Session 2: Outbreak
This session saw the characters, for various reasons, arriving in the city of Dekhi (map
), a major trading center at the intersection between a river and a canal, both of which link the populous port cities of the continent's western coast with the breadbasket farmlands farther inland. The characters wake up noticing that there's a pall of yellow-ish dust hanging low over the city, but Dekhi is always dusty and its been a dry summer. Nothing to worry about, really.
They begin the day going about their business, which takes all of them to a large square in the commercial district known as Khaat Bazaar (located in Takan Desh but near Nadi Desh and the docks). Kilian and Malthenniel, who already know each other, are out and about looking for new sources of knowledge for Malthenniel to study and wanted to check out a nearby shrine. Orlčans wanted to buy a pipe and some tobacco, and checked out some of the jewelry and statuary merchants in the area. Bracken just wanted to take a walk along the river and passed through the bazaar on his way. Javāsa has set up shop on the edge of the bazaar to sell some woven baskets, mats, and other wicker items. The first few minutes of roleplay see Orlčans notice that Malthenniel and Kilian look somewhat out of place and offering to guide them, mostly out of boredom.
However, their exchange is interrupted by a piercing scream as a woman runs up and throws her arms around Kilian's neck, clinging briefly before falling in a heap on the ground, dead. Several other townspeople collapsed in the square similarly, all extremely bruised and bleeding from a number of serious wounds that Bracken and Javāsa were able to recognize as bite wounds from some sort of primate. The characters all spend a few moments checking the bodies to see if anything can be done, but their concern changes to shock as the corpse Bracken is examining turns over, eyes wide and rasping, and attempts to bite him.
Originally Posted by DM Note
I had to think on the fly here, since the zombie actually hit Bracken and dealt damage with its bite attack. Since I didn't want to kill a character in the first session, I on-the-fly decided that his splint mail turned the bite but that he took damage from its clutching and bludgeoning hands. This is the moment that also inspired me to make a few changes to how the zombies operate, as described in the first post. Also, this was the only time the whole session I didn't use the dice roller on my computer, using actual dice instead. I think, at least for a while, I'm going to keep my rolls secret. I guess a good rule of thumb for homebrewing DM's is to avoid becoming too attached to your homebrew and be ready to make changes if they don't peform quite like you expected.
The characters are of course shocked and terrified by this turn of events, but soon have bigger problems as two more zombies lurch up from the ground, attempting to grab and bite the nearest targets. Orlčans quickly stabs the still-dead corpse with his rapier (coup de grace). I almost overruled him, since no one had made any Knowledge checks and I didn't want the metagaming, but his player was able to justify it well enough that I allowed the coup de grace. The other zombies were fought off in a tough battle, considering their DR and their ability to get up after being brought to negative HP. Bracken's axes and Javāsa's scythe-thing (a halfing-specific weapon from Eberron)/animal companion combo are proving very effective, but the zombies are still able to soak up a few hits so it's not an easy battle by any means.
After the zombies are finally dispatched, the characters look around and see the city devolving into chaos, with townsfolk running every-which-way in a panic and zombies lurching toward the square behind the crowd, feasting on any who fall into their clutches. Orlčans dashes to a cart he had parked on the side of the square and makes it back to the group just before more zombies start to arrive. They try picking the lock on the door of a 50-foot stone watchtower in the center of the square (a relic from the first settlement in this location), but give up after only one try and decide to make their way to an inn they know about a block or two away. This means moving down a zombie-infested street, but they decide to risk it rather than be overwhelmed by zombies while trying to get into the tower (they were close to meeting the Open Lock DC, but they don't know that).
Orlčans and Malthenniel, having expended most of their spells/bardic music in the first combat, decide to ride the cart in an effort to remain out of reach while the rest of the party clears the way of zombies for the cart to advance. They're moving against the crowds so they can only move at half speed, but they fight a running battle against the zombies and make it to the inn. Orlčans and Malthenniel have the idea to run over the heads of any zombies they can with the cart, and this is exactly the kind of out-of-the-box thinking I want to encourage, so I rule that any prone zombies they run over die immediately. As the only prone zombies are already at negative HP anyway, I figure this isn't too much of a stretch. They make it to the inn, and by this time we've been gaming for 3-4 hours, so we decide to call it a night.
Originally Posted by DM Note
There was one thing that kinda bugged me about this session. I wanted to make the zombie threat seem truly frightening without killing any of the PC's, but it was difficult to threaten the PC's when any damage would result in eventual death. I didn't want to have the zombies bite any of the PC's yet, but that's really their main attack mode. Like I said, I made some changes to how they operate that should make things a bit more intense and interesting (failing a grapple check with a zombie will be bad news from here on out, but you always get at least two chances to break/avoid/escape, creating a more survivable brush with death).
One think I should have done is take more time to describe their surroundings. I think I really dropped the ball on this one. I should have described zombies swarming and consuming townspeople, but I was afraid to have the zombies too close to the PC's while not attacking, for fear of ruining the verisimilitude of the moment ("yes, that zombie is 10 feet away from you, but it doesn't move toward you or try to attack" seems unrealistic somehow). I tried to keep the zombies close enough to be threatening and give a sense of urgency but far enough away that they could reasonably not notice the PC's. In retrospect, I should have brought them much closer and had them otherwise occupied eating some hapless townsfolk. I'll try to remember to ramp up the vivid description in future sessions.
And thus ended the first real session. Tune in next time (probably two weeks from now) for session 2!