Last night I ran the first session of our 2011 season. Id' had some time to prepare. I was excited.
At the end of our last adventure, after defeating a black dragon, the heroes found an ancient piece of parchment with numbers written in Iokharic:
There were twenty-seven sets of three numbers each. Formatted as if each set represented a word, they formed sentences like this:
Now, I'm a little obsessive - but only a little. I knew the numbers represented the page number, line number, and word from a book. The parchment was a fragment that used a book cipher. I wrote the message out, and then I wrote a series of numbers for each word. I made sure to use the same numbers when a word recurred. I did not, however, write the entire sacred text.
Nobody noticed. Nobody looked up the Iokharic scrypt and translated the glyphs into numbers.
I made sure to have a translated hand-out for the players when they completed the skill challenge to decrypt it:
I introduced them to Oolaroar Quetzalkin, a dragonborn cleric of Bahamut. Oolaroar has encountered too many shapeshifters in her life. So many, in fact, that she's become paranoid. I had a lot of fun watching my players realize that they couldn't prove who they claimed to be. I had an "out" prepared, though - Oolaroar performed the Discern Lies ritual, and accepted their statements of identity within the ritual.
During the skill challenge, they discovered an association between the original message and Xavendithas, the dragonborn paladin who, in the early days of the Empire, founded the Great Temple in the Titan's Spine mountains above Town. In their first adventure, our heroes discovered the long lost crypt of Xavendithas. Oolaroar suggested that "death shall seal the way" might refer to the crypt.
One of my heroes asked Oolaroar if she had anything she wanted done in reference to the heroes investigation of Xavendithas' crypt. I was very pleased with him for thinking about Minor Quests, and finding a way to draw them out through role-playing.
My players seemed to enjoy the mix of in-game challenge and real-world decisions. In-game, it took a skill challenge to examine the message and gather enough information to date it and figure out a common book in the faith of Bahamut that might let them decrypt the message. After their characters found a carving of the sun, another of the moon, and a third that included the star known as the Eye of Io, they made the real world decision to try pressing them in the order they appeared in the message. That opened the sarcophagus, revealing a descending staircase rather than a body.
Below the crypt, there was a room full of murals and Draconic carvings. I told the players that the murals and carvings showed the story of Xavendithas coming to the mountains, exploring ancient tunnels beneath them, and discovering a portal to the Crawling Chaos, a nexus for slaadi activity in the Elemental Chaos. Xavendithas and his allies were unable to close the portal, so they built his crypt and the Great Temple to seal the portal away from the world.
Whew. I'm long-winded today.
I prepared rules related skill checks in case my players wanted to examine the murals for clues to how to navigate the wards and reach the portal. It didn't occur to them.
I prepared a skill challenge for navigating the tunnels in case the heroes tried to circumnavigate an obstacle, or otherwise follow a path I had not predicted. They did that almost immediately, and I was ready. There was no XP, but it helped me establish some story describing their journey.
The first significant room they found contained a trap. Their Perception scores gave away the trap, and their scouting told them where the mechanisms to disarm the trap were. I designed the room big enough that they had to enter it to reach all the features. Doors closed when the trap triggered, so our rogue jammed one open and everyone went to contribute to dealing with the trap. I was very satisfied with the encounter trap because it really got everyone involved - especially when the four water elementals attacked.
At the end of the session, I revealed the drain from the flooding room trap. In the drain, is a Huge albino crocodile...