Our fifth day wrapped up the Pathfinder course. The PCs escaped from Zanzer Tem’s dungeon and made their way home in different ways.
Zanzer the Serpentfolk
Group One started off by leveling up their characters, moving up to 2nd level. I was determined to wrap up the adventure today, so the session opened with Zanzer Tem and a bugbear guard kicking open the door to the room they were in and starting a fight.
Keeping with my desire to have no violence against humans, Zanzer was a serpentfolk. One of the players said he was expecting a human mage, but everybody else was pretty much in awe of the art that I passed around from Bestiary 2.
The problem with the fight came down to the economy of actions in the game. With Axel in the group, there were six actions to Zanzer’s one. Matters got worse for Zanzer when the wizard cast charm person on the bugbear, taking it out of the fight. In higher-level games, there are lots of monsters with multiple attacks and spellcasters with the Quicken Spell feat. At lower levels, it’s tough to have one big bad if you don’t want him to just snuff out the PCs in a single round.
Zanzer took a beating, but went out with a bang. He cast fireball on himself, a tactic that my friend Beth calls kill-stealing and which infuriates her almost as much as having the bad guy teleport away when he’s beaten. Before I rolled the damage, I showed the players 5d6 and told them that would be how many dice I was going to roll. They did some quick math and realized that the potential 30 damage would be enough to even kill the fighters of the group. (Or rather, to knock them unconscious – I don’t think I ever said “kill” in the game.)
There was much praying and tension as the players rolled their Reflex saves, and most of them failed. I rolled a 19 on the damage dice, but did some fudging and said that everyone who failed their saves took 17 damage instead. That reduced two of the PCs to 1 hit point, which put fear on their faces but left them functioning. While the wounded PCs could have been healed, we were running short on time, and I didn’t want anybody to walk away feeling like they had “lost.” Luckily, I picked up the dice quickly enough that nobody noticed my quick reduction in damage.
As for Zanzer, he was reduced to ash by his own spell, ending his threat. The group took his gear, giving me a chance to hand out major magic items. I gave out a ring of wishes with one wish left, a ring of cold resistance, a robe of stars, and two magic wands. The players of the wizards didn’t ask what the wands did – they just wanted them. That’s just as well, because I honestly prefer magic wands that enhance magic rather than the ones that are spells in a can. I kinda wish that Pathfinder had moved in the direction of 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons in that regard and make wands something that serve as tools to wizards rather than just spell sticks.
Everyone got 1,000 XP for bypassing the dungeon, moving them to 2,500 XP – a bit shy of 3rd level. Yeah, I gave a 2nd level character a ring of wishes. Screw the wealth by level guidelines.
Speaking of the ring of wishes, the player whose character had taken that announced his wish just before he left: he wanted to continue adventuring together with two of the other characters he had met in Zanzer’s dungeon.
Zanzer the Tiefling
Group Two also faced off against Zanzer Tem, albeit outside and with a goblin and a dragon as extra allies. To throw off my little metagamer from Group One, I changed things up and made Zanzer a tiefling.
I stumbled a bit in my explanation of what a tiefling was because I was hesitant to say, “Demon” or “Devil.” Not because I don’t think the kids could handle it, but because I didn’t want any angry parents. I wound up explaining a tiefling as somebody who had dealt with dark forces and gained horns and a tail as a result. This hurts my soul a bit for two reasons. First, not all tieflings have horns and a tail, and the diversity of that race is one of their appeals. Second, I was furthering the stereotype that all tieflings are evil. The race already deals with so much prejudice, and now I’ve added to it. Sorry all y’all.
In the last session, Zanzer had created the illusion of a pit to keep the PCs away from him. This time, he created an actual pit around himself. I don’t think there’s a low-level spell that does that, and there’s certainly not one that creates a bottomless pit, but that’s what I went for anyway. The goal was to surprise the metagamer if he decided to use his knowledge from the other game to tell the others that the pit was illusory. Instead, the catfolk PC fell in but was saved by the gold dragon. From there, teamwork carried the day.
Zanzer got in some licks this time, hitting Axel with a couple of magic missile spells. The group’s fighter used the Dazzling Display feat to intimidate Zanzer and draw attention to himself, allowing the catfolk to get in range for a sneak attack. Meanwhile, the other rogue of the group fled the battle and looted Zanzer’s tower, stealing a crystal ball that set Zanzer off. He leaped over his own pit and started to run off after the rogue, but the catfolk and the fighter pushed him into his own bottomless pit, defeating him.
This time, the treasure from Zanzer’s tower included the crystal ball, 500 gp, and three ioun stones. I didn’t explain exactly what the ioun stones did – I got about as far as telling the players that the stones floated in a circle around their heads and possessed magical power before everybody started to yell, “I want one!”
