watch's reputation until they find themselves on the wrong side of the law and without friends... except maybe the Zessith or the Lich. A good thing about this that the various factions in the town are probably more balanced enemies in the early levels than a super monster. In one of my friend's campaigns he had a mindflayer turn all of the world's governments against the party, which was an interesting turn of events since they had been focused before on fighting terrorists for the government. similarly, an aboleth of this power has no shortage of pawns and agents, willing or not, whether they know it or not.

Of course, all this is simply my 2 coppers, so do whatever you feel is awesome, because it sounds like you are already a roll! Can't wait to here about Session 3
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Thanks, man!  I really appreciate all the support for the story.  I've always liked aboleths, but truth be told, I probably wouldn't have chosen the Abiding One to be the primary antagonist for the story just yet, but the players decided that's what they were most interested in.  It requires a little finesse on my part, but I think we're going pretty well at this point.  The Abiding One hasn't appeared "on screen" at this point, and I'd like to keep that from happening as long as possible.  The players understand that it's an aboleth, but at this stage, they're really still relying on my creepy descriptions of it.  The Abiding One doesn't necessarily look like an aboleth from the book at this stage; the players see it as a writhing black mass beneath the water, with three lantern-like eyes, and thousands of yawning, toothless mouths lining its tentacles, each oozing foul mucus into the water.

At any rate, it's a lot creepier than the way it looks in the book.  And I want to keep that feeling with the players as long as possible.  By battling its agents, and thwarting its goals from the periphery, they're able to be a thorn in the side of an impossibly powerful creature.  But you're right: as they continue to get nearer and nearer to their ultimate goal, it's only going to make things more difficult for them; friends become enemies, safe havens become traps, etc.

There's a lot of potential here to mess with the players, and it's going to be a lot of fun.

Third Session

In game 3, I wanted to change things up a bit; step away from the Abiding One story a little, and focus a bit more on the characters and their backstories.  Also, because 2 of our players haven't had any D&D experience for about ten years, and the other 2 only get to play every once in a while, my first two sessions were pretty much "on rails"; I had a specific set of actions I basically wanted them to perform, and that's what they did each night.  I felt like I kind of had to do that the first few sessions to get everyone on the same page, and to get them to understand new concepts, like Skill Challenges, under optimal conditions.

Now that we've got a few games under our belts, I decided it was time to let them sand-box it.  I sat down with the players, and really described certain sections of the city, and basically let them do whatever they wanted: Virgil made his way toward a Guard House on Cecil's Wall, to speak with an old friend about the conflict with Zessith; Akkarin took some time to study some new scrolls; Phaedra felt as though she'd spent a little too long on the right side of the law, and began writing up plans to steal something important; finally, Victoria decided to check out the new "Bounty Board" I'd set up at the Brazen Foal.

It's basically just a place where I can put up random "quests" that need doing around town.  They don't necessarily have anything to do with the main plot, but if the PCs feel like dispatching some out-of-control undead servants that are locked up in the lower sections of the Ferryman's Institute of Practical Necromancy, or putting down a Dire Wolf that's been stalking human prey on the far side of Old Lake Strasa, they have that option now.

At an early stage in the game, I tossed some plot the players' way. 

Before I continue with that, let me touch base quickly on Phaedra's storyline: she's a relatively young Eladrin, raised in the Feywild, by a noble Elvish family.  Her father was a diplomat of sorts, who traveled to Strasa often.  During those visits, she'd sneak out and get into trouble whenever possible.  She ended up falling in love with a thief named Mal, and the two of them essentially ran off together.  He taught her how to be a rogue, and took her in as his apprentice at the "Thieves' Guild".  Things went well for a while, then, during the night of a big heist, the owners returned home and caught them red-handed.  Mal, apparently concerned only with saving his own skin, killed th home owners, then turned on Phaedra, and knocked her out cold.

She woke up some time later in chains, framed by Mal for the murders.  Fortunately, Victoria happened to be in the area when Phaedra was scheduled for execution, and was able to pychically detect the girl's innocence.  Using her influence as a member of Kord's clergy, she saved the girl from the noose, and the two became friends.

So, in game 3, a raven comes to the 'Watch's HQ (which they call "The Roost") with a message for Phaedra.  It's from Mal.  The message is only brief, but he expresses his undying love for her, and says that he thought she was dead.  For years, he's agonized over what happened, and he says things aren't as she thinks.  He says he can prove it, if she'll meet him alone at the Crooked Coin, a tavern in the Elvish district that doubles as the headquarters for the local Thieves' Guild.

Phaedra contacts the other members of the 'Watch, and let's them know where she's headed.  They ask if she wants backup, but she says she can handle it.  At this stage, Phaedra fully intends to murder Mal when she sees him again.  In my world, Elves are sort of seen as second-class citizens.  They don't belong in the cities.  Their customs are strange.  Their gods are different.  You know what I'm saying?  The Elvish district is on the poor side of Cecil's Wall, and it's pretty run down.  It's a haven of thieves, and the Crooked Coin is the closest thing that district has to a capitol building.

I wish I could keep writing this, but it's taking me a while lol, so I'll have to split it up into two sections, and do the other one later.

I've been printing out your posts from this thread because there are such great stealable ideas

The Bounty Board? Genius!  I always bemoan the intrusion of video game elements into tabletop RPGs but this is an implementation that makes a ton of sense and allows for a break from the main storyline if, say, a player or two can't make it one week. Even if the whole party is in the middle of a dungeon, you can do a flashback to a bounty that the players who are present did at some point.

And this bit with Phaedra and the lover who she thought framed her for murder. Is he telling the truth? Does it matter? Great stuff.

Can't wait for more!
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Milkducks, you sir, are a scholar and a gentleman. If at all possible you should make a gameblog (and just copy paste all the stuff you've written so far) and post a link in your sig to preserve it for posterity, should this thread fade into obscurity (which I hope it shan't).

Anyway, I was wondering if you would be interested in any submissions for little side story quests that might round out the city? I'd be really happy to make some. (if you can't tell I really want to run a campaign in Strasa, but currently I've got too much else going on and my players can only commit to one campaign right now[and it would probably be silly for me as well, considering I want to do it in a custom 3.5 variant with sanity, vitality points, armor as DR, variant/possibly custom classes and about half of the Unearthed Arcana book] *sigh* )
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Milkducks, you sir, are a scholar and a gentleman. If at all possible you should make a gameblog (and just copy paste all the stuff you've written so far) and post a link in your sig to preserve it for posterity, should this thread fade into obscurity (which I hope it shan't).

Anyway, I was wondering if you would be interested in any submissions for little side story quests that might round out the city? I'd be really happy to make some. (if you can't tell I really want to run a campaign in Strasa, but currently I've got too much else going on and my players can only commit to one campaign right now[and it would probably be silly for me as well, considering I want to do it in a custom 3.5 variant with sanity, vitality points, armor as DR, variant/possibly custom classes and about half of the Unearthed Arcana book] *sigh* )

I know this is the WotC forum and all, but how awesome would Strasa be in a Dark Heresy game?
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I think the answer is INCREDIBLY AWESOME. I would imagine it as a flooding forge world, possibly under xenos threat, but in actuallity the true threat lies deep within the world itself...

mgbeach, curse you for me making me even more anxious to play ANOTHER awesome campaign! CURSE YOU!
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Okay, guys.  Sorry again for the delay; I've got an almost 2 year old son I look after while my wife's at work, I go to school full time, and I'm busy prepping for Session 4 (which is tonight!), so I don't always have the time to sit down and do a write up.  I don't mean to keep everybody waiting, lol, but I'm just so busy.

At any rate, here's Part 2 of Game 3:

Navigating through the Elvish district was sort of a skill challenge for Phaedra.  She's an Eladrin, so she'd normally be safe (as safe as anyone can be while traveling through the Elvish District of Strasa, which is not very safe at all), but since she's so well-known throughout the city as a "do-gooder" member of the Raven Watch, she could potentially be met with a lot more resistance than she'd be comfortable with.  So Phaedra pulled up her hood and made a series of Stealth and Streetwise checks to navigate the disctrict quickly and quietly, with an occasional Bluff or Diplomacy check thrown in to bypass anyone who might possibly recognize her.

When she finally reached the Coin, Phaedra still had every intention of murdering Mal for what he'd done, regardless of any "explanations" he might have.  When she found him seated in a shadowy corner-booth, however, all slumped over like a man defeated by his own conscience, she hesitantly decided to at least hear him out.  It had been something like 10 years since Mal's apparent betrayal, and while Phaedra's elvish heritage had kept her young and strong, Mal was now a man of about 50; his hair was thinning, his belly had grown a bit fat, and there was a kind of sadness in his eyes.

She wasn't convinced he didn't deserve to die, but Phaedra felt, at the very least, like she was in a position of power in the relationship, and she liked that feeling.  So she heard him out.

Mal explained that what happened between them was an accident.  He killed the home owners out of instinct, to protect her, and even though he realizes now that it was obviously the wrong thing to do, he knocked her out because he couldn't bear for her to see that side of him.  He didn't want her to think of him as a murderer.  He didn't want her to see the deaths he was responsible for.  Mal explained that he tried to escape with her, but things got complicated quickly; the city guard showed up, and during the fight, Mal dropped Phaedra and couldn't recover her without getting himself killed.

