Kai has really been patiently waiting to get his dragon trained, so even though I had nothing prepared, I agreed to a short session last night. I set up a town map and filled it with various NPC minis, trying to give them a sense of the possibilities. A few people looked a bit scared and gave them a wide berth as they walked into town with a baby dragon on their heels, but one NPC in particular approached them. He seemed very interested in the dragon and said he had experience in training them. He was a stout red-bearded dwarf who introduced himself as Axe Paradox and spoke with a voice not unlike Antonio Banderas. They agreed to leave Firebreath there at his small house for the day and paid him his coins. Erin seemed very suspicious of Axe, not sure why. She said something like “how do we know you won’t just steal our money?” which offended him so much he stomped off angrily before the kids convinced him to come back. Still suspicious, Kira decided to go check on the training and Axe answered the door and the kids could see that Firebreath was happy so they seemed satisfied.
As they sort of milled about town, another dwarf with a crossbow approached them, saying he needed their help. His name was Chaos Goldreaper and he had kind of an Al Pacino/Danny DeVito voice going on. Chaos explained that he lived outside the city walls in the forest, but the path back to his home had been blocked by an angry bear. He had come into town to seek help in killing the bear. They asked if there was a reward, but he explained that he didn’t have much money said he would like them to do this out of the goodness of their hearts. Kai offered him a coin at this point and I was trying to figure out what he was buying from him when Erin intervened and said “you just told him you didn’t have much money, he’s giving you some of his.” So I backpedaled a bit and Chaos explained “No, I HAVE money, I just need it. If you aren’t interested in helping maybe I can find someone else.” At this point they agreed to help, but again Erin seemed extremely suspicious. Lots of “oh nos” and skeptical looks. I’m really not sure why that is her initial reaction to every NPC, but maybe I need to work on that somehow. I don’t recall ever having an NPC betray them. They were certainly on good terms with Aeon Mageblood.
Anyway, I had planned for this encounter with the bear to not really be combat-focused (injured mama bear protecting a cub) but I remembered that Kai had specifically requested some fighting in addition to the dragon training, so I rolled on my homemade random encounter table for forests and it came up snakes. I intended it to be fairly easy for them, and it primarily was, (no one was in danger of getting KOd) but there were some good tense moments where the venomous bites prevented them from moving in the next round. I had Chaos Goldreaper with them still, but explained that he was very scared. He would only act on a 6. They rolled and he remained paralyzed with fear. I planned each round to lower this target number, so in the next round only a 5 was required, but he still couldn’t act. The snakes actually attacked him and ended up knocking him out. (I used the stats from an archer hero, but no special abilities/items and with lower hit points. I didn’t want him to overshadow them.) The snakes were getting cover terrain bonuses from hiding in the bushes and it was a fun, if brief, tactical little encounter. Erin ended up using her healing powers to revive Chaos and they advanced on down the path to his home. (Healing powers actually CAN be used outside of combat, which I had missed the last time I mentioned it.)
Sure enough, the bear was still there, but I them make an animal knowledge check and they were able to notice the gaping wound in the bear’s side, identify her as a female bear, and also spot the cub hiding behind her. Immediately they knew what was going on. Erin asked if she could use her healing powers on the bear and before I could even answer, she said "wait, this says ‘ally’, does this bear count as an ally?’ So I said, “Not yet, you haven’t really earned her trust that you are a friend. How can you do that?” Kai said they should give the bear some food, but none of them had food in inventory. Kira pipes up with “I think I saw some blueberry bushes back there; bears love blueberries!” So she scampered back to the bushes where the snakes had been hiding and got some berries. Meanwhile the mama bear was advancing slowly closer, so Kai got out of the way, not wanting to frighten her. Kira made a dexterity check to throw the berries to the bear, but failed to roll a 4+ on her 3 dice. The bear didn’t notice the berries (though I explained this was still a great idea) and advanced towards them, making an attack on Erin’s character. Kira scrambled back for more berries and at this point I rolled initiative and explained we were now technically in a combat. I had them roll for Chaos Goldreaper, and he was actually able to act. Of course he immediately raised his crossbow and took aim at the bear saying “she just attacked us!” In unison all three of them yelled “No!” at him and Kai tried to convince him not to, explaining the bear was just protecting her cub. I had him make a persuasion check, which he failed, and Chaos planted a crossbow bolt into the mother bear’s side. Erin muttered something like “I never should have revived this idiot” and Kira came back with more blueberries. This time it worked, and Erin was able to now use her healing powers on the bear (keeping a safe distance thanks to the ranged healing option afforded her by her Yew Staff from King Rothgar’s tomb). I explained that combat was effectively over, except for Chaos who was still going to attempt to attack the bear. Kai made another persuasion check, passing this time, and convinced him the bear was a friend.
Despite healing the bear to full health, she stumbled to the ground and breathed her last. At first they couldn’t figure out why this was, but upon closer inspection they realized the wound had been made with something poisonous, possibly even magical, which Erin’s healing powers had not been effective against. I had hoped this could be a hook into something mysterious, but I’m not sure I made it seem significant enough for them to investigate further. Besides, they were distracted by the cub, who Kira also fed some berries and of course made a new friend in the same way that Kai had. She named the cub Olivia, and they went back to town. Again, lots of nervous looks from the other villagers as they had now brought in a bear as well! Axe had completed Firebreath’s training by this time and said he didn’t know as much about bears, but would give training a shot for a higher price. They paid it gladly. Erin, I could tell, would much rather have sought other training options, finding Axe’s prices to be a bit high, but Kira was not going to shop around when she could have training begin right away. Thus ended the night.
I was pretty happy with how this went, considering it was 100% off-the-cuff. Granted, the bear encounter was kicking around in my head for a while, but no module or written stuff at all and it worked much better than the last time I attempted such a thing. It’s interesting, I had always intended to get a module written up for once we complete the last few official ones, but now I almost don’t know how. Giving the players a choice of “this way or that way” and writing up the results of the choices in advance seems much less flexible than I now like to be. I think I’m finally starting to understand why you and other advanced RPGers sort of look down on modules. I’m incredibly grateful to have had them at the start, but now… maybe not so much.
The moment with Kira and the blueberries was interesting to me. I hadn’t described blueberry bushes or anything. I didn’t really know how they were going to deal with the bear (it could have even been through fighting it). At least in D&D terms, it seems like a more proper interaction would have been Kira saying “Are there any berries growing on those bushes or anything nearby I can forage for?” and me as the good DM saying “yes, there are”. I read something recently that said if your players ask, for example, “is the bridge made of wood?” you always say yes because it means they have some really cool plan for it. It’s a bad GM who tries to foil this creativity just because he imagined (but didn’t state) that the bridge was made of stone. So ultimately, I would have said “yes there are berries” in this situation, but I kind of like that ethic of “I think I saw some back there”, it’s more participatory for the players. And yet, I’m still trying to hold them to reality. No one thought to bring food. They could have bought some in town before they left of course. After the berries failed the first time, Erin said something like “wait, Kai, don’t you have some candy in your pockets you’d forgotten about” and I didn’t allow that. I said if he had food on him, he would have had a food item in inventory. There’s a fine line here between fleshing out the details of the location together and summoning items as needed ex nihilo.