The PCs each took 500 gp, and gave 50 gp to the dragon, 25 gp to Axel, and 25 gp to the goblin. Axel resented not getting as much gold as the dragon, but the dragon asked him, “You wanna take it from me, little man?” and cowed him. I must have run some variation of this adventure a hundred times now, and it never fails that people enjoy seeing Axel bullied and belittled. I think it’s some ingrained dislike of bullies that almost everybody shares.
For getting further along in the adventure, the Group Two PCs each got enough XP to bring them to 3rd level. We didn’t go through the level up process because we were out of time. The gold dragon flew everybody home, and that was it.
The players each got their character sheets, a set of polyhedral dice, and a “recommended reading” sheet from us. Everyone seemed very keen on the Beginner Box, with one of the players saying that she would be asking for it for her birthday next month. By my count, I probably made Paizo about $200 in sales during the course. They should hire me on to run demos at local middle schools.
I also gave the players some extra parting gifts, including the printouts of the catfolk and the serpentfolk. One player got the maps we had drawn out because he’s been trying to recreate the dungeon in Minecraft.
On the way out, the player of the minotaur asked me what his home town looked like. I asked him what he thought it looked like, and he described it a little bit.
All students filled out course evaluations, which were overwhelmingly positive. The one area of dissent in the evaluations was the question of whether the students learned anything. Some said yes, others said they weren’t sure. Nobody said no, thankfully. I can say for certain that the students gained a better vocabulary, boned up on their math skills (when the dice were rolled, I wouldn’t announce the result until somebody tallied the total), and have some new books to check out. The students now know what “finesse,” “arcane,” and “fortitude” mean, at the very least.
Some things I learned from this course:
- There is nobody that doesn’t like role-playing. Well, maybe that’s an overstatement, but I have yet to meet somebody who has been introduced to an RPG without getting a rules lecture ahead of time who has not enjoyed himself. Once you get to the die rolling and the decision-making, everybody seems to have fun.
- The RPG industry is way too self-selecting. For the most part, RPGs are exclusive to hobby shops and specialty stores. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you probably won’t find it. The industry could really benefit from targeting a younger audience and really reaching out to schools. Running a demo of Pathfinder in a hobby shop will draw a bunch of gamers who already have a good idea of whether they want to play that game. Running it as part of a school program will bring in a lot of curious and imaginative kids who have never seen a game like this but who can turn into avid role-players down the line.
- Zanzer’s Dungeon is still my favorite adventure of all time. It’s nowhere near the best, but it works terrifically as the introduction to an RPG. It starts off with players not needing to think about rules and getting right into the decision-making aspect of an RPG. It adds in complexity only as it comes up and gradually gets the players into the system without stopping and forcing them to read a bunch of rules. I’ve run variations of this adventure for basic Dungeons & Dragons, both editions of Advanced D&D, 3rd edition and 3.5 D&D, and 1st edition Pathfinder. I’ve changed details here and there, but the core has remained the same and is a strong starting point for new gamers.
- My style of GMing probably gives rules lawyers headaches. I ignore lots of rules, forget others, and generally improvise my way through most sessions. For Group One’s fight against Zanzer, I didn’t even track his hit points. I just waited until everybody had done something cool in the fight, then had him drop the fireball when we started running low on time. For Group Two, I invented a bottomless pit spell just because I thought it would be cool. And throughout both of them I ignored wealth by level and challenge rating guidelines. But nobody seemed to care, even if they caught me flubbing a rule.
- The Advanced Race Guide is an awesome tool. I didn’t bother with racial features this time around, but with the race builder I could have accommodated the centaur and minotaur PCs had I wanted to do things by the book without adding in racial hit dice.
- Next time around, I’m going to avoid leveling the PCs up until the end of the game. If I do another five-day course, my goal is to have the adventure run for four days, then spend the fifth day leveling characters up, having them buy equipment in town, and so on. A lot of the players seemed interested in what their home town was like, and next time I intend to give them some time to enjoy life outside the dungeon.
- Some kids just don’t want to cooperate with their peers. One player in particular did not want to work with the group and openly talked about attacking them. He didn’t get the hint when he stole from one of the other PCs and literally got burned for it. I don’t think there’s anything I could have done for that, although next time maybe I’ll deal with such players by putting them in a situation where they need to rely on another PC for basic survival to see how they react.
- In connection to my point about RPGs being too self-selecting, these two sessions featured 8 players, 3 of which were women. There’s a lot of consternation about bringing women into the hobby, but I don’t know if it’s as hard as people believe. I think women will get into the hobby once they see how fun it can be. The hard part is getting them to take the first step. Thankfully, D&D seems to have learned this lesson well and has been bringing many more women into the hobby over the past decade.
Images: Paizo Inc