He escaped from Strasa that night, and fled to the border-city of Northbridge, where he remained until recently.  Word of the 'Watch and their deeds have traveled far throughout the land, even as far as Northbridge, and when Mal heard that Phaedra was alive, he had to return.  He explained that he's agonized over what happened every single day since, and that he knew she probably wouldn't forgive him, but that he had to try.  He also claimed that he could prove his innocence, if need be.

Mal knows of an elvish device called an "Arboreal Mirror", whose reflective surface is made from the shimmering, magical waters of the Feywild.  These mirrors, he explains, reveal the truth of all things, and that if they can acquire one, it will surely prove his innocence and good intentions.  He explains that he's already gathered the necessary materials and crafted the mirror's small frame, so all they need to do is get some water from the Feywild.

They're pretty ambiguous in the books about how you actually enter different planes, I think.  Sometimes they say entire cities simply appear during the twilight hours, or that a system of caves leads to the Shadowfell, or whatever.  In my world, there are special locations where the barriers between worlds are thin, called "Feygates", that one can pass through from one plane to another.  It's important to note, however, that only Fey creatures, because of their innately magical nature, are able to "slip the gap" between planes.

So Mal, being human, can't get to the Feywild without Phaedra's help.  He physically cannot pass through the Gates unless he's accompanied by a Fey.

So, some of you might be thinking, "How much is this 'Arborean Mirror' worth?" and, "Wow, seems convenient that Mal shows up when he needs Phaedra to get something for him," and a number of other things.  Well, you're right: Mal is a bad person.  He doesn't love Phaedra now anymore than he ever did.  He left her to take the wrap for his actions intentionally 10 years ago, and when he found out she survived the betrayal, he returned because he thinks he can manipulate her feelings again, and secure her (and the 'Watch's) help in acquiring an Arborean Mirror -- which he intends to sell for a profit, or use for his own nefarious purposes.

Mal is a master manipulator, and he's a hell of a lot more cunning than you might think.  He asked Phaedra to come to the meeting alone because he knows full-well that she travels with a psychic (Victoria), who could detect his Bluff without even trying (Victoria's Passive Perception is over 20, even at level 2, and she's taken a Feat that gives her another +5 to Perception against people who are hiding -- she detects their thoughts).  So if he knows what's good for him, he'll never come within eyesight of that Cleric.

Thankfully for him, Phaedra decides to help.  She's still not entirely sure he's not just trying to use her, but if he tries anything, she's got the 'Watch behind her, ready to kill this guy at a moment's notice.  They agree to meet again at the Feygates, a few miles north of town, at sunrise (when the barriers between worlds are at their thinnest).

So Phaedra returns to the Roost and tells everyone what's happened.  They agree to go with her through the Feygates to help acquire the water she needs to complete the Arborean Mirror, but they also talk with her about Mal, and about what needs to happen.  After a little discussion, they all agree that regardless of his guilt or innocence in Phaedra's capture 10 years ago, they're going to capture Mal and turn him in to Strasa's city guard when they return.  They also agree to head out extra early, so they can arrive at the Feygates first, and sniff out any possible traps the old thief might have laid.

So they head out while it's still dark the next morning, and on their way to the Feygates, they're ambushed by a pack of hungry grey wolves.  It's a tough fight, but they come out on top.  Victora remembers that on the Bounty Board back at the Foal, there was a posting about a vicious Dire Wolf that's been an issue in the area for some time, and that there's a reward for putting it down.  The 'Watch is able to follow the wolves' tracks back to the alpha's lair, where they have a really tough battle with the Dire Wolf and the rest of its pack.  In the end, the 'Watch is victorious (Phaedra's player really coming into her own as a rogue, and her damage output is through the roof, at least compared to the other members of the group).

And that's pretty much where the story ended that night.

We're playing again this evening, and we'll pick right up where we left off.

I think it's going to be a lot of fun.
Thanks for all the compliments, guys.  Like any writer, I guess I always worry about whether my stuff is boring, or too obvious, or too convoluted, or just not any fun for other people, so hearing that people like it really helps my confidence level.  So thanks again for that.

Also, Shovel: Yes! I would absolutely be interested in whatever Bounty Board submissions you can come up with.  Or, really, anything at all you can come up with.  I use the hell out of the stuff you wrote up earlier; it's high quality material.  I'd love to see what else you've got.

Actually, that goes for everybody in this thread.  The cool thing about Strasa, for me, is that it's a collaborative effort.
Well, Session 4 kind of fell through, unfortunately.  We don't usually play 2 weekends in a row, but we thought maybe we could slip in one last night.  My wife (Victoria's player) was once involved with a local roller derby team, and their first home bout was last night, so we invited some friends (Akkarin and Phaedra's players) to come watch it with us, and get some dinner.  Anyway, the bout didn't end until like 9, so none of us even got home until 10 or so.  And at that point, it's getting a little late to start D&D, as far as I'm concerned.

Anyways, I told everyone I'd make it up to them.

I've got some extra time now to work on what's going to happen in the Feywild.  The end of my story originally just involved them heading through the Feygates, finding a sacred wellspring and doing battle against its guardians, being betrayed by Mal and figuring out how to handle that situation, etc.  It was going to be an intentionally short session, but now I'll need to draw it out a bit for next time.

Any suggestions for encounters?  New story ideas that can pop up while they're in the Feywild?  Phaedra's family still lives in the Feywild, actually, so maybe they're encroaching upon ancient elvish land and stealing the water for the Mirror's a big taboo?  At any rate, I'm open to any suggestions you guys have; I want this next session to be great.
Anyways, I told everyone I'd make it up to them.

I've got some extra time now to work on what's going to happen in the Feywild.  The end of my story originally just involved them heading through the Feygates, finding a sacred wellspring and doing battle against its guardians, being betrayed by Mal and figuring out how to handle that situation, etc.  It was going to be an intentionally short session, but now I'll need to draw it out a bit for next time.

Any suggestions for encounters?  New story ideas that can pop up while they're in the Feywild?  Phaedra's family still lives in the Feywild, actually, so maybe they're encroaching upon ancient elvish land and stealing the water for the Mirror's a big taboo?  At any rate, I'm open to any suggestions you guys have; I want this next session to be great.

What kind of environment do you want the sacred wellspring to be in? I feel like I could come up with some better ideas if I know what you are imagining this place looking like.

I think it's a great idea that stealing the water is a big taboo, maybe something how the truth doesn't solve things, it's learning to accept how things are (you said your elves had a funky religion,  maybe this could be part of it). Try to set them up so that they have to make the conscious decision to steal it, knowing it is taboo. The wellspring itself prevents the truth from being seen in it, since it bubbles up and doesn't lie still enough to cast an undistorted reflection before it finds its way into a nearby steam. Even so, it is mesmerizing and players who get close to it are dazed and it constantly compels players to approach it. Perhaps touching the waters causes the creation of phantasm of the character's worst fear, a truth they don't wish to acknowledge.

Maybe Mal doesn't know this, but the Abiding One has been quietly playing on his mind, hoping that the Aboreal Mirror will make it's way into Strasa where the Abiding One can use it to reveal it's 'truth'. Alternativel y Zessith or the lich wants it, and used contacts to play on Mal's greed. When the party returns from the feywild, they are immediately ambushed by one of the groups, groups that don't really know what they are doing there except trying to get the Mirror. Perhaps you could even make it a chase back to relative safety in Strasa. 

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Shovel, you've hit on pretty much exactly what I've been wanting to do with them.  I had considered that the Abiding One might be the one who wants the Mirror, and it's the force behind Mal's desire to obtain it.  That plot works well, I think, because the players don't see it coming: they already know Mal's a greedy, self-serving coward, so they don't think to look past all that, to see what's behind it.  They think (correctly) that he's going to betray them and use the Mirror for his own purposes, but I don't think any of them have considered that the Abiding One might be involved.

I suppose my vision of the Feywild is fairly gritty, and dark, which goes along with the rest of the world.  You know that scene in Fellowship of the Ring, where the party's moving through the forest, and they're all on-edge because they're afraid of the Elves?  They know that Elvish scouts might be out there watching the whole time, and some are afraid of being bewitched by magical powers?  I want the scene to be a lot like that.  I want the players to be sweating out the fact that they're encroaching upon sacred Eladrin forests.  I also want to play up how much more cunning and dangerous the creatures of the Feywild are: a pack of wolves is already a dangerous foe, but in the Feywild ... the wolves just understand things better; they think, and that makes them a hell of a lot more threatening.

The encounter at the wellspring was going to be pretty basic, but I've got time to flesh it out now.  Mechanically, the stage was basically two combat areas seperated by a pool of water, which acts like Difficult Terrain.  The grass in the area is knee-length, and it sways in the breeze.  It's the "Grab Grass" described in the DMG1, which forces characters to make Strength checks to stand up from Prone.  The leader of the enemies is an Eladrin Arcane Archer, who remains across the water and launches deadly attacks while his party engages the PCs.  He's got an ability that knocks characters Prone in an area, so he'll use that liberally.

