Monday, 13 June 2016

The Ballad of Jahamie’s Axe

Possibly the best DMing I have done in my current campaign happened entirely by accident: but it was quite a replicable accident, so here is a parable about it. Three or four sessions into our campaign, with everyone just turned lv2, I decided to give the party a reward for going slightly out of their way to kill a grick in a flooded mine-shaft. The druid’s pet mouse died in the fight, so they deserved something in return. I used the 5e DMG hoard tables, which for reasons that will become clear I don’t advise - in fact I basically don’t advise using most of the DMG’s magic items at all, and now stick to more niche/creativity-inducing/one-use items such as those found here and here. HOWEVER.

Somebody (who subsequently had much reason to curse their good luck) rolled reeeally well on the initial hoard d100 (like, they rolled 98+) and got to roll on the DMG’s table G, which is some very high-end kit on it: wild variance like this is the reason I think these hoard tables don’t work – we could have ended up with a single PC with a warpingly powerful piece of gear. But the roll on table G came up 22: the Berserker’s Axe, which is a battleaxe axe +1 that curses the bearer to want to attack only with it (disadvantage on attack rolls when using anything else) and sends the bearer into a rage if they take damage and fail a wisdom test, at which point they are compelled to attack everything within a 60’ radius until they lose consciousness (or empty the radius). Not that the party knew anything, of course - they just knew it was a magic extra-killy axe and gave it the paladin, Jahamie.

This is a party of 1st and 2nd timers; paladin Jahamie is being played by a not-especially-confident first time player who nevertheless, as is the way of these things, rolled by far the highest-spec character, 16s and 18s in all the places it counts. Alongside a monk, a bard and a druid, all less impressively statted, Jahamie was the immediate tank, with AC18 and twice the hit points of everybody else: combats consisted of Jahamie, not really confident enough to try other approaches (I as DM should have tried to help with this, I know), charging in to absorb damage and smack people with her flail while everyone else worked fancy tricks around her. Until she picked up the axe.

Suddenly, sending Jahamie into combat was desperately risky. As a paladin she had a decent wisdom saving throw, but it was still DC15 so pretty much 50/50 that she’d go berserk if damaged even once: and once she did, she was incredibly hard for the party to stop. The bard - once he had access to sleep - had to start holding back a slot at all times for it, and if he rolled poorly it wouldn’t necessarily drop Jahamie. Running 60ft away from her was hard too, and more than once led to the rest of the party blundering into an entirely new encounter and finding themselves trapped between a new bunch of enemies and a furious ex-comrade. The entire tactical calculus of the party shifted - in fact, for the first time they actually had to start thinking tactically, preparing for Jahamie’s possible rages, drawing off potential enemies, thinking hard about positioning and avenues of escape and ways of restraining her. At one point she was triggered by damage from a trap nobody saw coming, and an exhausted party suddenly found itself in unexpected internal combat and had to knock her unconscious before she could do the same to any of them.

Jahamie, meanwhile, had to start learning how to use her character more flexibly: no longer able to charge into combat, she explored her spells and abilities in more detail, began acting as a combat medic to the more fragile PCs who now found themselves bearing more of the brunt up front. She still went berserk a lot, though - like, a whole lot - and so she started to explore something else we hadn’t yet laid too much emphasis on: roleplaying. Jahamie moved from being a randomly generated (although still quite rich and satisfying) collection of 5e character traits (she was self-assured to the point of arrogance and an ex-cartographer who had taken up paladinning after leading a revolt against her feudal lord and becoming a local hero, so...yeah?) to a genuine character, struggling to be a virtuous paladin and not to give it to anger and savagery that the axe was not so much generating as enabling in her, all the while feeling more and more alienated from her party and refusing to believe their explanations as to why she kept blacking out and waking up. All that alienation meant that, increasingly, she found solace only in the near-sentient axe itself and its comforting whisperings that she could just kill everything that stood in her way. The drive for all this came from Jahamie’s player herself, and I picked it up and ran with it, eventually letting it bleed back into the character’s spec by ruling that she had to switch her oath from Devotion to the much more appropriate Vengeance.

