To start with I want to make sure my intent is understood. 'Teaching my players a lesson' does not mean punishment, in an 'I'll fix your little red wagon' kind of way. I'm looking to have my players come out of this with a new understanding of the game. I'll also freely confess that my inexperience has no doubt contributed to the difficulties I'm having. This post is nominally to ask for assistance and advice, but be warned it's also part rant.
I feel I need to describe my players to give context to the situation. I'll give them nicknames to make it easier for myself.
- Leader: Our former DM for Keep on the Shadowfell, which was the first D&D experience for myself and three of the players. He is very much a thinking player and tends to metagame a bit, but also roleplays quite well. Has a good memory and often reminds the other players of relevant details. Has become the de facto leader of the group.
- PC Gamer: An MMORPG player from way back. Repeatedly tells me his rogue is 'going into stealth'. I've talked to him a few times about the difference between software and human imagination; he has a hard time getting his head around the fact that the sky is not the limit.
- Non-gamer: A nice guy who likes to roleplay jerks. Seems to have been inspired by Leader's brilliant idea in a previous game I ran while KotS was on hiatus (a village under threat by an unseasonal winter was extorted for use of the Endure Elements ritual). His attitude now is 'we are the heroes, so every NPC we meet should pay us to continue the quest we're already being paid for'.
- Mechanic: Another former WoW player who has studied the crunch of the game. Found the CharOp forum by himself when creating his first character. Joined the KotS campaign late and has minimal experience but has embraced the roleplaying side of things as fully as he has the crunch.
- Roleplayer: Very experienced D&D/RPG player who hasn't played 4E before. Has created an elaborate backstory and doesn't mind if his charcter dies in a blaze of glory if it suits the story. Deliberately avoids metagaming.
- Newbie: Older player who played some 1st (or 2nd?) edition and subsequently purchased many books even though he had no one to play with. Excited and enthusiastic about roleplaying but is taking time to grasp the mechanics.
So after our Keep on the Shadowfell campaign reached the end of 'season one', I suggested I could run a paragon tier campaign. This was warmly received, and so far we have run five sessions fairly successfully. Combat tends to take a long time to resolve, but that's understandable given our relative inexperience and the fact that we're starting with 11th level PCs. I decided to run the adventure at the back of DMG2 to introduce the characters to Sigil, which I'd thought would be a pivotal location in the campaign and could serve as a base of operations for the party.
The adventure is called A Conspiracy of Doors. I'll hide the rest of the post in case anyone wants to avoid spoilers.
Things started well, with the party following the trail of rather obvious clues to Sigil, armed with a name (of the adventure's BBEG) and a location: the House of Song in the Gatehouse Night Market. With some further information provided by a contact they'd been given earlier, the party proceeded to the market and was promptly attacked by some demons, a shape-changing eladrin that had escaped them during the previous encounter, and a mysterious human who disappeared after the fight commenced. Unfortunately we didn't get through the encounter before the end of the session (unfortunately we have a relatively strict finish time).
On resumption at our most recent session, Leader was called away due to real life complications and left his character sheet with Non-gamer. The adventure conveniently placed the previous encounter in front of the House of Song, and assumes the following sequence of events:
- The party discovers notes detailing a demon-summoning ritual and the fact that the ritual was used to send demons to the Shadowfell.
- The party talks to the wine merchant who reveals that the mushrooms used to make the cavefire wine for the festival comes from the Shadowfell.
- The party convinces the wine merchant to aid them in travelling to the Shadowfell, where they find the merchant's brother trapped by a demon.
- The party defeats the demon and discovers the next clue that leads them to a warehouse in Sigil.
Instead, the events were as follows:
- The party loots the notes but actively decides against reading them.
- Upon noticing the House of Song (including my reminder that it was the place described on the flyer they found along with a scrawled name), the party stands around doing nothing.
- I have a number of merchants come out of hiding after watching the battle, one of whom identifies himself as a supplier to the Planar Trade Consortium who suffered similar attacks to the wine merchant. After describing that the human who fled the battle was in the House of Song earlier in the day, the party still does not enter the building.
- The NPC adds that the wine merchant is currently inside the House of Song, and the party decides to talk to her.
- Since the party seemed to need some assistance, I described the wine merchant as concerned about her brother who had failed to return from his last trip to the Shadowfell. The players, led by Non-gamer in Leader's absence, were quite secretive with her, and when they finally read the notes they'd found (after numerous hints from me), did not reveal any details regarding the demon-summoning ritual to her, despite her expressed concern for the safety of her brother.
- The party proceeded to demand payment for their services in travelling to the Shadowfell to look for the merchant's brother, despite the fact that their existing quest required them to do just that. She obliged, pleading with them to act with all due haste.
- Non-gamer and PC Gamer decided that the party needed an extended rest (time of day approx. 5pm). I assume their reasoning was that Leader's character had only one healing surge remaining and a handful of daily powers had been used. Roleplayer and Newbie were keen to press on, fearing that the brother may be dead by the time the party arrived. Mechanic was ambivalent to the whole thing.