For companions, he's got two Elvish Scouts (who get two attacks, and deal extra damage against characters they have Combat Advantage against), maybe another Elvish Archer as artillery backup, and a Grey Wolf (who knocks Prone characters he has Combat Advantage against, and deals extra damage to Prone characters).

All in all, I think the encounter sounds rough.  The PCs are going to be Prone pretty often, and they're going to have to make Strength checks to get up; not so hard for Virgil, but Phaedra, Victoria, and Akkarin may struggle.  That's the way I do things, though; as a DM, I like to apply Status Effects.  I read all these Guides and Class Handbooks that tell players how to build "unstoppable" characters, but they all seem like one-trick-ponies; what's to stop me from just Blinding that character repeatedly, or keeping him Prone, or Dazed?  There are some powerful character concepts out there, but I think a lot of the time, they aren't "broken" -- the DM just doesn't know how to properly challenge his players, or counter player strategies, and things go downhill fast.

I like to reward players for building well-rounded characters, rather than just glass-cannons.

At any rate, I still do think the encounter's kind of rough, so I added in a Lifestone that rises up out of the water.  I think that's what it's called; I'll have to check the DMG again.  Players adjacent to it gain 5 hit points a round, anyway.  It's out in the middle of the water, though, which is Difficult Terrain, so that's a challenge in and of itself.

I also need a way for Mal to be out of the picture.  Like I said before, if he comes within eyesight of Victoria, the whole thing goes to hell, because her Passive Perception and Insight are through the roof; you just can't put anything past her.  I was thinking maybe he meets the party at the Feygates, but doesn't go through?  Maybe he gets picked off by Elvish scouts right after they pass into the Feywild?  If the Elves dragged him off through the forest, the group would have to actually go save him at some point, if they wanted to bring him to justice.  Or I suppose they could just leave him to rot -- whatever.
Sounds like a solid encounter, and a rightly tough one. I have a suggestion that you can use or totally disregard at your leisure. Use your encounter as the one for the guardians, but would the guardians want the party to even get to the sacred well? Would the elves even want to enter the sacred area and do combat in it? I propose changing the pool of water to a stream that winds it's way through the field of grass, but roughly divides the battlefield like your pond would. This area is right outside where the actual well is and the stream is the runoff of the well, but mixed with less magical waters as well, which means the party can't just scoop up the water and run. You could still have the lifestone and everything else in play but it just won't be directly at the well. In this fight I would probably not make it a fight to the death, and have the elves retreat when they are bloodied or the fight looks hopeless for them.

If you do this, you could throw in another combat like I described above at the well or a skill challenge associated with dealing with the power of the well, which I think could be pretty interesting. The well is magical and should have some natural mechanism that prevents people from harvesting it without some sort of trial, even beyond the guardians.

I think you need to have Mal in the picture, otherwise the whole thing becomes much more contrived, though I could see him meeting them but not going through. If he gets captured, then it becomes a rescue mission, because the party doesn't have a need for the well without him. Victoria's passive detection skills may be through the roof, but there are probably ways of dealing with that. Mal doesn't need to lie to decieve, and he's probably an accomplished bluffer in his own right, give him bonuses for more believable statements and he should be slimy enough to avoid revealing too much. Additionally, the Abiding One may have left an impression on him that makes him hard to read, a sort of psychic shield. One thing that's vital I think, is that he doesn't have all the components to make the mirror as soon as they get the water. He needs to get it back to Strasa to make it.

I will try to think up some more 'random' encounters for the feywild, but it sounds like you got a lot of awesome going for you already!
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Thanks, Shovel.  Your plan to make the Guardians attack prior to the Wellspring proper is great.  I agree that Mal should be directly involved, as well; I'm hesitant to use him as a DM-NPC during combat, however, so I'll need to puzzle out a way to remove him from the Guardian fight.  I'll sit down soon and draw him up properly, to see how slimy and manipulative I can build a Rogue; that should be interesting.  Let me know if you think of anything else, man.  These ideas are great.
I agree that Mal should be directly involved, as well; I'm hesitant to use him as a DM-NPC during combat, however, so I'll need to puzzle out a way to remove him from the Guardian fight.  I'll sit down soon and draw him up properly, to see how slimy and manipulative I can build a Rogue; that should be interesting.  Let me know if you think of anything else, man.  These ideas are great.

I think you have already solved the hesitation to use him as a DM-NPC in combat:
they already know Mal's a greedy, self-serving coward

When the going gets tough, Mal gets hiding. It will probably even work to make the party despise him even more.

I've been trying to think about other stuff for the feywild, and it's been tricky to figure out what would engage the party and not completely kill them. I'm thinking plants. Some wood woads or perhaps some scaled down dryads, literally stepping out of trees around the party, should do plenty to remind them of the dangers of the feywild. Victoria might know something is up, and sense their presence but not be able to pinpoint where they will appear, until the 'spirits of the wood' actually manifest themselves.

Additionally you could have a skill challenge based around avoiding something particularly big and nasty (I particularly like the idea of a fey-bred Gray Render or a big displacer beast). Should they fail they end up being rescued by Eladrin or elves, who bring them in for questioning and try to guide them back to the feygate, costing them time and resources, as well as suffering a penalty when dealing with Elves (also included is a threat on their lives if they try to reach the well, should it come up[also the Elvish guardians are already on alert and strike from ambush the first round]). If they succeed they eventually get stopped by Phaedra's family, who still question them, but less intensely and offer a warning rather than a threat regarding the well (the Elven guardians initiate conversation and try to turn the party away before beginning a fight). Good luck!

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The game's been rescheduled for this evening.  I'll let you guys know how it goes. Wink
Oh, man.  Unbelievable.  I just wrote out the entire session -took me about 20 minutes- and then the forum messed up and didn't post it.  Uhhh ... yeah, I don't feel like doing it again right now, lol.  I'll try to get around to posting it later.
Oh, man.  Unbelievable.  I just wrote out the entire session -took me about 20 minutes- and then the forum messed up and didn't post it.  Uhhh ... yeah, I don't feel like doing it again right now, lol.  I'll try to get around to posting it later.

Ah sorry to hear that. Definitely feel your pain. If I have a long post I've started composing it in notepad or something similar, just in case. Looking forward to hearing about the session once you get it up!
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Okay, sorry for the delay, but after the forum ate my last post, I just lost all motivation to rewrite it until now.  I like sharing these campaign notes, but it takes me about half an hour, on average, to write everything up, and when the post gets lost, it takes me a while before I'm in the mood to sit down like that again.  Well, at any rate, here it is:

Game Four

Picking up from where Game 3 ended, the 'Watch found themselves a few miles outside of Strasa, in the twilight hours before sunrise.  They had just defeated a Dire Wolf and its pack, who had been terrorizing the area around the city for some time, and were on their way toward the Fey Gates (a mysterious location where the magical barriers between worlds is thin) to meet up with Mal (Phaedra's treacherous ex-lover).  Because we had to skip our session the week before, I decided to make it up to my players with a couple of bonuses: first, my wife and I brought a few pizzas; second, I decided to just give them their Bounty Board reward for killing the Dire Wolf (Magic Item, but I can't recall exactly what it was right now) without having to go back to town first, so they could use it while they're in the Feywild; finally, I refreshed all of their powers, as if they'd had an extended rest, so that we could potentially have a bit more action in this session than we would have.

It was my fault we couldn't get together last time, so I wanted to make it up to everyone.  I think it went over pretty well.

So, the group arrived at the Fey Gates ahead of Mal, which was the plan.  They scouted out the area, checked for traps, and prepared themselves, both mentally and physically, for an adventure in the Feywild.  I explained that the Elvish tribes they might encounter should be considered hostile.  They don't look kindly upon round-ears in their territories, and they certainly don't want anyone encroaching upon their sacred Evergroves.  The penalty for trespassing, I explained, was pretty simple; one bone broken for every twig snapped underfoot. (shamelessly lifted from the Llanowar Elves flavour text in Mtg)

When Mal finally showed up, everyone took notice that he looked a little under the weather.  Everyone was soaked by the cold, early morning rain, but Mal looked clammy and possibly sick.  Virgil's player jokingly asked if Mal had been "fished" (which is their term for when someone falls under the influence of the Abiding One) ... which ended up being totally accurate, but it wouldn't come up until much later that night.  Essentially, Mal's "client" -the one who first contacted him, and contracted him to find and construct an Arboreal Mirror- was either the Abiding One itself, or one of its disgusting agents.  After the last session, when Mal met with Phaedra in the Crooked Coin and two agreed to travel into the Feywild together, the thief reported the news to his client.  Unfortunately, the meeting didn't go exactly as he'd planned, and the Abiding One devoured Mal.  The thing that's meeting with the Raven Watch is actually one of the Abiding One's vile servants - a disgusting, indescribable creature from the Far Realm that's using its powers of illusion to merely look like Mal.

But again, they won't find that out for some time.  They are immediately suspicious, however, especially after Victoria attempts to read Mal's mind and comes up with a total blank.  Virgil decides that, for the duration of the adventure, he's not letting Mal get further than a sword blade's length away from him at any time.  If, at any time, Mal starts acting even more "fishy", he'll be there to lock him down and keep the rest of the 'Watch safe.