Wonderfully, the axe was driving more and more action at the table. It added a whole layer of additional complexity and interest to every combat, and began to spark all sorts of schemes. At one point the rest of the party stole the axe from a sleeping Jahamie and managed to remove the head from the shaft and dispose of it - but the curse was inherent in the shaft (of course) which Jahamie, waking just in time, regained (the rest of the party being unwilling to actually kill her to stop her), meaning that now when she raged she did so with something that was, mechanically, a club. This stopped her doing quite so much damage to her comrades but also fuelled her anger and Gollum-like suspicion, and everyone was increasingly frantic about finding a way to break the curse and get their paladin stable again. When the party pitched up in a small city divided between a thriving human New Town and an Old Town inhabited by the remnants of a once-dominant half-orc aristocratic caste now overthrown and living in the ruins of their ancestral mansions, the axe (which of course had been thrown up by a random roll) turned out to be an heirloom of one of the once-powerful half-orc clans, long missing from a nearby mausoleum. Would the party care to return it whence it came, possibly laying to rest some unquiet spirits in the process and thus earning the favour of the city’s half-orcs?

Actually, no, they wouldn’t. Everyone else was keen - and I as DM was offering a pretty obvious ‘solve your problem and fuck with some undead’ session’s-worth of adventure - but Jahamie’s player stood firm and roleplayed her character to the (axe-)hilt, refusing to relinquish her beloved axe, and I had to respect the decision. The party then spent several mayhem-filled days in the city, during which the bard died during a savage brawl in a warehouse (depriving the party of the fail-safe sleep spell), a death that came about partly because Jahamie was raging and unable to offer any healing magic. The party - and the bard - took this amazingly well (and whaddya know, there was a warlock chained up in the cellar of the warehouse waiting for a party to come along with a slot open), considering, but Jahamie was clearly deeply bothered by it (she herself came within an inch of death during the fight and gained a horrible, charisma-reducing facial scar as a reminder), promising to try and master herself and do better for her comrades. A few further days later, when the party had pissed off almost every existing faction and found themselves fleeing town crammed on the back of two purloined horses, Jahamie had the presence of mind to point out that they were riding past where they’d been told the mausoleum in question was (cartography, I guess? My players never remember geography stuff but they did this time), on a hill above the city, and they stopped to investigate, the rest of the party obviously jumping at the chance. They poked around a few other tombs (whose contents were determined thus) before finding the right one, and descended to the depths, where vacant suits of armour surrounded a sarcophagus, from which rose the shade of a long-dead half-orc warlord who was, quite reasonably, offering to let the party go in return for the axe.

This is actually a 5e wraith, but I dislike the 5e wight
illo and this is what I showed the party at the time.
Jahamie said no. I had to admire her guts, even as the aghast party prepared to deal with an angry wight and a host of suddenly animating suit of armour. The wight (name of Kulmuk) buried his spectral talons in Jahamie’s chest and began to suck the life out of her (triggering her axe-rage, naturally) until the party druid hefted her out of the room and into the hallway - where she could hold up the suits of armour and avoid her soul-thirsty nemesis. One last rage-dance ensued, once again with someone else in the party coming within one round of death thanks to Jahamie’s inability to stop her slaughtering and heal them - but at the crucial moment the wight was banished and the armour collapsed into pieces, while Jahamie felt a weight lift from her and began to wonder why she was holding this blade-less length of wood in her hand. Because, to reiterate, the axe, having been reduced to a club, wasn’t even a particularly useful weapon anymore, but no way was in-character Jahamie (or her once-timid player) giving it up, even for her own good and that of the party.

Now that Kulmuk is banished and doubly dead, the curse is broken, and Jahamie is back in control of herself. She may move back to the oath of Devotion (but I suspect she doesn’t want to): she still has the facial scarring, along with a head of suddenly grey hair to represent the brush with undeath she had. She threw away the axe handle as soon as the curse broke, though, leaving it as so much trash in the rubble of the disassembled suits of armour: which was, in itself, a completely stone-cold piece of roleplaying.

There are some many lessons from this wall of text. One is that obstacles breed creativity, which is a commonplace but extremely true. Another – the classic OSR lesson, maybe? - is to embrace the randomness of random tables: although as I've said I now mistrust those same treasure tables, it was their random result that led to all this. Further, don't just embrace it, build on it – I extensively bulked out the social/historical background of that city based on the axe and the knowledge that it could drive a plot. Another lesson is, maybe, give the party a cursed item early: it discourages overly acquisitive play (but is this a bad thing?) or at least makes people think twice. But I don't know if it would work if I had forced it. Mostly though the lesson is that players – new players especially – may be reluctant to stand out at first but will rise to the challenge given a chance – and that these things happen with only a very light touch from the DM. Players are great.