This is a very long post about motivating players, interparty arguments, and faked pregnancies.
First of All, Pepper the Elf
Pepper was a wood elf ranger played by someone who’d never done a tabletop game before. His main touchpoint for gaming came from rogue-likes such as Pixel Dungeon. (If you’ve read past posts, Pepper is the one who killed the singing, peace-loving bear in the Church of St James.)
In an effort to engage Pepper’s player and to expand the world beyond Wall’s…walls, I gave Pepper a quest: get some ancient artifacts and return them to the elflands. In return, he’d be welcomed back (he was an Outlander, and his player decided it was because Pepper was a boozer) and even given a small grant of land.
Pepper engaged with the hook, and he assured the other PCs that they’d be rewarded, so they were happy to help. It looked like everyone was working together, so I was happy too.
Indentured Gnomitude & Feathered Elves
On the way to the site, a random encounter came up “gnomes.” They wanted to know why the characters were on their land, and in traditional Pepper style, the encounter escalated to combat, with one gnome captured. The new prisoner was “encouraged” to lead them to the ruins they were seeking.
The ruins were found, and the secret door to the underground area was discovered.
Bas reliefs cover the walls. Viewed from entrance to throne, they show elves arriving in a thick woodland with strange creatures wrapped in the roots of the trees. The elves raise the creatures up from the roots and put their arms in chains. The creatures mine stones and build towers for the elves to sit in. Then the elves and the creatures wrap each other in their arms—are they fighting? mating? merging in some other way? The last carving shows a crowned figure combining the features of the elves and the creatures, looking out over the woods. Also, lots of big birds are killed and eaten throughout.
Crown of Morgoth: The crown on the mummy (the same as the one on the final figure in the reliefs) is an electrum circlet set with a single large opal surrounded by a fan of feathers. The opal is the home of Morgoth, an ancient demon of the earth who was bound into the crown. It’s not sure it can be released from its prison, but it still seeks freedom from the tomb. It’ll happily ride an adventurer into the outside world and freely use its minor powers for their benefit, telling them that he’s the spirit of an ancient elf king, imprisoned after trying to rebel against a conservative and fascistic government. If it learns of the gate to Hell at the bottom of the dungeon in Wall, it would like to go there and see if those demons are in any way its kin.
Minor powers: Once a day, the crown can reveal nearby treasure or people. The wearer can set parameters—magical items, coinage worth over 500 gold, gems, any elf, Governor Blanchett, etc.—and Morgoth will give the direction and distance to the closest corresponding person or thing. Depending on the wearer’s relation to Morgoth, he may reveal other relevant information (traps, hidden doors). If relations are sour, he might obfuscate key facts. His “vision” extends up to one mile away.
The crown can also project a minor illusion similar to disguise self at any time. However, it only perfects the wearer’s extant face: blemishes, scars, and wrinkles are hidden, and perfect symmetry is arranged. The wearer is in no way disguised. Reaction rolls gain advantage if they’re being made purely on appearance, but Charisma is not affected. (This glamour is in place on the mummy when he is discovered.)
Major powers: Morgoth can cast spells as a mid-level wizard. Favorites include hold person (which manifests as an ethereal, electric claw), chain lightning, cloudkill, animate objects, and entangle each once a day. Morgoth saves these spells for when it believes the crown is in danger of being taken by someone Morgoth would not want to be in the possession of.
[“feathered elves,” as a term, stolen from the Elder Scrolls series]
Despite much discouragement, Pepper took the crown from the dead elf king’s head, but the elf-mummy was killed. Pepper almost died too, saved only by his compatriots’ healing potions. The crown revealed a personality as Pepper donned it, directing him to a stash of gold and a magic sword hidden beneath the throne.
This led to the first learning moment of the saga: when Pepper’s player said the other PCs would be rewarded, he meant that they would probably have their own personalized side quests, and they’d get to keep the rewards from their quests. After some mediated argument, Pepper agreed to let the rest of the party split the gold, but Pepper was keeping the crown and the sword. He wouldn’t be sending them back to the elflands.
All That’s Grubby is Not Greed
The sword wasn’t especially magic, and I treated the crown as an NPC that only helped Pepper when it wanted to, so Pepper’s insistence on keeping them around wasn’t about the mechanical benefits. It was definitely a status thing, and it became a very fun thing for me push at. I didn’t want to screw him over—I just wanted to know how deep his attachment went.