The Feywild is an arboreal reflection of the world the 'Watch comes from, so they're able to roughly recognize certain landmarks that they're familiar with.  Eventually, they make their way to a clearing that leads to one of the sacred Evergroves, where they'll need to gather up some water to make the face of their mirror.  Here, they are confronted by a group of elvish warriors, tasked with guarding the grove.  Phaedra attempts the diplomacy approach, but they simply will not allow the 'Watch to pass.  When the elves notice Mal, they call him an abomination, and swear to die before they'll allow it into their sacred waters (further indicating that something about Mal is "fishy").  At this point, it's pretty much roll for initiative time.

I tried to do some interesting things with the battlefield this time around: pretty much the entire area is filled with Grab Grass (magical grass that requires a Strength check to stand up if you get knocked Prone in it), and I included enemies that could knock Prone, along with others that deal extra damage when they have Combat Advantage; I also split the map in the center with a small pool of water, which acted like Difficult Terrain; finally, jutting out from the water is a Life Stone (or whatever it's called in the DMG) that radiates healing energy, and grants 5 hit points to anyone who starts their turn adjacent to it.  The stone also worked to block Line of Sight across the water, to a certain degree.

The group was up against an Eladrin Arcane Archer, two Elvish Scouts, and a Grey Wolf.  The Arcane Archer has the ability to knock Prone all targets in a Burst, so he opened with that, and used it every time it recharged (I used this opening attack to knock Mal Prone, by the way, and for the sake of simplicity, just had him fail his strength check to stand up every turn, so I didn't have to deal with him).  He stayed on his side of the pool, along with the Grey Wolf, which worked to intercept anybody who made it across the water to deal with its master.  The Wolf can knock Prone whenever it's got Combat Advantage, and it deals extra damage to Prone targets.

The Elvish Scouts pushed across the water toward the rest of the party.  They get multiple attacks, deal additional bonus damage if both attacks hit, and do extra damage if they've got Combat Advantage, so they're pretty deadly.  Virgil attempted to cut them off in the water and lock them down, but since Elves ignore Difficult Terrain when they Shift, he had a pretty difficult time.  In fact, they used that ability to Flank n' Spank him as soon as he moved close, and actually Dropped him in one round.  Fortunately, Victoria is such a powerfully dedicated healer that she was able to basically give him a full heal when it came around to her turn.

The fight was pretty rough, but the 'Watch pulled through in the end, and made their way into the sacred Evergrove to finally collect the water they needed fo finish constructing the Arboreal Mirror.  At this point, "Mal" decided to reveal his true form to the party.  Essentially, as he waded out into the water, his body began to unravel; his face peeled apart, like spider legs unfolding from a curled-up position, and his body writhed apart into a mass of flailing tentacles lined with wicked, sucking mouths.  As its body opened up, a shining beacon of frost emerged from within, and radiated an unnatural cold throughout the grove.  At this point, it was pretty much roll for initiative.

At first, I'd actually wanted to use a low-level White Dragon for the encounter, and just describe it as this creature, but then I thought that might be too difficult.  So I ended up taking a Cockatrice, and gave it that Cold Template from the DMG, which made it Elite.  I figured that'd be a decent enough challenge for a group that had just gone through a pretty difficult encounter just moments before.  I changed the Cockatrice's Immunity to Petrification to a straight Cold Resistance, and the rest was pretty much just the way I described it.  Its Petrifying attack doesn't turn people to stone, for example; instead, it turns them into ice.  Same mechanical concept, just a different flavour.  This thing also had the Cold Template's Body of Ice, which Slowed anyone who hit it with a melee attack.  All in all, I was pretty happy with my design.  Unfortunately, this thing was a complete push-over -- no matter how cool you make something on paper in 4e, if it's just one creature against a group of 4 adventurers, they're just going to tear it apart.

So, lesson learned.  Next time I plan a big "solo" encounter, there will at least be a handful of minions to deal with, as well.

Session 5 will be this weekend, and we'll pick up immediately where we've left off.
I was pretty well surprised when I signed in for the first time in over a month to find that the Raining City has been alive and active in my absence!  Milkducks, your campaign sounds incredible at this point, and reading your session notes has really cemented the idea of Strasa being a haunting kind of place, home to nightmares real and imagined.  Well done, sir.
I'm actually looking forward to D&D Next. I think that every edition had some really awesome qualities, and every edition has truly awful design flaws. I don't expect Next to be any different, but if WotC is actively trying to incorporate the good bits into one unified whole, then I do expect it to be worth playing.
I just had another idea for this city, inspired by New York City history (and an episode of Doctor Who). What if there use to be a large park in the original settlement. Over the year, as the water started to rise, the park became a shanty town of house boats and covered dinghies for the poor, something akin to a nautical Hoovertown. Thoughts?
I'm actually looking forward to D&D Next. I think that every edition had some really awesome qualities, and every edition has truly awful design flaws. I don't expect Next to be any different, but if WotC is actively trying to incorporate the good bits into one unified whole, then I do expect it to be worth playing.
That's a great idea, Curious.  That's sort of the way I've described everything on the "wrong" side of Cecil's wall, to be honest.

I'm gearing up to run our 5th Game in a few days, and I wanted to run a few ideas past the community to see what you think.  Originally, I had wanted to pick up directly where we'd left off in Game 4; in the Sacred Evergrove of the Feywild, where the PCs would likely have to suffer the consequences of their actions when confronted by a number of elves (most likely culminating in some harsh interation with Phaedra's parents, who are Eladrin nobles).  I had written out a fair amount of story in that direction, actually, but I wasn't really feeling it.  In the end, I just felt like I wanted to get the players back to Strasa, because it's really the center of the whole story -- the hub where everything important takes place.  So I decided to skip all that stuff, and allow the players to begin again in Strasa, with a time period of about 2 weeks in between the last session and the one coming up.  I've already run it by the group, and that's totally cool with them.

I intend to keep the story pretty open at this point.  Instead of leading the players around by their noses, as I've been known to do in the past, I really want them to make their own decisions.  I've included a number of possible events around the city, of course, and there's one in particular that they're likely to get involved in, so I wanted to run it by you guys to see what you think:

Essentially, I've been wanting my combats to feel more thrilling and dangerous.  I also want there to be more on the line than just the character's lives in some cases.  Finally, I also wanted to design an encounter where enemies are capable of coming at the party from all sides, so Virgil can't force everyone in to a choke-point, and lock them down so they can't attack the rest of the party.  That's great sometimes, and I'm glad he's utilizing my encounter areas to maximum defensive effect, but I want to design an encounter where he's got a lot of difficulty locking down targets, so the whole group has to work together.

The idea I've got so far is that there's going to be a faire or parade in town, celebrating some historical event or another.  The parade will even feature some floats, lumbering down the sodden streets and displaying some interesting magical effects.  One of the floats will be of a really impressive Red Dragon, and it will have been magically infused so it can let off bursts of flames.  Essentially, something's going to go wrong, and the Red Dragon's going to explode.  I want it to be a particularly nasty explosion, like you see in movies: glass shatters out of windows, people nearby get set aflame or knocked back into the canals by the shockwave, everyone nearby is momentarily deafened, etc.  The PCs will also catch a glimpse of several magical fire spirits (which had been bound into the float to power its flaming breath) bursting out of the dragon and onto the streets.  They then leap into the side of a building and set it aflame.

I'm assuming the PCs will dart in after these things.  I'll even sweeten the pot for them, by saying that the building that's been set aflame is full of children -- maybe it's an orphanage or a school or something.  Anyway, point being that they'll almost certainly rush in to help. 

The monsters I'm using for the encounter are modified Dust Devils from the MM2.  Essentially, I've changed them around so they've got the Fire type, and added the Fire Keyword onto most of their attacks.  I also gave them the Fire Shield Aura from the Legion of Avernus Theme in the DMG2.  Their primary attack slides its target, so they'll likely use it to slide people into the Auras of its allies.  It's also a handy tool for getting away from Virgil.  They've got a rechargable Move action that lets them Shift around the battlefield and knock targets prone, which is another great way to get away from the Defender.  Finally, they've got an Enconter Burst 3 ability that does great damage and Blinds, so they can also use that if they get cornered.  Basically, they're really, really hard for a fighter to pin down. 

I'm thinking of building the encounter around 4 of these monsters, which is a 600 XP total; a bit high for a group of 4 level 2 characters, but it's potentially the only encounter they'll face during that day in game, so I figured I should make it tough.  Adding to the battle's complexity, I'd like to have a few children NPCs that are trying to hide and avoid the monsters as best they can.  I'm not sure how best to implement them, however, and I'd appreciate any advice you guys might have.

Any advice on the encounter at all would be great.  I want it to be something they have fun with, even if it's hard.  Also, if anyone has any ideas about other potential encounters around the city (Bounty Board stuff or otherwise) just let me know.  You guys are full of great ideas, and I'm open to anything.
Sounds like an awesome encounter, but I wonder where is the story connection? You aren't trying to lead them by their noses, but having random events is basically the same thing, just without as much direction. This encounter should either be a finale of a story segment or the start of a story segment, either trying to stop the Dragon from exploding or investigating why it exploded. I personally like Zessith as the culprit in this one, possibly using it as a distraction for some other nefarious goal. 

