I’ll be the first to admit I probably don’t plan enough when I need to run an adventure. I usually wait until one or two nights before game day, and try to come up with something that sounds cool. The problem I keep experiencing is that I start going down a nice sensible path with maps and plots and adversaries and then I’ll get a flash of inspiration that derails me completely.
In this particular case, since my group is currently wandering around on a demiplane that is quite literally where nightmares come from, I thought it would be interesting to simulate the nonsensical yet completely serious nature of dreams. You know, a situation in a dream where you know something is the case but you don’t know why. A frequent example of this in my dreams is “I’m on a mission to save the world”, but I’ve had it manifest in a thousand other ways. One I really dislike is when a bad guy shows up and I immediately know he’s after me because of Reason X. There’s no way to prevent having done whatever you did, no chance to plan ahead, just a half-second before he starts chasing you and your legs move too slowly to escape.
Paved With Good Intentions
What I decided to do was to have a certain kind of enemy attack change the PCs somehow in a nonsensical-dream way. This might mean their bodies would mutate or their role in the party would change, or even their backstory. I decided that, despite being more accurate to my dream experiences, the latter two would be much too disruptive to play. Therefore, the PCs would change in weird ways and have to learn to cope (and hopefully, find new ways to use these changes to their advantage). This was the concept that eventually derailed me. It sounded cool enough that I decided to play the whole thing by ear. Even I wouldn’t know what they’d be facing until the moment it happened. I thought I might be able to come up with ideas that fast, but I figured it would be a gameplay nightmare so I decided to make up a generic encounter with reskinned monsters in the roles I wanted my random baddies to play.
In the previous session, the PCs were approaching the tower of the Boogeyman, ready to go save the Raven Queen’s daughter from his evil clutches so they could hopefully get enough brownie points to get out of this godforsaken realm. I knew I wanted there to be some opposition, so I rolled for my brain to generate a random bad guy and got…. a giant loaf of pitch-black bread with bat wings. When I told the players, they all rolled their eyes and said “a BAT LOAF?” Even I didn’t believe me when I said I didn’t mean to do that. Regardless, I had the evil bread cut itself into a dozen or so 5’x5′ slices which it scattered about the battlefield. Then I had appropriately-sized pieces of dark, evil cheese fall from the sky onto the bread. Nothing too terrifying had happened yet, so I had evil lettuce (with menacing eye and mouth holes cut out of it) flap around the board to threaten the players.
I think it was about now that someone wondered if we were playing Burgertime. Ridiculous. There were no chefs.
I had decided at this point that I wanted the bread slices to be a hazard rather than an enemy, and touching it would cause the mutations I mentioned above. I also decided the lettuce should get a special attack in which it enveloped a PC, with the intention of dropping it onto the bread the next round. None of my players knew any of this, of course, and to them the bread seemed the greatest threat. Once the bread started getting attacked, I decided to have the evil cheese bubble up and ooze dark yellow and eventually take the form of a dire boar (mostly because that was the template I’d chosen, and a cheese-boar sounded utterly ridiculous and therefore perfect). These did most of the direct combat of the encounter, and did a reasonably good job of distracting everyone from the lettuce scooping them up to get all mutated and stuff.
All this was going far better than I’d thought, and by that I mean nobody had hit me with anything heavy yet. When the first PC failed to break free of the lettuce and wound up mutating on a piece of evil toast, I realized I had far exceeded my ability to improvise. The first victim suddenly found himself with the hindquarters of a wooden wasp. I had been thinking about that one awhile, and I wanted him to have a cool ranged weapon. Then he attacked the bread with it, which I decided made it clamp shut like a beartrap (giving him another mutation). Now he had the body of a birdhouse, and I was struggling to figure out how that even worked much less how to use it. Another poor fellow found himself turned into a 6′ tall caltrop that smelled overwhelmingly of strawberries. I still let everyone use their equipment as normal, which yielded some rather interesting concept-drawings from the other players. The caltrop-PC did manage to improvise a means to use his new form to his advantage and immediately went to attack some lettuce – which promptly ruptured and died when it tried to envelop his now-pointy everything. Then our little gnome-assassin PC got changed, and I made him 7′ tall, swapped his arms and legs, and gave him mutton chop whiskers made out of fully functional ears. Yup, I don’t know where I was going with that one either.
The party’s mage is played by one of those players, bless his insane little heart, that just has to follow through on a crazy idea once he gets one. He decided to grab a big hunk of the dark-bread and eat it. I had his PC feel funny for a couple of rounds, and then he, shall we say, produced 4 tiny owlbears dressed as the Fruit of the Loom guys that followed them around for the rest of the night. Made sense at the time.
After all the sandwich-combat, the PCs found themselves in a wide open field separated from the object of their rescue-affections by only a large chasm. I changed everybody back to their original form and told everybody they knew they were a color but didn’t know why. I wanted them to all join hands and make a rainbow to get the girl across the chasm, which they all figured out somehow. The final encounter of the night was to be against the Boogeyman himself, and he showed up to confront the PCs, but several of our players needed to leave early so they made the session end on a cliffhanger instead of me for a change.
Reflections Upon The Aftermath
I’m definitely not going to file this adventure in the “success” basket. My players are usually pretty forgiving and can make a good time out of whatever I throw at them, but most of the night just plain didn’t make sense. I’m never leaving this much to be dynamically compiled by my brain at the last second ever again. I am not a Just-In-Time compiler.
I do, however, think that I could make this pretty cool if I had it all to do over. I think I was on the right track by making monster templates to apply a random skin to. I would even keep the randomness of the monsters and mutations I chose. I would simply do that part well in advance. This lets me come up with powers and abilities for both and gives me time to evaluate if they’re a good idea before I have 7 people giving me the deer-in-headlights look waiting to see what else is about to come out of my mouth. It’s not a new concept. Gamma World‘s alpha mutations do it all the time, the players still have no idea what to expect, and gameplay is at least somewhat sane. (It also makes me want to run a GW game just to see what happens!) I don’t know that I’d have to change everything as deeply as GW, but having a specific change and accompanying power (and card to give the player with the stats) ready for the player when it happens would have turned something weird and possibly stupid into something interesting they’d enjoy.
I really have to wonder what my poor players think of this campaign. I think everyone’s having fun, but I never played anything like what I’m putting these guys through (and I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing!). I love thinking of different ways to handle things and testing my own limits, but I think perhaps I’ve gone a few shades too self-indulgent with this last session. It’s probably time to turn the crazy dial back down to a 3 or 4 for a little while.
Nah, they fight the Boogeyman himself next session. It’s time to bring out the big guns. But you can bet I’ll be loading them with planning-tipped ammunition.