For instance, Pepper was leading a group of new players on a tour of the dungeon when a heinous random encounter came up: a mole avatar of the gnomish god of greed. The mole demanded a toll to pass through “his” tunnels, and the players were hesitant to pay, and a gnomish paladin attacked the mole, believing it was his holy duty. It wasn’t until a couple of the new characters went down that Pepper gave up his sword, which the greed god seemingly ate.
But the sword would return.
|One of the many forms of Urdlen, gnomish god of greed. Image by Kevin Budnik.
Nunchuck the Pregnant
One day, upon returning to the surface after a long day of adventuring, Pepper has a note: an elf is waiting for him in Wall’s boarding house. Curious, Pepper walks over, and amidst the crowd of widows and spinsters, he spies a pregnant elf woman. Pepper walks out without saying a thing, which leads to all future acts of refusal and retreat being called “pulling a Pepper” or “Pepper nopes out.”
Eventually, the elf woman introduces herself to Pepper and the other adventurers. Her name is Nenya, and she claims to be carrying Pepper’s child, conceived on his last night in the elflands, and she asks him to return with her, hand over the dangerous crown, and help raise his child. Pepper asks for time to think about it, and his fellow adventurers try to sway him one way or another. From the adventure log: “[Pepper’s] fellow adventurers wonder whether Nenya is telling the truth or not. Pepper admits that his memory on the matter is hazy, so they convince him to get drunk, assuming that ‘drunk Pepper’ will remember what ‘drunk Pepper’ has done in the past. Pepper complies, drinking the last of his moonshine.” What follows is a drunken escapade wherein ghosts are freed from purgatory, a fancy saddle is stolen from a wandering horse, and the crew smokes pipes on the beach while the sun rises.
No decision is reached in the matter of Nenya, though, except that Pepper begins calling her Nunchuck.
The Crown Reveals its Power
Another excerpt from an adventure log: “The entire guild is awakened by the screaming Nenya. She’s caught in a magical claw emanating from Pepper’s circlet. Pepper hears the voice of the crown, accusing Nenya of trying to sneak in and take it, saying that it (the voice) is a banished elven king who was deposed for trying to lead elven society toward a less conservative way of life.
“Klef and Sylvester free Nenya from the claw, and Sylvester, in an amazing combination of skill and luck, manages to kick the crown from Pepper’s head. They ask Nenya why she was sneaking in so late, and she claims that it was because she’d been rebuffed at all other times. She needs to talk to Pepper about the baby. Pepper agrees to talk later. He places the crown under his pillow and plans to take it to Marta during the day.”
Eventually, the crown is moved to Sunniva (one of the other PC)’s house in order to keep it safe. It happens to be the same house that Nenya is staying in, but it’s also permanently staffed by a live-in servant/friend, so everything is seemingly safe. As a DM, though, I am constantly looking for a way to move these pieces around.
The Romance is Gone
The moment arose in a beautiful player-driven moment that I couldn’t have planned. Adventuring in the woods west of Wall, the group came upon a group of nature worshipers having a bit of a love-in. As they approached, I asked the players if they recognized any of their acquaintances in the group. Without a moment’s hesitation, Sunniva’s player said that her servant, Mallory, was there.
We all recognized the implication at the same time: Nenya was alone in Sunniva’s house with the crown.
So when they got back home, of course Nenya was gone, and the crown was nowhere to be found. She left a note explaining that she was working for the rulers of the elflands, tasked with finding and returning the crown. She apologized to everyone but Pepper, thanking them for their hospitality. Also left behind was a belly-shaped waterskin and the clothing necessary for making the filled waterskin look like a pregnant stomach.
The sword eventually returned, wielded by a gnomish terrorist empowered by Urdlen. Pepper’s quest to recover it drove many adventures and interactions, including a sting with Pepper disguised as Salty Cayenne, the Shitty Wizard. It was also part of the biggest inter-party argument in the entire campaign, the one that led to a player quitting, which demands to be the subject of a future post. Here’s one of that player’s final requests, sent to Stickly Figgins, fellow adventurer and portrait magnate:
|“I would like to commission a portrait of Pepper holding his sword for when he has to give it up. Maybe he will enjoy the portrait as much as his sword.”
Stickly was kind enough to make the portrait himself:
|“What kind of hair does Pepper have?”
“Sort of a Dracula’s widow’s peak.”
The gnomes became an active faction in the world, establishing an independent hold, and it all stemmed from the random encounter rolled when the PCs first went in search of the elf artifacts.
Nenya also returned after the gate to Hell at the bottom of the dungeon was opened, becoming an ally to all the adventurers except for Pepper. I constantly pushed for a Leia/Han style romance between them, but it never came about. In Pepper’s words, “Rangers gotta range.”