I think you should try to make the encounter two parts. Part one is rescuing the children, part two is fighting the fire. In the first part the Fire devils are mainly moving about attacking flammable objects, and will only fight the party if they are attacked, often times bursting in response. The party should become quickly aware (or maybe recieve a DM hint) that if they attack the Fire devils and the devils respond by bursting into flames, the children are all at risk. The party might be able to stand the heat, but the children aren't. The plan then becomes getting the devils away from the children, since the fire aura+generally lighting everything on fire will probably kill the children unless they are rescued. After all the arbitrary number of children are rescued, the party realizes that the fire devils are working their way toward the biggest fuel stockpile in the building, the large support beams that hold the multi story building up. The party now has to confront the devils head on, but as long as the devils stay around the burning columns, they heal 5 every round. The party has to douse the flames by any means necessary in order to stop the regen and save the building from collapsing. 

Best of luck mate, keep up the awesome 
Give your players awesome loot: Loot by Type
Played our 5th Session last night, and I think it went over really well.  Honestly, we didn't get a lot accomplished, because we started talking off-topic and we didn't steer it back toward the game for quite a while.  Which is fine, really.  As long as everyone's having fun, that's all I'm concerned with.  We didn't get through all of the content I had written up, but all that means is that I have less to write up before the next session, lol.  At any rate, I'll post my game notes for the 5th session sometime soon.
Hey guys, our 6th session is tonight.  I know I haven't posted a summary of our 5th session yet, but that's because it basically got cut in half.  The second half of that session is essentially what we'll be doing tonight.  It felt a little awkward trying to post the events of the 5th session, because honestly, it didn't amount to much of anything.  Tonight's session brings it all around, though, and introduces some pretty serious issues that the PCs will have to deal with.  I will post a summary of both sessions tomorrow -- scout's honour.
Hey guys, our 6th session is tonight.  I know I haven't posted a summary of our 5th session yet, but that's because it basically got cut in half.  The second half of that session is essentially what we'll be doing tonight.  It felt a little awkward trying to post the events of the 5th session, because honestly, it didn't amount to much of anything.  Tonight's session brings it all around, though, and introduces some pretty serious issues that the PCs will have to deal with.  I will post a summary of both sessions tomorrow -- scout's honour.

I look forward to your writeups.  This is quite a setting, and I like what you're doing with it.

Okay, as promised ...

Sessions 5 and 6:

The events of the fifth game (and to a lesser extent, the sixth) center around an annual festival I created called Storm's Harvest.  The name doesn't refer to any kind of specific agricultural crop, but rather, to the people of the city themselves.  The kinds of challenges that face Strasa are unlike any that other cities face, and it takes a certain, special kind of people to live and thrive there.  The citizens of Strasa need to be enterprising, hardy (both physically and mentally), and above all else, innovative.  Storm's Harvest is a celebration of the people of Strasa, because they're the driving force that's turned it from a sunken, mud-filled wetland into a sprawling capital of mercantile strength and industry.  I'd say that it's a mix of the American festivals of Thanksgiving (with its emphasis on gathering together as a community/family and giving thanks to those around you) and Veteran's Day (when you celebrate the importance of people, it's only natural that an emphasis is placed on those who've given their lives in defense of everyone else).

On the eve of Storm's Harvest, a great masquerade is typically held, and there's dancing, feasting and drinking in the streets into the long hours of the night.  On the day of the festival itself, a grand parade is held through the city streets and canals.  People crowd the narrow cobblestone streets to be close to the action, while thousands of others watch from their windows and balconies.  This year, the Council wants to present special honours upon the Raven Watch, for all the help they've given the city.  The members of the 'Watch happily accepted, and it was decided that an award ceremony would be held during the parade.

But let's wind it back a bit, first: Session 5 actually starts the day before the award ceremony and parade, on the eve of Storm's Harvest.

Over the last few sessions, Virgil has indicated that he'd like to hire on some additional manpower to help take care of the Roost.  Essentially, he'd like some people that will cook meals, tidy up the rooms, maintain the equipment, manage communications (a raven master, essentially), etc.  These are all things the members of the 'Watch could do themselves, of course, but Virgil explained that he's got plenty of gold, and he'd like to see that money get put back into the community.  In 3rd edition, you could hire on folks for mere silver pieces per week, and if that model still holds true, the 'Watch could employ a sizeable number of people for almost nothing.  Virgil wants to give these folks a good wage, and build up the organization's reputation throughout the city (as if it could be any better, but still). 

He also wanted to hire on a kind of personal assistant that would travel with the group on adventures.  This guy would essentially be in charge of a number of "little things": say the group goes into a dungeon and leaves their horses or campsite set up just outside; this guy's job would be to whistle as loud as he could if anything happened to the camp while they're gone.  He'll get paid more than everyone else, of course: Hazard pay, and all that. 

Once he and I had everything squared away in that regard, we got on with the rest of the session.

The group decided that they wanted to spend the evening at the Brazen Foal, amongst the other "local heroes"; it's a tavern for adventurers, of course, so Storm's Harvest is a really busy and exciting time for them.  They spent the next few hours exchanging old stories with the regulars, participating in some bawdy drinking songs, and just generally having a good time.  When it got late, and time to leave (they've got an award ceremony in the morning, after all!), they headed back toward the Roost.  As they stumbled through the crowded city streets, surrounded on all sides by masquerading Strassans and laughter, they thought they could pick out several unusual figures moving through the crowd up ahead.  Everyone's dressed up in costumes, but these guys looked ... different, somehow, and the group decided to investigate.

As they got closer, Victoria was able to pick out that these were actually Lizardmen in disguise.  She determined that they must be using the masquerade as cover to infiltrate the city.  After she informed the group, they did their best to sneak up through the crowd without catching the Lizardmen's attention.  Phaedra was able to creep up within striking distance without being noticed, and she opened up with a brutal surprise attack while she had the opportunity.

Roll for initiative!

Phaedra scored a nasty sneak attack on the first lizardman during the surprise round, and since she rolled highest for initiative, she was able to score another, thanks to her First Strike class feature.  This lizardman ate two sneak attacks in the span of about 6 seconds, and it was essentially dead before it even knew what happened.  At this point, the crowd started to part away from the action, and the rest of the players joined the fray.

This encounter started off really well for the 'Watch, but things slowed down after the first few big hits.  There were only four lizardmen, and the Poisonscale Magi did a great job of spreading around the ongoing damage, and keeping themselves just outside of reach.  At one point, Phaedra dropped below 0 and had to start making Saving Throws.  Combat had been rough up until that point, and Victoria had almost used up all of her healing spells, so Virgil (who had been all kinds of Slowed, Immobilized, and pushed away during the fight), stopped to give her aid himself.  He's trained in Healing, actually, so that was a really good move on his part.  Virgil's player, in my opinion, is really learning what it means to be a "group leader"; he's the defender, so it's his job to keep everyone else safe.  Sometimes that means physically creating a bottleneck in the environment and soaking up punishment, and other times it means stepping away from combat to administer aid.  All in all, I'm really impressed with Virgil.

After the fight had ended, the group did a little investigation, and noticed that some of the lizardmen had what appeared to be red paint splatted across their heavy robes.  Some of them had it on their hands, as well.  The players did some knowledge checks, and while some of them were aware that a lot of red paint gets used in the festival (for masks, parade floats, banners, etc), they decided not to investigate the matter any further.

The truth is that these lizardmen were in Strasa for a specific purpose: Zessith is planning a daring full-scale invasion of Strasa, and these spies had infiltrated the city to sabotage one of the parade floats with a black powder explosive.  There are other spies within the city, of course, sabotaging other areas, so even if the group had followed up on the red paint lead, they're ultimately powerless to stop Zessith's attack.  But more on that in a minute.

The next morning, the members of the Raven Watch washed up, got dressed in their finest armours, and made their way toward the central festival area, which lies in the courtyard of the Temple of the Everlasting Storm, Kord's primary temple in Strasa.  At the height of the celebration, the 'Watch was called up onto the dais and presented with a magical staff that had been created for them by the Council (a Scalebane Staff, capable of doing incredible damage to reptile creatures, like Lizardmen).  The 'Watch graciously accepted the weapon, along with a set of medals, while parade floats passed by through the streets and canals: one was in the likeness of a huge blackbird, crafted using real raven feathers; another was essentially a series of boats filled with the kinds of bright and colourful flowers that only grow in the lands of the East; but another float was the grandest sight of all -- crafted to resemble a great red dragon, it lumbered on thick wooden wheels down the rain-slick cobblestone streets.  Crowds of people had to step back to make way for its massive bulk.  The beast was powered by some kind of elemental magic, and every minute or so, it would raise its massive head and let loose an impressive jet of flames.