- The merchant was horrified that the party's first act after accepted payment for their quest was to look for a place to sleep, so she hurried off (to find someone more inclined to helping, but I didn't explain that to the players).
- When the party arrived in the Shadowfell, they found the brother dead and promptly dispatched the demon that had evidently killed him.
Before entering Sigil, the party had procured the Speak with Dead ritual. Having failed to make use of it on the eladrin that was the main focus of the two previous encounters, the party decided to try it on the dead brother. With two questions available, the players looked to Non-gamer to ask them (as his character had cast the ritual in the first place). Roleplayer, playing a paladin of the Raven Queen, decided his character wanted nothing to do with it, but hinted at the type of question that might garner a useful answer. The questions actually asked were:
Q: What did the demon do after it killed you?
A: It went to the corner of the cave and hung around there until you showed up.
Q: Where did the demon come from?
A: It appeared out of nowhere.
I thought about both questions before answering, but I couldn't think of a reasonable way to cram any meaningful information into the answers. In any case the party didn't try to search the corpse (or even the cave in general) so I was stuck for a way to get the next clue to the players.
Not that it mattered, because they decided to go exploring the cave system. The map I'd drawn was straight from the book, and included a couple of undefined edges. When the players asked 'what's down there?' I was loath to say 'absolutely nothing' as I have an aversion to the perception of railroading (in my first attempt at DMing one player said 'we should do that because that's what the DM has prepared for us' and I resolved never to have that happen again). So I described a tunnel from which no light emanated. Of course PC Gamer's eyes lit up as he announced, 'I have darkvision! I'll go into stealth and check it out!'
Try as I might to make the tunnel unappealing (dead straight, featureless, no light at all, the oppressive feeling of the Shadowfell grows stronger the further you proceed, there is a godsawful stench that repulses you to the core), all PC Gamer heard was 'you're making great progress!' When he decided to go back to the cave to collect everyone else I had a flash of inspiration. I was going to teach the players that the world (and other planes) isn't built around their capabilities, and that discretion really is the better part of valour.
As the rogue continued ahead of the party with his darkvision and the rest made their way some distance back with their normal or low light vision and lantern, I described a gibbering, snarling, growling, cursing sort of sound growing in volume the closer they got. When the rogue reached an opening to a cave I had the players roll initiative and ended the session. We have a couple of weeks off for the holidays and will resume in the new year.
My idea is that they've found some dark monstrosity that common sense should tell them has nothing to do with their current quest and therefore is best left alone. The creature could be fixed (e.g. tentacles that come out of a hole in the ceiling when you get close enough but retract when you leave) to encourage the party to flee, but there's a strong possibility that option won't occur to anyone or that the suggestion of retreat will be rejected by PC Gamer and Non-gamer (and possibly Mechanic).
So I need to construct a monster that's tough, but not impossible to beat. I was thinking solo would probably suit. The party is level 11 but highly optimised, so with six PCs including two leaders I think this thing needs to be pretty high level to sufficiently challenge the party.
I see the possible outcomes as:
- The party runs away from the creature with or without engaging it. A Skill Challenge to navigate the tunnels of the Shadowfell (that have shifted since they travelled to the cave) determines how quickly they return to the first cave. The brother's corpse is missing but instead they find a note pointing them to the warehouse in Sigil. If they make it there in time they possibly prevent the destruction of all the festival's supplies and achieve some success in their quest.
- The party fights and TPKs. In this case the party will wake up inside the creature's stomach and be forced to fight the undead monsters there to get out. In this case the festival does not go ahead because the supplies were not supplied. Chaos ensues and the party, while strictly speaking not having made enemies, is now disliked by some powerful people in Sigil.
- The party fights and one or more PCs die and/or fall unconscious. The remaining PCs have to recruit aid in retrieving their comrades from the stomach of the creature.
- The party fights and defeats the creature. In its death throes the creatures spews a treasure trove of magic items left after the consumption of previous adventurers. If the party decides to continue delving into the Shadowfell I throw something even tougher at them.
So finally I have a few questions:
- What level solo monster is sufficient to beat the crap out of the party without being impossible to defeat? I definitely want to stack the odds against them, but with a few lucky rolls from them and unlucky rolls from me it should be possible for the party to prevail.
- Is there a suitable monster published that I can use as-is or with minor tweaks? I thought I could reflavour a kraken or something to that effect. Preferably a post-MM3 monster though.
- If the answer to the previous question is no, what advice would you give for constructing a monster from scratch considering I've never done it before? Is there an updated monster creation guide for newer style monsters and if so what book is it in?
- How do I go about explaining to players that their choices are meaningful? It seems a little patronising to say 'now that guy was alive when his sister paid you to look for him, and he would have survived if you'd gone looking for him immediately.' I certainly don't want to dictate to players how their characters should act, but I'm not sure how to teach them this without coming across that way.
Thanks to anyone who reads all of this, and many thanks to anyone who responds. I feel better already having got it off my chest.