As they stood upon the dais, someone noticed a large red handprint on the base of the float.  They immediately sprung into action, knowing that something bad was about to happen, but it was too late: an explosion tore through the streets and sent people flying into the canals like rag-dolls.  Those closest to the blast would have been killed immediately, but those further out were set aflame, or shredded with glass fragments and shrapnel.  The fiery shockwave shattered windows in every direction, and knocked the members of the 'Watch prone.  The explosion momentarily deafened everyone, and it also released the elemental spirits that had been trapped within the dragon:

Three fiery spirits shot up into the air like rockets before landing on the streets below.  They immediately lept into a nearby building, which went up in magical flames.  The 'Watch remembered that, just moments before, they had seen a few children standing on the balcony of that building, and determined that it was possible they were trapped inside.  They had to rescue them; they had to get there in time; a lot of people had just been killed, but the Raven Watch wasn't about to let those kids burn to death.  They found their feet, drew their weapons, and rushed through the bloody streets toward the old building.

And that's where session 5 ended.

This has been a long post, so I'll come back with the 6th session review a bit later in the day.

Okay, I wrote a lot yesterday, and I had to put off the second-half.  Here it is today, anyway:

Sixth Session

It's probably worth pointing out at that I recently realized I've messed up as a DM:  I haven't been awarding the correct amount of experience to the group.  During their adventures in Strasa, the 'Watch has only raised from level 1 to level 2 (they're just a hair away from level 3, however).  I was wondering to myself why it was taking so long to level, and then I realized I wasn't awarding experience for Minor and Major Quest completion.  So I went back over my campaign notes, and after I'd tallied up all of the group's exploits, I figured I owed them around 4,000 experience; which is no small amount. 

I spoke to the group about it, and told them I wanted to get it awarded to them at the end of the session.  Now, because they were so close to level 3, and because the events of the sixth session were worth a heap of experience points as well, the 'Watch essentially skipped level 3 all together.  That's not ideal, since the DMG states that I'm supposed to hook the players up with a certain amount of treasure (in the form of gold and magic items) each level.  I didn't want to deny them those rewards, so I kind of shuffled my campaign narrative around a bit.  Anyway, here's what happened:

The game began with the group kicking in the door of a burning building.  Inside, several children were trapped by walls of flame, and several small fire elementals were busy setting the place ablaze.  I set the encounter up so that there were three "fiery origin squares"; essentially, each of these squares created a Burst 1 zone of fire, and at the end of each round, the size of that zone increased by 1.  So every round, the fires will get bigger, and harder to avoid.  In addition, if any of the origin squares are hit with damage from a Fire attack, the size of the zone increases by 1 immediately.  Since the fire elementals each had a fiery Burst 3 encounter power, this added some randomness and urgency to the fire zones.  To help counter it, I decided that any Cold damage that the origin squares suffered would immediately reduce the size of the fiery zone by 1; in this way, the players (Akkarin, especially) would have some control over the battlefield effects.

Finally, I required that each player had to make an Endurance check at the end of each round, to stave off the effects of smoke inhalation.  Failure on the check resulted in the loss of a Healing Surge.  Nothing major, but obviously, the longer you stay inside the building, the more dangerous it becomes.

I made up a few special rules involving the three children trapped inside the building.  It's tempting to just make them "minions", but since there's so much AoE damage being thrown out, that would just be cruel.  I decided that instead of giving them Hit Points, I'd simply give each child a small number of Healing Surges.  They have to make Endurance checks at the end of each round, too, so those Surges will slowly deplete over the course of the battle.  In addition, if any of the children take damage from the monsters or the zones, they immediately lose a Healing Surge.  The children can be healed, however, just like players, and any healing they receive grants them an additional Surge (even if the ability requires them to "spend a Healing Surge" -- this is a special case, after all).

I wanted the players to care about what happens to the children, so I made each one worth a small amount of bonus experience (the equivalent of a Minor Quest reward).  Furthermore, I told them I'd award a "No One Left Behind" bonus, if they're able to rescue all 3 children (the equivalent of a Major Quest reward).

The battle itself was a lot of fun.  There was just the right amount of difficult or hindering terrain (in the form of overturned bookcases, dining tables, etc), status effects (ongoing damage, blind, etc), and danger zones (from the fire) that it was challenging, without being frustrating.  And that's a hard balance to strike sometimes, so I'm pretty proud of that.  Akkarin did a great job of handling the Fire Zones, which is something I anticipated.  He's very much a "thinking" player; watching him play is fun because he approaches every turn very carefully, as he believes there's a "correct" move or course of actions that he needs to figure out.  I designed this encounter with him in mind, because I knew he'd have fun suppressing the fire zones at key moments so that children could pass through a chokepoint, or so that party members on the edge don't fry when the zone expands at the end of a turn.  At one point, he burned an Action Point just to drop a Chilling Cloud on one of the zones (we determined that since he's dropping a zone of his own, the fire not only gets suppressed by one square, but it doesn't automatically increase at the end of the turn, either -- I figure that's fair, especially since he's burning Action Points to keep the battlefield under control).

I rolled really badly, but I did manage to crit Virgil with one of the elementals' encounter abilities at one point, and brought him down about 30 hit points.  I'm not an "adversarial" kind of DM, but I want my encounters to be a little difficult, you know?  When I roll poorly, I feel sometimes like everything I've planned goes to waste, since the players aren't getting hit.  At one point, a rolled a 3 three times in a row.  That's depressing.

Anyway, the 'Watch managed to defeat the elementals and save the children (who all had a couple of Surges left).  When they kicked the door back open, they quickly realized that the situation was a hell of a lot more dire than they'd realized: more explosions rang out in the distance, and the stench of black powder filled the air.  Desperate shouts and the sounds of battle came from every direction, and it wasn't long before they spied several Lizardmen crawling up from the canals.  Zessith's invasion had begun, and he'd caught the city of Strasa completely by surprise.

The Lizardmen were dressed for war, and painted in the colours of at least a dozen different tribes, but each one rallied beneath the black standards of Zehir; many of which were staked-down upon the bodies of fallen guards.  A terrifying roar rang out from above the skyline up ahead, and a great beast tore down from the rainclouds like the shadow of death itself.  It was a young black dragon, and upon its back rode a monster that could only be Zessith, himself.  The black banner of Zehir rippled behind him in the rain.

Their attention soon turned upon the Temple of the Everlasting Storm, Kord's most holy site within Strasa; the temple doors were flung wide, and frightened citizens were scrambling to get inside for protection.  The high cleric, his brow stained red with blood, beckoned for the 'Watch.  Virgil let the children loose toward him first, then, after collectively deciding that they were in no position to immediately fight back against invasion, the group followed.  At this point, Zessith and his black dragon took notice of the group as they were crossing the small bridge toward the temple courtyard, and took off toward them at full-force.  The Raven Watch managed to make it safely inside the temple, but the great stone doors were too heavy to close shut.  Virgil attempted to make a strength check to get them closed before the dragon could get there -- I told him he'd have 3 rounds to get the doors closed: a roll of 10+ would close the doors by 1/3; a roll of 15+ would close the doors by 1/2; and a roll of 20+ would close the doors completely.

On his first check, he managed to close the doors by about 1/3.  On the second round, the dragon was close enough to let loose a cloud of vicious acid that rolled into the temple and caused ongoing damage to both Phaedra and Victoria.  At this point, several of the citizens (and the rest of the 'Watch) jumped up and started using Aid Another checks to help Virgil close the doors.  Unfortunately, they rolled really poorly, and didn't move the door at all.  On the final round, as the dragon was moments away from the temple, the group was able to pull off a 20+ check to close the doors entirely.  Mere seconds later, the beast outside slammed up against the heavy stone doors, thrashed about a bit, then took off.

For the moment, they were safe.

The Temple of the Everlasting Storm is Kord's most holy site in Strasa, as I mentioned before.  It's one of the tallest structures in the city, and is designed in such a way that it actually attracts lightning.  Metal conduits run through the walls, generating massive electric currents.  From within the temple, you can literally hear the place thrumming with power.  Being a temple to a God of Strength and Warfare, it's also a bit like a fortress.  The odds of Zessith breaching the walls of the temple were very, very slim.  And so the group decided to rest for a bit, figure out what the hell's going on, and devise a plan to strike back.  The High Cleric of the temple also offered the 'Watch several magical items that it had stored away.

Outside, Zessith's invasion continues.  Every member of the 'Watch is itching to get out there, but having just come out of a burning building, they're simply in no shape to mount a counter-offensive.  For now, they wait.  And plan.

And that was the end of Session 6.
Awesome. Just plain straight up Awesome. 

I can't wait to hear what happens next! I can see it going in so many awesome ways!
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Just a note... I have been following the thread here and it's great. I've been copy/pasting everything into a text document, with the intention of just reading it once I got a few sessions together. I did that today, for the first time, and even without the sidenotes, the text is about 12 pages. ;) The beginnings of a novel, no doubt!

Beyond that, awesome stuff. Your players don't play like they have little experience with the system, truthfully, and the encounters seem to be very well thought out and executed. I love the flavor the city has... I keep seeing a cross between a constantly raining Venice and New Orleans, especially with the last installment of the parade of floats.

Keep up the good work, and please don't be offended if I steal your concept lock stock and barrel sometime down the line. ;) Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all!
So many PCs, so little time...
Thanks so much, guys.  It really means a lot to me that so many people are enjoying this stuff.  It's a lot of work to write it all down sometimes, but it's totally worth it to know that there are people out there who look forward to reading more.  And Bug, please, feel free to take and expand upon any of the ideas that you like.  I've put a lot of work into Strasa, but so have a dozen or so other posters here.  The one aspect of Strasa that I enjoy the most is that its creation is a collaborative effort. 

I'll post some of my ideas for the next session(s) over the next few days.  Essentially, my plan is for the Raven Watch to launch a counter-offensive against Zessith's invasion force.  I'll handle it kind of like a dungeon, except, instead of being underground, the group's navigating through the winding streets of Strasa under cover of darkness.  They'll be able to sneak past heavily fortified positions, use streetwise to detect the best routes from point A to point B, etc.  Since I've got some new players, I've been hesitant to put them into a full-on dungeon up until now: I needed everyone to understand their character classes; to get a feel for the group dynamic in combat; to understand how to do skill challenges; etc.  So in the past, I've really only put them up against one or two fights at a time.  They haven't really had to worry about Action Points, Daily abilities, etc.  But this next session will be a new experience for them: they'll have to figure out how perform in what I like to think of as an "endurance challenge".

It's going to be a whole new experience, and I'm really looking forward to seeing how it goes.

Thanks again, everyone.

I need to brainstorm some ideas for the next session.  I hope you guys don't mind if I use this thread to do it, lol.  I'd really appreciate any input, because even though I know pretty much exactly where I want to go with this, I'm not sure how best to handle it.

The first thing I want to do is flesh out this black dragon.  It's important to me that my players understand that it's a unique character in its own right, and not just "Zessith's dragon".  I've had this idea of the character for a while now, but it wasn't until a little while ago that I decided to toss her in as a part of Zessith's invasion plans.  I'm calling her Vhauglohrl (Vow-Glor-il): she's a young black dragon (young in the reckoning of wyrms, anyway -- I imagine she's at least a hundred) that's worshipped as a god by a local tribe of goblins called the Crow Eaters.  These goblins are particularly vile, and they're fanatically devoted to their "Mother-In-The-Swamp".  She's an incredibly capricious character, prone to fits of tremendous anger, yet seemingly easily placated by the offering of jewels and fealty.  Vhauglorhl is a consummate miser, and treacherous to a fault.  She really has no redeeming qualities, save that she's always been relatively uninterested in Strasa -- for the past century or so, she's been content to lurk about the surrounding swamplands, being worshipped as an all-powerful god by savages. 

She stays out of Strasa's way, basically, and Strasa stays out of hers ... until now.

My imagining of the situation is that, at some point, Zessith approached Vhauglohrl with a number of offerings, hoping to secure her partnership in the invasion of the Raining City.  Zessith's a tactical genius, and he knows that with her help, he'll be able to devise a plan that's capable of bringing Strasa to its knees.  What I imagine he didn't count on, however, is that Vhauglohrl is every bit as cunning and perfidous as he is.  Strasa would make an excellent lair for a young black dragon: it's well-fortified, packed full of resources, and the deep, maze-like canals would be a perfect place to lay her eggs.  Vhauglohrl also knows that Zessith hasn't the military strength to dig her out if she decides to settle in with the Crow Eaters.

I imagine that Vhauglohrl will suffer the indignity of being ridden into battle by Zessith in the beginning, but after the initial push, when the 'Watch is holed up in the Temple of the Everlasting Storm, she'll abandon the lizardmen's plans, and do her own thing: I suppose I can see her taking up residence in a ruined section of the city, and establishing a base of her own.  The Crow Eaters scramble up and down the streets, hunting for survivors, and bring them before their Mother-In-The-Swamp.  Black Dragons are fond of "pickling" meat, so I can see her drowning people in the canals, and waiting until they're especially rotten before devouring them.

Meanwhile. Zessith's invasion continues throughout the rest of the city.  He doesn't have the strength to force the dragon's allegiance any longer, but at the moment, he doesn't need her.  His focus will be on conquering the rest of the city: hunting down survivors, eliminating pockets of resistance, and orchestrating a bloody siege of the Council building.

Anyway, like I said before, I'm really just brainstorming here.  These are things I'd normally write in my notebook, but I figured, what the hell, I might as well post it here and see what everyone thinks.  Any advice would be greatly appreciated, of course.

I think that the major thing you have to consider is what are Zessith's plans for conquering the city? I see a few general categories

1. He is trying to destroy the city: The most basic and probably least likely plan of action. Strasa is not all the stable structurally and toppling a few towers into each other is pretty efficient. Not sure why exactly Zessith would do this, but at the very least it can provide a nice distraction from other plots he is going on. He probably doesn't have the troops to accomplish this in an efficient enough manner to kill the population of Strasa before they get reinforcements.

2. He is trying to take control of the city: Zessith wants to permanently establish control of Strasa, so he probably won't take out any of the key economic infrastructure, but will hit all major points of government and military. The goal would be to get the government to surrender to him and legitimize his reign, always a good start for a burgeoning warlord. I particularly like this one because you can make the Watch 'criminals' in an occupied territory. One rumor that I heard was that Zessith organized with some of the criminal underworld of Strasa to help sneak in troops, supplies and weapons, with the promise of repaying the crime lords with high ranking positions in the new government. Just a rumor...

3. He needs something that is secure in the city: Overall I think that this has to be the true reason for conquering the city and the rest is just a ruse. If he captures the city, that's great, but that ancient artifact buried deep in the hidden vaults of an arcane academy is really what Zessith is after. With it, he will be able to perform a great and powerful ritual for Zehir that will make conquering the city and surrounding area a breeze.

Now for the best part. To tie it all back together, Zessith has been misinformed. The Abiding One has lured Zessith into the city for the purpose of performing this dark ritual, but this dark ritual isn't going to unleash Zehir, but weaken the boundaries to the Far Realm or such and such. A perfect double cross scenario that I would save for the finale of heroic tier. Players love that kind of thing and will talk about it for years if you can pull it off right, even better if you get the players to somehow play into your hand  (maybe it would unleash Zehir, but the player's interference causes it to work for the Abiding One). 

Anyhow,  back to your black dragon, I personally see it as kind of forced that the players would go after her first as opposed to Zessith, since Zessith is rampaging and Vhauglorhl is settling in. What I see as some options here is either making Vhauglohrl just a viscious monster that will destroy the city (kill everyone in it) regardless of Zessith's plans and makes Zessith look like the lesser of two evils  OR  Vhauglorhl is set up in between the Temple of Everlasting Storm and the council building and the players are going to have to go through her territory anways. OR another idea is that Zessith will soon realize that he needs Vhauglohrl to bust into the council building and will eventually supplicate her with enough treasure or offerings that she will perform this last favor for him. The party must kill her before this occurs, otherwise the city will be forced to make some very bad conditions of surrender (most of the government is killed, lots of people carted away for unknown ends, lizardmen are placed as the city guard, extreme martial law, forfeit the city treasury to Zessith etc.) . If they succeed, Zessith offers relatively favorable terms (government stays largely in place but answers to Zessith, martial law, city guards are mixed under control of lizardmen, but still less brutal, etc.)

I would like to know if you are planning on having the invasion succeed or not. I think it should, but it's your game. Just my 2 cps.

What exactly are you not sure how to handle?
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I'm not sure, I guess.  I'm more or less just brainstorming out loud at this point.

I certainly wouldn't force the players to go after Zessith or Vhauglohrl first.  That's completely up to them.  I'm likely to place them on opposite ends of the battle area, so the 'Watch would have to choose which "direction" to head in: going after Vhauglohrl first might allow the players the opportunity to persuade her with gifts of their own, or it would be a chance to take her down before she can wreck any more of the city.

I've been considering Zessith's motives a lot lately.  Obviously, they're pretty important.  To be honest, I hadn't even considered the possibility that he'd want to capture and hold the city.  Maybe I can see him thinking it, but I can't imagine it happening.  I love the idea of his forces laying siege to the Council building, infiltrating it, and forcing the Council to legitimize his rule.  Unfortunately, I can't see the group playing along with that.  Like, I know these guys; they're not going to allow Zessith to take command of the city.  There will be no integration of guards along Cecil's Wall -- they'll lay siege to the Council building the same way Zessith did: infiltrate it, then force him out of power.

I don't think it's a bad idea at all.  And I could certainly play it out that way, but the fact of the matter is that my group will not allow that to happen, lol. 

But, honestly, I'm loving the idea that the local Thieves' Guild is responsible for helping Zessith infiltrate the city.  I think that's fantastic, actually.  There must be some reason they'd want to work with him, which is something I'd have to work out, but I think the idea is rock solid.  Obviously, the idea that he's after some ritual scroll or something that benefits Zehir (but is actually helping the Abiding One) is perfect -- that might also be going on in the background.  I need some way to turn this back on the Abiding One, after all, so that's a route I'll more than likely flesh out, too.

Let me take all this on board for a bit, and see where I can take it.  Thanks for all the help, Shov.

I don't think it's a bad idea at all.  And I could certainly play it out that way, but the fact of the matter is that my group will not allow that to happen, lol.  

Obviously that's the point. The group shouldn't stand for it. Viva la resistance!

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I feel like I should expand on my suggestion that Zessith take the city. I want it to make the players angry. Angry enough to do something about it, but Zessith has the city by the balls. The Council would reluctantly give up power and try to prevent any outward unrest by telling the Watch to lay low, but I think it is ENTIRELY unreasonable to expect your players to not do something about it. The key would be to make Zessith unattainable/unbeatable at the outset. He's hidden behind too many bodyguards, too many minions, magical protections and even if you get to him, he's a monstrous combatant that chews up heroes and spits them out for breakfast. He's such a BAMF that he doesn't even care when his dragon abandons him. You need to make your party afraid of him somehow, but hate him all the more for it. Everytime they screw up when trying to attack him, he kills civilians and friendly NPCs as a reprisal. 

A way that you might be able to make this happen is to have the party go on an assault to lift the siege of the Council building. They meet up with the captain of the guard who has mustered a large force of resistance fighters. He marshals the party in concerted effort to break the siege, in which the party serves as an advance force to accomplish strategic goals (your dungeon), but along the way they occaisionally see the captain being awesome (like fighting off 20 lizardmen and casually taking down some sort of big brute type character). Eventually they get to the Council building, which is absolutely swarming with lizardmen. The lizardmen are preparing to fell a tower into the council building, which will definitely break the defenses. The party is charged with stopping the sappers from planting their charges (or even better, redirecting the charges so it will fall on the lizardfolk siege), while the captain and his men defend the tower from the counterattack by the lizardmen. All is going well until the party manages to defuse the situation in the foundations, as they run topside to escape/blow the tower they see an elite squad of lizardfolk champions working their way to the front gates, perhaps even engaging in one (a tough elite), while the captain fights off another. Then from amidst the crowd of oncoming lizardmen, Zessith makes his appearance (in a way that he will first engage with the captain). The captain tells the party "Your job is done here men, get out with your lives". The fight is short and brutal. Zessith catches the captain's blade bare handed then chokes him to death as more lizard folk champions march past, slaughtering those guardsmen who are brave or foolish enough to stay. There should be 8-10 lizard folk champions between the party and Zessith by now and the situation should look bleak. Have an NPC handy to offer them a way out if they don't look for it (A good place to introduce a Styxian riverman, maybe). Hopefully your party does manage to blow the building right in Zessith's face, but it shouldn't kill him, but perhaps leave a nasty scar and a vendetta. I wouldn't have the explosion end the siege, but it would make Zessith reconsider a frontal assault. He now works on gathering up civilians for brutal demonstrations at the front of the council building as blackmail and consolidating his power in the rest of the city.  He has divided and conquered most of Strasa and regardless of whether he is legitimate, he controls the city. 

At this point you hand your players some thick rimmed glasses and V-neck t-shirts from American Apparel and tell them it's time to go underground if they want to take on Zessith. Now you get to mix up your players with all sorts of questionable characters with their own agendas, like necromancers, bootleggers, thieves and resistance groups as they struggle against the reptilian menace!
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I want to toss in the idea that the black dragon is actually working for the Abiding One.  Zessith believes he has coerced the dragon into a partnership, but it is really a partnership between the aboleth and the dragon to use the lizardfolk as pawns.

Why?  Mechanically, it makes it a little easier to set up a take down order: Zessith, dragon, aboleth.  It progresses the overarching story while still being a side arc, as you can delay the aboleth until much later still.

Storyline why? I think it goes back to ApokalypseShovel's #3 above.  He needs them to retrive something, or do something.  Zessith may want to have the town to legitimate his lizardfolk clans, thus his willingness to attack, but the dragon is requiring a service for the aboleth.  The question that remains is what the dragon gets out of the deal with the aboleth.  I'm a little stumped there.
Guys, this is sounding really good.  I'm actually meeting with Akkarin's player today, a bit later in the afternoon, to go over some of the dungeon planning.  I don't know if I've mentioned this before, but I never get to play in pen in paper games, lol; I'm always the DM.  Which is cool, I mean, I like to write stories and facilitate everyone's fun, but I haven't been able to play D&D since I was like 16 years old (we're 27 now).  Akkarin's player has been a good friend of mine since we were kids, and he was actually my first DM back in high school.  We all moved apart for several years of college and travel, but now that we're all living near one another again, I decided to start up a 4th edition game with him.  My hope is, and we've spoken about this several times, that he'll eventually feel comfortable enough with the system that he'll want to be the DM.  I'm hoping that, sometime before paragon tier, we'll be able to swap out, but we'll just see how it goes. 

Anyway, since he's got some (3e/3.5e) DM'ing experience under his belt already, I wanted to involve him a little in the creation of this dungeon.  We've accepted that he might get wind of a few storyline spoilers, but frankly, I'd like him to get some design practice in because the sooner he's comfortable with the system, the sooner I can play.  Mostly, I just need his opinion on how best to run the dungeon.  In previous editions, we really didn't use miniatures; we more or less just narrated through our journeys underground, and whipped out a white-board if we ever needed something to look at.  Fourth edition is so miniatures-focused, though.  I'm thinking the best route to take might be to narrate most of the way, then slap down encounter zones when they pop up.  Maybe that sounds obvious, but at first, I was considering using all my tiles to actually create the entire dungeon setup.

But that's a lot of work.

Anyway, I may run some of these ideas by Akkarin later today, and see what sticks.  I'll probably tell him that I've got multiple ideas for how this whole thing could go down, and that it'd be nice if he could give me a little input on what sounds best.  After all, stuff that sounds good to us might not appeal to him.  We'll see how it goes.  

By the way, I do actually have a character ready to go for whenever I get a chance to play, and I can post him here whenever.  Maybe I'll do that later today.  I've had several concepts, actually, but I keep changing my mind: the first was a female half-orc barbarian.  She had taken a spear to her belly when she was younger, which rendered her infertile.  The only way, she feels, that she can help her clan now is to fight alongside the men.  The orcs of her clan teased her at first; called her the "Wife of Battles", but she's proven herself to be one of the most cunning and ferocious of their warriors.  No one's laughing anymore.  My idea, at the time, was that her clan was at odds with Zessith's forces, and that conflict would essentially be her recruitment point.

I've kind of switched gears, though, because Barbarian doesn't really interest me as much as I thought it would.  Now I'm thinking Sorcerer pretty hard.  Obviously, a Storm Sorcerer fits pretty well in Strasa.  I'd actually kind of like the character to act more like a Cleric than anything else.  I figure he's a holy man, and sees his storm-based magical powers as gifts from Kord.  Sorcs aren't normally trained in Religion, but I could make it happen with the proper background work.  More than anything, though, since I'd be replacing Akkarin, I'd feel more comfortable replacing his Wizard with a Sorcerer, since they're both sort of magical AoE classes.  The difference between Controller and Striker is big enough, but I think it's a much better "fit" with the group than, say, Barbarian.

Anyway, more on that in a bit.
My hope is, and we've spoken about this several times, that he'll eventually feel comfortable enough with the system that he'll want to be the DM.  I'm hoping that, sometime before paragon tier, we'll be able to swap out, but we'll just see how it goes. 

Sounds awesome. I am a big fan of rotating DMs but in my experience it's not great for the storyline (even if the DMs are both good storytellers, it's a little disjointed). To be honest I would suggest having him run an alternate one shot story and see how he does with that before entrusting him with a story you have a lot invested in.

  Fourth edition is so miniatures-focused, though.  I'm thinking the best route to take might be to narrate most of the way, then slap down encounter zones when they pop up.  Maybe that sounds obvious, but at first, I was considering using all my tiles to actually create the entire dungeon setup.

But that's a lot of work.

I find the best way to do this is map it out like a flow chart, and only prepare maps/encounters for the blocks on the flow chart, using narration and skill challenges to move between blocks. Don't map everything out, too much work and too inflexible. In an dungeon like this you want to be able to move combats around (behind the players' backs if necessary so that they hit all the major plot points despite their best intentions)

  Anyway, I may run some of these ideas by Akkarin later today, and see what sticks.  I'll probably tell him that I've got multiple ideas for how this whole thing could go down, and that it'd be nice if he could give me a little input on what sounds best.  After all, stuff that sounds good to us might not appeal to him.  We'll see how it goes.  

Don't let him know about the Abiding One being behind this! Let him know as little as possible, for his sake as well as yours. You want to have your secrets, even if they help you out. 

  By the way, I do actually have a character ready to go for whenever I get a chance to play, and I can post him here whenever.  Maybe I'll do that later today.

Anyway, more on that in a bit.

Don't have great expectations for this. I would try to live vicariously through your players instead of hoping to enter into the world that you've created, because the instant you are in it and someone else is DMing, it's no longer your world, and it takes on an entirely different feel. Maybe this is something you are okay with, but I would just like to warn you about it. 

Though as a side note, I play a barbarian in one of our rotating DM games, and it's a lot of fun (I get to charge EVERYTHING!), but I can see how the Storm Sorc would fit your group better.
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